A to Z Geography: United States

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

The geography of the United States is a complex and diverse landscape, featuring rugged mountain ranges, arid deserts, dense forests, and expansive coastlines.

A

The Appalachian Mountains run through the eastern United States, stretching from Alabama to Maine.

The highest point in the Appalachian Mountain range is Mount Mitchell with an elevation of 6,684 feet (2,037 meters).

A view of the Appalachian Mountains from the International Space Station.
A photograph of the Appalachian Mountains taken from the International Space Station on January 7, 2013. Image: NASA, public domain.

This photograph of the Appalachian Mountain range shows the dark strands of forests along the ridges and the lighter ground cover of the farmland that exists in the valleys.

B

The Badlands National Park, located in southwestern South Dakota, features unique geological formations and is home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds.

steep-walled badlands formations take on a light gray color and disappear toward the horizon
The Sheep Mountain Table offers scenic views of the Badlands Geology, including the Rockyford Ash layer, which originated from volcanic eruptions in the Great Basin region of Utah and Nevada. Photo: NPS / Ed Welsh, public domain, Badlands National Park.

C

The state of Oregon is home to the deepest lake in the United States, Crater Lake, which is 1,943 feet deep. (Related: Largest Alpine Lake in North America)

Crater Lake from the air viewed from the southwest. Wizard Island is the conical mound in the lake and Mount Scott is the peak beyond the lake.
Crater Lake from the air viewed from the southwest. Wizard Island is the conical mound in the lake and Mount Scott is the peak beyond the lake. Photo: Mike Doukas, USGS, 2005. Public domain.

D

Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet and is located in Alaska.

Death Valley, California has the the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The lowest point is known as Badwater Basin which is covers 200 square miles (518 square km) and consists of salt flats.

A low view of salt flats with mountains in the distance with a storm rolling in.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. Photo: NPS, public domain, Death Valley National Park.

E

Everglades National Park in Florida is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, covering 1.5 million acres.

Mangrove islands bespeckle the bay in upper Lostman's River, Everglades National Park, Florida.
Mangrove islands bespeckle the bay in upper Lostman’s River, Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo: Paul Nelson, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

F

Florida is the flattest state in the United States, with an average elevation of only 100 feet.

A satellite image mosaic of the state of Florida against a black background.
A Landsat satellite imagery mosaic of the state of Florida. Image: USGS, public domain.

G

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States, with over five million visitors per year. The Grand Canyon is located in northern Arizona and is part of the Grand Canyon National Park, which covers over 1.2 million acres.

278 miles (447 kilometers) of the Colorado River meanders through the Grand Canyon.

A view of the Grand Canyon on a cloudy blue sky day with the dark brown Colorado river at the bottom.
The Colorado River moves through the Grand Canyon. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS, public domain.

The Great Lakes, which include Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world by total area.

A satellite image taken during February 2023 showing the Great Lakes area with no ice cover with labels for the Great Lakes.
This MODIS satellite image taken on February 12th, 2023 shows the Great Lakes. Image: NOAA GLERL / NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch Node.

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest saltwater lake in the United States and the eighth largest in the world, covering an area of approximately 1,700 square miles.

H

Hawaii is the only state in the United States that is not located on the North American continent.

Fact sheet with Landsat image for the state of Hawaii.

I

The Interior Plains, also known as the Great Plains, is a vast region that covers much of the central United States, including parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

A map of the United States with different geographical regionals shown.
Map showing the location of the Interior Plains (orange) in the United States. Map: Donald E. Trimble, “The Geologic Story of the Great Plains”, Geological Survey Bulletin 1493, 1980, USGS, public domain.

The Interior Plains are known for their flat topography, which makes them ideal for agriculture, and they are home to several important rivers, such as the Missouri and the Arkansas. The region is also famous for its severe weather conditions, including tornadoes and blizzards.

