Great Basin

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Great Basin
Great Basin map.gif
Relief map with Great Basin overlay
Coordinates: 40°40′N117°40′W / 40.667°N 117.667°W / 40.667; -117.667
LocationUnited States, Mexico
  Total209,162 sq mi (541,730 km2) [1]
Highest elevation14,505 ft (4,421 m)
(Mount Whitney summit)

The Great Basin (Spanish : Gran Cuenca) is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds, those with no outlets to the ocean, in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Utah, and portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Baja California. It is noted for both its arid climate and the basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes, ecoregions, and deserts.



The hydrographic Great Basin (magenta outline), distinguished from the Great Basin Desert (black), and the Basin and Range Geological Province (teal). GB-Definition-Map.jpg
The hydrographic Great Basin (magenta outline), distinguished from the Great Basin Desert (black), and the Basin and Range Geological Province (teal).

The term "Great Basin" is applied to hydrographic, [2] [3] :11 biological, [2] floristic, [3] :21 physiographic, [3] :14 topographic, [2] and ethnographic geographic areas. [3] :34 The name was originally coined by John C. Frémont, who, based on information gleaned from Joseph R. Walker as well as his own travels, recognized the hydrographic nature of the landform as "having no connection to the ocean". [3] :8–9 The hydrographic definition is the most commonly used, [2] and is the only one with a definitive border. The other definitions yield not only different geographical boundaries of "Great Basin" regions but regional borders that vary from source to source. [3] :11

The Great Basin Desert is defined by plant and animal communities, and, according to the National Park Service, its boundaries approximate the hydrographic Great Basin but exclude the southern "panhandle". [2]

The Great Basin Floristic Province was defined by botanist Armen Takhtajan to extend well beyond the boundaries of the hydrographically defined Great Basin: it includes the Snake River Plain, the Colorado Plateau, the Uinta Basin, and parts of Arizona north of the Mogollon Rim. [4]

The Great Basin physiographic section is a geographic division of the Basin and Range Province defined by Nevin Fenneman in 1931. [5] The United States Geological Survey adapted Fenneman's scheme in their Physiographic division of the United States. [6] The "section" is somewhat larger than the hydrographic definition.

The Great Basin Culture Area or indigenous peoples of the Great Basin is a cultural classification of indigenous peoples of the Americas and a cultural region located between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. The culture area covers approximately 400,000 sq mi (1,000,000 km2), [7] or just less than twice the area of the hydrographic Great Basin.


The Tule Valley watershed and the House Range (Notch Peak) are part of the Great Basin's Great Salt Lake hydrologic unit TuleHorses.JPG
The Tule Valley watershed and the House Range (Notch Peak) are part of the Great Basin's Great Salt Lake hydrologic unit

The hydrographic Great Basin is a 209,162-square-mile (541,730 km2) area that once drained internally. All precipitation in the region evaporated, sank underground or flowed into lakes (mostly saline). However, since the advent of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, for over a century, a large portion of water has been transported out of the area, leaving the landscape permanently altered. As observed by Fremont, creeks, streams, or rivers find no outlet to either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. The region is bounded by the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges to the west, and the Snake River Basin to the north. The south rim is less distinct. The Great Basin includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, substantial portions of Oregon and California, and small areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Baja California, Mexico. The term "Great Basin" is slightly misleading; the region comprises many small basins. The Great Salt Lake, Pyramid Lake, and the Humboldt Sink are a few of the "drains" in the Great Basin. [2] The Salton Sink is another closed basin within the Great Basin. [8]

The Great Basin Divide separates the Great Basin from the watersheds draining to the Pacific Ocean. The southernmost portion of the Great Basin is the watershed area of the Laguna Salada. The Great Basin's longest and largest river is the Bear River of 350 mi (560 km), [9] and the largest single watershed is the Humboldt River drainage of roughly 17,000 sq mi (44,000 km2). Most Great Basin precipitation is snow, and the precipitation that neither evaporates nor is extracted for human use will sink into groundwater aquifers, while evaporation of collected water occurs from geographic sinks. [10] Lake Tahoe, North America's largest alpine lake, [11] is part of the Great Basin's central Lahontan subregion.


