How to Find Rivers and Lakes on Google Earth

While I’ve got nothing against paddling on the most popular lakes and rivers, most of my favorite experiences come from the less-paddled rivers and lakes. Finding those rivers and lakes has become much easier in the 21st century, thanks to great tools like Google Earth.

So how do you find rivers and lakes on Google Earth? The stock version of Google Earth incorporates many labels of lakes and some outlines of water bodies. Though the stock Google Earth data is incomplete, an EPA WATERS data set is easily imported into Google Earth and is incredibly thorough.

There’s a lot to cover here, so let’s take a step-by-step journey through all the ways Google Earth can be helpful when planning your next paddle.

How Stock Google Earth Views Lakes and Rivers

Google Earth is a free program that allows users to explore all around the earth with satellite imagery. It comes in three forms: a free online site available at earth.google.com, a mobile application, and a desktop program available for Windows, Mac, and Linux called Google Earth Pro.

If you’re only planning on browsing satellite imagery and don’t plan on doing anything fancy, the online site or the mobile application will be just fine for your purposes. Everyone else should download Google Earth Pro, as it offers far more features and allows you to get creative. As such, the rest of this tutorial will be based on the desktop application.

When you download Google Earth Pro you’ll notices that the left side of the screen has a Layers panel. As you might expect, this panel allows you to toggle which layers are included with the mapped portion of the screen. There are many options on this menu (US National Parks info, USDA Forest Service info, and much more) , but we’ll focus on two options: Water Body Labels and Water Body Outlines.

Option to turn on Water Body Outlines in Side Panel

How useful the Water Body Outline feature is depends heavily on your location. In my experience this layer ranged from very thorough and accurate to completely incomplete, depending on which part of the United States you’re looking at.

To turn on the Water Body Outline in Google Earth, go to the Layers menu, scroll all the way to the bottom and check the ‘Water Body Outlines’ box you can find by going to ‘More’ –> ‘Water Body Outlines’ in the menu.

Layers panel of Google Earth Pro, highlighting the Water Body Outlines checkbox
Location of the Water Body Outlines checkbox in the Layers panel

Many people will find this layer to be of little use, as it appears that the outlines are either nonexistent or inaccurate.

Toggle on and off the Labels of Water Bodies

Many people will find this layer to be of little use, as it appears that the outlines are either nonexistent or inaccurate. Turn on these labels by clicking the ‘Borders and Labels’ –> ‘Labels’ –> ‘Water Bodies’ checkbox in the Layers menu.

This will then present you with a label showing the name of a lake once you’ve zoomed close enough, like below:

google earth lake labels highlighted with red boxes
Labels of Water Bodies in Google Earth

While useful, there doesn’t appear to be a way to interact with the labels, so their use is limited.

A Better Alternative: the EPA WATERS Data Set

While the stock options on Google Earth Pro have some value, it is much more useful to use the layers from the EPA WATERS (Watershed Assessment, Tracking & Environmental Results System) tool.

How to Download EPA WATERS Data and Add it Into Google Earth

While obviously not designed with the paddler in mind, WATERS is an incredibly thorough asset that can be easily incorporated into Google Earth. Here’s how to get it:

Go to the EPA WATERS website and go to the Get Data/Tool tab, where at the bottom you’ll find the ‘Viewing WATERS Data using Google Earth’ link at the bottom:

screenshot of epa waters tool website, focused on the get data/tool tab

Click that link and you’ll be taken to a new page. On that page, go to the Download section and click on the link that starts with ‘WATERSKMZ v…’. This will download a .kmz file, which should download quickly.

Next, go back to Google Earth and go to File –> Open on the main menu. Here you can select the .kmz file you just downloaded and click the ‘Open’ button. This will import the layers of the WATERS data set into your Google Earth program. These layers can now be found in ‘Temporary Places’ section of the Places navigation pane:

EPA WATERS layers shown in Google Earth Pro navigation pane

How to Use EPA WATERS in Google Earth to Find Rivers

There are many layers in the WATERS data, but the most valuable layers for our purposes will be the Streams and Waterbodies layers. As you may have guessed, the Streams layer represents all types of bodies of running water, such as creeks, brooks, streams, and rivers. Before you enable that layer, know that it contains a lot of data and therefore it may be best to first zoom to your specific location, and then toggle on the Streams layer.

