USA East :
Where to go?
A sojourn in the eastern United States is a glimpse into the heart of what most travelers agree is on of the most diverse, overwhelming and contradictory nations on earth. This most populous part of the US offers visitors incomparable opportunities for scenic, recreational, historical and cultural excursions in an epic landscape of contrasts: rocky outcroppings on Maine’s chilly shore and suffocating heat in the Mississippi delta, concrete canyons on Manhattan Island (New York City) and isolated “hollers” (small secluded valleys) in deepest Appalachia.
The sheer size of the country can be astonishing: the distance from New York City to Miami is 1,291mi; from New York City to Chicago is 831mi. Indeed, visitors seeking a glimpse of “how America lives” are often surprised at the distances ordinary citizens travel daily to work or school. For tourists, most of this travel occurs on the road. For better or worse, the US is a country best viewed by chartered tour bus or private automobile, along the nation’s vast interstate highway system (45,000mi spanning the 48 contiguous states), which links every state, large metropolis and region.
The highways and byways of the eastern US lead through vistas of great beauty, both natural and man-made. A car trip through New England coasts past a rugged shoreline and bucolic farms. Farther south, the spires of New York City crown an elongated metropolis running southward to Washington, DC. Heading west, the urban centers of Chicago and St. Louis anchor a vast midwestern agricultural region rippling with ‘amber waves of grain.’ In Kentucky, thoroughbred horses graze on the “bluegrass,” while in the Deep South, the broad Suwannee River joins a meandering network of streams winding their way through moss-draped live oak, cypress and palmetto trees to the sea.
In some respects the sheer size of the country and the American spirit of free enterprise has not always been kind to the land. Relentless commercialization plagues the landscape: farms have been replaced by mega-malls and parking lots; roads are lined with strips of shops, monotonous suburbs and the blinking neon signs of fast-food restaurants and gas stations.
Still, beneath the surface clutter lies a fascinating country with distinct regional differences, each offering unique environmental and ecological features. The eastern US has thousands of miles of coastline; a climate that ranges from bitter cold to tropical; an ancient, 1,500mi-long mountain range; five of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and one of its longest rivers; and vegetation ranging from boreal forests to mangrove swamps. The observant traveler will find insights into the United States’ immense variety with every new bend in the road, as the roots of the country’s art, music, literature and history spring vividly to life.
Scientists theorize that parts of the North American continent date back almost four billion years. The stable crust underlying the Canadian Shield, the continent’s north central portion, was formed around 1.8 billion years ago; millions of years later, during the Paleozoic Era, this existing plate collided with other land masses to form the supercontinent of Pangaea. Geologic evidence indicates that the Appalachian Mountains resulted from folds in the earth’s crust caused by repeated collisions during the formation of Pangaea. With a birth date of sometime between 435 million and 250 million years ago, these heavily forested, relatively low-lying eastern mountains (rising about 3,500ft above sea level) are the oldest mountains on the continent and among the oldest in the world.
Many of the eastern states’ most pronounced geologic features, however, are the result of massive, slow-moving glaciers that began covering the continent during the Pleistocene Epoch about one million years ago and continued, with extraordinary effects on life forms, until approximately 10,000 years ago. The spectacular Great Lakes, thought to be 7,000 to 32,000 years old, owe their existence to these glaciers, as do countless other natural phenomena, ranging from the Finger Lakes of upstate New York to the thin soils of New England, the fossilized remains of ancient mastodons and saber-toothed tigers in coastal Florida, and the giant boulders strewn atop Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.
The eastern US rises out of the Atlantic and spans approximately half of North America in three distinct landforms: the Coastal Lowlands, the Appalachian Highlands and the Interior Plains.
The Coastal Lowlands
The Coastal Lowlands are the above-sea-level portion of the great plain that forms the eastern perimeter of the North American continent. The submerged portion of this plain, known as the Continental Shelf, extends under shallow seawater off the Atlantic coastline for varying distances of up to 250mi.
In its northern stretches, much of the coastal plain was deeply depressed by Pleistocene glaciers, leaving large portions of what is now New England with rocky cliffs instead of flat marshlands. In the northeast only a few low-lying regions—Long Island, Cape Cod and offshore islands such as Martha’s Vineyard—are considered part of the Coastal Lowlands. Growing wider to the south, the lowlands embrace the famed Chesapeake Bay of Maryland, the aptly named Tidewater region of coastal Virginia, and wide swaths of the Carolinas. In Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, the flat, gray-brown soil of the lowlands covers almost half of each state’s land area and extends several hundred miles inland through the Mississippi delta, the vast alluvial plain that follows the Mississippi River until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The 59,988sq mi peninsula that forms Florida, the southernmost state, sits entirely on the coastal plain; its highest elevation lies only 345ft above sea level.
