Geography of North Carolina

Marques Hayes

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Situated in the southeastern United States of America, North Carolina spans a distance of 503 miles from east to west. This makes North Carolina the widest state east of the Mississippi River. North Carolina’s distance from north to south is around 150 miles [1].

North Carolina’s total area is 53,819 square miles, with its land area being 48,618 square miles. The Tar Heel State ranks 28th among the 50 U.S. states in land area [2].

North Carolina borders the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina. Georgia and South Carolina are both located south of North Carolina, Tennessee is directly west of North Carolina. At its northern border is Virginia. The long distances of North Carolina encompass several different landforms and biomes. 

An angled view from above of the outer banks in North Carolina with the dunes and ocean in view.
Outer Banks, North Carolina. Photo: Chris Sherwood, USGS, public domain.

Geographically, North Carolina is designated as a southern state. Its geographic location confirms this. In addition to being a southern state, North Carolina sits at America’s Atlantic Coast.


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According to NOAA’s calculations, North Carolina has the 6th longest coastline in the USA, measuring 3,375 miles long. North Carolina’s coast geography plays a major role in this.

The natural geography of North Carolina is split in three sections: The Coastal Plain, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Appalachian Mountains.

Map centered on North Carolina showing the three physiographic provinces.
The physiographic provinces of North Carolina. Map: Caitlin Dempsey with province data from NC Geological Survey.

Atlantic Coastal Plain

North Carolina’s Atlantic Coastal Plain consists of two distinct areas: The Outer Banks and the Inner Banks. 

Outer Banks

The Outer Banks, often known as OBX, consists of barrier islands and thin islands known as spits. These islands separate the Atlantic Ocean from the estuaries further east. Hatteras, Bodie, and Ocracoke are among the largest islands in the region.

The islands and spits that make up the Outer Banks are known for their beaches. It was also famous for being “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the high volume of shipwrecks in the region. However, its geography would lend itself to a technological achievement.

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, chose what was then Kitty Hawk (now part of Kill Devil Hills) on Bodie Island as the site to test heavier than air flight. 

This is where the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight took place, in 1903. Kitty Hawk provided an optimal place for a test flight due to the winds from the Atlantic Ocean. 

Big Kill Devil Hill, the largest dune in the area at 100 feet hill, provide the brothers with the needed altitude to practice flying using gliders. Those winds that were favorable to the Wright Brother have also resulted in the dune migating 450 feet to the southwest since those flights.

Satellite image of a section of a barrier island in North Carolina.
Satellite image showing Kill Devil Hills. Image: NASA, public domain.

Being so far east, the Outer Banks region is very susceptible to hurricanes. Hurricanes have even made changes to the land itself. Some inlets have been formed as a result of hurricanes. [3]

Inner Banks

The estuaries located east of the Outer Banks are the Pamlico Sound, Albermarle Sound, and Currituck Sound. These three estuaries, along with the adjacent peninsulas to the east, are part of the Inner Banks. This lesser known region of North Carolina is part of the state’s coastal plain.

On the northern extent of the Inner Banks is Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Swamps, salt marshes, maritime islands, mesic forests, and tidal rivers a characteristic of this region.

Population Geography of North Carolina

Elizabeth City

Elizabeth City is located along one of those tidal rivers, the Pasquotank River. Elizabeth City is home to one of the largest U.S. coast guards bases in America. [4]

Further inland towards cities like Kinston and Goldsboro, these are areas where crops such as peanuts and tobacco are grown. Eastern North Carolina is important for its agricultural production. 

Wilmington

Wilmington, NC is located on the far southeast portion of the state, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to North Carolina’s largest port. 

The Piedmont Plateau

The headwaters of the Cape Fear River start in North Carolina’s most centrally located region, the Piedmont Plateau. Piedmont comes from the Italian word “Piemonte” meaning “foothills. This is a region of gently rolling hills. This is where most of North Carolina’s population is located.

Raleigh

Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, is the 2nd largest city in North Carolina. 467,000 people call Raleigh home. Raleigh was purpose-built to be the capital of North Carolina. Before, the capital of North Carolina was located in the Inner Banks region, at New Bern.

