North Carolina borders 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 subcategory 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 two inland waterways or "sounds": Albemarle Sound in the north and Pamlico Sound in the south. They are the two largest landlocked sounds in the United States. So many ships have been lost off Cape Hatteras that the area is known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic". More than 1,000 ships have sunk in these waters since records began in 1526.
Immediately inland, the coastal plain is relatively flat, with rich soil 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 coastal plain transitions to the Piedmont region along the "fall line", a line which 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. It consists of gently rolling countryside frequently broken by hills or low mountain ridges. 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 (90–120 m) elevation in the east to over 1,000 feet (300 m) in the west. Due to the rapid population growth in the Piedmont, a significant part of the rural area in this region is being transformed into suburbs with shopping centers, housing, and corporate offices. Agriculture is steadily declining in its importance. 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 subranges 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 (2,037 m). It is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Although agriculture still remains important, tourism has become a dominant industry in the mountains. Growing Christmas trees has recently been an important industry. Due to the higher altitude, the climate in the mountains often differs markedly from the rest of the state. Winter in western North Carolina typically features high snowfall and subfreezing temperatures more akin to those of a midwestern state than of a southern state.
North Carolina has 17 major river basins. The basins west of the Blue Ridge Mountains flow to the Gulf of Mexico (via the Ohio and then the Mississippi River). 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 border – the Cape Fear, Neuse, White Oak and Tar-Pamlico.
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