J

The state of New Jersey has the highest population density in the United States, with an average of 1,263 people per square mile according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Only the District of Columbia, which is not a state, has a higher population density than New Jersey.

Fact sheet with Landsat image for the state of New Jersey.

K

The city of Ketchikan, Alaska, is known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” According to the U.S. Census, Ketchikan has a population of 8,192 and is the sixth most populous city in Alaska. Ketchikan also averages about

L

Lake Superior, located on the northern border of the United States between Minnesota and Michigan, is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. The lake covers over 31,700 square miles and is approximately 350 miles long and 160 miles wide.

Ice span on Lake Superior, February 14, 2020. Suomi NPP satellite, NASA.
Ice span on Lake Superior, February 14, 2020. Suomi NPP satellite, NASA.

Lake Superior contains over 2,900 cubic miles of water, making it the third-largest freshwater lake by volume. The lake is also an important ecosystem, providing habitat for a variety of fish and other aquatic species.

M

The Mojave Desert, which covers parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, is the driest desert in the United States.

The Mississippi River is the longest river in the United States, running 2,320 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana.

This photo, taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS), has been annotated to show the current state boundary (yellow line) between Arkansas and Mississippi. (Note that north is to the left in this image.) The image also shows how much the Mississippi River has meandered. Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America can be seen. Image: NASA, public domain.
This photo, taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS), has been annotated to show the current state boundary (yellow line) between Arkansas and Mississippi. (Note that north is to the left in this image.) The image also shows how much the Mississippi River has meandered. Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America can be seen. Image: NASA, public domain.

N

New York City is the largest city in the United States by population, with over 8.4 million people per the U.S. Census.

A 19th century colored map showing New York City's street grid pattern.
Map of New York City created in 1862 by James Miller showing’s the city’s street grid pattern. Map: Library of Congress.

O

The Old Faithful geyser is located in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and is one of the park’s most famous attractions. Old Faithful is known for its regular eruptions, which occur approximately every 90 minutes and can shoot water up to 185 feet into the air.

A geyser eruption with visitors standing on the boardwalk watching.
Visitors watching Old Faithful erupt on October 4, 2019. Photo: NPS/Jim Peaco, public domain.

The geyser is powered by heat from the Yellowstone Caldera, which is a massive volcanic system located beneath the park.

P

The Pacific Ocean borders the western coast of the United States, stretching over 12,000 miles from Alaska to California.

A photograph of a view from space showing the Earth's limb, or horizon, from the International Space Station as it orbits above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile. Photo: NASA
Taken by NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, this picture shows Earth’s limb, or horizon, from the International Space Station as it orbits above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile. Photo: NASA, iss064e006316

Q

Quoddy Head State Park in Maine is the easternmost point in the contiguous United States.

R

The Redwood National and State Parks in California contain some of the tallest trees in the world, with some reaching over 300 feet in height.

A panoramic picture taken to show the height of a redwood tree
Redwood trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

S

The San Andreas Fault is a major geological feature in California that runs approximately 800 miles through the state. The fault is a tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate and is responsible for several major earthquakes throughout history, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The San Andreas Fault is constantly monitored by scientists to study its movement and potential for seismic activity.

View of the San Andreas Fault looking southeast along the surface trace in the Carrizo Plain, north of Wallace Creek. Elkhorn Rd. meets the fault near the top of the photo. Photo: Scott Haefner, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.
View of the San Andreas Fault looking southeast along the surface trace in the Carrizo Plain, north of Wallace Creek. Elkhorn Rd. meets the fault near the top of the photo. Photo: Scott Haefner, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.

T

The Teton Range is a spectacular mountain range located in northwestern Wyoming, part of the Rocky Mountains. The range is named after the tallest peak in the range, Grand Teton, which rises to an elevation of 13,770 feet.

A herd of bison grazing in the grass before a large mountain range.
Bison grazing in Antelope Flats with the Teton Range in the background. Photo: NPS, public domain.

