Sunday, May 31, 2015

Comparing Shenandoah National Park Trail Maps - Which is Best?

Update: After writing this comparison, I found an updated version of the Trails Illustrated Shenandoah National Park Map.  Below I have edited the bullet points to indicate the areas where the map has improved since the version I originally reviewed.  I give National Geographic credit - they had found and corrected many of the errors I noted in my original review.

I occasionally come across people online asking whether to purchase trail maps for Shenandoah National Park from National Geographic/Trails Illustrated or from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I own both sets on my iPad (and PATC in print), and thought it might be helpful to offer some detail on each.

As an up-front disclaimer, know that I am a member of the PATC's Map Committee, and am very involved in advising on map revisions.  The Maps Committee presented me with the PATC's Hawksbill Award in 2014 for my volunteer work over the past year to their map updates (Link). Given this information, you may interpret my clear preference for the PATC maps and my comments below as bias. But I hope that National Geographic reads my list of their map's shortcomings and corrects every one of them.

My review of the National Geographic` Shenandoah map comes from an app they sell that I have loaded on my iPhone and iPad. It is really a spectacular deal - $4.99, not just for Shenandoah, but for 15 National Park maps. (Link.) I recommend it highly - if it still exists. For $4.99, you get the right to download HD versions of Trails Illustrated maps for many of the most popular national parks. If your phone or tablet has the storage space, download all of them and never be bored on the bus or in line for lunch again.  I wish they had the same product for the other Virginia trail maps they produce. (It does not appear to be available for the Android and may no longer be available in any version.)

The PATC also offers apps with their maps. The Shenandoah app is available in Android and iPhone versions and costs $3.99 for the iPhone version. (Link.) Though this app is less expensive than the NG app, it only covers Shenandoah National Park. As of the writing of this post, the app also does not contain the current print versions of the maps - the app has not been updated since 2012.

In print, my overwhelming preference is for the PATC maps. This isn't just because I submit updated data for revisions. Here are some of the biggest reasons:

  1. PATC has been producing trail maps for Shenandoah National Park dating back to 1933. PATC's maps predate the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's guides and maps of the area.
  2. PATC members are not only updating the map information, they are maintaining the trails.  So any changes to any trail in the park is communicated to the Maps Committee before that change is even made.
  3. PATC has a group of volunteers that measure each of the trails using GPS units and feed that data to a central database. This database is used by the PATC Cartographer to confirm trail locations and alignments. The database includes photos of every important point along the trail, and this database is used by the National Park Service to check trail statuses. The group is called the GPS Rangers, and is described here. Every foot of trail and fire road within the park has been measured and entered into the database - many of them have been measured by multiple volunteer technicians. National Geographic cannot match this collection of data.  
  4. PATC regularly revises its Shenandoah maps. In the past 50 years, the map for the Central District was revised 15 times, in each of the following years:  2013, 2008, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1995, 1992. 1988. 1986, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1972, 1969, 1965. I cannot tell how often the National Geographic maps are revised.
  5. Trails Illustrated's Shenandoah map contains a lot of errors that I have noticed when looking it over.  I have collected many of them below. I hope that the folks at National Geographic ("NG") implement these changes into their next revision. Below is a list in progress, and may change as I find more differences.
  6. In print, every single Trails Illustrated map I own shares a common problem - it is very difficult to tell what year the map was produced.  You have to really look at the fine print to find it.  It is generally found near the contact address for National Geographic Maps, but for my Yosemite Map #206 for example, this means completely opening up the map to search for the date. For my Mount Rogers Map #786, I find that information without opening the entire map, but it is not on the cover. PATC maps give the revision date prominently on the front cover. See below:

