Harrisonburg’s Curvy Profile

by Lauren Privette

JMU has a large campus. Everyday students trudge up the ISAT hill in an effort to make it to class from the quad in 15 minutes.

You may be thinking—as you’re sitting, drenched in sweat from your race against time to make it to a Gen Ed—why is this campus so hilly? I can’t tell you why it’s hilly; that’s simply how the earth formed. However, I can introduce, or reintroduce, you to another approach to looking at hills: topographic maps.

Topographic maps illustrate the natural features and curves of the earth through lines called contours. The lines you see on the bottom left topo map are ‘contour lines.’ Contour lines that are closely spaced indicate a steep grade while wider spaced lines indicate a more gradual slope. The number you see next to a line is the elevation of  that site above sea-level. In this case, the units are in US feet.



The proximity of the contours in the left image between Lower and Upper Turf shed light on Upper Turf’s namesake. Notice how close together they are? That means there is a steep grade there. As seen in the image on the right, you would not have been able to see the hill in the image itself. The stairs leading to Upper Turf from the sidewalk in front of convo is the only clue that there is a hill there. This is one reason why topographic maps are useful.

JMU’s campus ranges from about 1300 to 1450 feet above sea-level. To put this into perspective, Miami Beach is only 0 –to 35 feet above sea-level (0 is where the water touches the beach). So you might want to visit Miami Beach soon, or you’ll be boating around the streets in about 50 years. We use elevation above sea-level simply as a standard from which to measure.

To get more in depth, in the United States, our government-made maps are organized by a 7.5 minute grid. A “7.5 minute grid” is a reference to Latitude and Longitude. This coordinate system allows you to obtain highly accurate coordinates for a location. It’s broken down into degrees, minutes and seconds. In Harrisonburg we are at about 78° (degrees) 52’ (minutes) 30” (seconds) longitude and 38°30’30” latitude. The 7.5 minute grid topo map of Harrisonburg, for example, shows the area and contours of 78°52’30” to 78°45’00” longitude and 38°30’00 to 38°22’30”. Unfortunately, if I put an image of the Topo map on here, you won’t be able to see the numbers, so I’m leaving it off, but you can go to this site to find topo maps of anywhere in the US!

Below is a screenshot of a part of the actual Harrisonburg, VA 7.5 minute topo map. Look at those gorgeous contours; that’sMassanutten Mountain. The lines are very closely spaced, revealing the steepness of the land; the lines then become wider as you descend, moving away from the ridge. Circled in red is a tick mark showing the latitude of the location. The bold number circled in blue is another type of coordinate system, the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM), which I won’t be getting into because it’s simply not used as much.


Unlike the earlier two images, this topo map shows the contours without the distraction of satellite imagery. Topo maps like this are used for urban planning, architecture, mining, etc.

While topographic maps are interesting, they don’t offer a cure for the hills. You’re still going to have the ISAT hill and those foreboding steps, however, there’s power in knowledge, and now you have some. Embrace the exhausted condition you arrive to class in, it’s keeping you in shape, and, remember to respect the hill.



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