The Teton Range is home to several other notable peaks, including Mount Owen, Teewinot Mountain, and Middle Teton. The range is also famous for its stunning natural beauty, including the pristine glacial lakes, abundant wildlife, and dramatic mountain scenery.

U

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a region located on the northern edge of the state and is separated from the rest of Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac. The Upper Peninsula covers an area of approximately 16,400 square miles and is known for its rugged wilderness, pristine lakes, and abundant wildlife.

A shaded relief map of the Michigan area.
shaded relief map of the Michigan area showing the Upper Peninsula area. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

The Upper Peninsula is sparsely populated, with a population of less than 350,000 people.

V

Virginia is known as the “Mother of Presidents” because eight U.S. presidents were born there. These presidents include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson.

The United States is home to several active volcanoes, including Kilauea in Hawaii, Mount St. Helens in Washington, and Mount Rainier in Oregon.

W

The state of Washington is the only state in the United States named after a U.S. president (George Washington). Washington is located in the Pacific Northwest region of the country and is known for its lush forests, high-tech industries, and the iconic Space Needle in Seattle. Washington is also home to the largest ferry system in the United States, which transports millions of passengers and vehicles across the Puget Sound every year.

Fact sheet with Landsat image for the state of Washington.

The state of Wyoming is home to both Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States, and Grand Teton National Park.

X

Xenia is a city located in southwestern Ohio, United States, with a population of approximately 25,000 people. It is the county seat of Greene County and is located about 15 miles east of Dayton.

Xenia was founded in 1803 and was named after the Greek word for “hospitality.”

A colored lithograph showing a birds-eye-view of Wilberforce College in Xenia, Ohio.
Wilberforce University, Xenia, Ohio. / drawn, lithographed and printed in oil colors by Middleton Wallace & Co., ca. 1850-1860, via loc.gov.

Xenia is the home of Wilberforce University which was established in 1856 as Wilberforce College. Wilberforce College was the first college in the United States owned and operated by African Americans.

Y

The Yellowstone River, which runs through Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, is the longest undammed river in the United States.

National Parks like Yosemite offer stunning views. Upper Yosemite Falls has a total plunge of 1,430 ft (440 m). Yosemite Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls within Yosemite National Park. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.
Upper Yosemite Falls has a total plunge of 1,430 ft (440 m). Yosemite Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls within Yosemite National Park. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS. Public domain.

The Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is known for its stunning natural beauty and diverse wildlife. It is home to several of the world’s highest waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, which drops a total of 2,425 feet in three sections, and Half Dome, a granite peak that rises over 8,800 feet above sea level.

Yosemite National Park covers an area of over 1,200 square miles and attracts millions of visitors every year.

Z

The Zion National Park in Utah is known for its spectacular sandstone cliffs and is home to many endangered plant and animal species. Zion Canyon has been shaped by the Virgin River and its tributaries.

A view from a river that is in the valley between sandy mountains.
The Virgin River winds through Zion Canyon. Photo: Alex Demas, USGS, public domain.

The area has been inhabited for about 10,000 years including by the Archaic, Ancestral Puebloan, and Southern Paiute. As a result, there are multiple areas that are culturally, archaeologically, and historically significant in Zion National Park.

Kolob Arch is located in Zion National Park, Utah, and is one of the largest natural arches in the world, with a span of approximately 287 feet.

References

Clark, S. H. (2008). Geology of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (No. 2830). US Geological Survey.

Hereford, R., Webb, R. H., & Longpre, C. I. (2005, April 4). Precipitation history of the mojave desert region, 1893–2001. U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs117-03/

Ketchikan, Alaska. (n.d.). Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. https://www.achp.gov/preserve-america/community/ketchikan-alaska

Trimble, D. E. (1980). The Geological Story of the Great Plains: a nontechnical description of the origin and evolution of the landscape of the Great Plains (No. 1493). US Government Printing Office. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/geology/publications/bul/1493/index.htm

A to Z Geography by U.S. State

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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