For many years the Rand McNally Road Atlas has been ubiquitous (sometimes under other titles). It is reasonably good, with clear highway maps, some features of interest, and is kept commendably up to date. But the topography is almost nonexistent and the maps are just not very attractive. Rand McNally also offers a Compact Road Atlas and City Guide.
But now there is something similar but better, The National Geographic Road Atlas - Adventure Edition, produced in conjunction with MapQuest.
Why is it better? First of all, it is spiral bound, so it won't keep closing up on you, and the back cover flap folds in to keep your place. The maps are attractive, with clearly shown topography. It has an interesting series of climate maps, then a section with 36 scenic drives, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, each with a map and photograph. A gazetteer at the end lists all cities and towns, with population and map reference (though other map features such as mountains, parks, and lakes are not included). There is also a special RV and Camping Edition.
If your general reference world atlas is more than a couple of years old, you need a new one! Teachers and geographers have always favored Goode's World Atlas, now in its 22nd edition. I have a whole series of them, going back to 1968 when I took a class in economic geography at Berkeley. It has a well thought-out set of basic reference maps and a great number of thematic maps on world environment, resources, and human geography. This is the atlas universally recommended for college world geography classes and is appropriate for home schooling at the high school level. It is a reasonable size and a very reasonable price, even in hardcover.
If what you want is a large format traditional atlas I wish I could still recommend the Rand McNally International Atlas. Unfortunately it appears that they have abandoned the series and not revised it since 1994. But there is a worthy successor - the Great World Atlas from Dorling Kindersley (DK Publishing). It makes good use of satellite imagery and is very detailed and up to date. An excellent choice for a school or public library, or if you really love maps.
The Benchmark Atlas Series
My favorite atlases of western states are the ones by Benchmark - and not just because some of my former students helped produce them. They are a co-production by Allan Cartography of Medford, Oregon (who make Raven Maps, see below) and Eureka Cartography of Berkeley, California.
The maps have beautifully rendered topography and meticulously researched cultural features such as roads. They show land ownership clearly (very important in many areas, especially the desert) and an intelligent selection of features of interest.
The scale is too small to use for hiking, but they are the all-around best maps to plan driving trips in the west. Most importantly, they will help you to understand the landscape around you as you travel. I always have one with me and consult it frequently on my long trips.
The Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas series now covers eleven states, essentially the entire west from the Rockies to the Pacific coast. I would love to see them add Alaska, Hawaii, western Canada, and Baja California, but that seems unlikely. I also think California should be offered in two volumes at a larger scale (also not likely - DeLorme recently combined their two volumes into one).
All Benchmark Atlases highly recomended
De Lorme Atlases
De Lorme, based in Maine, has an atlas for every state. They are at a larger scale (i.e. features on the map are larger) than the Benchmark series, and they show tremendous detail.
The DeLorme atlases are excellent for back road exploring, they show everything that is on the large scale USGS topo maps. Early editions had crudely drawn contours, but now they feature shaded relief and accurate contours. The gazetteer is useful, listing all the place names on the maps, plus points of interest such as parks, boat ramps, and information centers.
The DeLorme maps don't show the attention to detail, field checking, and careful design of the Benchmark products. Nonetheless I have bought all of their western states editions and use them as a backup for the Benchmark Atlases. They are the only atlases available for some states.
Tom Harrison Maps
This is the premier series of topographic maps of popular recreation areas in California. They are waterproof and tear proof. The relief is artistically hand shaded, supplemented by contours. Trails are carefully researched, often verified on the ground and measured with a bicycle-wheel odometer. All features of the maps are intelligently thought out and clearly presented. They show both latitude/longitude and UTM, making them ideal for use with gps.
Tom and Barbara Harrison make all these maps themselves, and in my opinion (as a former cartography instructor) they are the best available. When I need something more detailed than the Benchmark Atlas I switch to the relevant Tom Harrison map (if there is one, California only). His "recreation maps" series cover large areas that you may be exploring mostly by road (such as Death Valley). His "trail maps" are for areas where you are more likely to be hiking (for example Point Reyes or the Yosemite high country).
The Tom Harrison Maps website has a full listing (30 maps), with a locator map of California. You can even view pdf versions (for example, see Point Reyes National Seashore). Tom has recently started making certain maps available as posters ("maps as artwork") and in digital form for viewing on an iPhone.
National Geographic / Trails Illustrated Maps
This is a series of maps of national parks and other major recreation areas. They are based on the U.S. Geological Survey topographic series, with contours and other base map features. Some have shaded relief. Most have clearly and accurately marked trails (a shortcoming of the USGS topos) and other features important for travellers. Cartographic quality varies from excellent to poor.
