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Geography and Physiographic Divisions of the United States

The United States, being one of the world’s largest countries, has a wide and diversified topography. The landscapes of the country change considerably from the Atlantic to the Pacific, presenting a rich variety of natural beauty.

The United States stretches across North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It has a variety of geographical characteristics, such as mountains, plains, and beaches.

Mountains are steep, towering hills that rise over the surrounding ground. Plains are wide, flat regions of terrain that are typically covered in grass or crops. Coastlines are the land’s margins where it meets the sea or ocean. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans have coastlines in the United States joined by the Isthmus of Panama.

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Terrain of the United States

The terrain of the United States is tremendously diverse, echoing the variety of its inhabitants. This diversity of landforms extends across several areas, each with its own set of traits and opportunities.

The adaptability of landforms in the United States for various activities and enterprises varies greatly. Some locations are agriculturally wealthy, contributing to the country’s food production, while others provide chances for outdoor leisure, mining, and conservation activities. This diversity of landscapes not only adds to the country’s economic diversity but also provides a home for a diverse range of plant and animal species, making it a treasure trove of natural beauty and ecological complexity.

The United States’ terrain mainly comprises the following features:

  1. The Midwest’s Fertile Farmlands
  2. Rocky Mountains’ Peaks 
  3. Southwest’s Arid Deserts
  4. Lush Woods of the Pacific Northwest

1. The Midwest’s Fertile Farmlands

The Midwest, sometimes known as the “breadbasket” of the United States, is known for its vast plains and abundant farmlands. This area is perfect for agriculture because of its fertile soil, which supports the growth of crops such as maize, wheat, and soybeans.

2. Rocky Mountains’ Peaks

The beautiful Rocky Mountains run through the western half of the country. Their harsh terrain, lofty peaks, and alpine ecosystems distinguish them. These mountains provide spectacular views and recreational possibilities, but they also provide obstacles owing to their steep and rocky terrain.

3. Southwest’s Arid Deserts

The Southwest is noted for its desert scenery and harsh climate. The Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, for example, include extensive swaths of dry, scorching landscape with unique rock formations, cacti, and adapted animals. The Grand Canyon, which is a breathtaking natural wonder of the Colorado River, is also located in this region.

4. Lush Woods of the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest, which includes Washington and Oregon, is noted for its lush woods, particularly the Olympic Peninsula’s climatic rainforests. These receive a lot of rain and have diverse ecosystems with tall trees, plenty of fauna, and a moderate climate.

Area of the United States

From 1989 to the present, the overall area of the United States has changed due to the addition of Great Lakes, coastal waterways, and territorial waters. Currently, multiple sources provide slightly varying estimations, ranging from 9,522,055 km2 to 9,826,675 km2 when just the 50 states and the Federal District are included, omitting foreign territories.

Depending on whether water is considered, the United States is the third or fourth-largest country in the world by total area. It ranks third in terms of land area, excluding water, behind Russia and China. 

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Physiographical Geographic Division of the United States

The geography of the United States is extremely diversified, and it may be classified into many important physiographic divisions that comprise the country’s numerous landforms and topography.

  1. Interior Lowlands
  2. Appalachian Mountain System
  3. Atlantic Plain
  4. Western Cordillera
  5. Western Intermontane Region

Each of these physiographic divisions is important in shaping the United States’ terrain, climate, and natural resources. They contribute to the diversity of the country by providing a diverse range of settings and ecosystems that sustain a variety of industries, animals, and recreational possibilities. 

1. The Interior Lowlands and Their Upland Fringes

The Interior Lowlands cover a large section of the United States geography and provide enormous and agriculturally fertile terrain. This region, which includes the Central Lowland and the Great Plains, is notable for its generally flat or gently undulating topography and is vital to the country.

The Interior Lowlands’ good soil, mild temperature, and availability of rivers have historically made this region a hub for agriculture and communities. The immense grasslands of the Great Plains have supported agricultural cultivation as well as cattle grazing, making them critical to the country’s food production. Furthermore, the region’s different landscapes add to its attraction for outdoor activities, conservation initiatives, and the preservation of ecosystems that thrive in this one-of-a-kind setting.

a) The Central Lowland

This area of the Interior Lowlands is vast, with a combination of plains, hills, and river basins. The Mississippi River and its tributaries pass through this region, contributing to its fertility and sustaining considerable agricultural activity. The soil here is extremely fertile, making it a national agricultural powerhouse.

b) The Great Plains

The Great Plains are a vast tract of grasslands that stretch across the central United States, from the Canadian prairies in the north to Texas in the south. This area is well-known for its huge open areas, relatively flat geography, and historical ties to cattle ranching and agriculture, particularly wheat growing.

c) Upland Margins

The upland margins of the Interior Lowlands, including the Ozark Plateau and the Ouachita Mountains, surround the flat plains of the Interior Lowlands. These places provide more challenging landscapes defined by hills, plateaus, and wooded areas, in contrast to the typically flat environment.

