Great Divide Basin

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Great Divide Basin
The Great Divide Basin is an endorheic drainage basin on the Continental Divide in the United States.
Floor elevation6,500 ft (2,000 m) [1]
Area3,959 sq mi (10,250 km2) [2]
CountryUnited States
Region Red Desert
Coordinates 42°00′01″N107°59′02″W / 42.00028°N 107.98389°W / 42.00028; -107.98389 Coordinates: 42°00′01″N107°59′02″W / 42.00028°N 107.98389°W / 42.00028; -107.98389

The Great Divide Basin or Great Divide Closed Basin [3] is an area of land in the Red Desert of Wyoming where none of the water falling as rain to the ground drains into any ocean, directly or indirectly. It is thus an endorheic basin, one of several in the United States that adjoin the Continental Divide. To the south and west of the basin is the Green River watershed, draining to the Gulf of California/Pacific Ocean; to the north and east is the North Platte watershed, draining to the Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic Ocean. The basin is very roughly rectangular in shape; the northwest corner is at Oregon Buttes near South Pass, about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Lander, and the southeast corner is in the Sierra Madre Range near Bridger Pass, about 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Rawlins. [4]



Although the Great Divide Basin provides a relatively low and easy crossing of the Continental Divide, its aridity and endorheic nature were an obstacle to pioneers during the westward expansion of the United States; it was known as the Saline Plain around the 1870s. [5] Consequently, the Oregon Trail detoured north over South Pass, and the Overland Trail detoured south over Bridger Pass. In contrast, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific was laid directly across the southern part of the basin. (The original railroad map labelled one point along this route as Bridgers Pass, [6] giving rise to the still-common misconception that the railroad followed the Overland Trail.) Roughly the same route across the basin was later taken by the transcontinental highways traversing the region, namely the Lincoln Highway, U.S. 30, and Interstate 80. The basin is also traversed in a north-south direction by U.S. 287 and Wyoming 789. Even today the basin is very sparsely populated, the only incorporated town being Wamsutter, with a population of 451 at the 2010 census.

Thunderstorm over the Great Divide Basin Lightning and hail storm in the Great Divide Basin.jpg
Thunderstorm over the Great Divide Basin

A westward traveler on Interstate 80 crosses from the Gulf of Mexico drainage to the Great Divide Basin at about 41°47′17″N107°22′34″W / 41.788°N 107.376°W / 41.788; -107.376 , roughly 7 miles west of Rawlins. A highway sign marks this as a crossing of the Continental Divide, although that is a matter of interpretation. At about 41°42′58″N107°46′55″W / 41.716°N 107.782°W / 41.716; -107.782 is the exit for Continental Divide Road, the highest point on I-80 within the Great Divide Basin, at an elevation of 7,130 ft (2,170 m). [7] While this is no longer recognized as a crossing of the Divide, it was evidently considered to be just that during the days of the Lincoln Highway and U.S. 30, and a monument to Henry B. Joy, the first president of the Lincoln Highway Association, was placed just south of this point along the old highway. (It was relocated to Sherman Summit in 2001 to protect it from increasing vandalism.) Further west, I-80 crosses to the Colorado River drainage at about 41°37′52″N108°18′40″W / 41.631°N 108.311°W / 41.631; -108.311 . This is now recognized as the true location of the Continental Divide, [8] although the corresponding highway sign is located about 2.6 miles away at 41°38′02″N108°15′40″W / 41.634°N 108.261°W / 41.634; -108.261 . (The placement of the Divide on the west rim of the basin signifies that this otherwise endorheic region would drain to the east if it were to overflow.) Having finally left the Great Divide Basin behind, I-80 continues west and at 41°16′30″N110°48′07″W / 41.275°N 110.802°W / 41.275; -110.802 , around 10 miles (16 km) west of Evanston, enters the vastly larger Great Basin, staying within it until the crest of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Summit.


Greater Green River Basin, comprising Great Divide Basin, Green River Basin, Washakie Basin and Sand Wash Basin. Greater Green River Basin Map.jpg
Greater Green River Basin, comprising Great Divide Basin, Green River Basin, Washakie Basin and Sand Wash Basin.