These are wall maps, large and dramatic. The elevation coloring and topographic shading is beautiful (credit to Allen Cartogaphy of Medford, Oregon). I have seen them framed in people's living rooms - they are that good. My only quibble is that they are all at slightly different scales, so they cannot be mosaicked together to make a huge map of the west. There is however, a map of the 48 states.
The large Raven map of California (43 by 65 inches) hangs on my wall at home and I consult it frequently. Other good choices (if you have the wall space) are the United States Topographic Wall Map of the conterminous 48 states, or the one of Mexico, or all of North America,. The map of Hawaii is particularly striking.
To see the complete line and to buy other Raven maps visit their website: www.ravenmaps.com
US National Park Service Maps
Every American national park has a standard brochure with an excellent map. They are not intended to be used for serious hiking, though they are often good enough for day hikes. Their main purpose is to help visitors understand the geography of the parks, and for this they can't be beat. The cartographic standards are high, the research and content impeccable. I keep a shoebox of them, filed alphabetically, on the shelf in my office and refer to them constantly.
Unfortunately these maps/brochures are usually only available from the park itself, at the entrance station when you pay, or at the visitor center. But since these government publications are considered to be public domain resources, pdf versions (and editable Adobe Illustrator and jpeg files) are available on-line from the National Park Service Cartographic Resources Home Page. Download and print your own! I just wish other countries had as enlightened a policy on government map data.
National Forest Maps
The U.S. Forest Service produces a standard series of maps, one for each national forest. They are fairly ugly, with crude symbology and no topography. But they do show every road (many national forests are a veritable maze of logging roads) and land ownership (much land within national forests is privately owned). Campgrounds and other facilities are shown with standard symbols, and there is usually some general information about the forest on the back. If you want to explore back roads in the national forests you absolutely must have one (or more) of these maps.
There are also forest service maps of many wilderness areas, with contours, trails, and special use restrictions (on grazing, fishing, campfires). These are better looking than the entire forest maps, and often the best map for hiking in the areas they cover (USGS topos are notorious for inaccurate and out of date trail information).
Forest maps are usually for sale at USFS offices and visitor centers in the national forests, I have even seen them in coin-operated vending machines. They are also sometimes available from outdoor equipment dealers, or directly from the USGS Store web site.
USGS Topo Maps
The topographic maps produced by the US Geologic Survey are definitive - they are what most other maps, both public and private, are based on. But important as their role is, the agency has been starved of funds and poorly administered for decades. At one time everyone you met on a backcountry trail had a USGS "quad" in their pocket, now they are more likely to have a Tom Harrison or Trails Illustrated map.
But if you find that the area you are interested in has no detailed maps available from the private sector, you may still fall back on the USGS series. They are available at a range of scales and cover the entire country. Order online from The USGS Store.
Or even better, buy the same maps on CD-ROM from the National Geographic USGS TOPO! series and print your own. The interface is a bit unpolished but what you actually have is a seamless map at multiple scales. Zoom in and out, scroll around, then capture the area of interest to a jpeg file. You can also make notations, measurements and create elevation profiles. The main drawback is the price - $89.99 per state.
Automobile Club Maps
The AAA (American Automobile Association) provides free road maps to its members. There is nothing very outstanding about them, but the price is right and every state is covered, plus Canada and Mexico. They also provide well researched and up to date travel guides (lodgings and restaurants) and camping guides.
CSAA (California State Automobile Club, the AAA for northern California) has produced an excellent series of regional maps for decades. But recently it was announced that they will no longer be making their own maps. This would really be a shame, there are no equivalents to many of their titles. Stock up now in case it really happens. (If the maps disappear I will take my insurance business to GEICO.)
ACSC (Automobile Club of Southern California) on the other hand seems to have a continuing strong commitment to their mapping program. They create and publish a series of county maps of unrivalled detail and reliability, especially valuable when traveling back roads in the desert. They make these available free to their members and sell them at their offices. You can also usually get them through affiliated AAA offices.
ACSC publish several really exceptional maps in their Explore! series. Premier among these is the Indian Country Guide Map. It is mentioned in just about every one of Tony Hillerman's mysteries - it hangs on the wall of Joe Leaphorn's tribal police office in Window Rock, covered with pins representing unsolved crimes.
Equally valuable is the AAA (ACSC) map of Baja California (where almost every road is a back road), the most complete and accurate by far. I also make heavy use of the Eastern Sierra Guide Map and the Death Valley National Park Explore! Guide Map.
Maps of Canada
The best travelers' maps of British Columbia used to come from the BC Parks department, available free at Info Centres and the parks themselves. But the beautiful color maps of parks by region no longer seem to be available, just the monochrome brochure maps of single parks or clusters of parks.
University of Hawaii Maps
There is a wonderful series of maps of the Hawaiian islands by James A. Bier, published by the University of Hawaii.