Ecoregions as currently delineated by the Environmental Protection Agency and World Wildlife Fund Great Basin Ecoregions.gif
Ecoregions as currently delineated by the Environmental Protection Agency and World Wildlife Fund
Great Basin snowstorm in the Snake Valley of Utah and Nevada WheelerSnow.JPG
Great Basin snowstorm in the Snake Valley of Utah and Nevada

The hydrographic Great Basin contains multiple deserts and ecoregions, each with its own distinctive set of flora and fauna. [2] The ecological boundaries and divisions in the Great Basin are unclear. [14]

The Great Basin overlaps four different deserts: portions of the hot Mojave and Colorado (a region within the Sonoran desert) Deserts to the south, and the cold Great Basin and Oregon High Deserts in the north. The deserts can be distinguished by their plants: the Joshua tree and creosote bush occur in the hot deserts, while the cold deserts have neither. The cold deserts are generally higher than the hot and have more even spread of precipitation throughout the year. [15]

The climate and flora of the Great Basin are strongly dependent on elevation; as the elevation increases, the temperature decreases and precipitation increases. Because of this, forests can occur at higher elevations. Utah juniper/single-leaf pinyon (southern regions) and mountain mahogany (northern regions) form open pinyon-juniper woodland on the slopes of most ranges. Stands of limber pine and Great Basin bristlecone pine ( Pinus longaeva ) can be found in some of the higher ranges. In riparian areas with dependable water cottonwoods ( Populus fremontii ) and quaking aspen ( Populus tremuloides ) groves exist.

Because the forest ecosystem is distinct from a typical desert, some authorities, such as the World Wildlife Fund, separate the mountains of the Great Basin desert into their own ecoregion: the Great Basin montane forests. [16] Many rare and endemic species occur in this ecoregion, because the individual mountain ranges are isolated from each other. During the Last Glacial Period, the Great Basin was wetter. As it dried during the Holocene epoch, some species retreated to the higher isolated mountains and have high genetic diversity. [16]

Other authorities divide the Great Basin into different ecoregions, depending on their own criteria. Armen Takhtajan defined the "Great Basin floristic province". The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency divides the Great Basin into three ecoregions roughly according to latitude: the Northern Basin and Range ecoregion, the Central Basin and Range ecoregion, and the Mojave Basin and Range ecoregion.


Great Basin wildlife includes pronghorn, mule deer, mountain lion, and lagomorphs such as black-tailed jackrabbit and desert cottontail and the coyotes that prey on them. Packrats, kangaroo rats and other small rodents are also common, and are predominantly nocturnal. Elk and bighorn sheep are present but uncommon. Small lizards such as the Great Basin fence lizard, longnose leopard lizard and horned lizard are common, especially in lower elevations. Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are also present. The Inyo Mountains salamander is endangered. Shorebirds such as phalaropes and curlews can be found in wet areas. American white pelicans are common at Pyramid Lake. Golden eagles are also very common in the Great Basin. [17] Mourning dove, western meadowlark, black-billed magpie, and common raven are other common bird species.

Two endangered species of fish are found in Pyramid Lake: the Cui-ui sucker fish (endangered 1967) and the Lahontan cutthroat trout (threatened 1970). [18]

Large invertebrates include tarantulas (genus Aphonopelma ) and Mormon crickets. Exotic species, including chukar, grey partridge, and Himalayan snowcock, have been successfully introduced to the Great Basin, although the latter has only thrived in the Ruby Mountains. Cheatgrass, an invasive species which was unintentionally introduced, forms a critical portion of their diets. Feral horses (mustangs) and feral burros are highly reproductive, and ecosystem-controversial, alien species. Most of the Great Basin is open range and domestic cattle and sheep are widespread.


Basin and Range topography as seen from the air Basin range province.jpg
Basin and Range topography as seen from the air

The Great Basin includes valleys, basins, lakes and mountain ranges of the Basin and Range Province. [19] Geographic features near the Great Basin include the Continental Divide of the Americas, the Great Divide Basin, and the Gulf of California.

