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Is that a hoodoo? A hill? A hollow? A road trip guide to land formations

Despite the cost of gas, plenty of families will hit the road this summer, headed for Grandma's, the Grand Canyon or some other grand adventure. And if you've got the time, the road trip is a wonderful way to see the USA, whether you're in a Chevrolet or not.

Occupying the passengers has long been a challenge for the driver and front-seat navigator. Those of us of a certain age remember car bingo, I Spy (something with my little eye), the cataloging of license plates and a whole lot of whining.

These days, mobile electronics and cars fitted with DVD players have solved some of those issues. Yes, they keep everyone occupied and mercifully quiet, but there's something missing, and it's not the whining. With heads down, eyes trained on glowing screens and ears jammed with space-age headphones, too few of us connect with the environment.

In those long hours in the car, there's plenty to look at from the window, especially if you're out West. But does everyone know what they are looking at? What the heck is a butte, and how is that different than a mesa? Is the unending flatland a prairie or a plain? Google won't help when the charge goes kaput.

So, tuck this guide in the glove compartment. Now, you're ready for an old-school road trip.


A plateau is a large, flat area of land that is much higher than the surrounding land and usually quite steep on one side. The Colorado Plateau is one of America's largest, covering 150,000 square miles. Remember it this way: When you hit a diet plateau you are on a long, steady stretch, going neither up nor down.


A mesa is a layered rock formation with a flat top and steep sides; it's often chunky-looking and appears to rise from the surrounding land. Mesa means table in Spanish, and that will help you remember that the top of this formation needs to have considerable flat area. Monument Valley in Utah has some of the nation's most memorable mesas.


If you can't eat dinner on top of the formation, it's a butte. A butte is what's left of a mesa after erosion. It's usually skinnier than a mesa and more pointed at the top, or at least a lot more bumpy. Buttes poke up throughout the Southwest, including a famous one near Sedona, Ariz., called Courthouse Butte.


Big points for spotting one of nature's most fantastic rock formations. Hoodoos are generally tall formations caused by erosion. They look a little spooky and sometimes goofy, almost like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Often there's a tenacious, but precarious-looking, rock at the top protecting softer rock below. Hoodoo gurus who can't make it to the geologic wonders in Cappadocia, Turkey, should head to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, north of Albuquerque, N.M. Lots of hoodoo voodoo there.


A plain is a large expanse of flatland with little differentiation in elevation. That's why when road trippers hit America's Plains States, they also hit the snooze button. It's not that there isn't beauty in the amber waves of grain of Nebraska and Kansas, it's just that the show goes on for hours.


A prairie is a wide, mostly flat, area of land that has an ecosystem of grasses but hardly any trees. In Florida, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is 10 miles south of Gainesville and can be seen from Interstate 75. You'll know you're there when the trees flanking the highway give way to undulating grasses. There is also prairie land in Okeechobee County and plenty of grasslands in the Midwest. And wrap your head around this: A prairie can also be a plain, but most of the world's plains are not prairies.


A canyon is something like a valley in that it is deep with steep sides and often carved by water, but a canyon tends to be more about rocks than vegetation. America's most celebrated example is the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are numerous canyons in America, including Cloudland Canyon on the western edge of Lookout Mountain in Georgia and the famous Canyonlands of southern Utah. A canyon can also be called a gorge.


A valley is a low place between mountains that varies widely in size. If you find yourself driving up the middle of California this summer on Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to Sacramento, you'll be in the vast San Joaquin Valley. Far to the east is the Sierra Nevada, and to the west is a series of coastal mountain ranges. Just like in the plains, your passengers will be tempted to nap. Wake everyone up, or at least the adults, when you take a left turn toward Napa Valley and its famed wineries.


For flatland Floridians, mountains are a wondrous thing. Mountains are landforms that stretch high above the surrounding areas, usually forming peaks. One definition says that an elevated formation needs to be higher than 8,000 feet to be considered a mountain. The tallest mountain in the United States is Mount McKinley (20,000 feet) in Alaska, which claims the country's 10 highest peaks. California's Sierra Nevada and Colorado's Rockies are also top — and high — draws.


