The Mountains of Virginia

the collision of the African tectonic plate with the North American tectonic plate to create Pangea wrinkled the eastern edge of the North American continent and created the pattern of bedrock that has formed Virginia's mountains
the collision of the African tectonic plate with the North American tectonic plate to create Pangea wrinkled the eastern edge of the North American continent and created the pattern of bedrock that has formed Virginia's mountains
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, GLOBE: A Gallery of High Resolution Images

the mountains of Virginia
the mountains of Virginia
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

The only way to take a mountain hike on Virginia's Coastal Plain is to walk on a flat sandy beaches, and claim the sand grains are remnants of the Appalachians. The mountains in the state start at the Blue Ridge, and include sandstone-topped ridges to the west such as Massanutten Mountain.

Streams have etched out channels with intervening ridges in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont, but topographic relief is rarely more than 100 feet. In the Blue Ridge and the Valley and Ridge physiographic provinces, ridges and peaks can often be more than 1,000 feet higher than the surrounding land.

the Disney movie Pocahontas used artistic license to conclude with the main character on a high mountain ridge watching John Smith sail into the sunset, because the low ridges in the Coastal Plain of Virginia do not offer such a dramatic vista
the Disney movie Pocahontas used artistic license to conclude with the main character on a high mountain ridge watching John Smith sail into the sunset, because the low ridges in the Coastal Plain of Virginia do not offer such a dramatic vista
Source: AwardsWatch, Best Disney Renaissance Film (1989-99)

Those mountains shaped the settlement pattern of Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley was separated from the Piedmont and Tidewater by the Blue Ridge mountains, limiting interest on the part of early colonists to occupy the region despite its rich bottomlands suitable for farming. It was easier to float tobacco, wheat, hides, lumber, and other agricultural products down the Piedmont rivers to ports on the Chesapeake Bay, than to cross the Blue Ridge and carry goods to market through the mountain passes.

In the first half of the 1700's, Governors Spottswood and Gooch feared the French would occupy the Ohio River Valley before the English. With Native American allies, the French might cross the mountains and attack English settlements on the western edge of the Piedmont. To prevent such a scenario, Pennsylvania Dutch and Scotch-Irish immigrants ere encouraged to move south from Philadelphia and settle in the Shenandoah Valley. The Blue Ridge provided a physical barrier separating the plantations and farms in the Piedmont from the non-Anglican, non-English immigrants, who supplemented the physical barrier of the mountains to create a human barrier to block the French.

colonial settlement in the Shenandoah Valley was encouraged by Governor Spottswood and Governor Gooch, because the physical barrier of the Blue Ridge was not believed to be sufficient to block French encroachment from the Ohio River
colonial settlement in the Shenandoah Valley was encouraged by Governor Spottswood and Governor Gooch, because the physical barrier of the Blue Ridge was not believed to be sufficient to block French encroachment from the Ohio River
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

Those mountains are the eroded remnants of the land uplifted and folded by tectonic forces, plus a few topographic bumps (such as Mole Hill west of Harrisonburg) that were formed directly by volcanic activity. The primary tectonic event shaping the current mountains in Virginia was the collision between Africa and North America in the Paleozoic Era. The land surface was folded and cracked. Large chunks, including the Blue Ridge and Pine Mountain on the Kentucky border, were shoved westward on top of younger rocks.

the distinctive egg-shaped topography of Burke's Garden was created by tectonic uplift from the collision of the North American and African plates, creating an anticline that was exposed and carved by 200 million years of erosion
the distinctive egg-shaped topography of Burke's Garden was created by tectonic uplift from the collision of the North American and African plates, creating an anticline that was exposed and carved by 200 million years of erosion
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

The spot with the highest elevation in Virginia is a remnant of ancient volcanic eruptions. Mount Rogers in Grayson County, Virginia's tallest mountain, reaches 5,729 feet (1,746 meters) above sea level today. The second-highest point in the state, the summit of Whitetop Mountain, is 5520 feet high. In contrast, the high point in Washington, DC is 429 feet above sea level. The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, so its aluminum pyramid at the top is more than twice the elevation above sea level as the city's highest natural point at Reno Hill.1

Virginia's mountains stands taller than the surrounding landscape due to differential erosion. The hard volcanic material at Mount Rogers and along the Blue Ridge, and the hard quartzite capping other ridges to the west, is eroding - but the mountains and ridges as high points because they are eroding at a pace slower than the surrounding land. Valleys have been etched out faster by wind, ice and especially flowing water, creating topographic relief that humans have labeled as mountains and ridges.

the high peaks of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain are part of the volcanic Blue Ridge
the high peaks of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain are part of the volcanic Blue Ridge
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Whitetop 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)

Much of what was once part of that pile of volcanic rock has washed down streams whose channels have disappeared, replaced by more-recent rivers such as the Roanoke, James, and the New rivers. The rivers have evolved as the mountains have eroded.

The direction of flow has changed whenever streams (such as the Shenandoah River) have excavated their channel faster than other streams and pirated their headwaters. Others, such as the Teays, have dug entrenched meanders as fast as land has been uplifted. The eroded particles have settled ultimately in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, water bodies that were formed after the breakup of Pangea.

the James River crosses the Valley and Ridge physiographic province and cuts through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls, before flowing eastward across the Piedmont to deposit its sediment in the Chesapeake Bay
the James River crosses the Valley and Ridge physiographic province and cuts through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls, before flowing eastward across the Piedmont to deposit its sediment in the Chesapeake Bay
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

Is 5,729 feet tall enough to be a mountain? There are no official scientific criteria for distinguishing a "mountain" vs. a "hill." Local custom determines place names, and the Board of Geographic Names has no formal standards that require Federal officials to override common names created by local residents.

