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Home Education Additional Educational Resources Unit 1: Maps and the Physical Features of Utah
Unit 1: Maps and the Physical Features of Utah PDF Print E-mail

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Core Area: Social Studies
Standard 1
Students will understand the interaction between Utah's geography and its inhabitants.
Objective 1
Investigate the relationship between physical geography and Utah’s settlement, land use, and economy. This includes:
1. Read and interpret a variety of maps.
2. Identify the physical features and regions of Utah.
3. Compare and contrast the relationship between physical features and regions to settlement, land use, and the economy.

Unit Overview: Students will understand key elements of maps and how to read them. They will be able to identify the main physical features and regions of Utah, while focusing mainly on the Great Salt Lake. After a powerpoint presentation and worksheet activity, they will create a scale map drawing of Utah. Next, they will use modeling clay to create a topographical map model. This unit includes Lesson 1A (powerpoint introduction to maps), Activity 1A (creating a map drawing of Utah), Lesson 1B (physiographic regions of Utah), Activity 1B (creating a topographical map model of Utah). Upon completing these mapping activities, students will draw connections between physical features and settlement, land use, and economy.

Unit 1 Lesson Plans

Lesson 1A. Introduction to Maps

Prerequisites:  Students should be able to locate Utah on a map of the U.S. and understand the basic principal uses of maps (ex: directions, learn where places are, etc.).

Duration: 30 minutes

       Access to Powerpoint
       Variety of maps

Objective: Students should learn how to read and interpret a variety of maps.

Key Vocabulary:

Map: A projection of the Earth's surface, which can include landforms and waterways, political regions, economic regions, and so on

Key or Legend: A list of the symbols on a map or chart

Scale: The relationship between real size and size used on maps and models

Contour Lines: Lines that help define an area’s terrain features

Physiographic Provinces: Areas grouped together according to similarities in geographical formation (ex. Rocky Mountain physiographical province)

: The representation on a map of all or part of the earth's grid system

: The distance measured in degrees north to south from the equator to the earth's poles, measures from 0⁰ to 90⁰, North and South

The distance measured in degrees east to west of the Prime Meridian, measures from 0⁰ to 180⁰, East and West

A collection of maps

: A person who makes maps


As an introduction, discuss the importance of maps.
Ask students when and for what purposes they might use a map.
Present map powerpoint presentation & distribute the  accompanying worksheet to be completed concurrently.
Be sure to stop frequently during the powerpoint to allow time for students to complete the worksheet.


Review and discuss worksheet answers.

Activity 1A: Map Making

Duration: 15 minutes

       Ruler (One for each student)
       Pencil (One for each student)
       Blank 8½ x 11 sheet of paper (One for each student)
       Computer with internet connection

Objective:  Students will gain familiarity with maps and Utah geography by creating a simple map drawing of their own.


Have students work through the following directions:
1) Starting ½” down from the top of the page and ½” over from the left edge, draw a horizontal line 4½” across.
2) On the right end of the line, draw a vertical line 2” down, perpendicular to the first line.
3) Starting at the bottom of the 2” line, draw a 3” horizontal line to the right.  This should end about ½” from the right edge of the page.
4) Make a dot on the lower left hand corner of the page about ¼” in from the edge and ⅝” up from the bottom.
5) Do the same on the bottom right of the page, a dot about ¼” in from the edge and ⅝” up from the bottom.
6) Use the ruler to connect your starting point from step 1 to the point at the lower left of the page.
7) On the right side of the page connect the end point of the line from step 3 to the point at the lower right of the page.
8) Draw a line connecting the two points across the bottom of the page.
9) What map elements are missing? (north arrow, bar scale, title and cartographer’s name.) Have students add these features. The map scale is approximately 1 inch = 35 miles.

Using a wall map, projector or the included web address (, display a map of Utah including the Great Salt Lake (GSL).  Have the students draw this lake feature free-hand (it doesn’t have to be perfect). Add other lakes such as Bear Lake and Utah Lake. Water-ways such as the Green and Colorado Rivers are also important and can be included. Add and label the Bear River, Weber/Ogden River, and Jordan River; these are tributaries of the GSL.

Using a relief or elevation map as a reference, have students sketch the Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges.  Various other Mountain ranges can also be added including the Abajo, La Sal, Henry, Deep Creek and Raft River Mountains.  Have students label these features as they are drawn.


Review student maps as a class; ask students to show their classmates the location of a geographic entity of their choice.

Teacher Resources:
      - Utah Physical Map
      - Utah Elevation Map
      - Utah Rivers and Lakes Map
      - Utah County Map
      - Utah Road and Cities Map
      - Satellite Image
      - Great Salt Lake Bathymetry Map
      - Utah Physiographic Provinces
      - Utah GIS Portal

Lesson 1B: Physiographic Regions of Utah

Prerequisites: Students should possess basic map-reading skills

Duration: 30 minutes

       Topographical Map of Utah (

Objectives: Students will learn about the basic physiographic features of Utah and how they relate to the Great Salt Lake

Key Vocabulary:

Colorado Plateau:  Southeast region of Utah; formed through sediment deposition, uplift, and water erosion; defined by the presence of horizontal sedimentary layering

Mesa:  Means “table” in Spanish; looks like a mountain with a flat top; formed from extensive water erosion; located in Utah’s Colorado Plateau region.

