The eastern United States has a varied topography. A broad, flat coastal plain lines the Atlantic and Gulf shores from the Texas-Mexico border to New York City, and includes the Florida peninsula. Areas further inland feature rolling hills and temperate forests. The Appalachian Mountains form a line of low mountains separating the eastern seaboard from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Basin. The five Great Lakes are located in the north-central portion of the country, four of them forming part of the border with Canada. The southeast United States contain subtropical forests and, near the gulf coast, mangrove wetlands, especially in Florida. West of the Appalachians lies the Mississippi River basin and two large eastern tributaries, the Ohio River and the Tennessee River. The Ohio and Tennessee Valleys and the Midwest consist largely of rolling hills and productive farmland, stretching south to the Gulf Coast.
The Great Plains lie west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. A large portion of the country's agricultural products are grown in the Great Plains. Before their general conversion to farmland, the Great Plains were noted for their extensive grasslands, from tallgrass prairie in the eastern plains to shortgrass steppe in the western High Plains. Elevation rises gradually from less than a few hundred feet near the Mississippi River to more than a mile high in the High Plains. The generally low relief of the plains is broken in several places, most notably in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, which form the U.S. Interior Highlands, the only major mountainous region between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. The Great Plains come to an abrupt end at the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains form a large portion of the Western U.S., entering from Canada and stretching nearly to Mexico. The Rocky Mountains generally contain fairly mild slopes and low peaks compared to many of the other great mountain ranges, with a few exceptions (such as the Teton Mountains in Wyoming and the Sawatch Range in Colorado). In addition, instead of being one generally continuous and solid mountain range, it is broken up into a number of smaller, intermittent mountain ranges, forming a large series of basins and valleys.
West of the Rocky Mountains lies the Intermontane Plateaus (also known as the Intermountain West), a large, arid desert lying between the Rockies and the Cascades and Sierra Nevada ranges. The large southern portion, known as the Great Basin, consists of salt flats, drainage basins, and many small north-south mountain ranges. The Southwest is predominantly a low-lying desert region. A portion known as the Colorado Plateau, centered around the Four Corners region, is considered to have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. It is accentuated in such national parks as Grand Canyon, Arches, and Bryce Canyon, among others.
The Grand Canyon is among the most famous locations in the country.
The Intermontane Plateaus come to an end at the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada. The Cascades consist of largely intermittent, volcanic mountains rising prominently from the surrounding landscape. The Sierra Nevada, further south, is a high, rugged, and dense mountain range. It contains the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft; 4,421 m). These areas contain some spectacular scenery as well, as evidenced by such national parks as Yosemite and Mount Rainier. West of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada is a series of valleys, such as the Central Valley in California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Along the coast is a series of low mountain ranges known as the Pacific Coast Ranges. Much of the Pacific Northwest coast is inhabited by some of the densest vegetation outside of the Tropics, and also the tallest trees in the world (the Redwoods).
Alaska contains some of the most dramatic and untapped scenery in the country. Tall, prominent mountain ranges rise up sharply from broad, flat tundra plains. On the islands off the south and southwest coast are many volcanoes. Hawaii, far to the south of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean, is a chain of tropical, volcanic islands, popular as a tourist destination for many from East Asia and the mainland United States.
The geography of the United States varies across their immense area. Within the contential U.S., eight distinct physiographic divisions exist, though each is composed of several smaller physiographic subdivisions. These major divisions are:
Laurentian Upland - part of the Canadian Shield that extends into the northern United States Great Lakes area.
Atlantic Plain - the coastal regions of the eastern and southern parts includes the continental shelf, the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf Coast.
Appalachian Highlands - lying on the eastern side of the United States, it includes the Appalachian Mountains, the Watchung Mountains, the Adirondacks and New England province originally containing the Great Eastern Forest.
Interior Plains - part of the interior continental United States, it includes much of what is called the Great Plains.
Interior Highlands - also part of the interior continental United States, this division includes the Ozark Plateau.
Rocky Mountain System - one branch of the Cordilleran system lying far inland in the western states.
Intermontane Plateaus - also divided into the Columbia Plateau, the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range Province, it is a system of plateaus, basins, ranges and gorges between the Rocky and Pacific Mountain Systems. It is the setting for the Grand Canyon, the Great Basin and Death Valley.
Pacific Mountain System - the coastal mountain ranges and features in the west coast of the United States.
The Atlantic coast of the United States is, with minor exceptions, low. The Appalachian Highland owes its oblique northeast-southwest trend to curstal deformations which in very early geological time gave a beginning to what later came to be the Appalachian mountain system. This system had its climax of deformation so long ago (probably in Permian time) that it has since then been very generally reduced to moderate or low relief. It owes its present day altitude either to renewed elevations along the earlier lines or to the survival of the most resistant rocks as residual mountains. The oblique trend of this coast would be even more pronounced but for a comparatively modern crustal movement, causing a depression in the northeast resulting in an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Additionally, the southeastern section has undergone an elevation resulting in the advance of the land upon the sea.
While the Atlantic coast is relatively low, the Pacific coast is, with few exceptions, hilly or mountainous. This coast has been defined chiefly by geologically recent crustal deformations, and hence still preserves a greater relief than that of the Atlantic.
The low Atlantic coast and the hilly or mountainous Pacific coast foreshadow the leading features in the distribution of mountains within the United States. The east coast Appalachian system, originally forest covered, is relatively low and narrow and is bordered on the southeast and south by an important coastal plain. The Cordilleran system on the western side of the continent is lofty, broad and complicated having two branches, the Rocky Mountain System and the Pacific Mountain System. In between these, lie the Intermontaine Plateaus. Heavy forests cover the northwest coast, but elsewhere trees are found only on the higher ranges below the Alpine region. The intermontane valleys, plateaus and basins range from treeless to desert with the very arid region being in the southwest.
Both the Columbia River and Colorado River rise far inland near the easternmost members of the Cordilleran system, and flow through plateaus and intermontaine basins to the ocean.
The Laurentian Highlands, the Interior Plains and the Interior Highlands lie between the two coasts, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico northward, far beyond the national boundary, to the Arctic Ocean. The central plains are divided by a hardly perceptible height of land into a Canadian and a United States portion. It is from the United States side, that the great Mississippi system discharges southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The upper Mississippi and some of the Ohio basin is the semi-arid prairie region, with trees originally only along the watercourses. The uplands towards the Appalachians were included in the great eastern forested area, while the western part of the plains has so dry a climate that its native plant life is scanty, and in the south it is practically barren.