I'm trying to write a story where the main characters discover the wreckage of a spaceship in the fields that border their town to the west. To the east, there's the end of a large mountain range.

Basically, the town's built into the side of the mountain. Does a mountain range have to be preceeded by foothills, or can a mountain range transition quickly into a relatively flat landscape? And if so, where on Earth has this happened?

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    Welcome to Worldbuilding! Do take a minute to review the help center and tour so you'll understand how things work here. This question definitely needs to be smoothed out a bit per L. Dutch's point. Also, this question is probably more suitable for the geology SE. Even though you mention story aspects, there's no actual worldbuilding going on here. – elemtilas Nov 29 at 2:26
  • I thought this was about subsidence. "Is there landscape that transitions abruptly from plains to mountains?" Mountains themselves transitioning would be a bad day, like the caldera in Yellowstone when it blows. – Mazura Nov 30 at 23:52

Solitary volcanic mountains

Just as volcanic islands are specks of land in a great ocean of blue, solitary volcanoes on land can be equally spectacular. Mount Kilomanjaro is more famous, but perhaps the most cleanly isolated massif in Africa is Mount Elgon on the border of Uganda and Kenya, which rises almost a mile and a half above the surrounding plain.

enter image description here

However, the all time world champ cinder cone, a near-perfectly conical mountain, is Koryaksky in Kamchatka. It is 1000 meters shorter than Elgon, but it rises even higher, over 3000 meters above the surrounding plain.

enter image description here

  • The OQ specifically asked about a "mountain range" which this answer does not quite satisfy. – Nosajimiki Dec 6 at 21:25

Brașov, in Romania (the link goes to a satellite view on Google Maps), is an example; the city is placed at the south-eastern end of a high plain, nestled against the Carpatian mountains and partly climbing on the slopes. The transition is quite sudden -- to the north the terrain is very flat, to the south it's alpine.

A view of Brașov

A view of Brașov, looking northward towards the high plain of Burzenland from one of the panorama points on the road which climbs to Poiana Brașov. The green mountain on the right is the Tâmpa. Own work, available on Flickr under the CC BY 2.0 license.

I'm certain that most people know at least one city nestled on a plain against a mountain. Here is a spectacular view of mount Ararat rising from the Araratian plain:

Mount Ararat and the Ararat Plain

Mount Ararat and the Araratian plain, seen early morning from near the city of Artashat in Armenia. Photograph by Serouj Ourishian, available on Wikimedia under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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    @kingledion: Actually I have my own pictures of Brașov! I will add one. – AlexP Nov 29 at 3:35
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    Add the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Many trails are basically uphill from the valley floor to the crest, e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jobs_Peak – jamesqf Nov 29 at 4:41
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    In fact. the process of mountain building guarantees that many ranges - the ones formed by a tilting block of crust, like the Sierra Nevada - will have one side making an abrupt transition to a plain. In fact, in some places you can actually see & even touch the exposed fault: nbmg.unr.edu/_docs/Newsletters/nl14a.htm The Genoa example is probably the easiest to reach. – jamesqf Nov 29 at 19:08

Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs, Colorado is another example.

enter image description here

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    Pikes Peak is just one small part of the larger Basin and Range Province, a continent-scale area of mountain ranges rising abruptly out of plains. – Mark Nov 29 at 22:03

The picture of Pikes Peak actually shows the "foothills". They begin just a few miles east of Pikes Peak, and are fairly high themselves. So, even a foothill transition can be pretty dramatic.

That bit of the Rockies is also a good example of a "wall" across the plains. It runs from down New Mexico-way to north of Denver before abruptly turning westward.

Otherwise, volcanoes are your best bet for abrupt "hey, where did that thing come from?" mountains.

Lastly, Mount Spokane, in eastern Washington state is another that abruptly rises out of a high altitude desert.

Look at Boulder, Colorado. Unlike Colorado Springs (the town by Pikes Peak), it's really built up against the sheer rocky mountain wall to the West. There is a bit of a foothill ridge that marks the Eastern side of the town that really gives it the feel that I think you describing for the town of feeling built into the mountain, but then just beyond the boundaries of that ridge is empty flat lands for miles. It would mean inverting East and West, but otherwise gives you a really good real world example of what you're talking about.

  • Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Please note that the OP is only asking about the geological formation, not cities. Boulder and CO City are separated by about 100 miles and border both the same mountain range and plain. In other words, this is basically the same answer as Marcel's earlier answer. – JBH Nov 29 at 20:50
  • True, they are the same mountain range, (and I acknowledged the similarity to the Pikes Peak answer); however, I feel it still meaningfully adds to the conversation because it not only answers the question of geological conditions that he asks about, but gives a very similar real world example of the entire environment he described, so that way he could dig deeper into things like the culture, economical factors, and architectural considerations of a real world example that would create such a place vs most towns which are founded around waterways or crossroads. – Nosajimiki Nov 29 at 21:18
  • but...I guess this depends on how you read the question. "if so, where on Earth has this happened?" can either be read as a continuation of the previous sentence or a continuation of the whole paragraph. So the scope of the question is a bit ambiguous. – Nosajimiki Nov 29 at 21:28

Another location on Earth where plains meet mountains happens under the ocean near just about every continental shelf.

  • I thought the transition from continental to oceanic type crust was more of a rugged cliff than a mountain range. Except for relatively early in the opening of a new ocean or when a ridge is being subducted the mid-ocean ridge and its mountains will be far from the edge of the continental shelf. – Dan Neely Nov 29 at 16:42
  • True, but continents could be considered mountain ranges with their tops cut off. There is also the case of islands (including hot spots) and tectonic ridges. Pretty much I am suggesting a look at any feature that is under the ocean. Check out google maps' satellite view. – LeHill Nov 29 at 17:59

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