The Appalachian Highlands
The Appalachians—a wide, complex system of mountains and uplands that runs almost the entire north-south length of North America—begin in northern Alabama and extend all the way to the Canadian border. An impenetrable natural boundary in the early years of US history, the Appalachians are now a popular tourist destination, as well as a haven for wildlife, Native American tribal communities, and professional and amateur naturalists.
The Appalachian Highlands consist of several regions and subregions: the Piedmont; the Blue Ridge Mountains; the Ridge and Valley region; the Appalachian Plateau, which includes the Cumberland and Allegheny Mountains; and the New England extension of the Appalachian system, including the Berkshire, Green, and White Mountains.
A rolling, transitional plateau, the Piedmont separates the Coastal Lowlands from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the easternmost range of the Appalachians. Stretching some 600mi from southern New York to Alabama, the Piedmont is characterized by fertile soil, numerous rivers, and long hills of modest height (300-1,800ft). Many of the Piedmont’s waterways tumble abruptly into waterfalls along the “Fall Line,” a rough demarcation where the Piedmont descends to the Coastal Plain.
The Blue Ridge Mountains
Just north of the Piedmont begins the Blue Ridge, the first of several long mountain ranges that make up the Appalachian Mountain system. So named because its dense forests appear bluish from a distance, the Blue Ridge starts in northeast Georgia and includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest peak in the eastern US—Mt. Mitchell—which towers 6,684ft near Asheville, North Carolina. Although the southern Blue Ridge includes multiple rows of mountains, its northern end is easily identifiable as the long narrow ridge—traversed by the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway—forming the eastern border of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
The Ridge and Valley Region
West of the Blue Ridge, the Ridge and Valley region divides the broad middle of the Appalachian Highlands into long northeast-southwest ridges and wide, fertile valleys. The Great Valley, a 20-80mi-wide limestone-based trench, runs almost the entire length of the Appalachians. It begins in the north as the valley of Vermont and extends through the Hudson River Valley to become the Cumberland, Lebanon, and Lehigh valleys of Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah in Virginia, the Valley of East Tennessee, Rome Valley in Georgia, and the Great Valley in north Alabama. The ridges in this region rise to 1,000ft and may run unbroken for 10-20mi.
The Appalachian Plateau
Immediately west of the Ridge and Valley region is a high, ridged plateau ribboned by the Tennessee River and its tributaries and marked by several additional mountain ranges, notably the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee and the Alleghenies, which run northeasterly through Virginia and Pennsylvania to southern New York State. On the southern edge of the plateau lies the famed Cumberland Gap, a major east-west route for 18C pioneers. In its northern stretches, the Appalachian Plateau is a land of thin soil and rocky terrain, and enormous deposits of bituminous coal. Known as Appalachia—once a synonym for impoverished, exploited mountain communities—these coal-mining regions of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania fueled the early railroads and stoked the furnaces of steel mills, automobile manufacturers and other industries in cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit for generations—often at great environmental and human cost. The region remains an important source of coal for industry and electricity generation.
The New England Region
Although separated from the main expanse of the Appalachians by the Hudson River Valley, the numerous small mountain ranges of New England are generally considered part of the Appalachian Plateau. These landforms echo certain patterns of the southern Appalachians: the ridges and valleys around New England’s Berkshire and Green Mountains look remarkably like the Ridge and Valley region of Virginia. The highest peak, Mt. Washington (6,288ft), in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, strongly resembles the Blue Ridge range.
By contrast, the Adirondacks of northern New York State are younger, more rugged, and more closely related, geologically speaking, to the Superior Uplands of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Interior Plains
West of the Appalachian Mountain system lies the great heartland of America—the Interior Plains. The eastern portion of this enormous landlocked area is distinguished by three striking features: the Great Lakes, which connect the Interior Plains via the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean; the upper Mississippi River system, which provides a transportation link, via the Chicago and the Illinois rivers, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico; and an abundance of rich, dark soil, ideal for growing corn and grain and raising cattle.