2. The Appalachian Mountain System

The Appalachian Mountain Chain is a tribute to North America’s ancient geological history and contains a plethora of natural treasures within its vast span. This mountain range is a prominent aspect of the eastern landscape, stretching from Newfoundland in Canada to Alabama in the southeastern United States.

The Appalachian Mountains are an important biological and geological asset as well as a beautiful environment. They provide recreational possibilities, act as crucial watersheds, and provide support to a variety of businesses, all while serving as a reminder of the persistent natural forces that have molded the continent’s past.

a) Age and Extent

The Appalachians are considered one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, stretching back millions of years. While they may not reach the same towering heights as certain newer mountain ranges, such as the Rockies, their antiquity endows them with weathered beauty and geological importance. They span a considerable distance and provide a broad range of landscapes and habitats.

b) Geographical Range

The Appalachian Mountains run across many states in the eastern United States, establishing a natural barrier and altering the landscape of the region. They pass through several states, including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama.

c) Biodiversity and Scenic Beauty

The Appalachians are famous for their picturesque splendor, which includes rolling hills, wooded slopes, valleys, and a variety of fauna. The region is a biodiversity hotspot, with diverse vegetation and wildlife. It supports countless plant and animal species, contributing greatly to North America’s ecological riches.

d) Rock Formations from the Past

The Appalachian system has some of North America’s oldest geological formations. These geological formations reflect not just the continent’s history but also the evolution of landscapes and the forces that have sculpted the Earth over millions of years.

3. The Atlantic Plain

The Atlantic Plain is a prominent geographical area on the eastern shore of the United States. It has a distinct terrain due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic Plain is notable for its coastal importance, economic value, and biological diversity. Its unique combination of natural riches, maritime access, and historical significance has played an important role in determining the development and character of the eastern shore.

a) Geographical Extent

The Atlantic Plain stretches from the coastal parts of the Northeast, including states like Maine and Massachusetts, down to the southeastern state of Florida, encompassing a significant portion of the country’s eastern shoreline. Along its path, it travels through a variety of landscapes and habitats.

b) Terrain Characteristics

The low-lying coastal portions of this region are characterized by generally flat topography that stretches inland from the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic Plain consists of a short coastal plain as well as a larger continental shelf that progressively dips into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of their closeness to water sources, these flatlands are frequently productive and favorable for cultivation.

c) The Importance of the Coast

The Atlantic Plain, with its wide coastline, is home to several important cities and urban areas, some of which are among the oldest in the country. This area includes cities such as Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Miami. Because of its proximity to the coast, this location has historically served as a hub for marine trade, business, and cultural interaction.

d) Economic Importance

Agriculture, fishing, shipping, and industry are all key economic sectors on the Atlantic Plain. This region’s lush grounds support agricultural activity, while its proximity to the ocean aids commerce and transportation. It also houses significant industrial regions that contribute to the nation’s economy.

e) Ecological Diversification

The Atlantic Plain is home to a wide variety of habitats, including coastal marshes and estuaries, sandy beaches, and barrier islands. These habitats sustain a wide range of plant and animal species, adding to the region’s biological richness and biodiversity.

4. The Western Cordillera

The Western Cordillera is a majestic and formidable mountainous area that runs along North America’s western frontier, displaying some of the continent’s most renowned mountain ranges and varied landscapes.

The Western Cordillera is a monument to North America’s raw, rough beauty, with spectacular vistas, distinctive geological formations, and various ecosystems that contribute significantly to the country’s natural heritage and recreational appeal.

a) Geographical Extent

The Western Cordillera encompasses a large region and contains numerous significant mountain ranges, such as the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cascade Range. These mountain systems mostly stretch from north to south throughout the western United States and into Canada.

b) Different Terrains

In comparison to the older Appalachian Mountains in the east, the Western Cordillera has younger and more rugged mountain ranges. More recent geological processes formed these mountains, resulting in high peaks, deep valleys, and stunning vistas.