The Great Divide Basin is part of the Greater Green River Basin, separated from the Green River Basin by the Rock Springs Uplift during Late Cretaceous into the Early Eocene. [9] [10] [11]


While usually thought of as a single basin, the Great Divide Basin is actually several contiguous sub-basins, most notably those centered on Circle Bar Lake, Frewen Lake, Lost Creek Lake, Red Lake, and Separation Lake. The interior ridges separating these sub-basins have led to disagreement about the correct path of the Continental Divide across or around the basin.

The Lucite Hills form part of the western boundary of the basin, featuring Black Rock Butte and Emmons Cone. Alkali Flat and Greasewood Flat are directly to their northeast. Sand dunes lie in the central western part of the basin. In the southern part of the western basin, Red Desert Flat and Red Desert Basin are the major features. These are about 25 miles (40 km) northwest of the town of Wamsutter. In the northeast part of the Great Divide Basin is Chain Lakes Flat, southwest and downslope from Bairoil and Lamont. [12]

The basin is a high desert dominated by sand dunes, bluffs and alkali flats. Flora and fauna include small trees in some ravines and the occasional shrub, along with many birds and pronghorn, mule deer, feral horses, and a desert elk herd. The basin includes uranium ore deposits and many oil and natural gas wells. [13] There has been debate between those who wish to exploit the resources within the basin and those who wish to see at least parts of it officially designated as wilderness. [14]

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The Continental Divide of the Americas is the principal, and largely mountainous, hydrological divide of the Americas. The Continental Divide extends from the Bering Strait to the Strait of Magellan, and separates the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean from those river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean and, along the northernmost reaches of the Divide, those river systems that drain into the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay.

Drainage basin Area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet

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Great Basin Large depression in western North America

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Platte River River in Nebraska, United States

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Endorheic basin Closed drainage basin that allows no outflow

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Eastern Continental Divide Hydrological divide in eastern North America

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Bear River (Great Salt Lake) River in southwestern Wyoming, southeastern Idaho, and northern Utah

The Bear River is the largest tributary of the Great Salt Lake, draining a mountainous area and farming valleys northeast of the lake and southeast of the Snake River Plain. It flows through southwestern Wyoming, southeastern Idaho, and northern Utah, in the United States. Approximately 350 miles (560 km) long it is the longest river in North America that does not ultimately reach the sea.

Uinta Mountains Mountain range in northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado in the United States

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Walker River

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 mountains 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.

Kern River River in California, United States

The Kern River, originally Rio de San Felipe, later La Porciuncula, is a river in the U.S. state of California, approximately 165 miles (270 km) long. It drains an area of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains northeast of Bakersfield. Fed by snowmelt near Mount Whitney, the river passes through scenic canyons in the mountains and is a popular destination for whitewater rafting and kayaking. It is the southernmost major river system in the Sierra Nevada, and is the only major river in the Sierra that drains in a southerly direction.

San Jacinto River (California)

The San Jacinto River is a 42-mile-long (68 km) river in Riverside County, California. The river's headwaters are in Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. The lower portion of the 765-square-mile (1,980 km2) watershed is urban and agricultural land. As a partially endorheic watershed that is contiguous with other Great Basin watersheds, the western side of the San Jacinto Basin is a portion of the Great Basin Divide.

Traverse Gap

The Traverse Gap is an ancient river channel occupied by Lake Traverse, Big Stone Lake and the valley connecting them at Browns Valley, Minnesota. It is located on the border of the U.S. states of Minnesota and South Dakota. Traverse Gap has an unusual distinction for a valley: it is crossed by a continental divide, and in some floods water has flowed across that divide from one drainage basin to the other. Before the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 it marked the border between British territory in the north and U.S. – or earlier, French – territory in the south.

Red Desert (Wyoming)

The Red Desert is a high altitude desert and sagebrush steppe located in south central Wyoming, comprising approximately 9,320 square miles. Among the natural features in the Red Desert region are the Great Divide Basin, a unique endorheic drainage basin formed by a division in the Continental Divide, and the Killpecker Sand Dunes, the largest living dune system in the United States. In the 19th century, the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass, just north of the Red Desert. Today, busy Interstate 80 bisects the desert's southern region while gas field roads cross the desert.