Once you’ve found a river you want to know more about, click on the blue line that represents the river path and a feature with the following kind of information should pop up:

results box in google earth from clicking on stream from epa waters data layer

The most important info here is the name of the river (Wolf River for the screenshot above), and the links in the Tools section of the bottom portion. If you’re looking to learn more about a river, the Watershed Report in the Tools section will be a good place to start. Clicking that link will take you to a specific report on the EPA website.

There’s a ton of information in these reports, but the main information you’ll probably be interested in is what’s at the top of the page:

screenshot of watershed report from epa website for wolf river from wisconsin
An example Watershed Report for the highlighted section of the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin

The table on the left shows some of the basic facts of this river, including the stream name, order and level, along with estimations of the mean annual flow and the mean annual velocity. Note that this report is only focused on the segment of the river highlighted in the map on the right. That map has the catchment for this segment of the river highlighted in orange, and much of the data below is about the catchment, which may or may not be of interest to you.

There are many, many more data points included in this report, but most are best saved for the scientists. However, this report has a few things for us paddlers, too. The most valuable data for paddlers can be found in the ‘StreamCat Catchment and Watershed Data’ tab of the report, under the ‘Dam Density and Storage Volume’ table. The data most valuable will likely be the dam density information, as that can be used to estimate the quantity of dams in highlighted catchment, as well as from that catchment all the way upstream to the headwaters.

How to Use EPA WATERS in Google Earth to Find Lakes

The EPA WATERS data set doesn’t have as many tools and gadgets for lakes as they do for rivers, but there are still some great benefits to be had. Before we discuss the benefits, it would help to actually turn the lakes data layer on. We can do this by going back to the Places navigation pane and marking the checkbox for the ‘Waterbodies’ option in the EPA WATERS feature layers we imported into Google Earth.

Now that we have the Waterbodies layer active, it’s likely that you can quickly see the main benefits of using this data compared to the stock Google Earth data. First, while they don’t necessarily have every little pothole lake and pond in the United States, the Waterbodies layer is very thorough and appears to be consistently so throughout the US. Second, the vector shapes are much more accurate than the stock option.

Putting it to the test by zooming to a lake-filled area such as the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, you can see that the coverage of the Waterbodies layer is very thorough and only misses a few little pothole lakes:

data window in google earth for lake with the epa waters data set
EPA WATERS data with the Waterbodies layer activated and zoomed into the Boundary Waters area in northern Minnesota.

You can click on any of the blue shapes and you’ll get a pop-up feature like the one shown above. Unfortunately, the only info we can get from this feature is the name of the lake. Clicking on the ‘More about this Surfacewater Feature’ link will take you to a generic webpage on the EPA that isn’t specific to this lake, so that link can be ignored.

With that said, there’s still some useful information we can from this layer. If you right-click on the lake vector and click the ‘Properties’ option, you should get a window like this:

finding the area of a lake with google earth
Vector data for the polygon representing Maxine Lake

As you can see, if you head over to the Measurements tab you’ll find two data points for this lake you selected: the perimeter of the lake (length of the shoreline) and the size of the lake. In the screenshot above I’ve changed the area unit to acres.

Tips and Tricks for Getting the Most out of Google Earth

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of how to find rivers and lakes in Google Earth, it will help to see what kind of insight we can extract from this program.

Using Historical Imagery to See How a Lake has Changed Throughout the Years

One of my favorite tools in Google Earth is the historical imagery tool shown in the screenshot below:

screenshot of google earth historical imagery tool
Click on the icon with the clock and the arrow running counterclockwise to pull up this menu

As you can probably guess, pulling up this tool allows you to change which set of images you’re viewing. In this case you can see that Google Earth has images spanning from 1992 to 2017, and each vertical grey line on the blue horizontal bar represents an aerial image you can switch to. Click the forward and backward icons on the outer edges of the tool to jump between images. In the above screenshot, you’ll notice that the current image is from ‘4/2017’, meaning April 2017.

So how can we use this tool to explore our lake? There are many possibilities, but I like to focus on two main ideas:

  • How does the water surface look like in the time of year in which I’ll be paddling?
  • Is the shape of the lake highly variable depending on the height of the water table?