The Great Lakes
Taken together, the five Great Lakes have a combined area of 94,510sq mi and are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. In order of size, Lake Superior is largest, at some 32,000sq mi; next are Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, each around 23,000sq mi; then Lake Erie, markedly shallower than the others; and the smallest, Lake Ontario, about as large as the state of New Jersey.
Spanning the border between the US and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, these five giant lakes form a vast inland water system that affects not only climate, flora and fauna, but human activity as well. Along with recreational and scenic benefits, the Great Lakes and their eastern outlet, the St. Lawrence River, have long served as a vital trade route for the region.
The Mississippi River System
Nicknamed “the Big Muddy,” the slow-moving Mississippi River is a mile wide in some places, usually looks opaque and murky brown, and is navigable by barge for almost 1,200mi—virtually the entire north-south length of the central US, from Minneapolis south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi and its tributaries, the Illinois, Wabash and Ohio rivers, drain the eastern portion of the Interior Plains and are largely responsible for the rich alluvial soils that support the farm belts of Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.
Situated between 25 and 50 degrees latitude, the eastern US is divided between the humid subtropical and humid continental climate zones. Although great differences exist between northern and southern states in terms of winter temperatures, length of summers and types of precipitation, the terrain east of the Rockies is subject to high humidity and summer temperatures of at least 75°F; the coastal plain as far north as New York City, frequently suffers temperatures well into the 90s. Southern states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and North and South Carolina—are legendary for oppressively hot and humid summers, which while ideal for mosquitoes, can cause heat stroke in the unwary. Only along the Great Lakes, in the Appalachians, and in New England are summer temperatures comfortable without air-conditioning. The southern half of the eastern US and the East Coast generally get between 40 and 80 inches of precipitation per year, while the drier northern portion receives between 20 and 40 inches.
In much of New England, winter temperatures routinely hover in the low to mid-teens (10-20°F) and snow may blanket the ground for weeks, making downhill skiing a popular pastime in the mountains of upstate New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Although the Great Lakes temper the climate in the Midwest, Chicago is famous for its cold, windy winters, and the inland farming regions endure much snow.
In contrast, from the Appalachian Plateau southward to the Piedmont, winter temperatures often dip below freezing at night but rise to 35-40°F during the day. While the mountain peaks may be dusted with snow, the valleys get snow only intermittently. In the Piedmont, where snow is rare, freezing rain is a winter hazard.
Along the Coastal Lowlands, winters are rainy and mild (often 50-60°F), enabling farmers to grow abundant winter crops of vegetables. Off the southern tip of Florida, Key West ranks as the nation’s hottest city with an average year-round temperature of 77.4°F.
The eastern states are also subject to violent storms. Intense tropical cyclones called hurricanes, with winds ranging from 74 to 200mph, can pound the Gulf and Atlantic coasts between June and October. Powerful “northeasters” roar off the North Atlantic into New England in winter, dropping up to 10 inches of snow. And summer thunderstorms can spawn the vicious winds of funnel-shaped tornadoes that spiral at speeds of up to 300 mph—most commonly through the central and southern plains. The Mississippi River Valley, for example, endures more tornadoes than any other region on earth.
Flora and Fauna
The eastern US enjoys a great diversity of vegetation and wildlife, as might be expected in so large a region. In fact, the Southern Appalachians are generally considered to hold greater biological diversity than any other region of the world, with the possible exception of certain tropical rain forests. On one three-hour Appalachian hike from the lower to the uppermost elevations, observant visitors will note that 98 percent of the vegetation changes from bottom to top, representing nearly every kind of habitat common in eastern North America.
A small sliver of boreal forest—the northernmost, highest-altitude forest type on the continent—runs down the spine of the Appalachians from Canada to Georgia. Consisting primarily of tall conifers—pine, hemlock, spruce and fir—the dense, moist boreal forest also accommodates an undercover of flowering rhododendrons, wildflowers such as trilliums, and forest-floor mosses, mushrooms and lichens.
Hiking at slightly lower elevations, visitors will likely encounter a band of transitional forest, a combination of conifers (hemlocks, firs) and regionally distinct species of deciduous trees: yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in New England, or American basswood (Tilia americana) and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) along the Great Lakes. Speckled with patches of sunlight, the transitional-forest floor supports a lively undergrowth of ferns, smaller trees and shrubs. In broad outline, the transitional forest extends westward from Maine to Minnesota, surrounding the Great Lakes and covering much of New York and Pennsylvania. A narrow band runs southward along the Appalachians.