When New Bern was under siege during the American Revolution, the capital had to be moved to Fayetteville. The site where Raleigh is located was chosen due to being close to the center of the state. The idea was to have a capital city away from the coast, to protect from a coastal invasion [5].

Charlotte

North Carolina’s largest city is Charlotte, has a population of 874,579. Charlotte was a major cotton processing and textile center in the early 20th century. By the 1970s, Charlotte had a large banking industry. Charlotte has the 2nd largest banking industry in the USA, second to New York City. 

View of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina from a park with a pond.  The reflection of the trees and buildings is seen in the water.
Downtown Charlotte as seen from Marshall Park. Photo: © susanne2688 / stock.adobe.com.

Charlotte isn’t the only region to make such a transition. Cities such as Durham and Winston-Salem were major tobacco processing centers. Kannapolis and Gastonia were cities were the textile industry and manufacturing constituted large portions of the economy. 

The Piedmont has transitioned into industries such as biotechnology, logistics, high tech industries, automotive technology, and banking. The largest research park in the USA, Research Triangle Park, was built near the cities of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham. This is a major high tech research and development center. 

Topography of North Carolina

The further west one goes in North Carolina, the elevations get higher, and the landscapes become more rugged. There are a few isolated mountain ranges such as the Uwharrie Mountains and Sauratown Mountains. The Uwharrie Mountains were once a coastal mountain range. Pilot Mountain, a monadnock, is located within the Sauratown Mountains.

The westernmost region of North Carolina is the highest elevated and the most rugged. The Appalachian Mountains, in particular, the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain ranges, go through western North Carolina. Some of the loftiest mountains east of the Mississippi River are part of this region.

It is fitting that western North Carolina is referred to as Land of the Sky. The nickname is used in particular to refer to Asheville, the region’s largest city.

Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, is North Carolina’s highest elevation. Western North Carolina is a major center for tourism because of its mountains. In many years, 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (part of it is in Tennessee) is the most visited National Park in the USA. 14.1 million people visited the park in 2021. Western North Carolina’s nature and geography is a major pull factor for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Natural Resources

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a major example of biodiversity in the region. Bears, bobcats, deer, raccoons, foxes, and several species of bats are some of the mammals found in the park, and in western North Carolina.

The high elevations of the mountains are home to coniferous trees such as firs and spruces, normally found in latitudes further north. 

A trail through the woods.
Rainbow Falls Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina. Photo: Elizabeth McCartnery, USGS.

Another visited wilderness area in western North Carolina is Nantahala National Forest. This national forest is among the wettest places in the USA. Being at relatively high elevations in an already wet region, more rain falls at higher elevations due to orographic lift. With adiabatic cooling, relative humidity reaches 100%, leading to clouds and rain (or snow, depending on the temperatures).

There are several places where old growth forest can be found in Nantahala. The Appalachian Trail goes through both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. 

North Carolina encompasses lofty mountains, rollings hills, tidal rivers, beaches, estuaries, swamps, marshes, forests, and large cities. Its geography has contributed to the development of the airplane. Its western region is a popular place for hikers.

From farming and textiles to banking and technology, North Carolina is a dynamic state with diverse geography.

References

[1] North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Plan 2020-2025. (2020, May). Division of Parks and Recreation – NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. https://files.nc.gov/ncparks/north-carolina-state-parks-statewide-comprehensive-outdoor-recreation-plan-2020-to-2025-for-public-comment.pdf

[2] State area measurements and internal point coordinates. (2018, August 9). United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/geographies/reference-files/2010/geo/state-area.html

[3] The Outerbanks of North Carolina. (2000). U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1177-B. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1177b/report.pdf

[4] U.S. coast guard air station Elizabeth City. (n.d.). Elizabeth City. https://www.elizcity.com/uscg-elizabeth-city.html

[5] Essay primarily excerpted from Raleigh Comprehensive Architectural Survey Final Report, Helen Patricia Ross, Raleigh Historic Development Commission, 1992. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/raleigh/earlyhistory.htm

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About the author
Marques Hayes
Marques Hayes is a GIS Analyst and a freelance geography writer. He has a Bachelor's degree in geography. Geography is a subject that Marques has a special interest in.