c) The Rocky Mountains

The Rockies, which stretch from northern Canada to New Mexico, are known for their breathtaking peaks, including Colorado’s Mount Elbert and Longs Peak. This range is known for its various ecosystems, alpine meadows, and abundant fauna.

d) The Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada, located in California, is home to some of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States, including Mount Whitney. The area is well-known for its granite cliffs, alpine lakes, and the world-famous Yosemite National Park.

e) The Cascade Range

The Cascades range runs from northern California to Oregon and Washington to British Columbia in Canada and includes volcanoes such as Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. There are volcanic summits, lush forests, and picturesque vistas throughout the range.

f) Ecosystem Diversity

Because of changes in height, temperature, and terrain, the Western Cordillera supports a diverse range of habitats. These mountains are home to a broad spectrum of wildlife, ranging from alpine species in the high elevations to forests overflowing with flora and animals on the lower slopes.

g) Conservation and Outdoor Recreation

The breathtaking natural splendor of the Western Cordillera draws outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, skiing, climbing, and other leisure activities available. Furthermore, the region’s biological importance has prompted conservation and preservation initiatives for its natural environments.

5. The Western Intermontane Region

The Western Intermontane Region, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast Ranges, is a complex and geologically intriguing area with several basins, valleys, and plateaus.

The Western Intermontane Region offers a glimpse into a varied and interesting environment molded by geological processes, resulting in a mosaic of terrains and ecosystems that contribute to the richness and variety of the American West.

a) Geographic Position

This region stretches between the major mountain ranges in the western United States, resulting in a complex and varied environment. It consists of numerous separate regions, including the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Columbia Plateau.

b) The Great Basin

The Great Basin, which encompasses much of Nevada and parts of neighboring states, is known for its enormous desert landscapes, various mountain ranges, and lonely valleys. This region is noted for its unusual geological formations, such as salt flats, basin and range topography, and historic lake beds such as Lake Bonneville’s remains (which occurred during the last ice age and is now represented by Great Salt Lake).

c) Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau, which spans Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, is known for its impressive geological features, which include gorges like the Grand Canyon, rock formations like Monument Valley, and huge mesas and buttes. Colorful sedimentary rock strata illustrate millions of years of geological history in the region.

Note: Mesas are large, flat-topped mountains with at least one sharp side. Mesas exist in the southwestern states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Buttes are tiny, flat-topped mountains or hills with steep sides.

d) The Columbia Plateau

The Columbia Plateau, located in the Pacific Northwest, mainly in areas of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, has undulating hills, lush farmlands, and relics of ancient lava flows. The Columbia River and its tributaries have sculpted some beautiful canyons and gorges throughout the area.

e) Desert Landscapes and Distinctive Features

The Western Intermontane Region is defined by its dry and semi-arid conditions, with desert landscapes, salt flats, rough mountain ranges, and unusual geological formations dominating the backdrop. The temperature and terrain of the region have affected the evolution of specific plant and animal species that have adapted to these tough conditions.

f) Importance in Cultural and Recreational Terms

These various landscapes are important not just for geological reasons but also for outdoor leisure, scientific study, and cultural heritage preservation. This region’s national parks, monuments, and protected areas draw people who want to explore its natural beauty and unusual geological formations.

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The Bioclimatic Regions

The United States is home to an immensely wide range of bioclimatic zones, each with its own set of climatic variables that have a significant impact on ecosystems, flora, fauna, and ways of life.

These bioclimatic areas shape the natural environment by affecting the types of plants, fauna, and human activities within each area. They also influence agriculture, water resources, and ecosystem resilience to environmental change.

These bioclimatic zones include:

  1. Southeast Humid Subtropical Climate 
  2. California’s Mediterranean Climate 
  3. The Southwest Desert Climate
  4. The Midwest’s Continental Climate

The United States’ varied range of bio-climates contributes to the country’s ecological diversity by providing a variety of habitats and ecosystems that sustain different plant and animal species. Understanding these climatic variances is critical for conservation efforts, resource management, and the long-term development of various locations around the country.

The brief description of these four bioclimatic zones is as follows:

1. Southeast Humid Subtropical Climate 

The southeastern United States, comprising Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas, has a humid subtropical climate. Summers in this region are hot and humid, with pleasant winters. It frequently receives abundant rainfall throughout the year, allowing for lush woods, marshes, and diverse vegetation.

2. California’s Mediterranean Climate 

Coastal sections of California, particularly in regions such as the Bay Area and Southern California, have a Mediterranean climate. The summers are dry and warm, and the winters are moderate and rainy. It promotes the development of various flora, such as chaparral, oak woods, and famous coastal environments.

