I’ve spent a lot of time virtually exploring the outdoors on Google Maps. A lot. A large part of that time has been my never-ending search for new lakes and rivers to paddle.
So, how do you find lakes on Google Maps? Finding lakes simply involves zooming into your lake and clicking near the lake’s label. Then click on the pop-up on the bottom of the screen with the lake’s name, as this will open the lake’s profile that stores any related location data, user reviews, and photos.
Can you find rivers on Google Maps? You’ll be able to find a name of a river or stream in most cases, but it does not appear that Google Maps has profiles available here. To isolate the full length of a stream or river, you’ll have to use a mapping application that allows more open access to the elements of their map. OpenStreetMap is a good alternative for researching rivers, as you’ll be able to highlight the full length of a river with a few clicks.
Throughout this article I’ll provide a step-by-step guide on how to quickly get the information you need about a local river or lake. Let’s get to it.
How to Find Lakes on Google Maps
Finding lakes on Google Maps is about as simple as you’d think. First, you’ll want to zoom into a lake that you find interesting. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in the default ‘Map’ view or the ‘Satellite’ view, as lakes are easily spotted in either view. I prefer the ‘Map’ view as it tends to cut out the noise, but to each their own.
Once you zoom in close enough towards your lake you should see a label pop up in the approximate center of the lake. If you’re interested in learning more about his lake, all you have to do is click anywhere on the lake. This will make a small window pop up on the lower portion of the screen, like such:
The top line that is bold will contain the lake’s name, while the second line will be the state and approximate zip code for a lake. Clicking anywhere on the section the arrow is pointing to will bring up the lake’s profile on Google Maps. The image to the right is what the profile of a lake generally looks like.
Clicking on any of the photos shown will bring up all of the public photos that are associated with this lake. You can also scroll down to find user reviews of the lake, and that may help you figure out whether this is the kind of lake you’re looking for. Reading through reviews is generally very valuable, as many people have kindly contributed their thoughts and experiences, while often attaching photos. You’ll often find useful information about water clarity, fishing tips, family-friendly options on the lake, so the reviews should be worth scrolling through.
Smaller lakes are obviously less likely to have user reviews or photos, so you may not see much depending the size of the lake.
Can You Find Rivers with Google Maps?
Sort of. I guess it depends on what you’re expectations are. In the traditional ‘Map’ format you’ll be able to easily identify rivers by the blue lines meandering across your screen. If you zoom in close enough, there’s a pretty good chance that Google Maps will have a name available for that stream or river. Unfortunately, that is about where their functionality ends when it comes to rivers.
Unlike lakes, it doesn’t appear possible to pull up a profile of that river or to zoom in to the full extent of the river. For most people this may not be a big deal, but anyone planning a river trip may want the additional flexibility that allows you to isolate a river or stream on your screen.
For example, zooming into this portion of the Big Rib River, right-clicking on the river, and then selecting the ‘What’s here?’ option gives the following result:
So, unlike lakes where we could pull up the profile of that lake, here Google Maps is just giving us the ‘Wisconsin’ result, which will obviously be of little use. In order for us to get more information on rivers we’re going to need to leave the comfort Google Maps and check out some alternatives.
An Alternative Approach: Finding Rivers on OpenStreetMap
While Google Maps doesn’t provide an easy way to pull up the full length of a river, OpenStreetMap is an open-sourced mapping application that capably fills that gap. While it appears there are lots of fancy things that coding can do with OpenStreetMap, we’ll only need a couple of clicks to get the information we want.
First, zoom into a river than you’re interested in. Then, right click near the river and select the ‘Query features’ option, as shown in the below screenshot:
Clicking this will pull up a pane on the left side and should quickly present with a variety of options. We’re most interested in the ‘Nearby Features’ section and you’ll be looking for the result that best matches what you’re looking for. As I’m looking to pull up the full length of the White River, the highlighted result in the below screenshot looks like a good option:
Notice the red line following the path of the river. This appeared when I hovered over the first result. Clicking the ‘White River’ link in the first result does the following:
It pulls up a profile of the river that shows some data in the table on the left, and shows in the map on the right what part of the river that refers to. In my case, I can see that this is only showing a portion of the White River, and I would like to show the full length (this may not necessarily be the case with your river). While I can tell this by looking at the map, the strongest indicator can be found in the ‘Part of’ section of the left pane. The first result that I’ve highlighted in the Part of section is ‘Relation White River (2184038) (as main_stream)’. The ‘as main_stream’ section indicates that this is only part of the White River. Clicking that link will then take us to the full length of the White River, which can be seen below:
Perhaps as valuable as the highlighted river path in the mapped pane is the table of information on the left. The link the arrow is pointing to will take you to the Wikipedia page for this river, and the Wikidata link above may also prove useful.
Quick Tips for Using Google Maps
Google Maps has many features and tools that can make your life easier. Below are a few tips that can help you spend more time on the water and less time on your phone or computer.
Create Custom Lists in the Your Places Area
The custom list option in the Your Places section of Google Maps is one of the features that I use most often. I use it to organize myself from everything from kayaking to business to gardening. Note that you’ll need to be logged in to Google Maps with your own profile to be able to use this feature.
Custom lists can be found by doing the following steps:
- Click the ‘hamburger’ icon in the upper left screen to open the left panel
- Click the ‘Your Places’ section that has the map marker icon
- Switch to the ‘Saved’ tab by clicking it
- Add a new list by creating the plus icon in the bottom right corner of the panel
Once you’ve created a custom list it’s easy to add locations to that list. Pull up the location that you want to save and click the blue ‘Save’ button directly next to the directions button. Then click on the list that you want to save the location. That’s it. Here are some possible ways you can use custom lists to spend more time on the water:
- Canoe launch points with available parking
- Boat ramps for lakes in your area with good crappie fishing
- Parking spots for hike-in boating opportunities
- Kayak repair shops in your local area
Search the ‘Boat Ramp’ Category to Find Where to Get on the Water
So you’ve found a lake or river you’re interested in, but now you need to figure out where you can actually launch your boat, kayak or canoe. Here’s the easiest way I’ve found to quickly pool up a network of local boat ramps.
Every location on Google Maps can have a category assigned to it. This category is shown as the highlighted field under the site name in the screenshot below:
While it’s true that there’s a real difference between a boat ramp that mostly caters to motorized boats and a canoe launch at the side of a river, Google Maps classifies each in their ‘Boat ramp’ category. So if you would like to pull up everything in your area that is classified as a Boat Ramp, the best way to do that is to simply search the ‘boat ramp’ term in Google Maps. This should bring up results that only fall into that category. Use this link to search ‘boat ramp’ in Google Maps:
Using other terms that are related such as ‘canoe launch’ or ‘boat landing’ will pull up similar results, but they may also pull up locations like canoe shops or local parks that you aren’t interested in.
If You Haven’t Already, Give Google Earth a Try
While Google Maps and other online mapping applications offer a lot of functionality, it may be worth your time to check out Google Earth. While Google Maps does have satellite imagery available, Google Earth is a significant upgrade as it allows you to import custom layers, search through historical imagery, and much, much more.
If you’re interested in seeing what’s possible with Google Earth, check out our post with step-by-step instructions on how to find rivers and lakes with Google Earth.