Hills are elevated areas of land that aren't as high or as peaked as mountains. Whereas mountains poke high into the sky, hills roll in more of a gentle slope. Some of America's famous city hills are Beacon Hill in Boston and Nob Hill in San Francisco. On a road trip through Texas, you might pass through the famed Hill Country in the center of the state, where the hills go on for miles and the highest point is just 2,400 feet.


You'll definitely know a cliff when you see one, and you'll want to keep the kids away from the edge. A cliff is a steep wall of earth or ice. The rocky coast of California has a lot of cliffs, and there are some famous landmarks that we might not think of as cliffs but are, including El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and Devil's Tower in Wyoming. If you are in Maryland this summer, take a detour to the Calvert Cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay.


Everything we know about hollows has come from our reading of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It sounds creepy but a hollow is quite pastoral with pastures or open spaces running between hills or even between two mountains. There's usually a stream there, too. The term is used mostly in New England, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Missouri and Appalachia. Oh, and if you want to visit the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, it's in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., near White Plains. Hold on to your head.

Sources: enchantedlearning,com,,,

Ready to hit
the road?

The best U.S. road trip destinations, according to

1. Highway 1, Big Sur, Calif.

2. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina, Virginia

3. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana

4. Hana Highway, Hawaii

5. Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

6. Red Rock Scenic Byway, Arizona

7. Sea Islands, Georgia

8. Seward Highway, Alaska

9. Sonoma and Napa Valley, California

10. U.S. Route 1, Maine

Houston Chronicle

Reference books

The following books are for children but might make adults feel smart, too.

Introducing Landforms by Bobbie Kalman and Kelley MacAulay, for ages 4-8 (Crabtree Publishing, 2008; $8.95)

What Is a Landform? by Rebecca Rissman, for ages 4-8 (Heinemann-Raintree, 2009; $24.50)

Investigating Landforms by Lynn Van Gorp, for ages 9-12 (Teacher Created Materials, 2008; $8.95)

Sizing up
water features

For Floridians on driving vacations in the South and up the East Coast, it's more likely they'll spy a lagoon (or a bay, harbor or estuary) before they see a dizzying mountain peak. Here's a partial guide to what's what that's wet.

Delta: A low, watery area that's formed at the mouth of a river where it empties into an ocean, lake or a flat, arid area, among other places. The Mississippi River Delta is a good example. Deltas are formed by silt, sand and small rocks that flow downstream from the river. Bonus trivia points: It's called a delta because the sediment that forms at the mouth is often triangular, the shape of the Greek letter delta.

Estuary: This body of water is formed when freshwater meets seawater. Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay are considered estuaries, as is San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound. They are also known as lagoons. Estuaries can be varying sizes but many are surrounded by densely populated cities, which makes sense because the rich plant and sea life there fostered industry — shipping for one — and supplied food.

Pond: Smaller than a lake but bigger than a puddle, a pond is a standing body of freshwater surrounded by land. Think On Golden Pond. Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., might be one of the nation's most famous ponds, thanks to poet Henry David Thoreau. It, like many of North America's natural ponds, was formed by retreating glaciers.

Swamp: In Florida, we know our swamps. We are, as novelist Karen Russell says, Swamplandia! Swamps are low-lying bodies of freshwater that have muddy, spongy bottoms. Trees and other vegetation flourish in swamps. As do strange movie creatures. The biggest swamp in the United States is the Atchafalaya in Louisiana. South Florida's Fakahatchee Strand Preserve has a swamp that's lush with exotic orchids, and the Okefenokee in Georgia is another famous murky water world. In the Gulf Coast region, swamps are also called bayous.

Cove: A small bay or inlet along the coast is called a cove. They are often horseshoe-shaped and sheltered, which is why they are also called sheltered bays. You are apt to see coves while driving along either coast of the country.

Marsh: A marsh is different than a swamp in that the water can be fresh, salt or brackish, a combination. This low-lying wetland is found just about everywhere that there is a bigger body of water, including a river, lake or ocean. The Everglades is a huge marsh and is unique because of its swamp-marsh designation.

Is that a hoodoo? A hill? A hollow? A road trip guide to land formations 05/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 10:46am]
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