By far the largest proportion of existing forests in the eastern US, however, are of the mixed deciduous type: broad-leaf hardwoods such as yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and numerous species of oak and hickory mixed with evergreens, primarily pines (eastern white, loblolly, pitch, shortleaf, Virginia), magnolias, and smaller trees such as the American holly (Ilex opaca). Interspersed with cleared fields and natural meadows, this variegated habitat extends south and west through the heartland, stretching from Massachusetts to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the eastern portions of Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota. In the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas, the distinctive oak-hickory forest represents the westernmost manifestation of deciduous forests in the US.
At higher elevations, especially in New England and the Appalachians, these forests attract millions of visitors every fall during “leaf season,” when the hardwoods’ leaves change from green to brilliant red, yellow, orange and gold.
The Southern pinelands describes the varied landscapes of the Piedmont and coastal plain. Extending for some 3,000sq mi from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens to Florida and westward along the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana, the pinelands cover most of the Deep South. In northern areas, pines (longleaf, loblolly, shortleaf, slash, sand) commingle with deciduous trees; close to the coast, pinelands include live oaks draped with Spanish moss, hardwood hammocks, cypress swamps, maritime forests, bogs and bayous.
The Florida peninsula’s dominant vegetation type is essentially subtropical forest, in a temperate zone. Boasting several hundred species of palm trees (only 15 of which are native), this vacation paradise encompasses not only beaches, but also slash-pine forests with saw-palmetto floors, air plants (or epiphytes—such as Spanish moss), sedge prairies and glades, and mangroves—the only trees known to survive in saltwater.
Were it not for human intervention, the wonderfully rich and diverse environment of the eastern US would support an extraordinary wildlife population. 200 years ago, the land was well-stocked with large game (bear, moose, deer, mountain lion); the skies full of songbirds and soaring raptors (eagles, falcons, hawks); the waters full of beaver, otter, brown and speckled trout; and the meadows sheltered myriad smaller animals such as foxes, wolves, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, rabbits and shrews.
However in 21C America, habitat destruction and an increasingly intrusive human presence, have pushed larger animals into ever-smaller, more isolated high-country regions. Only a few large mammals—notably, black bears (Ursus americanus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)—have adapted to human co-habitation. Meanwhile, the reduction of natural predators has boosted stocks of grazing animals; deer bounding along roadsides are a common hazard to rural drivers. In state and national forests, park rangers repeatedly warn hikers to protect their foodstuffs and refrain from feeding the bears.
Orchestrated breeding and restoration efforts have reestablished viable populations of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus); the banning of chemical substances such as DDT has helped improve songbird and fish populations; and coastal areas strictly prohibit interference with endangered sea turtles’ nests or human interaction with wild dolphins. On the other hand, an attempt by federal wildlife experts to reintroduce the gray wolf (Canis lupus) to its original eastern habitats has met with opposition from farmers and hunters.
In populated areas, casual visitors are unlikely to glimpse any but the most common birds and small mammals—blue jays, robins, mourning doves, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. For the more watchful, sightings of hummingbirds, pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and raccoons (Procyon lotor) are quite possible. The coastal and mountainous areas offer variety and accessibility for viewing greater numbers of wildlife, especially in protected areas such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park and designated national forest preserves. Florida’s 1.5 million-acre Everglades National Park, supports more than 350 species of birds, both year-round and migratory, and 600 species of fish, alligators, snakes, mammals and sea turtles. Ranging from the large, black and easily recognized anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) to little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), elusive American bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), and endangered wood storks (Mycteria americana), the Everglades’ winged wildlife draws bird-watchers from around the globe. In addition to birds, the world’s last remaining Florida panthers (Felis concolor coryl) prowl the Everglades, and the endangered American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) thrives here—as does its cousin the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), now plentiful in swamps throughout the South.
Like native species in many highly developed areas of the world, the indigenous flora and fauna of the eastern US fight a constant battle against not only human encroachment, but importation of nonindigenous species. For example, the glorious American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) that once reigned throughout the Appalachians were decimated by a blight caused by an accidentally imported fungus first identified in New York City in 1904. By 1945 the species was all but wiped out, though sprouts continue to grow from old roots. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana), a hardy vine introduced from Japan in 1911 to help control erosion, now twines its way over millions of acres in the Southeast, suffocating native pines and shrubs in its greedy grip. In the animal kingdom, imports like the European wild boar (Sus scrofa) have had a profound impact on native plants and animals. Rooting voraciously, boars damage tree roots and seedlings and compete with black bears and other native animals for food.