Erosion:  Occurs when water and wind wear away rock and soil particles, carrying the sediment downward from wind and water

Sandstone:  Located in Utah’s Colorado Plateau Region; formed when layer after layer of sand particles were laid down and compressed to form rock layers

Rocky Mountain:  Northeast region of Utah; formed through orographic uplift and extreme glaciation

Orographic Uplift:  Any force (usually tectonic) which forces crust upward, forming mountains

Glacier:  Thick ice sheets that form at high elevations and flow downward, eroding the ground beneath it; intense glaciation eroded the Rocky Mountains into steep and jagged slopes

Great Basin:  Formed when its crust started experiencing tension (pulling apart), causing the brittle crust to slump down in some areas (graben) and up in others (horst)

Great Salt Lake:  Water filled graben in the Great Basin region; remnant of Lake Bonneville, which covered much of Utah at one point

Watershed:  A region of land within which water flows down into a specified body, such as a river, lake, sea, or ocean (ex. streams starting in the mountains and ending in the Great Salt Lake)

Tectonic Forces:  Activity in the lithosphere, or the area below Earth’s surface, that causes the formation of the many unique landforms


What landforms make Utah unique?  List them on the board. 
Discuss key vocabulary and draw pictures on the board to clarify the concepts.
Display a topographic map of Utah throughout this lesson as a visual aid.  During the lesson, as each province is discussed, locate its area on the map and describe what features make it unique.

Review these features:

Colorado Plateau
       Located in Eastern Utah from the south to almost northern Utah
       Characteristics: mesas, canyons, bare rock, huge difference in elevations, and dry climate
       Contains most of Utah’s national parks and monuments (ex:  Arches, Canyonlands)
       When compared to the rest of the state, this area is sparsely populated

Rocky Mountains
       Located in the northeastern region of Utah
       Home to the Uintas and Middle Rocky Mountains
       Many rivers begin in this region which eventually flow into the Great Salt Lake

Great Basin
       Located in western Utah from north to south
       Home to many of Utah’s main lakes
       Great Salt Lake located in this region
              Largest salt water lake in Western Hemisphere
              Saltier than ocean water
              It is home to many living creatures such as brine shrimp, shorebirds, and waterfowl
              Utah's highest population densities occur in the areas surrounding GSL


Have students draw these three features on their Utah line maps from Activity 1A. Encourage students to discuss the different regions of the state. Where might it be easiest for people to settle? Where might it be the most difficult? Students will gain additional insight to these questions via activity 1B.

Activity 1B: Modeling Utah's Physiographic Regions with Clay

Prerequisites: Familiarity with Utah's physiographic regions

Duration: approximately 2 hours, spread out over at least 2 days

       Salt Dough (1 cup salt, 2 cups flour, 1 cup warm water)  
       Paint and Brushes
       Water Color Paint
       1 Piece of Cardboard (per student, approx. 11” x 14”)
       Rolling Pin
       Various Instruments for Tooling Moist Clay

Objectives: This simple activity will reinforce the location and elevation of many of Utah’s features. This activity highlights the Great Salt Lake; particular emphasis can be given to the lake's drainage basin.


Day 1:

Project the Elevation Map for use as a reference in modeling the topography in Utah.

Each student should follow the following directions:

1.  Using approximatey ½ of a 1 lb. allotment of clay, roll the clay out smooth and flat onto the cardboard.
2.  Trim the flattened clay to the approximate height and width of an 8½” x 11” sheet of paper, notching a 2½” high x 3½” wide section out of the upper right corner.  This should resemble the shape of Utah.
3.  Examining the Utah Elevation Map (from the web link above), carefully trim out clay from all the areas shown in light tan (lower elevations). These areas will include those of the GSL, Salt Flats, West Desert, St. George and Lake Powell among others.
4.  With the remaining clay, roll out another layer. Use pieces of this layer to build up the areas of the map shown in brown shades. Remember that the darkest areas should represent the highest points (i.e. the points with the most clay).
5.  Sculpt and tool these built up areas of elevation to resemble mountains.
6.  Allow clay to dry before attempting to paint it (1 or 2 days).

Day 2:

Project the Lake and Rivers map ( for use as a reference in painting the features in Utah.

Each student should follow the following directions:

1.  Using blue paint and a fine tipped brush for rivers and broader brush for lakes, as accurately as possible, add these features to your model.
2.  The remaining topography can be painted in greens (low elevation) and browns (high elevation) with white as an indicator of high peaks. Or it can be a creative endeavor; teachers can individualize this per class.
3.  With either a fine tipped brush or marking pen, label as many of the features as you can without “crowding” your model.
4.  Two important points to label would be the Highest and Lowest elevations in Utah. clay_model

Using steps 1-6 from Day 1 will yield a model clipped to the Utah State border (see picture at left). 

The activity can be modified to instead create a map of the Great Salt Lake drainage. Here's how:

Show students a map of the Great Salt Lake drainage (
Students can see that the Great Salt Lake Drainage encompasses a broad area of Northern Utah and includes parts of four of the surrounding states. As we can see from the GSL drainage map, Wyoming, Idaho and a bit of Nevada are included in the drainage area. 

On Day 1, when students are rolling out their clay, be sure the clay is rolled out far enough to make room for the entire state of Utah including the GSL drainage.  Using an appropriate tool to make impressions in the clay, mark out the state boundaries (be sure to leave room at the top for the GSL drainage area that extends into neighboring states).

On Day 2, when adding color and illustrations, be sure to include an outline of the GSL drainage basin and relevant rivers and landforms (see model, right). basin_clay_model


Have students present their map models to the class. Have students "trade" models to see if they have successfully created a map that is easily understood by others. After studying their map models, students should discuss in groups their ideas for how geography influences population distribution. They can support their ideas by looking at their maps and using online resources to further investigate climate and geography of each region.

References for additional information:,


Thank you to the following students at Weber State University who developed the content and activities for Unit 1:

David Breen
Tricia Cook
Megan VanBrocklin
Tim Wagoner


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