Great Divide Basin

Coordinates: 42°00′01″N 107°59′02″W / 42.00028°N 107.98389°W / 42.00028; -107.98389
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Great Divide Basin
The Great Divide Basin (the uppermost "loop" on the map above) is an endorheic drainage basin on the Continental Divide (red line) in the United States.
Floor elevation6,500 ft (2,000 m)[1]
Area3,959 sq mi (10,250 km2) [2]
CountryUnited States
RegionRed Desert
Coordinates42°00′01″N 107°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 North America 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. 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][5]


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.[6] 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,[7] 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 203 at the 2020 census.

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″N 107°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″N 107°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).[8] 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″N 108°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,[9] although the corresponding highway sign is located about 2.6 miles away at 41°38′02″N 108°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″N 110°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.

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.[10][11][12]


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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

The British author Arthur Conan Doyle described a romanticized version of the Great Divide Basin, which the novel called the Great Alkali Plain, in his Sherlock Holmes work A Study in Scarlet (1887).


  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". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
  4. ^ "Select Area of Interest". Wyoming State Geological Survey. Archived from the original on 2012-02-24. Retrieved 2010-04-24. (Great Basin Divide Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine, Washakie Basin Archived 2012-02-24 at the Wayback Machine)
  5. ^ Francis, Julie. "The Great Divide and Green River Basins". Wyoming State Geological Survey. Archived from the original on May 9, 2021. Retrieved December 30, 2021.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Wells, C.H. (December 7, 1867). "Profile of Pacific Railroad". Harper's Weekly.
  8. ^ "Creston, Wyoming, 1966 USGS 7.5 minute topographic map via TopoQuest". USGS. Archived from the original on 2016-03-06. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
  9. ^ "Tipton, Wyoming, 1970 USGS 7.5 minute topographic map via TopoQuest". USGS. Archived from the original on 2017-02-05. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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 Archived 2011-10-02 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Rock Springs Uplift, Wyoming Geological Survey
  13. ^ Official State Highway Map of Wyoming (Map). Wyoming Department of Transportation. 2014.
  14. ^ "Energy Metals Corporation Adds 5 Uranium Deposits And 39.5 Million Pounds In The Great Divide Basin, Wyoming". February 23, 2005. Archived from the original on 2021-12-30. Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  15. ^ "Showdown in the Great Divide". National Wildlife Federation. October 1, 2006. Archived from the original on 2014-10-31. Retrieved 2013-12-10.

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