Geography of North Carolina
The geography of North Carolina falls naturally into three divisions or sections—the Appalachian Mountains formed mostly by the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, the Middle or Piedmont Plateau, and the Eastern or Tidewater section, also known as the Coastal Plain. North Carolina covers 53,821 square miles (139,396 km2) and is 503 miles (810 km) long by 150 miles (240 km) wide. The physical characteristics of the state can be pictured as a surface spread out upon a vast declivity, sloping down from the summits of the Smoky Mountains, an altitude of near seven thousand feet, to the ocean level.
The mountains of North Carolina may be conveniently classed as four separate chains:
- The Great Smoky Mountains - also called the "Smokies".
- The Blue Ridge Mountains - North Carolina's largest mountain range, the Blue Ridge run across the state in a very tortuous course and often shoot out in spurs of great elevation over the surrounding terrain. The Black Mountains, a subrange of the Blue Ridge, are the highest mountains in the Eastern United States, and culminate in Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet (2,037.3 m) above sea level.
- The Brushy Mountains - A much smaller and lower mountain range, the Brushy Mountains are located entirely within the state's borders. Often called the "Brushies", they divide, for the greater part of their courses, the waters of the Catawba River and Yadkin River. The Brushy Mountains begin at Hibriten Mountain in Caldwell County and terminate in Pilot Mountain and the Sauratown Mountains in Stokes County. The highest point in the Brushy Mountains is Pores Knob at 2,680 feet (817.4 m) above sea level.
- The Uwharrie Mountains - Named after a Native American tribe which once lived in the region. The Uwharries are North Carolina's easternmost mountain range; they are the oldest mountain range in North America and are the lowest mountain range in the state. The Uwharries begin in Montgomery County, North Carolina and terminate in the hills of Person County, North Carolina. The highest point in the Uwharries is High Rock Mountain, which is only 1,119 feet (341.1 m) above sea level. However, the Uwharries still rise several hundred feet above the surrounding terrain, which averages only 500 feet (150 m) above sea level.
Each of these mountain ranges is marked by distinct characteristics. The Smoky Mountain chain (as contrasted with the Blue Ridge) is more continuous, more elevated, more regular in its direction and height, and rises very uniformly from 5000 to 6,621 feet (2,018.1 m).
The Blue Ridge is composed of many fragments scarcely connected into a continuous and regular chain. Its higher summits range from 5000 to nearly 6,700 feet (2,040 m); however, its average elevation is from 3000 to 4,000 feet (1,200 m). The eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge rise sharply from 1500 to 4,500 feet (1,370 m) above the terrain to the east; to observers they often appear as a vast, lofty wall running across the state's western horizon. The Brushy Mountain range presents, throughout the greater part of its course, a remarkable uniformity in direction and elevation, many of its peaks rising above 2,000 feet (600 m), and a few rising above 2,500 feet (760 m). The last, the Uwharrie range, sometimes presents a succession of elevated ridges, then a number of bold and isolated knobs, which often appear higher than they actually are, due to the relative flatness of the surrounding terrain.
The mountain section consists of the tallest peaks east of the Rocky Mountains. The tallest of the Appalachian Mountains is Mount Mitchell. Mount Mitchell is also the tallest point east of the Mississippi River. The section enclosed within these limits is in shape somewhat like an ellipse. Its length is about one hundred and eighty miles; its average breadth from twenty to fifty miles. It is a high plateau, from the plane of which several high mountains rise, including the Roan, the Grandfather, and the Black. Between the mountains are scenic fertile valleys, plentifully watered by streams.
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The Piedmont plateau forms the central third of the state. The Piedmont is a hilly region and contains the state's largest cities. Elevations in the Piedmont vary from 300 feet to 1,100 feet above sea level. Isolated mountain ranges are scattered here, mostly on the Western side, but few of them reach over 1,200 feet. The Piedmont lies within the Southeastern mixed forests ecoregion and has many forests.1 The Piedmont borders the Coastal Plain at the Fall Line. An important resource throughout the Piedmont is tobacco.
