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Alaska and Hawaii’s geographic locations make them stand out from the lower 48 states. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Alaska and Hawaii are not part of any of the main regions used to group U.S. states, like the Midwest, South, Northeast, etc.

But they are considered part of the broader Western and Pacific regions respectively.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll look at how Alaska and Hawaii differ from the continental U.S., why they don’t fit into the traditional regional divisions, and what broader regional associations they do have.

How Alaska and Hawaii Differ Geographically From the Lower 48 States

Remote Locations Far From Contiguous U.S.

Both Alaska and Hawaii are physically separated from the contiguous United States and located very far from the lower 48. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Alaska is over 3,000 miles from California, while Hawaii lies about 2,400 miles off the coast of California.

This extreme distance means that Alaska and Hawaii have developed in relative isolation and have unique cultures and landscapes compared to other U.S. states.

The sheer distance also affects infrastructure and transportation. For example, there are no roads or rail lines connecting Alaska and Hawaii to the lower 48 states. All interstate transportation relies on air and sea travel. Prices for goods and services tend to be higher as most items are imported.

This remoteness also impacts communications networks. Parts of Alaska lack reliable internet and mobile phone connectivity even today.

Diverse Landscapes and Climates

In addition to the distance, Alaska and Hawaii differ greatly in terms of geography and climate. For instance, Alaska experiences long, extremely cold winters and mild summers. Temperatures regularly drop below 0°F in winter, while summers near 70°F.

Hawaii, meanwhile enjoys warm tropical weather year-round with average temperatures between 70°F and 90°F.

These climate differences lead to vastly diverse landscapes. Alaska is dominated by huge expanses of mountains, forests, wetlands, and tundra. Hawaii is primarily made up of volcanic islands with sandy beaches, lush green rainforests, and tropical foliage.

No matter how you look at them, Alaska and Hawaii offer utterly unique scenery compared to anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Traditional Regions of the Contiguous United States

The Midwest

The Midwest region, located in the north central part of the contiguous United States, is known for its agriculture and manufacturing. Major cities include Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The landscape consists of plains, forests, hills, and the Great Lakes region along the border with Canada. Culturally, the Midwest is considered the heartland of America with down-to-earth, hardworking values.

The Northeast

Encompassing New England and the Middle Atlantic states, the Northeast is the most densely populated and economically developed region. Important commercial and financial centers include New York City and Boston.

Major manufacturing centers emerged early in the region’s history, although much heavy industry has relocated elsewhere. The major characteristic defining this region is its shared history of colonial settlement by English Protestants seeking religious freedom.

The South

The South stretches from Virginia to the Rio Grande, including the states that seceded to form the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. States located entirely in this region are as far west as Texas and Arkansas and as far east as the Carolinas.

Much of the “Old South” retains unique customs, dialects, attitudes and demographics that vary from the rest of the country. Culturally, the area is often associated with traditional Southern hospitality and a reliance on agriculture.

The West

West of the 100th meridian, where rainfall drops off markedly, the West consists of the Mountain states and Pacific coastline. While it encompasses deserts and mountains, the West also contains cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver.

Alaska and Hawaii officially belong to the Western region as well, despite considerable distance across the Pacific Ocean separating them from the continental U.S. The West tends to be more politically libertarian, as exemplified in Nevada’s legalization of gambling and California’s medical marijuana law.

Why Alaska and Hawaii Don’t Fit Into These Traditional Regions

Too Far Removed

Alaska and Hawaii are geographically isolated from the continental United States. Alaska is disconnected from the contiguous states, separated by Canada. The state is bounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west.

Similarly, Hawaii is situated in the Pacific Ocean, over 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland. This extreme physical separation is a key reason why Alaska and Hawaii stand out as unique states without regional affiliation.

Due to the vast distances, Alaska and Hawaii developed very differently from the Lower 48 states. They have distinctive landscapes, climates, ecosystems, cultures, and economic histories shaped by their remote locations rather than regional U.S. influences.

For instance, much of Alaska’s economy revolved around fishing, fur trading, mining, oil drilling, and maritime jobs. Hawaii initially relied on whaling, sugarcane plantations, and pineapple farming as economic pillars.

The geographic barriers also impeded transportation links, keeping Alaska and Hawaii relatively isolated for much of their histories.

Unique Histories and Cultures

In addition to geographic separation, Alaska and Hawaii have unique origin stories setting them apart when it comes to regional identity. Alaska was originally settled by Inuit, Aleut, and other Indigenous groups, later controlled by Russia, before finally becoming a U.S. territory in 1867.

Hawaii was united under the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810, retaining native rule until the kingdom was overthrown in 1893 by American businessmen seeking annexation. These complex backstories gave rise to the rich amalgam of Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian cultures that differ substantially from other states.

The native cultures mixed with incoming settlers, Asian immigrants in Hawaii, for example, creating state identities strongly differentiated from the Western and Southern regions that otherwise typify U.S. states.

From food to music, language, customs, values, Alaska and Hawaii showcase their own distinct regional heritages rather than conforming to another area. Even after statehood, Alaskans and Hawaiians maintained strong state pride and cultural cohesion emphasizing their differences from the continental mainstream.

Broader Regional Associations for Alaska and Hawaii

Alaska and the Greater North American West

While Alaska is separated from the contiguous United States, it is often associated with the broader Western region due to historical and cultural ties (Britannica). Specifically, Alaska relates to the Pacific Northwest states and the Rocky Mountain states in several ways:

  • Similar landscapes and natural features like mountains, forests, and coastlines
  • Shared industries like fishing, mining, oil/gas, and timber
  • Frontier spirit and ethos of exploration and adventure
  • Significant Native American/Alaska Native populations and influence on place names and culture

So while Alaska may be detached from the Lower 48, many scholars and geographers see it as an extension of the Western frontier. Its rugged individualism and abundance of natural resources connect it to regional neighbors like Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

Hawaii and the Pacific Region

The state of Hawaii, comprising over 100 islands in the Pacific Ocean, is over 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland. Given this geographic isolation, Hawaii developed a unique Polynesian culture and shared history with other Pacific islands like Samoa, Tahiti, and Fiji.

So despite Hawaii’s political ties to the United States, it is very much part of the broader Pacific world. Evidence of this includes:

  • Strong Asian/Pacific Islander population and diaspora
  • Importance of tourism and fishing/aquaculture to the economy
  • Cuisine, music, dance, legends that connect to greater Oceania
  • Key role in World War II Pacific theater against Japan
Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population in Hawaii 526,000 (37% of state population)

The island chain’s deep Polynesian roots and shared Pacific identity reinforce that Hawaii belongs to the Pacific region rather than any single U.S. region. Its culture extends well beyond North America.


In summary, while Alaska and Hawaii are full-fledged U.S. states, their extreme distances from the lower 48 and unique geography, climate, history, and culture make them distinct. They stand apart from the main regional divisions used to categorize U.S. states and have more broad associations with the West/North American West region for Alaska and the Pacific region for Hawaii.

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