Map showing the Great Basin physiographic section (shown as 22a) US west coast physiographic regions map.jpg
Map showing the Great Basin physiographic section (shown as 22a)

Great Basin physiographic section

The Great Basin physiographic section of the Basin and Range Province contains the Great Basin, but extends into eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and the Colorado River watershed and the northwest corner of Arizona). [20] The Basin and Range region is the product of geological forces stretching the Earth's crust, creating many north–south trending mountain ranges. These ranges are separated by flat valleys or basins. These hundreds of ranges make Nevada the most mountainous state in the country. [2]

Settlements and roads

The Great Basin's two most populous metropolitan areas are the Reno-Sparks metropolitan area to the west and the Wasatch Front to the east (with the latter being significantly more populous than the former). The region between these two areas is sparsely populated, but includes the smaller cities of Elko, Ely, Wendover, West Wendover, and Winnemucca. To the north are; in California Susanville, in Oregon Burns and Hines, in Idaho Malad and in Wyoming Evanston. To the south are Cedar City, Tonopah, and Bishop and the very southern area of the basin has the communities of Pahrump, Palmdale, Victorville, and Palm Springs. Interstate Highways traversing the Great Basin are Interstate 80 (I-80) and I-15, and I-70 and I-84 have their respective endpoints within its boundaries. Other major roadways are U.S. Route 6 (US 6), US 50, US 93, US 95 and US 395. The section of US 50 between Delta, Utah, and Fallon, Nevada, is nicknamed "The Loneliest Road in America", [21] and Nevada State Route 375 is designated the "Extraterrestrial Highway". [22] The Great Basin is traversed by several rail lines including the Union Pacific Railroad's Overland Route (Union Pacific Railroad) through Reno and Ogden, Feather River Route, Central Corridor and Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad.


Sediment build-up over thousands of years filled the down-faulted basins between ranges and created relatively flat lacustrine plains from Pleistocene lake beds of the Great Basin. [23] For example, after forming about 32,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville overflowed about 14,500 years ago in the Bonneville Flood through Red Rock Pass and lowered to the "Provo Lake" [24] level (the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, Sevier Lake, Rush Lake, and Little Salt Lake remain). [25] Lake Lahontan, Lake Manly, and Lake Mojave were similar Pleistocene lakes.

Native American tribes that inhabited the Great Basin were divided between the "Great Basin" and, in the Colorado desert region, the "California" tribal classifications. North American cultural areas.png
Native American tribes that inhabited the Great Basin were divided between the "Great Basin" and, in the Colorado desert region, the "California" tribal classifications.

Paleo-Indian habitation by the Great Basin tribes began as early as 10,000 B.C. (the Numic-speaking Shoshonean peoples arrived as late as 1000 A.D.). [26] Archaeological evidence of habitation sites along the shore of Lake Lahontan date from the end of the ice age when its shoreline was approximately 500 feet (150 m) higher along the sides of the surrounding mountains. The Great Basin was inhabited for at least several thousand years by Uto-Aztecan language group-speaking Native American Great Basin tribes, including the Shoshone, Ute, Mono, and Northern Paiute.

European exploration of the Great Basin occurred during the 18th century Spanish colonization of the Americas. The first immigrant American to cross the Great Basin from the Sierra Nevada was Jedediah Strong Smith in 1827. [27] Peter Skene Ogden of the British Hudson's Bay Company explored the Great Salt Lake and Humboldt River regions in the late 1820s, following the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada to the Gulf of California. [28] Benjamin Bonneville explored the northeast portion during an 1832 expedition. The United States had acquired claims to the territory north of the 42nd parallel via the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain and 1846 Oregon Treaty with Britain. The US gained claims to most of the rest of the Great Basin via the 1848 Mexican Cession. The first non-indigenous settlement was in 1847 in the Great Salt Lake Valley, leading to the first American religious settlement effort of the Mormon provisional State of Deseret in 1849 in present-day Utah and northern Nevada. Later settlements were connected with the eastern regions of the 1848 California Gold Rush, with its immigrants crossing the Great Basin on the California Trail along Nevada's Humboldt River to Carson Pass in the Sierras. The Oregon Territory was established in 1848 and the Utah Territory in 1850.

In 1869 the First transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit in the Great Basin. [29] Around 1902, the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad was constructed in the lower basin and Mojave Desert for California-Nevada rail service to Las Vegas, Nevada.

To close a 1951 Indian Claims Commission case, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act of 2004 established the United States payment of $117 million to the Great Basin tribe for the acquisition of 39,000 square miles (100,000 km2).[ citation needed ]

The Dixie Valley, Nevada, earthquake (6.6–7.1) in the Great Basin was in 1954.