Differences Between Maps


  • PATC indicates each milepost on the Skyline Drive. NG only gives every five miles, making it harder to coordinate with others on a meetup location on the Drive.
  • PATC indicates whether there are parking restrictions on roads that intersect with trails outside the park. NG does not; it only indicates whether there is a parking lot.
  • PATC assigns a slightly different look to horse trails, with a horseshoe in the line.  PATC assigns different colors, which makes PATC's maps easier to differentiate between trail types.
  • NG lists mileage between trail intersections - a nice feature.
  • NG includes all of Shenandoah National Park on a single map - this can be either a plus or a minus.  NG also includes coverage of some of Massanutten Mountain to the west of Shenandoah National Park.  You have to purchase maps of Massanutten separately if going with PATC versions.
  • NG indicates the trails where dogs are prohibited.  PATC does not.  This is a nice feature.
  • NG includes a listing of data on SNP waterfalls.
  • NG lists capacity at the long distance A.T. huts.
  • NG's SNP map retails for $11.95.  PATC's maps are listed on the club's website at $6.40 apiece, but on the REI site for $10 apiece.  So PATC coverage of the entire park costs more, but it is less if you are just hiking in one section. 
Central District
  • NG indicates that the Pine Hill Gap Trail ends at the Hot Short Mtn Trail.  It doesn’t.  It ends at a point earlier than that and becomes the Hazel Mountain Trail.
  • NG shows an unimproved road to the summit of Hot Mountain, coming off of the Pine Hill Gap Trail.  The NPS hasn’t recognized that road in many years.  I found it still existing on a 1977 edition PATC map, but gone on the 1986 edition PATC Map.  When you hike to this spot, there is no indication that a road ever existed here, other than an old concrete mileage post.  (This has been corrected on the latest edition of the NG map.)
  • NG incorrectly labels the Hot-Short Mountain Trail as the “Hot Mtn. Short Mtn. Trail.”
  • NG indicates that the trailhead for the Broad Hollow Trail on the SNP eastern boundary can be accessed by road from two directions.  Not true.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG shows Old Rag Parking to be the small lot that was closed several years ago.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG omits the cave and falls on the Hazel River just off of the White Rocks Trail.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG fails to indicate the location of the tunnel on the Skyline Drive near Mary's Rock, found on the PATC map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not clearly mark the name of the trail exiting the Skyline Drive at the Pinnacle Overlook, MP 34.1.  It is the Hannah Run Trail. 
  • PATC indicates that views can be had at both Millers Head and Bushytop, near Skyland.  This is information not found on the NG map.
  • PATC shows where camping is permitted and prohibited near the summit of Old Rag.  No indication from NG.
  • NG does not label the Whiteoak-Cedar Run Link Trail, found on the PATC map. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not label the Lewis Falls Trail, in the Big Meadow area.  It is labeled on the PATC maps. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the parking area in Big Meadows at the Rapidan Road, found on the PATC map.
  • NG does not show the parking lot at Bootens Gap on the Skyline Drive near MP 55. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not label the McDaniel Hollow Trail or the Jones Mtn Trail between Jones Mtn Cabin and the Staunton River Trail.   (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show that public roads end next to the PATC Meadows Cabin. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the Wilhite Wagon Trail, the Doubletop Mountain Trail, The Hunter Trail, or the 4WD Trail in the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area, which borders the SNP near Hoover Camp.
  • NG does not show the FAA Relay Tower on top of Fork Mountain - a major visual landmark in that area.
  • NG does not show the Graves Mountain Lodge or the Chapman Mountain Horse Trail that connects to the Lodge.
  • NG does not show or label the Conway River Trail.
  • NG incorrectly labeled the Meadows School Trail as the "Meadow School Trail."
  • NG does not label the Bearfence Trail. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG misspells the "Slaughter/Conway Connector Trail" on its latest edition.  
North District

  • NG does not show the Traces Trail, around Mathews Arm Campground, shown in the PATC map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not indicate the name of the Weddlewood Trail, shown on the PATC Map.  (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG does not show the Little Devil Stairs Overlook, on the Skyline Drive near MP 20, shown on the PATC map. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • NG refers to the Gravel Springs Hut on the A.T. as "Gravel Springs Hut (PATC)."  This is not a PATC cabin, but is a 3 sided hut for A.T. thru-hikers, open to anyone to use. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
  • PATC shows a waterfall on the Jordan River near the Mt. Marshall Trail.  This is not shown on the NG map.
  • PATC shows an access trail to Tom Floyd Wayside from the north, not found on the NG map.
  • PATC shows the extent of A.T. Corridor Land boundary on land between the Compton Gap Trail and U.S. 522.  Not shown on NG.
  • PATC shows the Possoms Rest Overlook on the A.T. just south of the Tom Floyd Wayside. Not shown on NG.
  • NG indicates that State Route 619, near the Northern Entrance to SNP, does not cross the Shenandoah River.  This is wrong. (Corrected on the latest edition.)
South District
  • NG incorrectly labels the Big Run Loop Trail as just "Loop Trail."
  • Only PATC's map shows current boundaries of "A.T. Corridor Lands" - National Park Service lands next to Shenandoah National Park's South District that are not part of Shenandoah.
  • NG's 2015 map edition does not show the Appalachian Trail reroute over Calf Mountain, completed by the PATC in 2014.
Conclusion: Although NG maps have improved substantially with the 2015 edition of their Shenandoah map, overall I believe the attention to detail is why the PATC maps remain superior.  

Additional Disclaimer: I purchased both sets of maps with my own money and do not receive free maps as a member of the PATC Maps Committee.


  1. An interesting and helpful blog entry for certain. Thanks for sharing your critique and your findings! It has been pointed out to me by an assortment of friends and associates that there are some serious inaccuracies on the NG map of the Great Smoky Mountains. It is especially bad in the Cosby section of the park. I have found NG maps to be inaccurate at a few other crucial times. Showing me and my spouse that it was possible to drive from Alarka to Whittier, NC when it was not the case!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dana. I don't want to turn this into a "bash NG maps," but I do have a favorite mistake. On the Appalachian Trail in the James River Face Wilderness (about 75 trail miles south of Shenandoah National Park), if you follow the TI alignment for the A.T. instead of the white blazes on the trail, you would literally go over a 100 foot cliff on your way to crossing the James River heading northbound! I never trust any map.


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