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It is a deeply dissected plateau, with topographic relief commonly of about four hundred feet (120 meters), and frequent sandstone outcroppings and bluffs. Many coal seams are present in the area, and the Cumberland Plateau has for many years been heavily mined. At the Pottsville Escarpment, which is the transition from the Cumberland Plateau to the Bluegrass in the north and the Pennyrile in the south, there are many spectacular cliffs, gorges, rockhouses, natural bridges, and waterfalls. In Tennessee it borders the Highland Rim east of the Nashville Basin.
It is contiguous with the Allegheny Plateau on the northern side, the only real difference being local naming. The sedimentary rocks that compose both plateaus are of Mississippian and Pennsylvanian geological age, composed of near shore sediments washed westward from the original Appalachian Mountains. Some rock layers were laid down in shallow coastal waters, some, including bituminous coal seams were laid onshore in swampy environments. These are interlaced with delta formations of cross-bedded sandstones and occasionally conglomerate. There are numerous discontinuities in the beds, where they were raised high enough to be eroded, then lowered to have more sediments added on top.
Though the plateau is not composed of true mountains, and nowhere is very high, it has some of the most rugged terrain in the eastern United States, and locally is called mountains. Inhabitants of eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia mostly live in very narrow V-shaped valleys with little bottom land. Buildings and roads built along the bottom of the valley are susceptible to floods, while any structures on the steep slopes are subject to slumping. Roads are serious engineering challenges, and expensive to maintain. There are few locations available for agriculture; most people make their livelihoods from mining, timbering, or services.
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