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Topographic Map Legend and Symbols

by Richard White II March 03, 2019

The topographic maps on the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and have evolved for more than a century. Over time the maps became more detailed and new symbols were added for the different terrain, natural features, land boundaries, and man-made structures depicted by the surveyors. This legend is now a complex document that explains the subtleties within each category of features.

In general, these are the major color categories used on USGS topo maps.

  • Brown lines – contours (note that intervals vary)
  • Black lines – roads, railroads, trails, and boundaries
  • Red lines – survey lines (township, range, and section lines)
  • Blue areas – streams and solid is for larger bodies of water
  • Green areas – vegetation, typically trees or dense foliage
  • Pink or light gray areas – cities and dense buildings (“built-up areas”)
  • Purple areas – used to show what was new on the latest editions of their maps (USGS no longer does this but it is still on some maps)

Below is the latest version of the legend that includes symbols and colors used on USGS topo maps.

 From USGS


Richard White II
Richard White II


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