Make a River Map

All you need to complete this tutorial is ArcGIS Pro and some time. By the end, you will have created a simple, eye-catching map from start to finish. I assume some existing knowledge of how to use ArcGIS Pro, but I’ve also included links to the documentation to help you through any parts that are unfamiliar.

You’ll learn how to make this map, of the Lena River, in Siberia:

Finished map of the Lena River

If you’re feeling adventurous, try to follow along with another river, with your own design choices. Either way, this tutorial should provide you with a repeatable process for creating simple and beautiful maps.


It’s easy to get carried away and jump straight into crafting symbols, but it’s always best to start with the important map decisions: projection, scale, and extent.

1. Make a new map and locate your river.

Lena River in Siberia shown on topographic basemap

2. Change the projected coordinate system of your map. I went with WGS 1984 Arctic Polar Stereographic. Not sure which projection to use? Try the lesson Choose the Right Projection.

3. Optionally, change the basemap so it’s easier to see your river. I used Arctic Ocean Base from Living Atlas.

Arctic Ocean Base selected in the Catalog pane, Portal tab, Living Atlas tab

4. Insert a layout and change its size in Layout Properties > Page Setup.

Width and Height settings in the Layout Properties window, Page Setup tab

You can tweak these measurements later.

I made my layout 50 by 5 inches because I intended to share the map on Instagram. I wanted people to scroll horizontally along the river, and the way to achieve this in that app is to create multiple square images and post them all at once.

Final map broken into ten square images

So I made the layout 10 times longer than it was wide, and chopped it up into 10 squares afterwards. It’s always a good idea to consider the media of your final product before you make your map.

5. Add your map frame to the layout and double-click it to open the Format Map Frame pane. Set its size and position to match the layout.

Size and Position settings on the Format Map Frame pane, Map Frame Placement tab

6. Activate the map frame and zoom and pan until your river is nicely positioned in your layout.

TIP 1: Press and hold the 1 key to navigate the layout instead of the map!

TIP 2: Rotate the map using the A and D keys. Or you can open Map Properties > General to set it more precisely.

Rotation set to -21.75 in the Map Properties window, General tab

TIP 3: You can set the scale precisely at the bottom of the map. I set mine to 1:1 million.

Scale set to 1:1,000,000 below the map view

TIP 4: Once you’ve settled on the scale, rotation, and position of your map, make a bookmark so you can get back to it easily.

Now that you’ve decided on an extent using layout view, you need to be able to find it on the map view.

7. With the map frame still activated, insert a polygon map note.

8. Open the Create Features pane and draw a new polygon feature that is a little bit bigger than the layout.

Rectangle tool selected for the Polygon Notes layer in the Create Features pane

It will seem weird because the edges will not be visible. But you want this polygon to be bigger than your chosen layout so you have some wiggle room later on, in case you decide to adjust the positioning slightly.

TIP: Alternatively, you can draw a rectangle that is the same size as the layout, and create a buffer around it.

9. Save your edits and click Layout to deactivate the map frame.

Layout link for deactivating the Map Frame

The extent of your map is affected by the projection, scale and rotation. You have to make all of these decisions together before you’ve defined your map area.


All of the data you need for this map is in a single layer, hosted on ArcGIS Online.

1. Return to the map view. Your new map notes rectangle should appear there.

Selected map note rectangle on the map

2. Zoom in close to the rectangle. You don’t need to see the entire thing. You’re about to add a very large global dataset, and if you’re zoomed out too far, it will take too long to draw.

3. Add the World Water Bodies layer package. Search for it in the Catalog pane > Portal tab > All Portal tab. It might take a few minutes to unpack.

World Water Bodies selected in the Catalog pane, Portal tab, All Portal tab

4. Use the Clip tool to extract only the waterbody features that are inside your rectangle.

TIP: On the Environments tab, set Output Coordinate System to the same one used by your map. Otherwise, the result may have the wrong shape.

Clip tool with parameters filled

5. In the Contents pane, remove the basemap and the World Water Bodies layer. Turn off the Polygon Notes layer, so the only thing visible on your map are the clipped water bodies.

Knowing your extent before you add the data means you can clip it down immediately and save time working with only the data that you need.


