The 70% of the country that is mountainous is rugged and often inaccessible. The remainder, an alluvial plain, receives precipitation seasonally, is poorly drained, and is alternately arid or flooded. Much of the plain's soil is of poor quality. Far from offering a relief from the difficult interior terrain, the alluvial plain is often as inhospitable as the mountains.
Good soil and dependable precipitation, however, are found in intermontane river basins, in the lake district along the eastern frontier, and in a narrow band of slightly elevated land between the coastal plains and the interior mountains.
In the far north, the mountains are an extension of the Dinaric Alps and, more specifically, the Montenegrin limestone plateau.
Albania's northern mountains are more folded and rugged, however, than most of the plateau. The rivers have deep valleys with steep sides and arable valley floors. Generally unnavigable, the rivers obstruct rather than encourage movement within the alpine region. Roads are few and poor. Lacking internal communications and external contacts, a tribal society flourished in this area for centuries. Only after World War II were serious efforts made to incorporate the people of the region into Albanian national life. A low coastal belt extends from the northern boundary southward to the vicinity of Vlorë. On average, it extends less than sixteen kilometers inland, but widens to about 50 km (31 mi) in the Elbasan area in central Albania.
In its natural state, the coastal belt is characterized by low scrub vegetation, varying from barren to dense. There are large areas of marshlands and other areas of bare, eroded badlands. Where elevations rise slightly and precipitation is regular—in the foothills of the central uplands, for example—the land is highly arable. Marginal land is reclaimed wherever irrigation is possible.
Just east of the lowlands, the central uplands, called Çermenikë by Albanians, are an area of generally moderate elevations, between 305 and 915 m (1,001 and 3,002 ft), with a few points reaching above 1,520 m (4,987 ft).
Shifting along the fault that roughly defines the western edge of the central uplands causes frequent, and occasionally severe, earthquakes.
Although rugged terrain and points of high elevation mark the central uplands, the first major mountain range inland from the Adriatic is an area of predominantly serpentine rock (which derives its name from its dull green color and often spotted appearance), extending nearly the length of the country, from the Prokletije to the Greek border south of Korçë. Within this zone, there are many areas in which sharp limestone and sandstone outcroppings predominate, although the ranges as a whole are characterized by rounded mountains.
The mountains east of the serpentine zone are the highest in Albania, exceeding 2,754 m (9,035 ft) in the Mount Korab (Mali Korabit) range at Korabi's Peak (Maja e Korabit). Together with the Prokletije and the serpentine zone, the eastern highlands are the most rugged and inaccessible of any terrain on the Balkan Peninsula. The three lakes of easternmost Albania, Lake Ohrid (Liqeni Ohrit), Big Prespa Lake (Prespa e Madhe), and Small Prespa Lake (Prespa e Vogël), are remote and picturesque. Much of the terrain in their vicinity is not overly steep, and it supports a larger population than any other inland portion of the country.
Albania's eastern border passes through Lake Ohrid; all but a small tip of Prespa e Vogël is in Greece; and the point at which the boundaries of three states meet is in Lake Prespa. Each of the two larger lakes has a total surface areas of about 260 square kilometers, and Prespa e Vogël is about one-fifth as large.
The surface elevation is about 695 m (2,280 ft) for Lake Ohrid and 855 m (2,805 ft) for the other two lakes.
The Southern Mountain Ranges are more accessible than the serpentine zone, the eastern highlands, or the Prokletije. The transition to the lowlands is less abrupt, and the arable valley floors are wider. Limestone, the predominant mineral, is responsible for the cliffs and clear water of the coastline southeast of Vlorë.
Erosion of a blend of softer rocks has provided the sediment that has caused wider valleys to form in the southern mountain area than those characteristic of the remainder of the country. This terrain encouraged the development of larger landholding, thus influencing the social structure of southern Albania.