Geography of Extremes in the United States

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The United States is a land of extremes. Extreme temperatures, elevations, wind, and other strong natural factors have physically shaped the United States and made it into the geographically unique place it is today.

From the heights of Denali in Alaska to the depths of Badwater Basin in California, every corner of the United States has something that makes it unlike anywhere else in the country.

We’ll explore the highest, lowest, hottest, coldest, wettest, driest, and other extreme locations in the United States that have broken records, challenged residents, and made all of these locations coveted travel destinations for intrepid explorers.

Coldest Place in the United States

The coldest temperature in the United States was recorded at Prospect Creek Camp along the Alaska pipeline near the Arctic Circle. A temperature of -79.8° Fahrenheit was recorded in 1971.

The coldest temperature ever recorded in the contiguous United States was taken over a mile above sea level at Roger’s Pass in Montana, coming in second at -70° F. 

The coldest location in the United States year round, on average, is along the Beaufort Sea on the northern coast of Alaska. The annual average temperature is around 13° F.

Map with medium gray for the countries and dark blue for the ocean and white for sea ice.
This map of the extent of Arctic sea ice on September 13, 2017 shows the location of the Beaufort Sea near Alaska. Map: NASA.

Coldest Place in the Contiguous United States

Outside of Alaska, the peak of Mount Washington in New Hampshire is the coldest place in the contiguous United States. The Mount Washington weather station has a mean temperature of 28° F annually.

Place with the Highest Number of Days with Freezing Temperatures

Finally, the town of Bodie, California has the highest number of days with freezing temperatures, clocking in a whopping 303 freezing days.

Bodie is a ghost town in Mono County, California, located east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Bodie was made a state historic park in 1962.

A ghost town with a dark and cloudy sky.
Bodie, California with its abandoned buildings. Photo: Carole M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, public domain.

Utquigvik, Alaska skates by in second place with an average of 300 freezing days every year. 

Hottest Place in the United States

Death Valley in California has the reputation for being the hottest place in the United States outside of a school board meeting. The hottest temperature ever recorded at Death Valley was taken in 1913 and registered a steamy 134° F.

Ripples in the sand are created by the wind. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Death Valley National Park is also considered to be the driest location in the United States, receiving an annual rainfall of 2.2 inches on average. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level, making this location a triple threat of extremes.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Despite its inhospitable environment, Death Valley is home to an abundance of life.

Wildflowers carpet the desert floor during the rain, rocks leave evidence of their incremental movement, and birds like the roadrunner find food and shelter in the oases that dot the region.

Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose. Photo: Death Valley NPS
Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose. Photo: Death Valley NPS

A species of endangered fish with only 93 individuals in the population make their home in the highly salty, oxygen-poor waters of Death Valley. 

The Rainiest Location in the United States

Many locations around the United States are known for being a bit damp. The Pacific Northwest has cornered the market on sad, caffeinated residents, and the Gulf Coast and southeastern states ebb from the moist charm of Louisiana to the sandbar ‘salt life’ habits of many Floridians. 

However, the most tropical of all American vacation destinations holds the record for the most rain in the US: Mount Waialeale on Kauai in the state of Hawaii. Mount Waialeale is the rainiest place in the US — an average of 373 inches of rain has fallen annually between the years 1949 and 2008.

Map showing the relative location (red triangle) of the Waipā Garden rain gauge. Map created using Natural Earth data.
Map showing the relative location (red triangle) of the Waipā Garden rain gauge. Map created using Natural Earth data.

The record for the wettest 24-hour period is also located in Hawaii. Waipā Garden in Kauai experienced heavy rains and convection that occurred between April 14 – 15, 2018. The total rainfall amount during that 24-hour period was 49.69 in (1262 mm).

Hawaii may be the rainiest state in the US, but not all locations in Hawaii get the same amount of rainfall. Some parts of Hawaii can get 202 inches of rain a year, while the other side of the island rests easy with just 11 inches of rain a year due to the rain shadow effect.

Not to be left out of the record book, Little Port Walter on Baranof Island in Alaska ranks highly in the list of wettest locations, receiving 237 inches of rain and snow annually. Washington State’s wettest location is Aberdeen Reservoir, which receives 130.6 inches of precipitation annually.

The Highest Location in the United States

The highest peak in the United States is Denali, located in the Alaska Range. Denali rises 20,310 feet above sea level and is the third most topographically isolated summit on Earth, joining Mount Everest and Aconcagua.

Denali seen from backcountry Unit 13 on June 14, 2019. Photo: NPS / Emily Mesner
Denali seen from backcountry Unit 13 on June 14, 2019. Photo: NPS / Emily Mesner

Temperatures on Denali have reached -75° F with a windchill of a frigid -118° F. Weather stations on Denali have recorded winds of over 100 miles an hour, with one unofficial recording reaching 188 miles per hour in 2003. 

3D image of Mount Whitney created from combing an ASTER image with a digital elevation model. Image: JPL/NASA.
3D image of Mount Whitney created from combing an ASTER image with a digital elevation model. Image: JPL/NASA.

