Blue Ridge Physiography Topics

1. Regional Setting
2. Extent and Boundaries
3. Characteristic Features
4.  Drainage
5. Special Features
• Introduction to Physiography
Coastal Plain
Mesozoic Basins
Blue Ridge
Valley and Ridge
Appalachian Plateaus
Virginia's Rivers

Blue Ridge Physiography: Drainage (Part 1)

Topics included in this section include: Main River Systems, the New River, and Stream Piracy and Wind Gaps, and Escarpments.

Major River Systems

• The Blue Ridge province is drained by four major stream systems, the Potomac, Rappahannock, James, Roanoke, and New.

Map of Virginia’s major drainage basins. Note that the Potomac, James, and Roanoke Rivers all begin west of the Piedmont and Blue Ridge, whereas the Rappahannock, York, and Chowan systems form in the Piedmont. (Image from College of William & Mary geology website, courtesy of C.M. Bailey)

The New River

• The New River is not new, but is one of the oldest streams in North America.  It flows across three major Appalachian provinces (the Blue Ridge, the Valley and Ridge, and the Appalachian Plateaus).

The New River. (Image courtesy of the Virginia Division of Geology and Mineral Resources)

• Geologists believe the New River is very old because it is able to flow northwestward across the northeast-southwest regional trend of the Appalachians.  The New might be as old as late Paleozoic when it and other streams flowed down the northwestern side of the young Appalachian Mountains.

570 to 245 million years ago

New River in the Virginia Blue Ridge. (Photograph by Parvinder Sethi)

• The exact age and origin of the New River are controversial.  Geomorphologists believe that the New is the last surviving part of the once mighty Teays River system, which drained much of eastern North America before the Mississippi River achieved its present size.

Left: the Teays River System; right: the Mississippi River System. (Image by Phyllis Newbill redrawn from Janssen, 1952)

Above: Map showing the evolution of the New River.  Map 1 shows that in the geologic past, the Teays River system drained most of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge.  Eventually, as shown in maps 2, 3, and 4, the James and Roanoke rivers cut through the Blue Ridge and captured most of the ancient Teays drainage.  Only the New River is left as part of the Teays River system in southwestern Virginia. (Image by Phyllis Newbill redrawn from Ross, 1969)