North Carolina is divided into four distinct areas; the Outer Banks, Atlantic Coastal Plain, Piedmont Plateau and ranges of the Appalachian Mountains in the far-western reaches of the state.
The Outer Banks are a long string of narrow and sandy (some tree-covered) barrier islands that curve out into the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras, the eastern-most point of the state, is a frequent target of hurricanes that strike the eastern U.S.
From there the broad and flat Atlantic Coastal Plain extends inland near 65 miles. Swampy along the coast, and especially in the far-northeast, it's criss-crossed by dozens of rivers and covers about 35% of the state.
The land then rises gently into some forested sand hills, and then into the higher rolling hills of the Piedmont Plateau, where average elevations are near 1,150 ft above sea level.
The Appalachian Mountains, about 1,500 miles in length, extend from Georgia through the Carolinas, up through New England and on into the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Quebec.
The thickly-forested Blue Ridge Mountains, famed for a bluish color when seen from a distance, stretch across the western reaches of the state, on into Virginia.
The Smoky Mountains extend along the state's southwestern border with Tennessee. In the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville, North Carolina's highest point, Mt. Mitchell, stands at 6,684 ft. It's the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains, and the highest peak in eastern North America.
North Carolina is drained by many rivers. Major ones include the Cape Fear, Neuse, Roanoke and Yadkin. In addition, the state contains many somewhat small manmade lakes and reservoirs. The largest of these is Lake Norman, at 32,510 acres.
For a closer look at the topography of North Carolina, view this topographic map