The Coastal Plain is the largest geographic area of the state, and covers roughly 45% of North Carolina. The Coastal Plain begins along the fall line, a line of hills which stretch from the Sandhills region along the South Carolina border, through Fayetteville, then Raleigh, and finally through Henderson, North Carolina near the Virginia border. The fall line marks where the Piedmont plateau drops down to the coastal plain; it also marks where waterfalls begin to appear on streams and rivers in the state. The hills of the fall line drop 150–350 feet in an eastward direction; while noticeable, the drop is quite gradual and occurs over a width of 1–3 miles. East of the fall line the coastal plain is relatively flat, with sandy soils ideal for growing tobacco, cotton, soybeans, and melons. The natural lands are those of the Middle Atlantic coastal forests ecoregion.1 The rivers of the coastal plain are much wider and deeper than those of the Piedmont or mountains, and flo more slowly. The coastal plain encompasses the two largest landlocked sounds in the United States; Albemarle Sound in the north and Pamlico Sound in the south. Pamlico Sound is larger than the State of Connecticut. The coastal plain is covered by thick forests of pines and other evergreens; due to the sandy soils it is difficult for many deciduous trees to grow. The easternmost portion of the state contains the Outer Banks, sandy islands that do not have coral reefs to attach to and thus are constantly shifting their locations. The Outer Banks are known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because numerous ships have been wrecked along their beaches and shoals due to storms and strong tides. The Coastal Plain is host to three capes: Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear. Despite the fact that North Carolina has hundreds of miles of beachfront territory, due to the Outer Banks and swampland along the coast the state lacks a good natural harbor. As such North Carolina never developed a major port city as did neighboring states such as Georgia (Savannah), South Carolina (Charleston), and Virginia (Norfolk). Wilmington, located 15 miles (24 km) up the Cape Fear River, and Morehead city located on the other side of the bridge from Atlantic beach crossing the Bogue Sound remain the state's only two major ports; the Cape Fear river often has to be dredged to keep it open to large merchant ships.
The cultivated productions of the Mountain section are sweet corn, wheat, oats, barley, hay, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. Cattle are also reared quite extensively for market, and large numbers of chickens are raised for market in the northwestern mountains and foothills. A prominent new industry in the mountains is the raising and selling of Christmas Trees. In the Piedmont region of central North Carolina are found all the products of the mountains, although over the southern half cotton appears as the staple product. In the deep, loamy soils of the coastal region, cotton, corn, and oats are the staple crops, and truck farming (growing fruits and vegetables for northern markets), constitutes a flourishing industry. Formerly longleaf pine forests produced tar, pitch and turpentine, and more recently lumber. Little old growth longleaf area is left; much has been replanted in loblolly pine, which is used for paper pulp, plywood, and lumber. Four of the grape varieties of America are native to North Carolina; the Catawba, Isabella, Lincoln, and Scuppernong.
There are three distinct systems of rivers in the state: those that find their way to the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi, those that flow through South Carolina to the sea and those that reach the sea along the North Carolina coast. The divide between the first and the second is the Blue Ridge chain of mountains; that between the second and third systems is found in an elevation extending from the Blue Ridge, near the Virginia line, just between the sources of the Yadkin River and the Roanoke River, in a south-easterly direction some two hundred miles, almost to the seacoast below Wilmington. In the divide between the first and second systems, which is also the great watershed between the Atlantic slope and the Mississippi Valley, a singular anomaly is presented, for it is formed not by the lofty Smoky range, but by the Blue Ridge—not, therefore, at the crest of the great slope which the surface of the state presents, but on a line lower down. On the western flank of this lower range the French Broad and the other rivers of the first section, including the headwaters of the Great Kanawha, have their rise. In their course through the Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi they pass along chasms or "gaps" from three thousand to four thousand feet in depth. These chasms or "gaps" are more than a thousand feet lower than those of the corresponding parts of the Blue Ridge.