Indigenous populations

There has been a succession of indigenous peoples of the Great Basin.

From about 12,000 to 9,000 years ago, the Paleo-Indians were the first group living in the Great Basin area. The Paleo-Indians were mainly hunters and hunted bison, the extinct mammoth, and extinct ground sloth. For housing, since they followed the animals they were hunting, they had no permanent villages.

The next group to live in the area was the Great Basin Desert Archaic, from approximately 9,000 to 1,500 years ago. They hunted animals like mule deer and antelope and gathered onions, wild rye, and pinyon pine nuts. Then, from 1,500 to 700 years ago, the Fremont lived in the area. Unlike the Paleo-Indians, who moved around to follow bison herds, the Fremont built small villages and grew crops like corn and squash. Seven hundred years ago, the Shoshone inhabited the area after the Fremont. They were hunter-gathers and lived in temporary homes to be able to follow animal herds and collect plants. Now, Shoshone descendants live in nearby areas. [30]


Wah Wah Valley, Utah, thunderstorm Rain in the Wah Wah Valley.jpg
Wah Wah Valley, Utah, thunderstorm

The climate varies throughout the Great Basin by elevation, latitude, and other factors. Higher elevations tend to be cooler and receive more precipitation. The western areas of the basin tend to be drier than the eastern areas because of the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. Most of the basin experiences a semi-arid or arid climate with warm summers and cold winters. However, some of the mountainous areas in the basin are high enough in elevation to experience an alpine climate. Due to the region's altitude and aridity, most areas in the Great Basin experience a substantial diurnal temperature variation.

Significant special designations

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of California</span>

California is a U.S. state on the western coast of North America. Covering an area of 163,696 sq mi (423,970 km2), California is among the most geographically diverse states. The Sierra Nevada, the fertile farmlands of the Central Valley, and the arid Mojave Desert of the south are some of the major geographic features of this U.S. state. It is home to some of the world's most exceptional trees: the tallest, most massive, and oldest. It is also home to both the highest and lowest points in the 48 contiguous states. The state is generally divided into Northern and Southern California, although the boundary between the two is not well defined. San Francisco is decidedly a Northern California city and Los Angeles likewise a Southern California one, but areas in between do not often share their confidence in geographic identity. The US Geological Survey defines the geographic center of California about 7.1 miles driving distance from the United States Forest Service office in the Northern Californian city of North Fork, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Intermontane Plateaus</span> Physiographic region of the contiguous United States

In the context of physical geography, the Intermontane Plateaus is one of eight physiographic regions of the contiguous United States. The region consists mostly of plateaus and mountain ranges lying between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west. It is subdivided into three physiographic provinces: the Columbia Plateau in the north, the Basin and Range Province in the central and southwestern portions, and the Colorado Plateau in the southeast. In turn, each of these provinces are each subdivided into a number of physiographic sections.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Bonneville</span> Former pluvial lake in western North America

Lake Bonneville was the largest Late Pleistocene paleolake in the Great Basin of western North America. It was a pluvial lake that formed in response to an increase in precipitation and a decrease in evaporation as a result of cooler temperatures. The lake covered much of what is now western Utah and at its highest level extended into present-day Idaho and Nevada. Many other hydrographically closed basins in the Great Basin contained expanded lakes during the Late Pleistocene, including Lake Lahontan in northwestern Nevada.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mojave Desert</span> Desert in the southwestern United States

The Mojave Desert is a desert in the rain shadow of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and Transverse Ranges in the Southwestern United States. Named for the indigenous Mohave people, it is located primarily in southeastern California and southwestern Nevada, with small portions extending into Arizona and Utah.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Black Rock Desert</span> Northwest Nevada dry lake

The Black Rock Desert is a semi-arid region of lava beds and playa, or alkali flats, situated in the Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, a silt playa 100 miles (160 km) north of Reno, Nevada that encompasses more than 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) of land and contains more than 120 miles (200 km) of historic trails. It is in the northern Nevada section of the Great Basin with a lakebed that is a dry remnant of Pleistocene Lake Lahontan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Basin Desert</span> Desert in the western United States

The Great Basin Desert is part of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range. The desert is a geographical region that largely overlaps the Great Basin shrub steppe defined by the World Wildlife Fund, and the Central Basin and Range ecoregion defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United States Geological Survey. It is a temperate desert with hot, dry summers and snowy winters. The desert spans large portions of Nevada and Utah, and extends into eastern California. The desert is one of the four biologically defined deserts in North America, in addition to the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Lahontan</span> Former lake in Nevada, United States

