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Understanding the U.S.A.

Geography & Travel

The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty

The special attractions of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah are the eerie geologic formations left behind by weathering and erosion.

The special attractions of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah are the eerie geologic formations left behind by weathering and erosion.

Americans often speak of their country as one of several large regions. These regions are cultural units rather than governmental units - formed by history and geography and shaped by the economics, literature and folkways that all the parts of a region share.

What makes one region different from another? Within several regions, language is used differently and there are strong dialects. There are also differences in outlook and attitude based on geography. A region's multicultural heritage as well as distinct demographic characteristics like age and occupation also make regions different and special.

The United States is a varied land - of forests, deserts, mountains, high flat lands and fertile plains. The country lies mostly in the temperate zone but there is a very wide range of climate variations. The continental United States stretches 4,500 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. It borders Canada on the north and reaches south to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico. The United States covers a total area of 9 million square kilometers (including Alaska and Hawaii). Alaska is the largest in area of the 50 states, and Texas is the second largest.

From the Appalachian Mountains in the East to the Rocky Mountains in the West, the center of the country is drained by the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their branches. The Mississippi is one of the world's great rivers; it was known to Native Americans as the "father of waters." Water from the source of its main branch, the Missouri River, flows about 6,400 kilometers from the northern Rocky Mountains to the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. On a topographic map of the United States, the mountains look like jagged masses, the plains like vast, open flat spaces, and the rivers like meandering threads. Today, highways, railways and transcontinental aircraft criss-cross the land, making travel easy. But only a few generations ago, the topographic features on the map represented great dangers and difficulties.

Today's visitors, riding over a good road in the Cascade Mountains in the west coast states of Oregon and Washington, may see marks on the rocks made by ropes where pioneer settlers painfully lowered their horses and wagons down cliffs to reach the fertile river valley far below. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the main route now runs through a mountain pass which was once too narrow for a wagon to go through. Pioneer families reaching that pass had to take their wagons apart piece by piece, carry them through, and then reassemble them on the other side. In 1848, pioneers who crossed the continent made the trip in 109 days - if they were fortunate and strong. Today a New York family can drive by car to San Francisco in less than a week.

Online Reading

Portrait of the USA: From Sea to Shining Sea (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State) (PDF file, 65KB)

Outline of American Geography (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State) (PDF file, 560KB)

See You in the U.S.A. (Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State) (PDF file, 1.60MB)

U.S. Map with Links to State Maps (National Geographic Society) (PDF file, 864KB)

World Heritage Sites in the United States (PDF file, 886KB)

Internet Links