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Mapping the Physical and Human Characteristics of the United States

Lesson Transcript
David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

After watching this video, you will be able to describe the physical and human characteristics of the United States, including cities, mountains, rivers, and valleys, among others. A short quiz will follow. Updated: 01/30/2020

What Are Physical and Human Characteristics?

Physical characteristics are things that are part of the land itself. They are a description of the landforms of an area, ignoring human activities. This includes rivers, coasts, bays, mountains, canyons, valleys, and lakes, among other features. Physical maps are the best way to display the physical characteristics of an area. Human characteristics, in contrast, are the features of a geographical area caused by humans, including cities, towns, dams, roads, and communication links.

In this lesson, we'll summarize some of the human and physical characteristics of the United States. Since the United States is huge, and there are many such characteristics, we'll focus on the most important ones.

Human Characteristics

The largest cities in the United States are New York (with 8.4 million people), Los Angeles (with 3.9 million people), Chicago (with 2.7 million people), Houston (with 2.2 million people), and Philadelphia (with 1.6 million people). The wider Washington, DC metro area is also home to 5.8 million people, and the San Francisco Bay Area claims 7.44 million people. Other major U.S. cities include Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas.

Why are these cities so big? In most cases, they're positioned near bodies of water, whether lakes, oceans, or rivers. River cities in the United States include New York (the Hudson), New Orleans (the Mississippi), Washington, DC (the Potomac and Anacostia), and Philadelphia (the Delaware). Coastal cities include Los Angeles (the Pacific), New York again (the Atlantic), San Diego (the Pacific), and San Francisco (the Pacific). Last of all, Chicago is along Lake Michigan. Water is important for population growth, especially in the early days of a city, because it provides fertile floodplain land for farming, ways to transport goods for trade, and in the case of rivers and lakes, freshwater for drinking.

Physical Characteristics

The U.S. is a rugged terrain with many mountains, probably the most well known of which are the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are the country's backbone, stretching from New Mexico to Montana - a journey of 3,000 miles - and they're the second longest mountain range in the world. The USA also has the Appalachian Mountains, the Cascades, the Alaska Range, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The largest mountain in the whole United States is Mount McKinley in Alaska, and the largest mountain in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney in California, which is part of the Sierra Nevada range. In terms of valleys and canyons, the most famous ones are probably Death Valley (the hottest and driest place in the United States), the Grand Canyon (18 miles wide, 1 mile deep and 277 miles long), and Napa Valley (home of some of Americas best wines).

Rivers and lakes are important, because they're like the circulation system of the United States. As we discussed earlier, many cities are close to bodies of water because water is so essential for human life, offering both drinking water and available water for farming. Floodplains of rivers also produce extremely fertile land. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are the largest and most important rivers in the U.S. The Missouri is the longest river (at 2,341 miles), and the Mississippi has the largest drainage system of all U.S rivers. There's also the Rio Grande, the Colorado River, and the Yukon.

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Additional Activities

Mapping the Physical and Human Characteristics of the United States - Activities

This activity will allow students to put into practice the information they gained from this lesson.


  • Blank, outline-style maps of the United States of America (continental U.S. is fine).


  • Students may work independently or in small groups of 2 to 3.
  • After reviewing the lesson video, hand out a blank outline map of the continental U.S. to each student or group of students.
  • Spend some time brainstorming appropriate icons or other map features to represent the different characteristics mentioned in the lesson.
  • Instruct the student to make a list of all the characteristics they need to represent on a map of the United States based on the lesson. They should include at least one icon for:
    • Major cities
    • Mountain ranges
    • Rivers
    • Deserts
    • Forests
    • Large lakes
  • Where appropriate, encourage your students to create representations that can also indicate comparisons between similar characteristics, like:
    • City size represented by a coded color
    • River size represented by number of wavy lines drawn within the borders of the river
  • Encourage your students to create iconic representations for as many physical and human characteristics as possible.
    • This list of characteristics will become the key or legend for the students' maps.
  • Finally, instruct your students to plot their physical and human characteristics on their U.S. maps, making sure to follow their previously made keys.
    • Students may need access to research tools such as the internet and/or a library to maintain accuracy in their drawings.
  • Display the maps after completion.

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