Lake Lahontan was a large endorheic Pleistocene lake of modern northwestern Nevada that extended into northeastern California and southern Oregon. The area of the former lake is a large portion of the Great Basin that borders the Sacramento River watershed to the west.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carson Sink</span> Dry lake in Churchill County, Nevada, USA

Carson Sink is a playa in the northeastern portion of the Carson Desert in present-day Nevada, United States of America, that was formerly the terminus of the Carson River. Today the sink is fed by drainage canals of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. The southeastern fringe of the sink, where the canals enter, is a wetland of the Central Basin and Range ecoregion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Walker River</span> River in Nevada, United States

The Walker River is a river in west-central Nevada in the United States, approximately 62 miles (100 km) long. Fed principally by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada of California, it drains an arid portion of the Great Basin southeast of Reno and flows into the endorheic basin of Walker Lake. The river is an important source of water for irrigation in its course through Nevada; water diversions have reduced its flow such that the level of Walker Lake has fallen 160 feet (49 m) between 1882 and 2010. The river was named for explorer Joseph Reddeford Walker, a mountain man and experienced scout who is known for establishing a segment of the California Trail.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Salt Lake Desert</span> Large dry lake in northern Utah, United States

The Great Salt Lake Desert is a large dry lake in northern Utah, United States, between the Great Salt Lake and the Nevada border. It is a subregion of the larger Great Basin Desert, and noted for white evaporite Lake Bonneville salt deposits including the Bonneville Salt Flats.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Northern Basin and Range ecoregion</span>

The Northern Basin and Range ecoregion is a Level III ecoregion designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. states of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and California. It contains dissected lava plains, rolling hills, alluvial fans, valleys, and scattered mountain ranges in the northern part of the Great Basin. Although arid, the ecoregion is higher and cooler than the Snake River Plain to the north and has more available moisture and a cooler climate than the Central Basin and Range to the south. Its southern boundary is determined by the highest shoreline of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, which once inundated the Central Basin and Range. The western part of the region is internally drained; its eastern stream network drains to the Snake River system.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deserts of California</span> Region of California

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Basin montane forests</span> Temperate coniferous forests ecoregion of the United States

The Great Basin montane forests is an ecoregion of the Temperate coniferous forests biome, as designated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The Nevada Basin is the Great Basin area surrounded by river basins and, to the east, the Great Salt Lake basin. The bounding river basins include those of the following : Sevier River, Muddy River, Las Vegas Wash, Colorado River, Mojave River, Amargosa River, Owens River, Lake Lahontan basin, and Snake River. The 1850 diagonal California state lines with the Utah Territory & New Mexico Territory are along the general direction of the Nevada Basin's southwest drainage divide (rim), while the north-to-south rim on the east is through the area of the three meridians used for the Nevada-Utah state line.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nellis Air Force Base Complex</span>

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Neopluvial is a term referring to a phase of wetter and colder climate that occurred during the late Holocene in the Western United States. During the Neopluvial, water levels in a number of now-dry lakes and closed lakes such as the Great Salt Lake rose and vegetation changed in response to increased precipitation. The event was not exactly synchronous everywhere, with neopluvial lake-level rises occurring between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago. It is correlative to the Neoglacial period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Thompson (California)</span>

Lake Thompson is a former lake in California. The name is derived from an academic who first speculated on the possibility that a lake existed in lower Antelope Valley. It occupied the area of the lower Antelope Valley and of the lakes Rogers Lake and Rosamond Lake during the Pleistocene. It dried up during the Holocene.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">South Lahontan hydrologic region</span> Regional subdivision, CA Dept of Water Resources

The South Lahonton is a hydrologic region defined by the State of California that encompasses several interior basins east of the Sierra Nevada and the Transverse Ranges, with an area of 17 million acres (69,000 km2). It covers the western portion of the Mojave Desert and a southwestern portion of the Great Basin desert, and extends into the forests of the southeastern Sierra Nevada and the montane chaparral and woodlands of the northeastern Transverse ranges. The ecoregion has an arid to semi-arid climate, with average annual rainfall of 7.9 inches (200 mm).


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