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Drainage map showing the Great Basin in orange
The Great Basin is a large, arid region of the western United Statesmarker. Its boundaries vary depending on how it is defined, but it is most commonly defined as the contiguous endorheic basin roughly between the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Culturally, the Great Basin is home to several Shoshonean Great Basin tribes. Geologically, the Great Basin is part of the Basin and Range Province.

The Great Basin Desert is a desert defined by the extent of characteristic plant species, and covers a somewhat different (and smaller) area than the Great Basin as a whole.


The 200,000 square mile (520,000 km2) intermontane plateau covers most of Nevadamarker and over half of Utahmarker, as well as parts of Californiamarker, Idahomarker, Oregonmarker and Wyomingmarker. The Great Basin is not a single basin, but rather a series of contiguous watersheds, bounded on the west by watersheds of the Sacramento-San Joaquin and Klamath rivers, on the north by the watershed of the Columbia-Snake, and on the south and east by the watershed of the Coloradomarker-Green.

Watersheds within the Great Basin include:

Much of the Great Basin, especially across northern Nevada, consists of a series of isolated mountain ranges and intervening valleys, a geographical configuration known as the Basin and Range Province. Additionally the Great Basin contains two large expansive dry lakes that are the lakebed remnants of prehistoric lakes that existed in the basin during the last ice age but have since largely dried up. Lake Bonnevillemarker extended over most of Western Utah and into Idaho and Nevada, leaving behind the Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flatsmarker, Utah Lakemarker, and Sevier Lakemarker. Likewise Lake Lahontan extended across much of northwestern Nevada and neighboring states, leaving behind such remnants as the Black Rock Desertmarker, Carson Sink, Humboldt Sink, Walker Lake, Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca Lake, and Honey Lake, each of which now forms a separate watershed within the basin.

The Basin and Range province's dynamic fault history has profoundly affected the region's water drainage system. Most precipitation in the Great Basin falls in the form of snow that melts in the spring. Rain that reaches the ground, or snow that melts, quickly evaporates in the dry desert environment. Some of the water that does not evaporate sinks into the ground to become ground water. The remaining water flows into streams and collects in short-lived lakes called dry lakes on the valley floor and eventually evaporates. Any water that falls as rain or snow into this region does not escape out of it; not one of the streams that originate within this basin ever finds an outlet to the ocean. The extent of internal drainage, the area in which surface water cannot reach the ocean, defines the geographic region called the Great Basin.

The Great Basin's internal drainage results from blockage of water movement by high fault-created mountains and by lack of sufficient water flow to merge with larger drainages outside of the Great Basin. Much of the present-day Great Basin would drain to the sea - just as it did in the recent Ice Ages - if there were more rain and snowfall.


Winter in Great Basin, Utah County, Utah
The Great Basin is part of the greater geologic unit, the Basin and Range Province.
Basin and Range type valleys and mountain ranges are typical of the great basin.
On February 21, 2008, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake occurred near the town of Wells, Nevadamarker, centered on the Independence Valley fault system.

Flora and fauna

The Great Basin is predominantly high altitude desert, with the lowest basins just below and several peaks over . Most areas are dominated by shrubs, mostly of the Atriplex genus at the lowest elevations and sagebrush at higher elevations. Open woodlands consisting of Utah Juniper, Single-leaf Pinyon (mostly southern areas) or Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany (mostly northern areas) form Pinyon-juniper woodland on the slopes of most ranges. Stands of Limber Pine and Great Basin Bristlecone Pine can be found in some of the higher ranges. cottonwood and Quaking Aspen groves exist in areas with dependable water.

Juniper tree forests are found throughout the Great Basin.
Lagomorphs such as Black-tailed Jackrabbit and Desert Cottontail and the coyotes that prey on them are the mammals most often encountered by humans. Ground squirrels are common, but they generally venture above ground in only the spring and early summer. Packrats, Kangaroo rats and other small rodents are also common, but these are predominantly nocturnal. Pronghorn, Mule Deer, and Mountain Lion are also present throughout the area. Elk and Bighorn Sheep are present but uncommon.

