Talk to any local outdoor enthusiast for more than a few minutes about their passion, and it’s almost a given that the words “purple lizard” will come up before the conversation ends.
They’re referring to the iconic purple maps that have become a staple for central Pennsylvania adventurers ever since Purple Lizard Maps founder Michael Hermann first published the Rothrock map in 1997.
Artistic and creative as a child, Hermann graduated from State College Area High School's Delta program before going on to manage The Bicycle Shop on West College Avenue after one year at Penn State. He became deeply involved in the local outdoors scene, a passion that eventually led him back to Penn State to study geography and cartography, a perfect outlet for his artistic side as well as his outdoor explorer side.
Upon receiving his degree in 1995, he took a job at National Geographic Maps in Colorado before going out on his own as an independent cartographer and eventually establishing Purple Lizard Maps. He has since gone on to win design awards in his field.
“We really work on the aesthetics, and making a map that’s beautiful enough for people to want to hang it up as a piece of art, but also that’s a pleasure to use,” Hermann said. “Our maps tell stories. We add a lot of what I would consider nontraditional content. ... We have a lot of information about the history of an area, we sprinkle little quotations throughout the maps and we use the iconic purple lizard to show fairly unique spots without necessarily explaining what they are until people get there.”
Beyond the aesthetic value, another thing that sets Purple Lizard maps apart from many traditional maps is the fact that information about paved and unpaved roads, hiking trails, mountain bike trails, campsites and river put-ins are all included in one map.
“We wanted to look at things a little broader, in part because I enjoy all of those activities and I didn’t want to have to collect all these different maps," Hermann explained. "So, we look at a big chunk of public land and then try to dissect everything that can happen there.”
Hermann said it takes about 1,000 hours for the Purple Lizard team to complete a map.
“We literally drive almost every road in the area we’re mapping, and we actually immerse ourselves into the area. We meet with the land managers, all the people who are involved with the forest, conservation agencies, local business owners, the local outdoors community. There aren’t very many mapmakers that work at that level of immersion. We’re pretty unique.”
The company consists of Hermann and his wife, Justine Andronici, as well as one full-time employee, Dave Gantz. Hermann also hires independent consultants to help with field work and cartography.
“All of the cartographers we work with are avid outdoors people, because I feel it’s really important that they understand what our map user is looking for,” he said.
Purple Lizard currently offers six Pennsylvania maps, as well as maps of areas in Ohio, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. When deciding where to map, Hermann usually looks for places within a five-hour radius of central Pennsylvania. The maps are distributed online at www.purplelizard.com and at 120 different retailers, mainly in nontraditional locations such as coffee shops, microbreweries, outdoor stores and bicycle shops.
“We’ve actually turned down chain stores and bigger forms of distribution, because we don’t really want to be associated with that market," said Hermann. "We much prefer to support businesses that mirror our values and outlook."
This sort of “anti-corporate” outlook is also reflected by their membership in the organization 1% For the Planet. One percent of Purple Lizard Maps' gross income is donated to participating environmental charities of their choice.
“In every place that we map, we identify local nonprofits that we feel are a good match for the environmental and outdoor community," explained Hermann. "Locally, our biggest partners are Penns Valley Conservation Association and Clearwater Conservancy.”
For Hermann, ultimately "the underlying goal of Purple Lizard is to help people unplug from the constant contact world we’ve created, and to get people outside and into the woods.”
He said he has seen a lot of positive movement toward that goal since he first published the Rothrock map 21 years ago.
“There was no marketing of Pennsylvania as an outdoor destination when we started. Even the local chamber was only interested in football games and things that had a metric. But in the last five years, I’ve seen a change. Now, the powers-that-be have realized the importance of the outdoors and that State College is more than a football town.”
Recreational use of local public lands has increased, and Hermann believes Purple Lizard has played a role in that.
“We’ve developed such a loyal following. Every time Purple Lizard publishes a new map, people put it on their list, like, ‘We’re going there; we’re going to do a weekend in that place because Purple Lizard just gave us all the tools to go explore.’ So in that way, I think we’re sort of driving tourism.”
Hermann said the company is currently wrapping up the publication of a second West Virginia-based map. Next up is a map of Ohiopyle in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“We’re just trying to add a couple maps each year, and do sort of a slow, organic growth model and see where it leads us.”