Fauquier County view
Looking towards the Blue Ridge on the western boundary of Fauquier County

The US Geological Survey has nearly 200 terms for mountain, hill, etc. Until the 1970's, that agency often classified a place as a "mountain" if there was 1,000 feet of local topographic relief (difference in elevation between nearby locations). Today, the US Geological Survey uses one classification, "summit," for the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), and defines it as:2

Prominent elevation rising above the surrounding level of the Earth's surface; does not include pillars, ridges, or ranges (ahu, berg, bald, butte, cerro, colina, cone, cumbre, dome, head, hill, horn, knob, knoll, mauna, mesa, mesita, mound, mount, mountain, peak, puu, rock, sugarloaf, table, volcano)

Paul Larson at Southern Utah University has suggested another classification tool:3

the difference between a mountain and a hill is in vegetation changes. If it is high enough for vertical zonation to occur it is a mountain, but if the same vegetation type covers the entire height of the feature, it is a hill.

For many years, Thomas Jefferson and other Virginians thought the highest spot in the colony/state of Virginia was the Peaks of Otter, in part because Flat Top and Sharp Top stood out as distinct peaks compared to the adjacent ridges. Today, we know that Grayson County is the "roof" of Virginia, with the highest average elevation and the highest peaks.4

the Peaks of Otter, looking towards the west from Bedford County
the Peaks of Otter, looking towards the west from Bedford County
Source: Peaks of Otter Soil & Water Conservation District, Big Otter River TMDL Implementation Plan

To a casual visitor, Whitetop Mountain appears to be taller than Mount Rogers. It too stands slightly apart from other places, and the treeless "bald" appearance also makes it more eye-catching than nearby Mount Rogers. However, if the red spruces covering Mount Rogers and blocking the view from the top continue to die off, then there's a chance that the highest point in Virginia will be easier to recognize.

We can identify summits from the 1:24,000 scale topographic maps produced by the US Geological Survey (USGS). Age of the maps showing the height of mountains is rarely important when checking elevations in Virginia; erosion is slow and human-induced changes are minor. A topo quadrangle map that has not been updated for 50 years will still have relatively-accurate elevation data, even though the indications of land use (especially boundaries of urban/suburban development) will be outdated. Updates to the National Elevation Dataset, using more-accurate technology, will refine summit heights only slightly.

the different speed at which different rocks erode is the reason why Virginia has mountains today, though erosion will alter elevations only slightly within a human lifetime
the different speed at which different rocks erode is the reason why Virginia has mountains today, though erosion will alter elevations only slightly within a human lifetime
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

Virginia has about 1,850 features named a "summit," and about 100 are over 4,000 feet tall). There are 700 records of places called a "ridge," defined by USGS as:5

Elevation with a narrow, elongated crest which can be part of a hill or mountain (crest, cuesta, escarpment, hogback, lae, rim, spur).

Height is a relative feature. In Accomack County, the named ridges are low in elevation, but the slight difference in height above the surrounding land is important enough to be affect the drainage and to be noticed. Bulls Head in Accomack County is a summit - all of 2 feet high.6

near Wachapreague on the Eastern Shore, two feet of local topographic relief was enough to justify calling Bulls Head a summit
near Wachapreague on the Eastern Shore, two feet of local topographic relief was enough to justify calling Bulls Head a summit
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Wachapreague 7.5x7.t topographic quadrangle (2013)

There are only two counties in Virginia with named summits above 5,000 feet:
Grayson County
- Mount Rogers (5,729 feet)
- Whitetop Mountain (5,525 feet)
- Pine Mountain (5,525 feet)
- Haw Orchard Mountain (5,007 feet)
Smyth County:
- Buzzard Rock (5,095 feet)

Grayson and Smyth counties, with highest elevations in Virginia
Grayson and Smyth counties, with highest elevations in Virginia
Source: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project (GLOBE) database

Links

in 1848 a French artist who had never been to Mount Vernon included mountains in the background, after misinterpreting clouds in the engraving used as the basis for his painting
in 1848 a French artist who had never been to Mount Vernon included mountains in the background, after misinterpreting clouds in the engraving used as the basis for his painting7
Source: LiveAuctioneers, View of Mount Vernon (by Victor de Grailly, 1848)

References

1. "Reno Hill Washington D.C. High Point," About.com - Climbing, http://climbing.about.com/od/mountainclimbing/a/RenoHill.htm (last checked April 25, 2016)
2. "What is the difference between 'mountain', 'hill', and 'peak'; 'lake' and 'pond'; or 'river' and 'creek?'," Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey, http://www.usgs.gov/faq/categories/9799/2973; "Feature Class Definitions," Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey, http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=136:8 (last checked April 25, 2016)
3. Paul Larson, on Geography Education listserver GEOGED@LSV.UKY.EDU, January 14, 2008
4. "Peaks of Otter," Monticello website, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/peaks-otter; "Mean County Elevation Lists," County Highpointers, http://www.cohp.org/records/mean_elevation/mean_elevations.html (last checked September 1, 2011)
5. "Feature Class Definitions," Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey, http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=136:8 (last checked April 25, 2016)
6. "Bulls Head," Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey, http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq:3:::NO::P3_FID:1499185 (last checked April 25, 2016)
7. "Washington's House, Mount Vernon," History Notes, Virginia Historical Society, Spring 2015, p.8

since John Lederer climbed the Blue Ridge in 1669-1670, Virginians in Tidewater have been known that there are mountains to the west
since John Lederer climbed the Blue Ridge in 1669-1670, Virginians in Tidewater have been known that there are mountains to the west
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)


Topography of Virginia
Rocks and Ridges - The Geology of Virginia
Virginia Places