Geography Summary of the United States


USA Region Map

USA Region Map

The dark and mysterious Ohio, and Cincinnati and dawn. Then Indiana fields again, and St. Louis as ever in its great valley clouds of afternoon, the muddy cobbles and the Montana logs, the broken steamboats, the ancient signs, the grass and the ropes by the river. The endless poem. By night Missouri, Kansas fields, Kansas night-towns in the secret wides, crackerbox towns with a sea for the end of every street, dawn in Abilene.

— Jack Kerouac, On the Road


Comprised of some 3.7 million square miles, the United States is the third biggest nation in the world and nearly the third largest in terms of population. Bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, the contiguous 48 states are in between. Alaska is at the northwestern end of North America, separated from the Lower 48 by Canada, while Hawaii lies far to the southwest of the mainland in the Pacific Ocean.

Across the nation, the landscape varies widely from tropical beaches in Florida, rolling prairies in the Midwest, high peaks in the Rocky Mountains, barren deserts in the West and dense wilderness areas in the Northeast and Northwest. Interspersed in between are the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River in the Midwest, the Grand Canyon in the Southwest, the majestic Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone in the West, and numerous other natural wonders. And, like its geography, the weather of the United States also varies widely from tropical in Hawaii and Florida, arctic in Alaska, semiarid in the plains west of the Mississippi River and arid in the Great Basin of the southwest.

The country is divided into six regions: New England, Mid Atlantic, the Southeast, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West.

The first Thanksgiving in 1621

The first Thanksgiving in 1621

New England — Comprised of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, the geography of this region is diverse for such a small area, which includes coastal plains, rolling hills, and the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains. It was here that the first Europeans settled in what would become the United States, including the pilgrims at Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts who celebrated the nation’s first Thanksgiving in 1620. New England is home to Acadia National Park in Maine and the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. Rhode Island is the nation’s smallest state.

American Revolution

American Revolution

Mid-Atlantic – Including the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C., this region has a varied geography with a broad, flat coastal plain lining the Atlantic and Gulf shores from the Texas-Mexico border to New York City. It was in this region that much of the American Revolution was fought and the Declaration of Independence signed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. The Nation’s capitol, Washington D.C. is located here along the Potomac River. With numerous industrial areas, this region attracted millions of European immigrants and gave rise to some of the East Coast’s largest cities: New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The climate in the northwest is humid with cool summers in the northernmost areas. Snow falls during the winter as the temperatures are regularly below freezing. Major geographical areas of the region include the Appalachian Mountains, Atlantic Ocean, Great Lakes and border with Canada to the north.

South – Including Alabama, ArkansasFlorida, Georgia, Kentucky, LouisianaMississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, the Southeast is a region of subtropical forests and, near the gulf coast, wetlands, especially in Florida. This region is home to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Everglades in Florida, and more. Virginia was the birthplace of eight presidents. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Aiport is the busiest in the world. These states all struggled after the Civil War. The climate in the Southern region is humid subtropical with hot summers. Hurricanes can reach landfall in the summer and fall months along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Major geographical features include the Appalachian Mountains, Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi River.

Iowa Corn fields

Iowa Cornfields by Dave Alexander.

Midwest – Called the “Nation’s Breadbasket”, the Great Plains, and in history, the American Desert, this region includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, MinnesotaMissouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. West of the Appalachian Mountains 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 here. Before their general conversion to farmland, the Great Plains were noted for their extensive grasslands. 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 five Great Lakes are located in the north-central portion. The climate here is generally humid throughout the region with snow common during the winter, especially in the northern areas. Major geographical features include the Great Lakes, Great Plains, Mississippi River, and the Canada border to the north.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Northeast Arizona by Carol Highsmith.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Northeast Arizona by Carol Highsmith.

Southwest – Including Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas the Southwest is known for its beautiful stark landscape of prairie and desert. However, the geography of the Southwest is actually varied, made up of Coastal Plains, Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. The Southwest is drier than the adjoining Midwest in the weather. The population is less dense and, with strong Spanish-American and Native-American components, more ethnically varied than neighboring areas. Two major rivers flow through this region — the Rio Grande flows out of the Rocky Mountains, forming the border between the United States and Mexico; and the Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon, falling more than 1,000 feet in elevation. Major geographical features include the southern Rocky Mountains, Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Gulf of Mexico, and the Mexico border to the south.

West – Home of rolling plains, high mountain peaks, the cowboy, and the pioneering spirit of the United States, this region includes Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This diverse region ranges from endless wilderness to barren desert, coral reefs to Arctic tundra, Hollywood to Yellowstone. The Great Plains come to an abrupt end at the Rocky Mountains which stretch from Canada nearly to Mexico. Beyond the Rockies is the Intermountain West, a large, arid desert that extends to the Cascades and Sierra Nevada ranges, home to numerous volcanic mountains. Along the Pacific coast is a series of low mountain ranges and 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 also features rugged mountains as well as river valleys and much of Hawaii’s landscape is dominated by volcanic topography. The west is home to the highest place in the United States – Denali (Mt. McKinley) at 20,320 feet and the lowest place at Death Valley with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. The west contains some spectacular scenery as evidenced by such national parks as Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, Glacier and more. The region displays a range of climates including semiarid and alpine along the Rocky and Sierra Mountains; the California coastline is Mediterranean, and desert climates can be found in Nevada and Southern California.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming by Carol Highsmith.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming by Carol Highsmith.

In the United States, the wildlife is as diverse as the landscape. Mammals such as bison once roamed freely across the plains, but now live only in preserves. Black bears, grizzlies, and polar bears are the largest carnivores. There are over 20,000 flower species, more than 400 areas that are protected and maintained by the National Park Service, and many other parks in each state. The bald eagle is the national bird and symbol of the United States and is a protected species.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

American History

Destinations In America

Mississippi River

National Parks

Scenic Byways & Historic Trails

United States Photo Gallery


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