FACTOID # 30: If Alaska were its own country, it would be the 26th largest in total area, slightly larger than Iran.
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Encyclopedia > The West (U.S.)

This article deals with the western United States. For information regarding the company US West, see US West (phone company). See here if you are looking for the American West.

The U.S. West

Location in the U.S.

Population: 58,025,381
Total Area: 4,834,333 kmē
Largest City: Los Angeles, California 3,694,820
Highest Elevation: Mount McKinley 6,194 m
Lowest Elevation: Death Valley -86 m
Largest State: Alaska 1,717,854 kmē
Smallest State: Hawaii 28,337 kmē
Census Bureau Divisions

The U.S. West region refers to what are now the westernmost states of the United States.

As defined by the Census Bureau, the Western region of the United States includes 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This includes all those states through which the Continental Divide passes (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico), as well as all other states further west.

Alaska and Hawaii, being detached from the other western states, have few similarities with them, but are usually also classified as part of the West. Arizona, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah or regions of those states are sometimes also considered part of the Southwest United States, while Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington or regions of those states are sometimes considered part of the Pacific Northwest, and California, Oregon and Washington are considered the West Coast of the United States. However, The West region can be divided into 2 regions: the Pacific States and the Mountain States.

The largest city in the region is Los Angeles, located on the West Coast. Other West Coast cities include San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. Prominent cities in the Mountain States include Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.



Natural geography

The West is the most geographically diverse region of the country, with several geographical regions running north to south. Along the Pacific Ocean coast lie the Coast Ranges, which are usually not very tall. They collect a large part of the airborne moisture (http://wiktionary.org/wiki/moisture) moving in from the ocean. Even in relatively arid central California, the Coast Ranges squeeze enough water out of the clouds to support the growth of coast redwoods.

East of the Coast Ranges lie several intensively cultivated fertile valleys, notably the San Joaquin Valley of California and the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Beyond the valleys lie the Sierra Nevada in the south and the Cascade Range in the north. These mountains are some of the highest in the United States. Mount Whitney, at 4,421 metres (14,505 feet) the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, is in the Sierra Nevada. The Cascades are also volcanic. Mount Rainier, a volcano in Washington, is also well over 4,392 metres (14,000 feett aprox). Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascades erupted explosively in 1980. These mountain ranges are quite wet, capturing most of the moisture that remains after the Coast Ranges, and creating a rain shadow.

East of these great mountain ranges is a vast arid land, encompassing much of Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert are two of the many deserts found here.

Beyond the deserts lie the Rocky Mountains. In the north, they run immediately east of the Cascade Range, so that the desert region does not reach all the way to the Canadian border. The Rockies are hundreds of miles wide, and run uninterrupted from New Mexico to Alaska. The tallest peaks of the Rockies, some of which are over 4,250 metres (14,000 feet aprox.), are found in central Colorado.

East of the Rocky Mountains begin the Great Plains, a vast grassy plateau sloping gradually down to the forests near the Mississippi River.

Human geography

Most of these states are growing rapidly. The coastal strip includes several major cities, but the areas between the Rocky Mountains in the east and the Sierra Nevada are still thinly populated. In 2000, Wyoming was the least populous state, with population of 493,782 while California was the most populous, with 33,871,648.

Because the tide of development had not yet reached most of the West when conservation became a national issue, agencies of the federal government own and manage vast areas of land. (The most important among these are the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management within the Interior Department, and the U. S. Forest Service within the Agriculture Department.) National parks are reserved for recreational activities such as fishing, camping, hiking, and boating, but other government lands also allow commercial activities like ranching, lumbering and mining. In recent years some local residents who earn their livelihoods on federal land have come into conflict with the land's managers, who are required to keep land use within environmentally acceptable limits.

History and Culture

Facing both the Pacific Ocean and the Mexican border, the West has been shaped by a variety of ethnic groups. Hawaii is the only state in the union in which Asian Americans outnumber residents of European stock, and Asians from many countries have settled in California and other coastal states in several waves of immigration since the 1800s. The southwestern border states – California, Arizona, and New Mexico – all have large Mexican-American populations, and the many Spanish placenames attest to their history as former Mexican territories. The West also contains much of the Native American population in the USA, particularly in the large reservations in the mountain and desert states.

Alaska – the northernmost state in the Union – is a vast land of few, but hardy, people, many of them native; and of great stretches of wilderness, protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Hawaii's location makes it a major gateway between the US and Asia and a center for tourism. Some members of its substantial Native Hawaiian population are resentful of American sovereignty over the island chain.

