Virginia's Five Regions

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According to, geology is a "science that deals with the dynamics and physical history of the earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the physical, chemical, and biological changes that the earth has undergone or is undergoing". No matter where you are in the country, geology shapes the location of a property and location defines the value of a property. (For an example of how geology shapes the values of real estate in Virginia's national Capitol region, click here.)

Geologists divide the Old Dominion of Virginia into five geological regions. From lowest to highest altitude, these regions are

  • Tidewater;
  • Piedmont;
  • Blue Ridge;
  • Valley and Ridge; and,
  • the Appalachia Plateau.

This regional distinction is traditional in Virginia, but not formally demarcated by political boundries. Sometimes county or city boundaries follow regional separations, but just as often any given county can have 1 or more regions within its boundaries.

Although these regions are not politically distinct, thye are still readily identifiable once you know what you're looking at.  Often the geology that differentiates a region can make all the difference in the value of a given piece of Virginia's real estate. It all starts with understanding the Fall Line.

National Park Service picture near Great Falls VA

Fall Line

The Fall Line is the point where many waterfalls occur in major Virginia rivers such as the James, Potomac, Rappahannok and others. Below the Fall Line most of these rivers are broad, deep and gentle, but above the Fall Line the rivers are rockier and swifter. Below the Fall Line rivers are navigable by ocean-going vessels. Above the Fall Line canoes and flat boats are the only means to navigate most rivers.

Because of this the C&O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) was constructed above the Fall Line. The goal was to unite the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River system the way the Erie Canal had opened up the Great Lakes below Niagara. Unlike the Erie Canal, the C&O Canal was an economic failure because it was completed just as railroads began to make a real impact on the nation's economy.  Today the canal is part of the National Park System.

Many important Virginia cities such as Alexandria, Richmond and Petersburg are just below the Fall Line.

TidewaterCape Henry Memorial Cross

The lowest land relative to sea level is called the Tidewater, or occaisionally the Coastal Plain. Which name you prefer might say more about you than the region.  Traditionalists and most locals call the area Tidewater, but geologists and others believe the name Coastal Plain makes more sense because "tide water" is what surounds the Coastal Plain. 

The water of Tidewater, its rivers and creeks, are tidal, connected to the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay other saltwater bays. Thus, Tidewater is bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Fall Line.

Because of this proximity to navigable waters, the Tidewater region was the first region of Virginia to be settled by Europeans. Today, it is home to many of the oldest English settlements in North America, such as Jamestown. Many towns founded in the colonial era such as Williamsburg (the Old Dominion's first capital), Hampton, Yorktown, Alexandria and other thriving cities occupy the sandy soil of the Tidewater. 

Major ports such as Norfolk or Newport News are found in the region as are historical port cities such as the tobacco ports of Alexandria and Yorktown are found on the Coastal Plain. The British surrender at Yorktown was considered a tipping point in the Revolutionary War.

The dominant geographical feature of the region is the Chesapeake Bay. The soils here are typically sandy, especially near waterways.  The land is generally fertile, flat and the watertable is not far from the surface.

Eastern Shore

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is that part of the Tidewater Region which is situated on the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to the rest of Virginia, the region is fairly undeveloped. This is due to the remoteness imposed by the bay and ocean, but many fishers, farmers and chicken farms are found here. In the south, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel connects the Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach. In the north, the Maryland's scenic Bay Bridge is one of the primary connections to the Eastern Shore.

PiedmontAppomattox Courthouse

Piedmont commons from the Latin/Italian words meaning "foot mountain". The Piedmont is found just above the Fall Line but below the Valley and Ridges that lead to the Blue Ridge.  The Piedmont is a little rockier and a bit higher than the coastal plain of the Tidewater. The Piedmont was settled by English pioneers in the earliest days of colonial America and later by African slaves who worked the plantations of the region. Tobacco and corn are still an important part of the Piedmont economy.

Scenic and historic cities such as Charlottesville and Lynchburg are two important Piedmont cities. The famed Appomattox courthouse is in the Piedmont.


Blue RidgeThe Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National Park

Up above the Piedmont is the Blue Ridge---obviously named for the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians. The Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive are Blue Ridge tourist destinations.

Apples orchards are common in this region, but the industry is not as vibrant as it was in days passed. White House Foods, a major apple juicer and product packager, still draws many of its apples from this region.

My grandfather wrote a book called Memories of a Lewis Mountain Man which described life in the Blue Ridge before the Shenandoah National Park. Many hikers on the Appalachian Trail seek remnants of the "mountain people" as they trek through the Shenandoah National Forest. Mountain people, sometimes called hill-billies, had a unique culture devoted to life in the Blue Ridge.

Valley and RidgeRaymond Loewy poses near a locomotive at Roanoke

Beyond the Blue Ridge is the Valley and Ridge Region. As the name implies the Valley and Ridge region has ridges of mountains separated by broad and generally fertile valleys. Perhaps the most famous part of the Valley and Ridge Region west of the Blue Ridge is the Shenandoah Valley.

Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign was fought throughout this region. Cities in this region developed in proximity to the early railroad system, and this figured into the strategy of the War Between the States. Manassas, Harrisonburg and Roanoke are important cities in this region.

What these three cities have in common is that they were all important railroad junctions.  The railroads followed the valleys and junctioned at a gap where it was possible for a locomotive to cross a ridge.

Appalachian Plateau

The southwest corner of Virginia between Wild and Wooly West by God Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee makes up Virginia's Appalachian Plateau. The region is similar geographically to West Virginia with rugged terrain not well-suited to the development of large cities. Coal mining is an important industry in this part of Virginia.



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