Here’s an example of what I’m looking for. Here’s a Wisconsin lake that I zoomed into and I can see that the default satellite image is from March 17th, 2018.

satellite image of a wisconsin lake

This image does give me a nice, clear idea about the shape of the lake, but I personally don’t spend much time paddling in March, as the water temperatures are near freezing in this part of the country. Changing the dates around I can see that this lake often experiences heavy algae coverage during the warmer summer months. I don’t have anything personally against algae, but it’s not exactly what I’m looking for in a paddle.

satellite image of a wisconsin lake in september, showing algae on surface

I also know from experience that in this area water levels are currently much higher than they were 10-15 years ago. By finding a satellite image of the lake during a period of low water levels, I can get a better idea of the depth of the lake. Here’s an image from September 2005 that illustrates how a lakes form can change with a lowering of the water table:

satellite image of a wisconsin lake with low water levels

Notice how the eastern portion of the lake has a large portion that is marsh during low water levels, but is lake during much higher water levels. This information may not have a huge impact on my paddle, but it helps me get a quick understanding of the lakes features and gives me an idea of which parts of the lake I’d be most interested in exploring.

Planning Possible River Routes with the Upstream/Downstream Search Service Tool

If you’re planning a river trip, it’s possible that the Upstream/Downstream Search Service link in the river pop-up for the EPA WATERS stream layer can help. You can find this by clicking on a vector line associated with the river you’re interested in, and then clicking the first link in the Tools section of the pop-up window. This will take you to an EPA webpage that will look something like this:

screenshot of upstream downstream search service page from epa

The purpose of this tool is to generate a layer file for Google Earth that outlines your specified distance of river from the point you selected in Google Earth. The two fields worth paying attention to are the Stream Selection Type and the Stop When fields. The Stream Selection Type has the following options:

  • Upstream with Tributaries
  • Upstream Main Path Only
  • Downstream with Divergences
  • Downstream Main Path Only

We’ll be using the Maximum Distance option for the Stop When field, so we can leave that option alone. So, how can we use this? I find this helpful when considering possible routes to take on river trips. For example, I’m interested in paddling a river and find a take out location where I can end my trip. I’ve determined that the farthest distance I’m interested in paddling on this trip will be 40 km (the tool only takes a value of kilometers, so us Americans are stuck with metric here). I click on the vector line for the river near the take out location and click the Upstream/Downstream Search Service Link in the Tools section:

screenshot of epa waters tool data window for a river

This takes me over to the previously discussed EPA webpage and I leave the Stream Selection Type as ‘Upstream with Tributaries’ and change the value in the Stop When field to 40 km. I then click the ‘Start Search’ button after a few seconds of processing this automatically downloads a .kml file in my web browser. I head back over to Google Earth and then upload that new .kml file by going to File –> Open and then selecting my file and clicking Open.

Once I open the file my Google Earth screen changes and I see the following layer is now visible:

river and tributary pathway of 40 km from a downstream point

What this layer shows is the extent of this river and its tributaries that are up to 40 kilometers from the take out location that I specified in Google Earth. Some of these layers will be small brooks or creeks that are not navigable, but it’s easy to tell which lines represent possible waterways, as the waterway will be easily visible and not covered by the line. Using this layer, I can now find the general route I’m interested in taking, and start looking for put in locations by starting with the end of my line and working downstream.

This is helpful because it helps me keep my trip within the paddling distance I want, as it’s often difficult to estimate the length of my paddle manually.

Other Ways to Find Lakes and Rivers

As much as I love Google Earth when I’m looking for lakes and rivers to paddle, there are several other options worth considering.

Using OnX Maps to Find Rivers and Lakes Accessible via Public Land

The application onX Maps is primarily used by the hunting and off-roading communities, but it can be beneficial for paddlers interested in exploring less-paddled lakes and rivers accessible via public land.

I’m sure there are reasons to use onX when looking for rivers to paddle, but I primarily use onX to find remote lakes that I can access with public land. These lakes are often on the smaller side and need some portion of the shoreline to be either public land, or private land that is open to public recreation. I’ve had a lot of fun fishing and paddling these hidden lakes, and onX makes it very easy to spot lakes with an accessible portion of shoreline.

Using OpenStreetMap to Find Rivers and Lakes

OpenStreetMap is an open source website that is very similar to Google Maps, with the main difference being that it doesn’t incorporate satellite imagery. However, the greatest benefit of OpenStreetMap is that data on the features that you see on the map (such as rivers, lakes, etc.), are, well, open.

This makes it really easy to things like see the full length of a river you zoomed into, or pull up the full outline of a lake. The best way to get started is to zoom into a waterway and then right-click it. You should be presented with a menu and click on the ‘Query features’ option towards the bottom.

This will open up a new pane that searches for nearby features, and with a few clicks you could easily have the full length of that specific river highlighted on the map. To learn more about what’s possible with this tool, check out this post and head to the section near the bottom that covers finding rivers with OpenStreetMap.