Geography of the Southwestern United States

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Southwest is one of the major geographical regions in the United States. In this lesson, we're going to explore the Southwest and see what defines it terms of both physical and cultural geography.

The American Southwest

The United States is a pretty big country (it's the 4th biggest nation in the world in terms of landmass), so it's no surprise to learn that we've got a wide range of landscapes. From jungles to deserts, coasts to mountains, American geography is often best understood in terms of regions. However, even this can be tricky.

One of the nation's major regions is the Southwest, the territory ranging roughly from California to Colorado, and south to the border with Mexico. This is a big and culturally-distinct part of the nation but like many regions, nobody fully agrees on its borders. So, what exactly defines the Southwest? Let's take a little tour and find out.

The general definition of the Southwest, with some proposed sub-regions in different shades of red
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Physical Attributes

Let's start by looking at the Southwest in terms of physical geography. For the most part, the Southwest is defined by an arid to semi-arid climate. That means it gets little precipitation. Even the mountains only receive major snowfall for limited parts of the year.

The mountains also tend to create what we ''rain shadow effect,'' forming a wall that stops rain-bearing clouds from entering the region. Between the lack of rainfall and generally hot temperatures, much of the Southwest is a desert. This has produced unique and hardy flora and fauna, like the cacti, piñones, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes that thrive in the hot, dry climate.

Water, however, can be found in the Southwest. Rather than the countless streams of the rainy East Coast, however, Southwestern water is mostly found only in a few sizeable rivers that cut through the plateaus or mesas of the region.

With all of these extremes, the Southwest can generally be defined by major landforms. The Mojave, Sonoran, and parts of the Chihuahuan deserts cover hundreds of thousands of square miles. The Rocky Mountains are the largest mountains in the continental United States. The Colorado River carries most of the region's water, cutting massive canyons into ancient rocks like the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

Monumental landforms like the Grand Canyon define much of the Southwestern landscape
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Culture and History

However, the Southwest is defined by more than just its climate. In terms of cultural geography, there are some major trends that unite people in this region.

Historically, the Southwest was home to numerous nomadic Amerindian (American Indian) nations, as well as some of the only truly urban Amerindian societies in what is now the United States. The Spanish collectively called them the Pueblo peoples after the Europeans arrived from Mexico in the 17th century.

All of what is now the American Southwest once belonged to Spain and then to Mexico after 1821. That legacy is found across the region, with cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Amarillo, San Antonio, and Santa Fe bearing Spanish names. The state names of California, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah are also Spanish-inspired.

The Southwest was part of Mexico until 1848, when the entire region was transferred to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War. This history can still be seen in the demographics of the Southwest today. In some areas, the populations of Amerindians, Latinos, and white Americans are almost evenly divided.

Spanish and Amerindian influences can still be seen in the adobe architecture that defines cities like Santa Fe
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In other cultural terms, much of the Southwest shares an agricultural heritage and many of these states are predominantly agricultural to this day. Thanks to the dry nature of the region, most Southwestern states rely heavily on cattle ranching. Extractive industries from gold mining to oil have also been major features in the populating of the region.

With a legacy of agriculture but growing populations, many Southwestern states are currently divided between large swaths of low-population land and highly-populated urban centers like Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.

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