USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1493
The Geologic Story of the Great Plains



The Great Plains! The words alone create a sense of space and a feeling of destiny—a challenge. But what exactly is this special part of Western America that contains so much of our history? How did it come to be? Why is it different?

Geographically, the Great Plains is an immense sweep of country; it reaches from Mexico far north into Canada and spreads out east of the Rocky Mountains like a huge welcome mat. So often maligned as a drab, featureless area, the Great Plains is in fact a land of marked contrasts and limitless variety: canyons carved into solid rock of an arid land by the waters of the Pecos and the Rio Grande; the seemingly endless grainfields of Kansas; the desolation of the Badlands; the beauty of the Black Hills.

Before it was broken by the plow, most of the Great Plains from the Texas panhandle northward was treeless grassland. Trees grew only along the floodplains of streams and on the few mountain masses of the northern Great Plains. These lush prairies once were the grazing ground for immense herds of bison, and the land provided a bountiful life for those Indians who followed the herds. South of the grasslands, in Texas, shrubs mixed with the grasses: creosote bush along the valley of the Pecos River; mesquite, oak, and juniper to the east.

The general lack of trees suggests that this is a land of little moisture, as indeed it is. Nearly all of the Great Plains receives less than 24 inches of rainfall a year, and most of it receives less than 16 inches. This dryness and the strength of sunshine in this area, which lies mostly between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, create the semiarid environment that typifies the Great Plains. But it was not always so. When the last continental glacier stood near its maximum extent, some 12,000-14,000 years ago, spruce forest reached southward as far as Kansas, and the Great Plains farther south was covered by deciduous forest. The trees retreated northward as the ice front receded, and the Great Plains has been a treeless grassland for the last 8,000-10,000 years.

For more than half a century after Lewis and Clark crossed the country in 1805-6, the Great Plains was the testing ground of frontier America—here America grew to maturity (fig. 1). In 1805-7, explorer Zebulon Pike crossed the southcentral Great Plains, following the Arkansas River from near Great Bend, Kans., to the Rocky Mountains. In later years, Santa Fe traders, lured by the wealth of New Mexican trade, followed Pike's path as far as Bents Fort, Colo., where they turned southwestward away from the river route. Those pioneers who later crossed the plains on the Oregon Trail reached the Platte River near the place that would become Kearney, Nebr., by a nearly direct route from Independence, Mo., and followed the Platte across the central part of the Great Plains.

Figure 1.—Index map of the Great Plains showing route of Lewis and Clark and the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Although these routes may have seemed long and tedious to those dusty travelers, they provided relatively easy access to the Rocky Mountains and had a continuous supply of fresh water, an absolute necessity in these plains. The minds of those frontiersmen surely were occupied with the dangers and demands of the moment—and with dreams—but the time afforded by the slow pace of travel also gave them ample opportunity for thought about the origins of their surroundings.

Today's traveler, who has less time for contemplation, races past a changing kaleidoscope of landscape. The increased awareness created by this rapidity of change perhaps is even more likely to stimulate questions about the origin of this landscape.

For instance, the westbound traveler on Interstate Highway 70 traverses nearly a thousand miles of low, rounded hills after leaving the Appalachians; the rolling landscape is broken only by a few flat areas where glacial ice or small lakes once stood. Suddenly, near Sailna, Kans., the observant traveler senses a difference in the landscape. Instead of rounded hills, widely or closely spaced, he sees on the skyline flat surfaces, or remnants of flat surfaces. As he climbs gently westward these broken horizontal lines stand etched against the sky. About 35 miles west of Salina he finds himself on a broad, flat plateau, where seemingly he can see forever. True, in places he descends into stream valleys, but only briefly, for he soon climbs back onto the flat surface.

This plateau surface continues for 300 miles to the west—to within 100 miles of the abrupt front of the Rocky Mountains. East-flowing streams, such as the Smoky Hill, the Saline, the Solomon, and the Republican Rivers and their tributary branches, have cut their valleys into this surface, but these valleys become increasingly shallow and disappear entirely near the western rim of the plateau in eastern Colorado.

The distant peaks of the Rockies are seen for the first time as the traveler approaches the escarpment that forms the western edge of this great plateau. After crossing the escarpment near Limon, Colo., he begins the long gentle descent to Denver, on the South Platte River near the foot of the mountains that loom so awesomely ahead. He has crossed the Great Plains. The distances have been great, but the contrasts have been marked.

Had our traveler selected a different route, either to the north or south, he would have found even greater contrasts, for the Great Plains has many parts, each with its own distinctive aspect. Why should such diverse landscapes be considered parts of the Great Plains? What are their unifying features? And what created this landscape? Has it always been this way? If not, when was it formed? How was it formed?

We will look here at some of the answers to those questions. The history of events that produced the landscape of the Great Plains is interpreted both from the materials that compose the landforms and from the landforms themselves. As we will see, all landforms are the result of geologic processes in action. These processes determine not only the size and shape of the landforms, but also the materials of which they are made. These geologic processes, which form and shape our Earth's surface, are simply the inevitable actions of the restless interior of the Earth and of the air, water, and carbon dioxide of the atmosphere, aided by gravity and solar heating (or lack of it). They all have helped sculpture the fascinating diversity of the part of our land we call the Great Plains.

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Last Updated: 28-Dec-2006