The rivers of the second system rise on the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge. These rivers—the Catawba and the Yadkin, with their tributaries stretching from the Broad River, near the mountains in the west, to the Lumber near the seacoast—water some thirty counties in the state, a fan-shaped territory, embracing much the greater portion of the Piedmont section of the state, thence passing into South Carolina before reaching the seacoast.
The rivers of the third system are the Chowan, the Roanoke, the Tar, the Neuse and the Cape Fear, which were important travel routes prior to the development of the railroads, being navigable some for fifty and others to near one hundred miles for boats of light draught. Of these the last three have their rise near the northern boundary of the state, in a comparatively small area, near the eastern source of the Yadkin. The Chowan has its rise in Virginia, below Appomattox Court House. The principal sources of the Roanoke, also, are in Virginia, in the Blue Ridge, though some of its head streams are in North Carolina, and very near those of the Yadkin. Only one of these rivers, the Cape Fear, flows directly into the ocean in this state; the others, after reaching the low country, move on with diminished current and empty into large bodies of water known as sounds. The Yadkin is extensively dammed for hydroelectric power and flood control. Below the last dam, just before flowing into South Carolina it is renamed the Pee Dee River.
The rivers of these three systems, with their tributaries afford a generous water supply. Flat lands border the streams, mostly forested with hardwoods and cypress. In their course from the high plateaus to the low country all the rivers of the state have a descent of many hundred feet, made by frequent falls and rapids. These falls and rapids afford all unlimited motive power for machinery of every description; and here many cotton mills and other factories were established from colonial times, and gave rise to many of the cities and towns.
The sounds, and the rivers which empty into them, constitute a network of waterway for steam and sailing vessels of eleven hundred miles. They are separated from the ocean by a line of sand banks, varying in breadth from one hundred yards to two miles (3 km), and in height from a few feet above the tide level to twenty-five or thirty feet, on which horses of a small breed, called "Bank Ponies," are reared in great numbers, and in a half wild state. These banks extend along the entire shore a distance of three hundred miles. Through them there are a number of inlets from the sea to the sounds, but they are usually too shallow except for vessels of light burden. Along its northern coast the seagoing commerce of the state has, in consequence, been restricted; Beaufort Harbor and the Cape Fear River, however, furnish excellent ports.
The sounds, and the rivers in their lower courses, abound with fish and waterfowl. They riversides are favorite sites for hunters of canvas-back ducks and other waterfowl. Fishermen visit for herring, shad and rock-fishing, especially along Albemarle Sound.
The climate of North Carolina is mild and equable. This is due in part to its geographical position; midway in the Northern Hemisphere. Also, the high Appalachian chain offers, to some extent, a shield from cold winter winds of the northwest. On the ocean side, in winter, is the moderating influence of the warm Gulf Stream, the current of which sweeps along near its shores.
The result of these combined causes is shown in the character of the seasons. Fogs are frequent, especially during the summer; frosts do not occur until the middle of October; ice forms on raised surfaces at least once a winter; snows are frequently light, seldom remaining on the ground more than two or three days, except in the higher elevations. The average rainfall is about fifty-three inches, which is pretty uniformly distributed throughout the year.
- Olson, D. M, E. Dinerstein, et al (2001). "Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on Earth". BioScience 51 (11): 933–938. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0933:TEOTWA]2.0.CO;2.
- North Carolina Manual, published biennially by the Department of the Secretary of State since 1941.
- William S. Powell and Jay Mazzocchi, eds. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006) 1320pp; 2000 articles by 550 experts on all topics; ISBN 0-8078-3071-2
- James Clay and Douglas Orr, eds., North Carolina Atlas: Portrait of a Changing Southern State (University of North Carolina Press, 1971).