A land area of 39,594 square miles makes Virginia the 35th-largest state in the United States. Virginia’s landforms were initially created by continental collisions similar to those currently occurring in the Himalayas. In geologic terms, the state’s landforms are quite old, formed about 200 million years ago, in contrast to the relatively new landforms of the western United States, such as the Rocky Mountains, which are only 65 million years old. Hence, rain and wind erosion have greatly weathered Virginia’s landscape over the millennia. Although the topographic relief in Virginia is minimal compared to that of the western states, in colonial times, the state’s mountains presented a barrier to European settlers and affected the lines along which county boundaries were drawn.
The Appalachian Mountains, a vast chain extending from Alabama to Canada, dominate the landscape of the western portion of the state. Within the Appalachians exist numerous subranges; the most significant of these in Virginia are the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. These two parallel subranges run in a southwest-to-northeast direction. The Alleghenies are further west, along the West Virginia border, and stretch northward into Maryland and Pennsylvania. To the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains extend from Maryland southward into Tennessee and North Carolina. The highest point in the state, Mt. Rogers at 5,729 feet, rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the North Carolina and Tennessee border.
Valley of Virginia
Part of the larger Great Valley stretching from Alabama to New York, the Valley of Virginia separates the Allegheny Mountains from the Blue Ridge Mountains; this region contains smaller sub-valleys. The most notable of these in Virginia is the Shenandoah Valley; named after the river that cuts through it, this scenic and fertile 150-mile-long valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the state.
On their eastern edge, Appalachians peter out into the elevated region of the Piedmont Plateau, Virginia’s largest topographical feature. Shaped roughly like a triangle, the plateau is narrower in the north and widens toward the south. Only about 40 miles across in the northern part of the state, it reaches a maximum width of 140 miles at the North Carolina border, continuing southward into that state. The Piedmont slopes gently downward from west to east, with elevations ranging from 900 feet near the Blue Ridge Mountains to 300 feet at its eastern boundary. An escarpment, known as the fall line, separates the Piedmont from the Atlantic Coastal Plain. At this abrupt change in elevation, the rivers and streams flowing southeastward out of the Piedmont break into rapids and low waterfalls, such as those of the James River in downtown Richmond and the Potomac’s Great Falls.
The immense Atlantic Coastal Plain runs along the entire length of the U.S. East Coast from Florida to Maine. In Virginia, the plain is also known as the Tidewater, and the fall line demarcates it from the Piedmont Plateau. Covered with swamps and marshes, this low-lying area stretches up to 100 miles inland. The Atlantic Coastal Plain occupies two distinct geographic parts of Virginia – mainland Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula – which are separated by the Chesapeake Bay. Just offshore from the sandy beaches of the Delmarva in the Atlantic Ocean lie a series of islands, including Chincoteague, Cedar, Parramore and Hog.