USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 707
Guidebook of the Western United States: Part E. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Route





The traveler who crosses the United States from east to west passes over many belts of country, which are different in types of surface features, such as plains, plateaus, and mountains; in climate, especially in amount of rainfall; and in the occupations of the inhabitants, which are largely determined by their environment. He is likely to be more or less familiar with the eastern part of the country, which will therefore not be described here, but as soon as he crosses Missouri River, either at Kansas City or at Omaha, he enters a region that may be to him almost entirely unknown. In this region he grows accustomed rather slowly to the sight of the level, unbroken stretches of the vast plains that extend from Missouri River to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, but at last he becomes reconciled to the treeless landscape and begins to enjoy the freedom of the apparently boundless plain below and the limitless expanse of sky above. He may have expected to see traces of what was once called "The Great American Desert," but the region so named was long ago proved to be a desert only in the imagination of some of the early explorers. As he goes westward, however, he observes that the crops decrease in abundance and that the density of the population decreases correspondingly, but that the country is nowhere free from signs of habitation. In years of drought the plains become parched and brown, but even then they do not resemble the true deserts that lie west of the Rocky Mountains.

In Denver the traveler is still on the plains, but he is so close to their western edge and so near to the commanding peaks of the Rocky Mountains that he naturally regards Denver as a mountain city. He should rather regard it as the gateway to the mountains, for he will find that it is the natural entrance to much of this interesting region and that it enjoys the advantages of both the agricultural resources and transportation facilities of the plains and the mineral wealth and scenic beauty of the mountains.

The great sprawling ranges of the "Rockies" west of Denver constitute one of the most formidable barriers to travel between the East and the West. These mountains extend from the Arctic Circle across Canada and the United States as far south as Santa Fe. In the latitude of Denver the mountainous belt is only about 80 miles wide, but the ranges are rugged and the principal peaks are high, some of them rising more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Mountains of this height that can be seen from the level of the sea are very imposing, but these mountains stand upon a broad platform that is itself 6,000 to 10,000 feet high, and they are consequently less impressive, for their height above their bases is scarcely more than a mile.

The route of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad across the mountains of Colorado and the plateaus and deserts of Utah, shown in Plate I, is particularly noted for the variety of its scenery, as it traverses a region that presents an almost bewildering display of nature's handiwork. In this display the canyons cut by the streams and now followed by the railroad are perhaps the most wonderful features, for they give a very vivid impression of the great activity of the processes going on around us all the time and of the vast amount of excavation that has been done by the streams. Mining is the principal industry in the mountains, and in his journey westward from Denver the traveler has opportunity to see or to visit some of the best-known mining camps in this country. Many of these camps are of recent development, but some date back to the time when gold was first discovered in the West, and about them still cling the glamour and the romance of that time, when law was unknown and fortunes were made or lost in a single day.

PLATE I.—RELIEF MAP OF COLORADO AND UTAH. Showing main lines of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad and areas covered by sheets of route map. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

West of the Rocky Mountains, extending to the west face of the Wasatch Range, lies what is generally known as the Plateau Province, called by Powell the "Canyon Lands"—a region of high plateaus and deep canyons, which in this respect has no peer in the world. In this region there are few mountain peaks, and the prevailing type of upland is the plateau with nearly level top and steep or even vertical sides. The slopes in these dry lands are generally angular; they have not the smooth, flowing curves of those in more humid regions. In the plateaus streams have carved deep canyons, the most remarkable of which, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, reaches in its deepest part a depth of 6,000 feet. The entire surface of the country is so intricately seamed with canyons that it can be crossed only at certain places and even there only with great difficulty. The precipitation in the region is very small, probably not more than 5 or 6 inches in a year on the lower lands, so that these lands are veritable deserts. They can be successfully cultivated by irrigation, however, and much money has been spent by private irrigators and irrigation companies and by the Government in carrying the waters of the rivers onto the thirsty land. The climate at the lower levels is generally mild, and where the lands have been thus watered crops of various kinds, including fruits, are raised in abundance. Agriculture and coal mining are the principal industries, but they are restricted to certain tracts near the railroads.

Beyond the Wasatch Mountains lies what is known as the Great Basin, which stretches westward from them farther than the eye can see. This is really an immense surface basin, rimmed about by higher land that prevents the streams within it from reaching the ocean. If the rainfall were heavy the streams would find outlets, but as it is only a few inches a year the evaporation equals the rain fall and the region is a desert; so little water is available that enough can not be had for irrigation except near its margin and in small areas where the conditions are exceptional. Near the border of the basin there are a few fresh-water lakes, but most of the lakes within it are salty, like Great Salt Lake, which the traveler will see at the western terminus of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. In the interior of the Great Basin there were once many lakes, but they dried up ages ago, leaving their bottoms snow-white with deposits of soda, borax, and common salt. The principal occupation in this region is metal mining, and the mines are in the isolated mountain ranges that corrugate the floor of the basin and break the monotony of its surface.

West of the Great Basin are the Sierra Nevada and the great interior valley and coastal features of California.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 16-Feb-2007