Small lizards such as the Western fence lizard, Longnose Leopard Lizard and Horned Lizard are common, especially in lower elevations. Rattlesnakes and Gopher snakes are also present.

Shorebirds such as Phalaropes and Curlews can be found in wet areas. American White Pelicans are common at Pyramid Lake. Golden Eagles are perhaps more common in the Great Basin than anywhere else in the US. 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 that lies in the Great Basin: the Cui-ui sucker fish and the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Large invertebrates include tarantulas (Aphonopelma genus) and Mormon crickets.

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, which was unintentionally introduced, forms a critical portion of their diets. Feral horses (Mustangs) and wild burros are other highly successful, though controversial, alien species. Most of the Great Basin is open range and domestic cattle and sheep are widespread.


The history of human habitation in the Great Basin goes back at least 12,000 years. Archaeological evidence of primitive habitation sites along the shore of prehistoric Lake Lahontan date from the end of the ice age when its shoreline was approximately 500 ft (150 m) higher along the sides of the surrounding mountains.

At the time of the arrival of Europeans, the region was inhabited by a broad group of Uto-Aztecan-speaking Native American tribes known collectively as the Great Basin tribes, including the Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute. The first Europeans to encounter the area were the early Spanishmarker explorers in the southwest in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century, fur trappers from the Hudson's Bay Company had explored the upper Basin in the Oregon Country. The first comprehensive and accurate map of the region was made by John C. Frémont during several expeditions across the region in the 1840s.

The United States acquired complete control of the area through the 1846 Oregon Treaty (giving it the small portion north of the 42nd parallel) and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The first large-scale white settlement in the region was by early Mormon pioneers in the late 1840s in the arable areas around Salt Lake Citymarker and the Cache Valleymarker. The Mormons quickly established a provisional government and drafted a proposal for a new state, called the State of Deseret, that encompassed the entire Great Basin, as well as the coast of southern California. The region became successively organized by the creation of the Oregon Territorymarker in 1848, the admission of California to the Union in 1850, and the creation of the Utah Territory in 1850. The discovery of gold in California, in 1848, brought waves of migrants across the Great Basin along the California Trail, which followed the Humboldt River across Nevada. In 1860-61, the Pony Express came through the area, transporting mail from the eastern United States to California.

The part of the first North American transcontinental railroad that was built by the Central Pacific railroad crossed the Great Basin between Reno, Nevada, and Ogden, Utah. Another major railroad southwest from Salt Lake City into Nevada led to the founding of Las Vegas, Nevadamarker.

In 1986, the Great Basin National Parkmarker was established by the Federal Government, encompassing of land in Nevada, near the Utah border. The new National Park subsumed the much smaller Lehman Caves

Present habitation

The Basin has remained among the most sparsely inhabited areas of the United States. The two largest cities in the basin are Salt Lake City, Utahmarker on its eastern edge and Reno, Nevadamarker on its western edge. Suburbs of Los Angelesmarker, including Lancastermarker and Palmdalemarker, and Victorvillemarker and Hesperia, Californiamarker combine for about 600,000 residents on the area's southwestern edge. Smaller cities in the basin include Carson City, Nevadamarker; Winnemucca, Nevadamarker; Elko, Nevadamarker; Ogden, Utahmarker; Provo, Utahmarker; and Logan, Utahmarker.

The Great Basin is traversed by major long-distance railroads and expressways, such as the parts of Interstate 80 between Reno and Salt Lake City, Interstate 15 between southwest Utahmarker and Idahomarker, and Interstate 70 from its junction with Interstate 15 in central Utah from the Great Basin, across the Colorado Plateau to westernmost Coloradomarker. Railroads, such as the Union Pacific, which through merger now owns the routes of the former Southern Pacific and Western Pacific lines, extend from the major metropolitan areas of Denver, Colorado, through Salt Lake City, Utah, and Reno, Nevada, to the San Francisco, California, Bay Area; and from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, California.

See also

Line notes

  1. U.S. Geological survey, 2004
  2. C.M Hogan, 1987


External links

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