In the continental United States, California’s Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada is the highest peak. Mount Whitney soars 14,505 feet above sea level and is the 11th highest peak in the United States (sorry, California- the top 10 highest summits are all in Alaska).

The Badwater Ultramarathon, which begins in the bowels of Badwater Basin, ends at Mount Whitney’s trailhead at 8,000 feet above sea level. 

Tallest Sand Dunes in the United States

The tallest sand dunes in the United States aren’t located near the ocean, but rather are the draw of the extraordinary Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

The biggest dune of Great Sand Dunes is the 750' tall Star Dune. As seen from above, star dunes have three or more ridges from their crest, giving them a star form. The 14,000-foot Crestone Peaks can be seen in the distance. Photo: NPS, public domain.
The biggest dune of Great Sand Dunes is the 750′ tall Star Dune. As seen from above, star dunes have three or more ridges from their crest, giving them a star form. The 14,000-foot Crestone Peaks can be seen in the distance. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Some of the sand dunes at the park are over 700 feet tall and yes, visitors can sled down them. 

The Longest Cave System in the United States

The longest cave system in the United States is Mammoth Cave in Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave is a limestone marvel that has drawn explorers for decades.

Over 400 miles have been mapped, but researchers and cave enthusiasts estimate that there are at least 600 more miles in the cave system that have yet to be discovered. There are more than 200 other caves within the park that make up the Mammoth Cave system.

Mammoth Cave National Park's Broadway, or "Main Cave," passage is a massive subterranean river channel that was long abandoned by the waters that produced it. 
Mammoth Cave National Park’s Broadway, or “Main Cave,” passage is a massive subterranean river channel that was long abandoned by the waters that produced it.  Photo: NPS, public domain.

Saltiest Location in the United States

The saltiest location in the United States is in Utah at the Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake has three input rivers and no output, causing a buildup of salt and other minerals that make this lake such a unique environment.

A view of Great Salt Lake with a blue sky with wisps of white clouds.
Looking down and across the Great Salt Lake. photo: Michael L. Freeman, USGS, public domain.

The salinity of the Great Salt Lake is higher than the world’s oceans. Many different species of birds are attracted to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, along with the hearty brine shrimp that make their homes there.

Longest River in the United States

While there are many ways to measure the size of the river, how long a river is and how much water flows through it are two common methods. Using these metrics, the Missouri River is considered to be the longest River in the United States.

The Missouri is a tributary of the Mississippi River, which is the second longest river in the US.

A wide river in the foreground with blue skies and dark clouds.
Missouri River looking west across the river from Double Ditch Indian Village. Photo: Kathleen Macek-Rowland, USGS, public domain.

While different sources list different lengths, the USGS lists the length of the Missouri River from source to mouth to be 2,540 miles. The Mississippi ranks second with a source to mouth length of 2,340 miles.

The Missouri River drains one sixth of the entire continent of North America in its watershed. The headwaters of the Missouri begin in Montana and flow through North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri.

The Missouri River has been used as an essential source of food, water and transportation for people and animals for thousands of years. 

Deepest Canyon in the United States

The Grand Canyon certainly lives up to its name in many ways, and its geologic importance can’t be understated.

As extraordinary as it is, the Grand Canyon isn’t the deepest canyon in the United States. That honor goes to Hells Canyon in western Idaho, plunging 8,043 feet (2,452 meters) deep thanks to the mighty power of the Snake River.

A river running though a canyon.
Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Photo: Kenneth Tiffan, USGS, public domain.

Hells Canyon is a popular whitewater destination for rafters and kayakers, and its abundance of wildlife attracts visitors from around the world. Much of Hells Canyon is a designated wilderness area, and much of the canyon isn’t accessible by road. 

Considering Geographical Extremes in the USA

Whether you live in the hottest, driest, coldest, wettest, highest, lowest, or saltiest place in the USA, every city and state in the country has their own beautiful places to explore. We might not get to travel to all the extremes, but we can appreciate the unique geography of wherever we happen to call home. 

Read next: ZIP Codes in the United States

References

12 things you didn’t know about Death Valley. (2021, September 29). U.S. Department of the Interior. https://www.doi.gov/blog/12-things-you-didnt-know-about-death-valley

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, April 30). Great Salt Lake. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Salt-Lake

Death Valley Sand Dunes. (n.d.). NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/nature/sand-dunes.htm

Existing Records – Weather. (n.d.). National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/extremes/ncec/records

Kammerer, J. (1990, May). Largest rivers in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse. https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1987/ofr87-242/

Water Science School. (2019, July 6). Rain and precipitation. USGS.gov. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/rain-and-precipitation

Water Science School. (2018, June 11). Rivers of the world: World’s longest rivers. USGS.gov. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/rivers-world-worlds-longest-rivers

Weather – Death Valley. (2021, October 19). NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/nature/weather-and-climate.htm

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