West Virginia: The Mountain State

Relief Map of West Virginia

National Parks in West Virginia

West Virginia County Map



   West Virginia is the only state that lies completely within the Appalachian Mountain region. It also has a higher mean elevation than any state in the east, at 1,654 ft. Elevations range from 4,862' at Spruce Knob to 240' at Harper's Ferry.

   West Virginia's landscape is characterized into 3 major provinces: The Allegheny plateau in the west and north, the Allegheny Mountains, which run from the southwest through the northeast, and the Ridge and Valley province, east of the Allegheny Front (the continental divide) along West Virginia's eastern border with Virginia.  In addition, two other provinces make up the eastern panhandle.  The Great Appalachian Valley is a wide valley east of the Ridge and Valley province, associated with the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  Finally, the Blue Ridge Mountains make up the easternmost boundary of West Virginia with Maryland and Virginia. 

   The Allegheny Mountains create a rain shadow, thus the western part of the state receives more precipitation than the eastern panhandle, but the mountains receive the most.  From west to east, annual precipitation is as follows: Allegheny Plateau 43.4"; Allegheny Mountains 53.8"; Ridge and Valley 36.6".  Elevation also plays an important role in precipitation.  The average annual precipitation increases by 6" as the elevation increases from 2,000 - 3,000 ft. on the western side of the mountains.  On the eastern side annual precipitation decreases by 9" as elevation decreases from 3,000 - 2,000 ft. 

   The average annual temperature in West Virginia is 53.6 F in the Allegheny Plateau, 49.4 F in the Allegheny Mountains, and 52.8 F in the Ridge and Valley.  Mean annual temperature decreases by 2.9 F for each 1,000 foot increase in elevation. 

   Seventy-eight percent of West Virginia is covered in forest.  There are three National Forest lands in the state; Monongahela NF, George Washington NF, and Jefferson NF.  The Monongahela alone encompasses just under 1,000,000 acres of land.  Even much of the privately owned land in West Virginia remains as forested hills and mountains, mainly because of low population size (under 2 million) and the incredibly rugged nature of the mountains in much of the state.

   Now that you know more than you ever wanted to about this state's climate and topography, you're probably asking "what does this have to do with herpetology?".  Well, we've found that even though West Virginia is covered with mountains, the landscape is actually very diverse in terms of climate and vegetation types, mainly due to elevational differences.  The next time you're here, take a walk up a mountain.  Start at the bottom...somewhere near 2,000 feet and walk straight up until you reach 4,000 or 4,800 feet.  You'll find an amazing difference in vegetation and in the types of habitat on the mountain.  What you'll also find is a difference in the types of lizards, snakes, and most of all, salamanders that you'll encounter! 

   Salamanders are the most diverse group of amphibians and reptiles in West Virginia - there are 34 species of them here!  The cool, moist, mountainous forests in West Virginia are ideal for these amphibians.


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