In the Pacific Coast states, the wide areas filled with small towns, farms, and forests are supplemented by a few big port cities which have evolved into world centers for the media and technology industries. Now the second largest city in the nation, Los Angeles is best known as the home of the Hollywood film industry; the area around Los Angeles also became a major center for the aerospace industry beginning with World War II. Fueled by the growth of Los Angeles – as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley – California has become the most populous of all the states. Oregon and Washington have also seen rapid growth.

The desert and mountain states have relatively low population densities, and developed as ranching and mining areas which are only recently becoming urbanized. Most of them have highly individualistic cultures, and have worked to balance the interests of urban development, recreation, and the environment. Culturally distinctive points include the large Mormon population of Utah, the extravagant casino resort town of Las Vegas, and of course the many Native American tribal reservations.

Major settlement of the western territories by migrants from the states in the east developed rapidly in the 1840s, largely through the Oregon Trail and the California gold rush of 1849; California experienced such a rapid growth in a few short months that it was admitted to statehood in 1850 without the normal transitory phase of becoming an official territory. The 1850s were marked by political controversies which were part of the national issues leading to the Civil War, though California had been established as a non-slave state in the Compromise of 1850; California played little role in the war itself due to its geographically distance from major campaigns. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many former Confederate partisans migrated to California through the end of the Reconstruction period.

The history of the American West in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century has acquired a cultural mythos in the literature and cinema of the United States. The image of the cowboy, the homesteader and westward expansion took real events and transmuted them into a myth of the west which has influenced American culture since at least the 1920s.

Writers as diverse as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Zane Grey celebrated or derided cowboy culture, while artists such as Charles Remington created western art as a method of recordation of the expansion into the west. The American cinema in particular created the genre of the western movie, which films in many cases use the west as a metaphor for the virtue of self-reliance and an American ethos. The contrast between the romanticism of culture about the west and the actuality of the history of the westward expansion has been a theme of late Twentieth and early Twenty First century scholarship about the west. Cowboy culture has become embedded in the American experience as a common cultural touchstone, and modern forms as diverse as country and western music and the works of artist Georgia O'Keefe have celebrated the supposed sense of isolation and independence of spirit inspired by the unpopulated and relatively harsh climate of the region.

As a result of the various periods of rapid growth, many new residents were migrants who were seeking to make a new start after previous histories of either personal failure or hostilities developed in their previous communities. With these and other migrants who harbored more commercial goals in the opening country, the area developed a strong ethos of self-determinism and individual freedom, as communities were created whose residents shared no prior connection or common set of ideals and allegiances. The open land of the region allowed residents to live at a much greater distance from neighbors than had been possible in eastern cities, and an ethic of tolerance for the different values and goals of other residents developed. California's state constitutions (in both 1849 and 1879) were largely drafted by groups which sought a strong emphasis on individual property rights and personal freedom, arguably at the expense of ideals tending toward civic community.

In recent decades, Western cities' reputation for diversity and tolerance has been marred by segregation, along with accusations of racial profiling and police brutality towards minorities, sometimes leading to racially based riots. Nevertheless, perhaps because so many westerners have moved there from other regions to make a new start, as a rule interpersonal relations remain marked by an individualistic, "live and let live" attitude. The western economy is varied. California, for example, features both agriculture and high-technology manufacturing as major sectors in its economy.

Politically, the West is far from unified. Major urban centers, particularly along the Pacific Coast, lean towards the Democratic Party, although their suburban areas tend toward a bipartisan makeup. The interior states of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts are more heavily Republican. As the fastest-growing demographic group, Latinos are hotly contested for both parties, but currently lean Democratic; the subject of illegal immigration remains a major issue in the political importance of this segment of the populace. In terms of the electoral college, California and Hawaii are typically strong blue states (Democratic), and Washington leans Democratic. Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska are generally red states (Republican), and Colorado and Arizona lean Republican. Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico are hotly contested swing states.

Parts of the Mainland West has been exaggerated as the Wild West.

Related topics

Regions of the United States
Census Bureau Regions
U.S. Midwest | U.S. Northeast | U.S. South | U.S. West
Non-Census Bureau Regions
Coastal states | Deep South | Delmarva | East | Eastern Seaboard | Great Lakes | Great Plains | Gulf Coast | International Border states | Mid-Atlantic | Mississippi Delta | Mountain states | New England | North | Pacific Northwest | South Central States | Southeast | Southwest | Upper Midwest | West | West Coast

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