3. The Southwest Desert Climate

Desert climates exist in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and sections of Southern California. These places experience exceptionally hot summers and moderate winters, as well as limited precipitation and desert environments. Cacti, succulents, and unusual adaptations to preserve water in severe settings dominate the terrain.

4. The Midwest’s Continental Climate

The Midwest, which includes Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, has a continental climate. The seasons in this region are different, with scorching summers and freezing winters. It has moderate rainfall and a diverse agricultural terrain that includes rich plains, meadows, and woodlands.

National Parks, Monuments, Forests, and Wilderness Areas

Various natural resources in the United States, such as national parks, monuments, forests, and wilderness regions, welcome public exploration and enjoyment. Discover the beauty of:

  • National Parks
  • NationalLandmarks
  • National Forests
  • Wilderness Areas 

a) National Parks

The National Park Service manages 63 national parks in the United States, which were chosen for their natural beauty, distinctive characteristics, and recreational value. These parks forbid hunting and extractive activities to promote conservation. The National Park System also includes 428 units, which include national monuments, preserves, and historical sites.

Yellowstone was the first national park established in 1872, followed by Sequoia and Yosemite. In 1916, the National Park Service was founded to protect these sites for future generations. The state with the most parks is California, followed by Alaska and Utah. With nearly 8 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska is the biggest, while Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri is the smallest.

b) National Landmarks

The National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program, which started in 1962, recognizes and protects extraordinary biological and geological features on public and private properties throughout the United States. It will recognize 602 locations by January 2021, including 48 states and US territories. The initiative supports volunteer conservation activities with an emphasis on preserving America’s biological and geological past.

It is managed by the National Park Service and does not seek government property acquisition but rather supports participating land stewards. Legislated under the Historic Sites Act of 1935, the program lacks the National Historic Preservation Act’s protection safeguards. Currently, NNL classification requires an agreement between the owner and the program to maintain the site’s natural importance.

c) National Forests

The United States has 154 national forests spread across 188,336,179 acres, maintained by the U.S. Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture. These woods, which began in 1891 as the Yellowstone Park Timber and Land Reserve, were established to protect timber, prohibit land development, and maintain water supplies.

The President was given the authority to establish forest reserves on public land. By 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt had greatly increased reserves, prompting Congress to limit presidential power over additional reserves.

The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 broadened the objectives to include leisure, wildlife protection, and wilderness preservation. While there are 154 forests, several are administered as merged or distinct organizations. Except for 10 states, every state has at least one national forest, with Alaska having the biggest forest area.

d) Wilderness Areas

In 2023, the National Wilderness Preservation System protected 806 wilderness areas and 111,889,002 acres of federal property. These regions, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), United States Forest Service (USFS), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Territory Management (BLM), cover 4.5% of the nation’s territory, exceeding California in size. Alaska alone accounts for 52% of these regions, with a total size of 57,425,569 acres.

These zones, which span 44 states and Puerto Rico, do not include Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, or Rhode Island.

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The United States has a wide range of terrain and temperatures that support abundant biodiversity and magnificent natural beauty. It contains numerous terrains—coastal plains, woodlands, deserts, canyons, and wetlands—from the steep mountains to the flat plains, offering habitats for diverse flora and wildlife.

Climates vary across the country, altering ecosystems; for example, rainforests in the Pacific Northwest contrast drastically with deserts in the Southwest. This ecological mosaic supports a diverse range of species, from animals and birds to marine life, which thrive in forests, grasslands, and wetlands.

These landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon and the Great Lakes, fascinate with their magnificence, as seen in parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Aside from aesthetics, these landscapes support businesses such as agriculture and tourism while also providing recreational possibilities and cultural value. Preserving this diversity is critical for conservation, sustainable development, and appreciating the nation’s natural heritage.


What are the major geographical features of the United States?

The Atlantic-Gulf Coastal Plain, Appalachian Highlands, Interior Plains, Interior Highlands, Rocky Mountain System, Intermontane Region, and Pacific Mountain System are all geographical features unique to the United States.

How does the geography of the United States vary from one region to the next?

The landscape of the United States varies widely, ranging from coastal plains in the east to mountain ranges in the west, bountiful farmland in the Midwest, and deserts in the Southwest.

What are the different climatic regions in the United States?

The United States has several climatic areas depending on the average temperature, precipitation, and vegetation of each location. There are nine major areas, according to one classification: the Northeast, Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley, West, South, Southeast, Northern Rockies and Plains, Southwest, and Northwest.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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