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Great Basin Divide hydrological divide in western United States bounding a large endorheic basin

The Great Basin Divide in the western United States is the ridgeline that separates the Great Basin from the Pacific Ocean watershed, which completely surrounds it.

Sierra Madre Range (Wyoming)

The Sierra Madre Range is a mountain range in the western United States, located in south-central Wyoming and north-central Colorado. Geologically, it may be considered an extension of the Park Range of Colorado. South of the Great Divide Basin, the US Continental Divide runs along the Sierre Madre high points. Its western basins drain into the Colorado River and its eastern into the North Platte River. Buck Mountain is the highest peak in the range and lies within Colorado. Bridger Peak is its highest elevation on the Wyoming side of the range.

Beaver River (Utah)

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Watersheds of North America

Watersheds of North America are large drainage basins which drain to separate oceans, seas, gulfs, or endorheic basins. There are six generally recognized hydrological continental divides which divide the continent into seven principal drainage basins spanning three oceans and one endorheic basin. The basins are the Atlantic Seaboard basin, the Gulf of Mexico basin, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, the Pacific basin, the Arctic basin, the Hudson Bay basin, and the Great Basin. Together, the principal basins span the continent with the exception of numerous smaller endorheic basins.

Triple divide Point where three drainage basins meet

A triple divide or triple watershed is a point on the Earth's surface where three drainage basins meet. A triple divide results from the intersection of two drainage divides. Triple divides range from prominent mountain peaks to minor side peaks, down to simple slope changes on a ridge which are otherwise unremarkable. The elevation of a triple divide can be thousands of meters to barely above sea level. Triple divides are a common hydrographic feature of any terrain that has rivers, streams and/or lakes.


  1. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Great Divide Basin
  2. "Statewide Data Inventory - Green River/Great Divide Basin Introduction". Archived from the original on 2016-09-21. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  3. "Great Divide Closed Basin Watershed -- 14040200". Surf Your Watershed . United States Environmental Protection Agency . Retrieved 2010-04-24.External link in |work= (help)
  4. "Select Area of Interest". Wyoming Stratigraphy . Wyoming State Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-04-24.External link in |work= (help) (Great Basin Divide, Washakie Basin)
  5. Nebraska, and the territories of Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (Map). 1:3,000,000. Atlas of the United States. Cartography by H.F. Walling, O.W. Gray, and H.H. Lloyd & Co. Cincinnati: Stedman, Brown & Lyon. 1872.|access-date= requires |url= (help)
  6. Wells, C.H. (December 7, 1867). "Profile of Pacific Railroad". Harper's Weekly .
  7. "Creston, Wyoming, 1966 USGS 7.5 minute topographic map via TopoQuest". USGS . Retrieved 2013-06-02.
  8. "Tipton, Wyoming, 1970 USGS 7.5 minute topographic map via TopoQuest". USGS . Retrieved 2013-06-02.
  9. Roehler, H.W. (1992). "Introduction to greater Green River basin geology, physiography, and history of investigations". Professional Paper. doi:10.3133/pp1506a. ISSN   2330-7102.
  10. Selena Mederos, Basil Tikoff1 and Viki Bankey: Geometry, timing, and continuity of the Rock Springs uplift, Wyoming, and Douglas Creek arch, Colorado, Rocky Mountain Geology, Volume 40, Number 2, p. 167-191, December 2005 Abstract
  11. Rock Springs Uplift, Wyoming Geological Survey
  12. Official State Highway Map of Wyoming (Map). Wyoming Department of Transportation. 2014.|access-date= requires |url= (help)
  13. "Energy Metals Corporation Adds 5 Uranium Deposits And 39.5 Million Pounds In The Great Divide Basin, Wyoming". February 23, 2005. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  14. "Showdown in the Great Divide". National Wildlife Federation. October 1, 2006. Retrieved 2013-12-10.