© 2021 Chris Muhl Art. All rights reserved.

I’m just finishing up a reproduction of a National Park Service map (NPS). I love the mapping style that the NPS has developed. I wanted to dive deep into a couple of their maps and explore their techniques. Reproductions are a great way to explore the mind and creative process of another artist, or this case, cartographer, or team of cartographers.

I found two NPS maps, one of Glacier National Park and one of Denali National Park. I blended styles from each map and incorporated some of my own styles to create my reproduction.

I changed some elements along the way. I developed a different shaded relief that has a bit more texture. I also reduced the amount of green area in the colorramp and altered some labeling styles.

I’m still working on labeling, but the bulk of the work is done. If you have any questions about how I created this map, please feel free to ask.

The Originals

Glacier National Park

Denali National Park

I recently had the pleasure of creating a 3D map of the Sandy River Delta. This 1,500 acre area lies along the southern shore of the Columbia River and is situated between the western extent of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area and the eastern edge of the Portland Metropolitan Area.

Today, the Delta is an easily accessible recreational area catering to nature lovers. However, the Delta’s history is a fascinating one, marked by severe environmental degradation and a remarkable story of ecological revival.

Formation: Birth of the Delta Landform

This fertile landform is the product of both past and present natural forces. Significant sediment deposition occurred during the Old Maid and Timberline eruptive periods as lahars originating on the slopes Mt. Hood flowed down the Sandy River to the Columbia (Pierson, Scott, Vallance, & Pringle, 2009). Ongoing sediment deposition occurs from the natural processes of the Sandy River and overbank flood deposits from the Columbia River.

Alteration: Paradise Lost

Historically, the Delta was a wooded, riparian wetland providing habitat for salmonoids, waterfowl, herptiles, and other wildlife (Kelly, 2002). The area was altered extensively throughout the 1900s.

In 1931, the East Channel of the Sandy River was dammed to increase fish runs. While intentions were good, the dam ultimately reduced habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead by destroying the extensively braided shallow-water habitat in the East Channel and impairing backwater habitat throughout the Delta (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2013).

In 1948, the Vanport Flood tore through the area and leveled its woodlands. With the trees gone, people moved in, using the land for farming and grazing.

In the 1950s, agricultural activities came to a halt when fluoride contamination produced by a nearby aluminum plant sickened residents and killed livestock.

Ultimately, the Delta’s vibrant natural ecosystem was severely degraded. Water courses were altered, wetland areas were drained, native vegetation was stripped away, and invasive plants infested the landscape.

Restoration: Return to the Natural Order

In 1991, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) acquired 1,400 acres of the Delta and began the process of restoring it. Invasive plants have been removed and more than one million trees have been planted. In 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) removed the dam and restored the East Channel.

Today, the Delta is again a thriving natural ecosystem thanks to the collaborative work of USFS, USACE, the Oregon Dept. of Forestry, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Trust for Public Lands, Ducks Unlimited, Ash Creek Management, Friends of Trees, the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, Columbia Land Trust, Columbia Riverkeeper, Project YESS, SOLVE, Trees of the Gorge, and hundreds of volunteers.

Map Production

I envisioned this map from an interpretive design perspective. I wanted to focus on the area in its present form and utility to reveal how restoration efforts have created a flourishing natural area that benefits both wildlife and recreationists.

Artistically, my main objective was to create symbols and styles that not only stand out on aerial imagery, but also look nice. Aerial imagery is an incredible resource. However, mapping with it presents challenges, as it can be difficult to create contrast without using bright, neon colors. Extremely vibrant colors can be beautiful in some mapping situations, but are often difficult to pair with true color imagery.

I created two versions of the map, one viewing the Delta from the north and another viewing the area from the south. Personally, I like the version that depicts the Delta from the mouth of the Sandy River (looking inland). However, I believe the version that depicts the delta from inland and looking toward the Columbia River may be easier for recreationists to interpret given the location of the parking lot (the starting point of the trail network).

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve ever been to Hood River, you’ve most likely seen the majestic peak of Mount Hood reaching up to the sky. Looking to the south from the Columbia River, this 11,244 foot volcano dominates the landscape. Every year, climbers come from all over the world to summit the mountain. As such, I thought it would be fun to do a simple climbing map depicting the main routes to the top.

This was more of a quick folding map exercise than the development of a complete trail/route/recreation map, but fun nonetheless.

Starting out, I was pleased to discover that the National Elevation Dataset provides 1/9 arc-second (~3-meter) digital elevation models for Mount Hood. This data provides for exceptional shaded relief quality, even at the scale of 1:10,000 that I used in this 36″x48″ map.

For the layout, I embraced elements of typical Swiss design, such as Helvetica fonts, red/white/black color, integration of shapes to direct flow, and so forth. Additionally, I strived to keep the design clean and crisp. Again, this was a quick exercise. So, there is definitely room for improvement.

