Purple Lizard: 20 years of making maps and adventure

Michael Hermann and Dave Gantz of Purple Lizard Maps look for one of their favorite spots on the Rothrock Trail map on July 27 in Rothrock State Forest.
Michael Hermann and Dave Gantz of Purple Lizard Maps look for one of their favorite spots on the Rothrock Trail map on July 27 in Rothrock State Forest.

Standing in the Galbraith parking lot, Michael Hermann vividly remembers the Rothrock State Forest of two decades ago. For starters, there was no Galbraith parking lot. No trail names, except for that of local lore. No chance, really, of seeing another person as you hiked or mountain biked.

But by 10 a.m. on a cloudy Thursday, the parking lot starts to fill up. On a sunny weekend or warm evening, you might not be able to find a place to park there. Trucks, cars with bike racks and campers with license plates from across the country will have beat you to it, so you’d move on, to access the vast forest elsewhere.

It’s Hermann’s hope that his Purple Lizard Maps have played a role in drawing more people to Rothrock over the years. It’s been his goal since starting the map-making company 20 years ago.

“We just want to give people more opportunities to get outdoors,” he said. “There’s so much here to explore.”

Rothrock was the first map undertaken by Purple Lizard Maps as a company, but Hermann helped hikers and mountain bikers navigate the difficult landscape of the state forest before that.

“I started making maps for people literally on napkins at Zeno’s,” he said, laughing.

In 1995, Hermann earned a degree from Penn State in digital cartography and moved to Colorado to work for National Geographic. He thought that making maps there would be his dream job, but he ended up missing the central Pa. outdoors. He quit his job and moved home in 1997, bringing an idea with him.

“I looked at National Geographic’s business model of map making,” he said. “There was nothing like that in central Pa.”

With eight maps in the current line, Purple Lizard Maps continue to stand out because they’re, well, purple, waterproof and sprinkled with lizards that denote places that people will want to check out because they’re especially beautiful, photogenic or otherwise interesting. Much time goes into putting an artistic touch on the maps, Hermann said, and creating a user-friendly experience. Erik Scott, owner of The Bicycle Shop in downtown State College, calls himself a “map guy,” and called Purple Lizard Maps the best of the best.

“They’re the highest-quality maps I’ve ever put my eyes on,” Scott said. “They’re user-friendly, the colors are nice, the detail is incredible.”

Scott said the maps, which carry the tagline “make your own adventure” have always sold well at the store. They’re also sold online and at businesses across the state, in Ohio and Puerto Rico, and have become definitive guides.

“Purple Lizard took off with a life of its own,” Hermann said. “I’m really grateful to the outdoors community because they embraced it.”

Making a map is no easy task, at least the way it’s done at Purple Lizard. A map is usually in development for two years, with about 1,000 hours of computer work that goes into each. One of the first steps is to bring in hoards of digital data that relates to the area, basically every map they can get their hands on. The Pine Creek map, for example, used more than 100 sources, Hermann said.

“Then it becomes a giant puzzle to sort through that,” he said.

This spring, local outdoors enthusiast Dave Gantz joined the Purple Lizard team, with the appropriate title “trail guru.” Purple Lizard’s next map will be of the Michaux State Forest, and they’re now in the field work phase. It’s a matter of meeting with land managers, comparing available data, finding the discrepancies and figuring out first-hand what’s accurate.

“Sometimes my assignment is literally to go get lost,” Gantz said.

Other members of the Purple Lizard team include Hermann’s wife, Justine Andronici, whose title is “director of very important things,” cartographer Erin Greb and other freelance cartographers who collaborate remotely. There’s no central office for the company, which is how Hermann likes it for now.

“I like the fact that everyone is collaborating on their own terms and timeline,” he said.

After Michaux State Forest is mapped, the team will turn its attention toward two maps in West Virginia, and keep going from there.

“We want to do blanket coverage of Pennsylvania in the next five years, but also expand into some areas in the neighboring states that need good maps,” Hermann said.

The company has also expanded its online presence, with complete trail indexes on the Purple Lizard website along with blog posts that take readers exploring in new ways.

“We’re trying to encourage that tagline, ‘make your own adventure,’ ” Gantz said.

Jessica McAllister: 814-231-4617, @JMcAllisterCDT