13 Topographic Features

Elizabeth Johnson

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Identify topographic features including: cliffs, plateaus, plains, hills, ridges, depressions, and valleys.
  • Determine which way is “downhill” on a slope or mountain, and determine which way a river flows.


Cliffs and Plateaus and Plains

Cliffs are steep slopes and have contour lines that are very closely spaced.  Plateaus, or flat areas, have contour lines which are very far apart from each other.

Figure 9. A cliff in Utah. A plateau (high flat area) is at the bottom left (SW). A plain (low flat area) is in the middle and top right (NE). Click on the image to view in Google Maps.


Hills and mountains have contour lines which form concentric curves.  Round, smooth hills will have contour lines that look like a target from above.  Craggy mountains will also have concentric contours, but these may be more irregular in shape.

Figure 10. Mt. Campbell, CA. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.


Ridges have contour lines parallel to each other, on each side of the ridge.

Figure 11. A ridgeline in Pennsylvania. Click on the image to view in Google Maps.


Some places like sinkholes and volcanic calderas, are indented holes in the Earth’s surface.  These are indicated by hatched topographic lines which also show the elevation decreasing towards the center of the depression.

Figure 12. Cerro Azul volcano, Galapagos Islands. Click on the image to view in Google Maps.


Valleys show “V” shape contours.  The “V”s point upstream.  In a river valley, the river will flow in the opposite direction from the direction the “V”s are pointing.

Figure 13. Davis Creek, Oregon, showing contour line “V”s in the river valley. The river is flowing opposite to the points of the “V”s, from the bottom of the picture towards the top of the picture. Click on the image to view in Google Maps.


Figure 14. A topographic feature.
Figure 15. A river (blue) and associated contour lines.


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