North Carolina is bordered by South Carolina on the South, Georgia on the Southwest, Tennessee on the West, Virginia on the North, and the Atlantic Ocean on the East. The United States Census Bureau classifies North Carolina as a Southern state in the sub-category of being one of the South Atlantic States.
North Carolina consists of three main geographic sections: the coastal plain, which occupies the Eastern 45% of the state; the Piedmont region, which contains the middle 35%; and the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. The extreme Eastern section of the state contains the Outer Banks, a string of sandy, narrow islands, which form a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and inland waterways. The Outer Banks form two sounds—Albemarle Sound in the North and Pamlico Sound in the South. They are the two largest landlocked sounds in the United States.
Immediately inland, the coastal plain is relatively flat, with rich soils ideal for growing tobacco, soybeans, melons, and cotton. The coastal plain is North Carolina’s most rural section, with few large towns or cities. Agriculture remains an important industry. The major rivers of the coastal plain: the Neuse, Tar, Pamlico, and Cape Fear, tend to be slow moving and wide.
The coastal plain transitions to the Piedmont region along the “fall line”, a line that marks the elevation at which waterfalls first appear on streams and rivers. The Piedmont region of central North Carolina is the state’s most urbanized and densely populated section – all five of the state’s largest cities are located in the Piedmont. It consists of gently rolling countryside frequently broken by hills or low mountain ridges. A number of small, isolated, and deeply eroded mountain ranges and peaks are located in the Piedmont, including the Sauratown Mountains, Pilot Mountain, the Uwharrie Mountains, Crowder’s Mountain, King’s Pinnacle, the Brushy Mountains, and the South Mountains. The Piedmont ranges from about 300 – 400 feet elevation in the East to over 1,000 feet in the West. Due to the rapid population growth of the Piedmont, many of the farms and much of the rural countryside in this region is being replaced by sub-urbanization: shopping centers, housing developments, and large corporate office parks. Agriculture is steadily declining in importance in this region. The major rivers of the Piedmont, such as the Yadkin and Catawba, tend to be fast flowing, shallow, and narrow.
The western section of the state is part of the Appalachian Mountain range. Among the sub ranges of the Appalachians located in the state are the Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Great Balsam Mountains, and the Black Mountains. The Black Mountains are the highest in the Eastern United States, and culminate in Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet. It is the highest point East of the Mississippi River. Although agriculture remains important, tourism has become the dominant industry in the mountains. One agricultural pursuit that has prospered and grown in recent decades is the growing and selling of Christmas trees. Due to the higher altitude of the mountains, the climate often differs markedly from the rest of the state. Winters in Western North Carolina typically feature significant snowfall and subfreezing temperatures more akin to a mid-western state than a Southern one.
North Carolina has 17 major river basins. Five of the state’s river basins: the Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, French Broad, Watauga and New, are part of the Mississippi River Basin, which drains to the Gulf of Mexico. All the others flow to the Atlantic Ocean. Of the 17 basins, 11 originate within the state of North Carolina, but only four are contained entirely within the state’s borders – the Cape Fear, Neuse, White Oak and Tar-Pamlico.