Next, you’ll find some nice watery symbols and apply one of them to your river. Since you’re mapping an arctic river, you’ll modify it to look like ice.

1. In All Portal, search for and add Watercolor.stylx (courtesy of John Nelson).

Watercolor style in the Catalog pane, Portal tab, All Portal tab

If you’re asked to upgrade the style to match the current version of ArcGIS Pro, click Yes.

2. For your clipped waterbodies layer, open the symbol gallery and choose the first Watercolor polygon symbol.

Malachite Green selected in the Symbology pane, Gallery tab, Watercolor style

3. On the Symbology pane, click Properties to edit this symbol. Click the middle (Layers) tab.

To make my symbol look like ice I stripped it down to just the watercolor picture fill and changed its Tint to white.

Symbology pane, Properties tab, Layers tab, with all symbol layers unchecked except for the first Picture fill

Now the water bodies are invisible against the white background of the map.

4. In Map Properties, change the Background color to a dark green. It doesn’t really matter which one, this won’t be the final color.

Background color in the Map Properties window, General tab

Now you are able to see the icy river.

Detail of the river map with the white watercolor symbol

You’re going to want to access this custom ice symbol layer, so you’ll save it to a style.

5. In the Symbology pane, click the burger button at the top of the pane and choose Save symbol to style.

Save symbol to style highlighted in the burger button menu in the Format Polygon Symbol pane

6. Name the new symbol Ice and save it in your Favorites style.

7. Switch over to the layout. The river is invisible again. The background color you chose earlier only applied to the map view. You need to set one here too.

8. Open the Format Map Frame pane. (Hint: double-click Map Frame in the Contents pane.)

9. Here you can change the background color, but if you click the Symbol button instead, you can make a fancy gradient background.

Background Symbol button in the Format Map Frame pane and symbol properties for a dark green gradient fill

I made a linear continuous gradient between two dark green colors: #2A2A15 and #2B3A1D.

The effect is pretty subtle. Most people won’t notice it, but I think those effects are the most effective.

Detail of the river map with the white watercolor symbol and gradient background

Now you’re ready to finish the map with a couple of labels.


When you’re only adding a few pieces of text to a map, you can take the time to make them really nice.

1. Return to the map view and insert Text Map Notes at 1:250,000.

Text Map Notes 1:250,000 selected in the Map Notes gallery

2. Open the Create Features pane and add a few Text Notes Large features.

Adding text to the map from the Create Features pane

TIP 1: If you find it annoying to work on a slanted map, switch to the Explore tool and use the A and D keys to rotate. This won’t affect your layout.

TIP 2: Try reshaping the text to follow the curve of the river.

3. Select each piece of text and format it in the Attributes pane. Click the Symbol button for more font properties.

Font set to High Tower Text 140 pt in the Attributes pane, Annotation tab

You can fill the letters with the same watercolor symbol you used for the river.

4. In the Format Text Symbol pane, click Text fill symbol and More polygon symbols.

More polygon symbols in the Format Text Symbol pane, Properties tab, General tab

5. Choose the Ice symbol you saved earlier in your Favorites style.

Curved Lena River text on the map

The map is complete! Switch back to the layout, export and share! If you want to compare any of your map or symbol properties to the ones I set, you can check out my project package.

Finished map of the Lena River

I think the detail and form of this river are better able to shine when presented simply. The river is so beautiful on its own, I didn’t really want to add anything that might detract from it. The gradient background and watercolor symbol add texture and variety to the map without cluttering it.

The World Water Bodies dataset covers the entire world, and the Watercolor symbols can be tweaked in countless ways. Try making a map of your own favorite river. Feel free to share it in the comments section below!

You can also check out these historic maps of the Lena River, which I think share in the spirit of simplicity.

Love mapping rivers? Then your next step is to check out Aileen Buckley’s article about terrain mapping the Ob. I tried it out on the Lena and discovered all sorts of beautiful patterns I couldn’t see before.

Lena River terrain

About the author

Heather is a cartographer and artist who mixes both practices to express and understand landscapes. She writes and edits lessons for the Learn ArcGIS website. View more of her work at

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