The eastern end of North Carolina juts out from the East Coast of the United States into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream, making the state prone to Atlantic hurricanes, which tend to strike the state every three to four years. Running along the entire coast of North Carolina, serving as a buffer against the Atlantic, is a long chain of barrier islands (the Outer Banks), with constantly shifting sand dunes, from which project three famous capes—Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear. Between the islands and the shoreline stretch lagoons—Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound are the largest—that receive the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers. Wilmington, the chief port, is at the head of the Cape Fear estuary. The mainland bordering the sounds is low, flat tidewater country, often swampy, even beyond the Dismal Swamp in the north. In the upper coastal plain the land rises gradually from the tidewater, reaching 500 ft (152 m) at the fall line.
There begins the Piedmont, a rolling hill country with many swift streams such as the Broad River; the Catawba; and the Pee Dee, with its three large dams. The hydroelectric power these rivers generate has made this an important manufacturing area, and the Piedmont is home to most of the state's population and its largest cities. At the western edge of the Piedmont the land rises abruptly in the Blue Ridge, then dips down to several basins, and rises again in the Great Smoky Mts. Asheville is the leading urban center of this mountain region. Mt. Mitchell (6,684 ft/2,037 m) is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. The French Broad River, the Watauga, and other rivers rising west of the Blue Ridge flow into the Mississippi system, almost all via the Tennessee River.
North Carolina, in the warm temperate zone, has a generally mild climate, with abundant and well distributed rainfall. The state's congenial climate, its many miles of beaches, and its beautiful mountains attract large numbers of visitors and vacationers each year. Chief among the tourist attractions are the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Cape Lookout National Seashore, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Great Smoky Mts. National Park. Wildlife abounds in national forests (the state has four) and in the Dismal Swamp. Places of historic interest include Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, on Roanoke Island; the Wright Brothers National Memorial, at Kitty Hawk; Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, at Flatrock; and Guilford Courthouse and Moores Creek national military parks.
One of the largest military reservations in the nation is at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, and the huge Marine Corps amphibious training base is at Camp Lejeune, near the mouth of the New River. Raleigh is the capital and the second largest city. The largest city is Charlotte; other major cities include Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Asheville.