Thanks to its topography, Virginia is both lovely and varied. Here in one place we have sandy beaches, one of the world's largest estuaries, mighty rivers cutting through rolling hills, and mountain ranges bordering one of America's most famous valleys.
The first English settlers established their beachhead on the coastal plain we call Tidewater, because its inland rivers and creeks rise and fall with the ocean tides. This flat land is dominated by the broad Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James rivers, all emptying into the immense estuary known as the Chesapeake Bay.
The bay cuts the rest of us off from Virginia's Eastern Shore, which is actually the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula -- so named because it is shared by the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. At the southern end of the peninsula, where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic Ocean, sits Hampton Roads, a huge natural harbor and our country's largest naval base.
The rivers divide the Tidewater into three peninsulas, or necks, as we call them: The Peninsula between the James and the York; the Middle Peninsula between the York and the Rappahannock; and the Northern Neck between the Rappahannock and the Potomac.
In Colonial times, the rivers were the main avenues of exploration, and later of commerce. Ships and large boats could navigate up to the "fall line," where the coastal plain gives way to the rolling hills of the Piedmont in central Virginia, from the North Carolina line north to the Hunt Country and suburban sprawl of northern Virginia.
The fall line saw the development of towns such as Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Alexandria, where ship-borne cargos would be transferred to small river boats (we still call them by their French name, bateaux) or to horse-drawn wagons to be hauled west into the hill country.
The unofficial capital of the Piedmont today is Charlottesville. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison all lived near Charlottesville. Theirs and other large holdings have given way to horse farms and vineyards nestled among the gorgeous hills.
The Mountains & Valleys
This Piedmont rises to meet the Blue Ridge, a skinny mountain chain running the entire length of Virginia.
The crest of the central Blue Ridge is preserved in its natural state by the Shenandoah National Park, whose famous Skyland Drive connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway to form one of Virginia's scenic wonders.
Those mountaintop drives look west over a series of gorgeous valleys -- together known as the Great Valley of Virginia -- extending from the Potomac in the north all the way to the bordering states of Tennessee and Kentucky.
The most famous is the storied Shenandoah Valley, carved by the Shenandoah River from Winchester in the north to Lexington in the south.
The Roanoke River, another mighty waterway which eventually empties into North Carolina's Albemarle Sound, has cut its own valley, today home to Roanoke, the only large Virginia city completely surrounded by mountains.
Other rivers such as the New (misnamed since geologically it's the oldest river in North America) have carved smaller valleys in Virginia's southwestern "tail." Mount Rogers is the state's highest point, but with the valley floors at 2,000 feet or more in altitude, there is little mystery in why this region is called the Southwest Highlands.
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