Other data was obtained from various online sources. I also digitized 2018 NAIP imagery to map certain features, such as chairlift stations and cables/routes.

Thanks for reading!

Exploring New Mapping Methods

I love to explore new ways to visualize spatial information. Lately, I have been working on techniques to transform 3D models into 3D maps using ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap, ArcScene, Photoshop, and Illustrator.

I recently completed a 3D recreation map for Hood River, Oregon. Hood River provides extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities, including windsurfing/kiteboarding, whitewater rafting/kayaking, flatwater kayaking/paddle boarding, mountain biking, hiking, and fishing. With so much to do, I thought a general reference map would be a useful tool for locals and tourists alike.

Using 3D Models to Enhance Spatial Awareness

The map is intended to serve as a visual tool, enabling people to quickly locate areas where they can enjoy recreational activities. For example, the map contains all the mountain biking trails of Post Canyon (one of Oregon’s top mountain biking destinations), along with trail ratings and information about the features they will encounter, such as berms, jumps, gap jumps, drops, and wooden ramps. Other information in the map includes launch sites for windsurfing and kiteboarding, kayaking and paddle boarding spots, local trails and trail heads, local parks, scenic viewpoints, waterfalls, and popular fishing locations.

Data Collection

The Map is a compilation of public domain data obtained via Federal, State, and Local government online and print resources. I supplemented existing trail data with data obtained in the field using a recreational grade Garmin GPS unit.

In field data collection is one of my favorite parts of any mapping project. For this endeavor, I mapped all of the non-motorized, motorcycle, ATV, and 4×4 trails on a mountain bike. Over the course of five days, I road about 120 miles and strained through roughly 25,000 feet of climbing. The end result is a complete trail dataset that I know is accurate and up-to-date.

Using ArcGIS Pro, I processed the trail data and then digitized it in Illustrator.

Achieving Relevance

I had initially set out to create a mountain biking trail map, but as it came together, I saw that it might offer increased utility as a general recreation map. While Hood River is a hot-spot for mountain biking, the adjacent Columbia River Gorge is world-renowned for windsurfing/kiteboarding, fishing, and sightseeing. As such, I expanded to include most recreational opportunities in the nearby area.

A Value Driven Approach

In creating the map, I sought to provide answers to questions that I have had while living here. For example, when I first moved to Hood River, I wanted to know which mountain biking trails had berms, jumps, and drops. Unfortunately, local trail maps only provide ratings, and online maps can be surprisingly time consuming to navigate. In this map, I have attempted to make information easily accessible. I provide information, such as trail descriptions, park locations, and fishing opportunities, in visual depictions that I hope can be interpreted quickly and effectively.

Project Highlights

Wandering Through the Woods

There is something oddly exciting about not knowing exactly where you are, especially in a forest. The Post Canyon trail network is spectacular. However, some of the 4×4 trails above the Green Point Reservoirs are not so easy to follow. At times, I believe they blend into old dozer lines from the Eagle Creek Fire. Other times, they simply seem to vanish, and I’d find myself walking through the forest hoping to find the trail again. To track some elusive trails, I spent considerable time comparing contours on a print map with those on my GPS. So much time in fact, that eventually the print map just gave up. Note to self, “practice better map care, and/or bring two maps.” Especially, if you’re wandering off the beaten path.

Incredible Views

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen. The Gorge lies between snow-capped volcanoes and contains an abundance of waterfalls and breathtaking views. And Sunsets over the Columbia River are, well, as Sam Neill put it in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople, “Pretty majestical…” If you haven’t seen the Gorge, I highly recommend that you come check it out… when it’s safe to travel again.

If you’re ever riding the Post Canyon trails, be sure to check out this lookout. It’s off the 160 trail, slightly northeast of the junction of Riordan Hill Dr. and Forest Road 1006. Though not in the photo, Mount Saint Helens is also visible from this lookout.

I hope you’re all well and keeping safe. Wishing you all the best this holiday season!

The tools and techniques of science provide extraordinary opportunities to document and analyze the world around us. With each passing year, researchers among the various branches of science (astronomy, botany, physics, chemistry…) make new discoveries and unlock the mysteries of our planet and the universe beyond. In the process, they generate mountains of data.

In geospatial science, the branch of science that I studied in college, we work with spatial data. In other words, information about a particular location. Satellite imagery is an example of spatial data. It is a snapshot of a particular location on the surface of the Earth. Land ownership boundaries, such as parcel data and the boundaries of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) are another example. Stream locations and classifications are also spatial data.

In the US, most federal, state, and local government agencies utilize geospatial science to record and analyze events unfolding upon the lands they manage. The result is a wealth of publicly available spatial data.

The end product(s) of most geospatial projects is a map. And here is where the fun begins! Cartography, aka “map making,” provides endless opportunities to explore the art of science. Cartographers combine cartographic tools and techniques with principles of fine art to transform spatial data into fascinating depictions of moments in time. In this way, the cartographer bridges the gap between science and art and marries the instruments of the scientific process with those of the artistic. For example, while a GPS unit is a means of recording a position, it is also an initial step in the cartographic journey to a work of visual art. The record obtained via the push of a button in the field will be transformed by the click of mouse into a visual product that is “hopefully” perceived as something beautiful and informative.

