If you’re from the Denver area, or really even from Colorado anywhere, then you’re almost guaranteed to have heard about the Continental Divide. If you’re new to the area, chances are you’ve also heard about it. The Continental Divide is a key feature of the Front Range, but what is it? Why is it such a big deal?
A continental divide is a dividing line for the watershed of that continent. Water that falls on one side ultimately flows to one ocean, and water on the other side flows to another. In our case, water that falls on the West side of the Divide will run to the Pacific, and water that falls on the east will run to the Atlantic. North America can be split into multiple other divides that direct water to different large watershed areas, but the divide that is known as the Continental Divide here is the largest and the only one that truly splits the continent between Pacific and Atlantic. It is also known as the Great Divide and the Continental Divide of the Americas and runs from Alaska down the Rocky Mountains through Mexico and Central America before following the Andes to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. It truly divides the entirety of the American continents, sending water to either the Pacific or the Atlantic.
Here in Colorado the Continental Divide sends water to the Pacific via the Gulf of California or the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico. The Western Slope is the western side of this split, and the Front Range or Eastern Slope is the eastern side. There are four major river systems leaving the state: the Colorado River, the Rio Grande River, the Arkansas River, and the Platte River(s). The Colorado River head is the center of the watershed for the entire Southwestern US, feeding several major cities before crossing into Mexico and the Gulf of California. The Rio Grande River drains to the Gulf of Mexico to the South through New Mexico and Texas, and the Platte Rivers and Arkansas River drain to the Gulf via the Mississippi River. Colorado is known as the Headwaters State in some circles because of the abundance of major headwaters found along the Continental Divide in our stretch of Rocky Mountains. The vast majority of the water that enters these river systems starts as snowmelt every spring, which is why the spring snowpack levels are so carefully watched. If it’s a thin snow year, like this year was, then it’s potentially a drought year for the entire southern part of the US that sits west of the Mississippi. Snowpack is a big deal because it IS our water bank.
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs the length of the Divide in the US and is one of the most famous through-hiking trails in the country, along with the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. You can also drive over the divide along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park or over a number of high passes including Loveland and Berthoud Passes.
Some interesting Continental Divide Trivia:
- There are a total of 5 large divides in North America, see the map here
- The original name of the Colorado River was the Grand River. This is why Granby, Grand Lake, Grand County, and Grand Junction are all named “grand.”
- July 25th is Colorado River Day because the name was changed July 25th, 1921
- The Grand Canyon is not named for the Grand River, but rather because John Wesley Powell was so awed by the beauty of it
- There 158 named rivers running through the state of Colorado, and only 2 have headwaters in other states: the Green and Cimarron Rivers
- The highest point on the Continental Divide’s North American stretch is Gray’s Peak at 14,278 feet. Grays and its partner Torreys are two popular 14ers in Colorado.
- The CDT runs about 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico
- Only about 200 people hike the full CDT every year, it takes about 6 months to do the full thing!