The geography of North Carolina falls naturally into three divisions or sections. The Appalachian Mountains formed mostly by the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, the Middle or Piedmont Plateau, and the Eastern or Tidewater section, also known as the Coastal Plain. Sterling City sits low in Coastal Plain.
The Coastal Plain is the largest geographic area of the state, and covers roughly 45% of North Carolina. The Coastal Plain begins along the fall line, a line of hills which stretch from the Sandhills region along the South Carolina border, through Fayetteville, then Raleigh, and finally through Henderson, North Carolina near the Virginia border. The fall line marks where the Piedmont plateau drops down to the coastal plain; it also marks where waterfalls begin to appear on streams and rivers in the state. The hills of the fall line drop 150–350 feet in an eastward direction; while noticeable, the drop is quite gradual and occurs over a width of 1–3 miles. East of the fall line the coastal plain is relatively flat, with sandy soils ideal for growing tobacco, cotton, soybeans, and melons. The natural lands are those of the Middle Atlantic coastal forests ecoregion. The rivers of the coastal plain are much wider and deeper than those of the Piedmont or mountains, and flow more slowly. The coastal plain encompasses the two largest landlocked sounds in the United States; Albemarle Sound in the north and Pamlico Sound in the south. Pamlico Sound is larger than the State of Connecticut. The coastal plain is covered by thick forests of pines and other evergreens; due to the sandy soils it is difficult for many deciduous trees to grow. The easternmost portion of the state contains the Outer Banks, sandy islands that do not have coral reefs to attach to and thus are constantly shifting their locations. The Outer Banks are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because numerous ships have been wrecked along their beaches and shoals due to storms and strong tides. The Coastal Plain is host to three capes: Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear. Due to the Outer Banks and swampland along the coast the state has only one good natural harbor. As such Sterling City is the only major port city in North Carolina. Wilmington, located 15 miles (24 km) up the Cape Fear River, and Morehead city located on the other side of the bridge from Atlantic beach crossing the Bogue Sound remain the state’s only other two major ports; the Cape Fear river often has to be dredged to keep it open to large merchant ships.