I recently finished a project in which I had the opportunity to enjoy the full process of map production, from in-situ data collection to printing. And I was fortunate to be given considerable creative freedom.

The project objective was to develop a reference/operations map for a privately owned property. The client requested a final product that could be appreciated within the home as a work of art and utilized in the field as a tool for day-to-day operations.

The process integrated data collected via a desktop study with data collected on-sight with Garmin and Trimble products. Extensive digitizing was conducted on aerial images to record features both within and beyond the boundaries of the property. Data was processed and transformed using Trimble Pathfinder, DNR Garmin, ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap, Adobe Photoshop (for raster elements), Adobe Illustrator (for vector elements), and MS Excel.

In the end, several print maps were developed and either framed or laminated.

Here’s the end product. I can only provide low resolution images of the entire final map to ensure the client’s privacy, but I hope it conveys how spatial data can be transformed into functional artwork.

One of the challenges that I encountered was developing a color ramp and visually appealing hillshade for a relatively flat area. In my experience, it is much easier to develop an attractive color ramp for a mountainous area where the wider range of elevation values enables a more striking transition of color. Additionally, I wanted to use earthy colors to generate a somewhat natural looking backdrop for the content within the map. The use of a curvature layer, along with vertical exaggeration enhanced the character of the final shaded relief.

Another challenge involved labeling. With over 500 labels in the map, ensuring that all were legible, while not detracting from the visual appeal of the map was a little tricky. I initially used halos around each label to ensure that they were legible. However, matching halo colors to background colors is, not only time consuming, but inherently flawed in that background colors can vary considerably within the distance of label. The end result is a halo than blends well into the background for only part of the label. Ultimately, I used masking on all labels to create a halo-like effect, but without the color issue. Masking essentially hides all data within a specified distance of the label, revealing the background color, which in this case contrasts well with the label color. In the following image, the masking effect is most discernable where the lower arm of the letter “E” crosses the dirt road.

For the legend, I opted for a fairly simple structure. The layout resembles legends found in older maps. I find that a combination of considerable white space and perfectly aligned items create an aesthetically pleasing effect.

Thanks for reading!

I previously posted about a Grand Canyon map reproduction that I developed with ArcGIS Pro. As mentioned before, I was curious to test ESRI’s new software and to see how quickly a decent reproduction could be produced. I discussed this all in my previous post, so I won’t bore you with the details here. However, I decided to do a full-size print to hang on the wall. This is the final step in the map production process. So, I wanted to share it here.

This is the first test print. If you look closely, you may notice some dark lines in the images. These will be removed and the final map will be printed on fine art paper and then framed.




I’m working on a framing concept. Here’s a simple mock-up.


Recently, I came across Bradford Washburn’s map, “The Heart of the Grand Canyon.” The map was published in 1978 by National Geographic.


Image Source: ICA Commission on Map Design

Unlike cartographers today that have access to mountains of geospatial data to produce maps accurately and quickly, Washburn had to produce the data himself. The entire process of planning, fieldwork, and map production took eight years. The final product is considered the most beautiful map of the Grand Canyon ever created.

I thought it would be fun to attempt a quick reproduction of Washburn’s map using modern technology tools. I used the image above as a reference. The colors in this photo are not quite true to the original map, but I liked them, and so used it as the reference.

Washburn’s original map contains cooler colors that represent the true colors of the Grand Canyon according to his observation.


Image Source: National Geographic

I wanted to use warmer colors that, to me, correspond to the vision of the Grand Canyon that I hold in my imagination. Admittedly, Washburn’s use of tone and contrast produce a far more interesting and beautiful visual experience.

I used ArcGIS Pro, Photoshop, and Illustrator to create the map and elements. Data sources include the National Elevation Dataset, the United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service, and National Agriculture Imagery Program.

Here’s my version below (and in the page banner above).


To conclude, Washburn’s map and the story behind it are sensational. The surveying and cartographic skill that went into producing it are beyond words. However, it is amazing how far GIS/cartography has developed technologically. Washburn’s map required eight years to produce. Today, with ESRI and Adobe products, we can all create decent looking maps in a tiny fraction of the time. Production time on this 36″ x 48″ map was about four to five days.

Below, the two maps are compared side by side. With more time, I would strive to enhance contrast in the color ramp for the canyon area. Additionally, I would increase the contrast between highlights and shadows in the plateaus.

Thanks for reading my post! Best wishes to all!

Update 2/15/2020:

I found a little time and was able to make the changes that I discussed above. I believe that by adjusting the color ramp to achieve more variation and contrast between colors, and increasing highlights in the plateau areas, the map has more character. Here’s the new version below.