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What is the continental divide and why is it important?

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If you’ve heard of the Continental Divide but were wondering what it is, you’ve come to the right place! We will answer the question, “What is the continental divide and why is it important?” We will examine how continental divides form, what they do, and how they affect humans and animals.

Continental divides are mountainous geographic features in the landscape that separate and divert rainfall into different areas.


What is a continental divide?

Continental divides are mountainous geographic features in the landscape that separate and divert rainfall into different areas.

They are major boundaries that determine what landmass, rivers, oceans, and in some cases endorheic basins with no outflow to an ocean that rain or snowmelt flows into.

Imagine a mountain range like the Rockies. When it rains overhead, raindrops land on either side of the highest peaks and travel downhill in opposite directions. This sets the river flow and means those raindrops end up in very different places.

Simply put, a continental divide is a water drainage divide.

The most challenging peak in the Rocky Mountains
Continental divides are mountainous geographic features in the landscape that separate precipitation.

© Nicholas Courtney/

America’s Continental Divide

America has six continental divides that determine where precipitation ends, but when people say “the Continental Divide,” they usually mean the Great Continental Divide, sometimes abbreviated to the Great Divide.

It runs mostly along the highest ridge of the Rocky Mountains from Cape Prince of Wales on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska to the Strait of Magellan in the South American Andes.

It is considered the largest because it is the longest and channels water into either the Atlantic or the Pacific.

Rain falling on the east of the continental divide eventually drains into the Atlantic Ocean. It empties into the South Platte River and flows through the Mississippi, New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Rain falling on the west side flows in the opposite direction to the Pacific Ocean via the Colorado River. It passes through Utah, the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas.

In some cases, water flows into an endorheic basin such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake or Oregon’s Crater Lake that has no ocean outlets.

The Great Divide runs from Alaska through Mexico to South America, diverting a tremendous amount of rain and water resources. It’s a huge geological feature. The highest point is Colorado’s Gray’s Peak at 14,270 feet.

Cairns on the Great Divide Trail
Acoma and Zuni tribes built stone bridges and cairns that still stand on the Great Divide Trail today.


Central and Central America

In Central America, the Continental Divide runs alongside the Sierra Madre mountain system and is bisected by the Panama Canal. Continuing to South America, the continental divide runs along the Andes chain. Water falling west of the Andes reaches the Pacific Ocean and ends in the Atlantic to the east.

How was it made?

continental plates
The earth’s crust is made up of seven continental plates that move back and forth.


The earth’s crust is made up of seven continental plates that move back and forth. When they rub against each other, they cause earthquakes.

In the distant past, continental plates collided with tremendous force, and when a small tectonic plate collided with the North American plate 70 million years ago, it was subducted (pulled under). This movement raised a massive mountain range that we now know as the Great Continental Divide.

It is mind-blowing to imagine that Earth’s activity so many millions of years ago could have such a profound impact on today’s ecosystems, weather patterns, droughts, and the crops we depend on.

Why is it so far west?

The continental divide known as The Great Divide lies far off-center in the western part of the continent. It wasn’t designed by humans, it’s an accident of geography that happened when the world came into being.

When the USA in the 17thth and 18th In the late 19th century, the Great Divide was a marker for the unknown that lay “to the west,” and it was a barrier to westward expansion. Lewis and Clark’s expedition crossed it at Lehmi Pass in Montana, and settlers crossed South Pass in Wyoming.

Thousands of years before settlers arrived, the continental divide was inhabited by indigenous people, including the Acoma and Zuni tribes, whose stone bridges and cairns still stand along the Great Divide Trail. The highest peaks were sacred to the creation stories of the Blackfeet Nation. They called the peaks “Mistakis, the backbone of the world”.

The continental divide of the United States

continental division
The continental divide between the European and North American tectonic plates in Iceland.

©Benedikt Juerges/

There are six mountain peaks on the North American continent that channel water into the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans or into inland lakes or salt flats.

These are the differences that most experts agree on:

  • Laurentian/ Northern
  • Arctic
  • St Lawrence
  • East
  • Big pools

The Great Continental Divide and the Laurentian Divide converge at Glacier Park’s Triple Divide Peak in Montana. It is a popular tourist spot and so named because water enters three oceans from here. The Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Experts consider it the “hydrological pinnacle” of North America.

Why the continental divide matters

Continental divides are important because they determine where and to whom freshwater flows. Every living thing on our planet needs water to survive.

Groundwater creates weather patterns, rivers and streams that irrigate plants and provide water for many habitat regions on its way to the oceans.

It has also created diverse cultures and ways of life due to the water resources it provides. Open farms that require dams and irrigation systems would look very different if relocated.

If the division were just a few miles further east or west, it would significantly alter U.S. topography, weather, and use of the landmass as we know it.

What animals live near the Continental Divide in North America?

Brown bear close up
Always wear bear spray on the Great Divide Trail and keep your eyes peeled.

©Piotr Krzeslak/

The Great Divide Trail runs along the Continental Divide and is filled with interesting, unusual and sometimes dangerous animals because of the diversity of habitats. The trail is one of the most ecologically diverse in the country. It runs 3,100 miles through five western states!

Habitats include tundra, coniferous forests, subalpine grasslands, rugged snow-capped peaks, grasslands, sagebrush, and many miles of rivers and streams, all fed by rain falling east or west from the top of the continental divide.

It is bear country with both grizzly and black bears. Always wear bear spray on the Great Divide Trail and keep your eyes peeled. Mountain lions are a rare sight, but they live in the Rocky Mountains, as do wolves.

Beavers, yellow-bellied marmots, coyotes, snowshoe hares, pika rodents, rough-legged toads, and bats have all made it their homes, and hikers often spot many ungulate species (these are ungulates), including deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and elk and cattle varieties.

Bald eagles soar above the mountain peaks, white-tailed ptarmigan, mountain tit, western tanagers and many species of owls and woodpeckers are loved by bird watchers there.

The continental divide is a rich habitat for all animal species.

Does Europe have a continental divide?

European Continental Divide
A marker on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal on the European watershed in Germany.

©Steve Heap/

Yes, every continent has continental divides except for Antarctica, which doesn’t receive enough rainfall to flow from the peaks into the drainage basins.

Europe is surrounded by many seas, has many mountain ranges and therefore many continental divides, but the main thing that experts agree on (and not all agree!) is the European divide, which separates the northeastern waters from the southwestern waters separates. The northwestern bodies are:

  • Atlantic Ocean
  • North Sea
  • Baltic Sea
  • arctic sea

The southern bodies are:

  • Mediterranean Sea
  • the Adrian Sea
  • Aegean Sea
  • Black Sea
  • Caspian Sea

The political division of the continent

Some commentators refer to the way states tend to regularly vote either Democratic or Republican as a continental divide. In some cases it refers to the social differences between Americans and Canadians.

What is the Continental Divide? Why is it important?

Let’s recap.

The Great Continental Divide is a mountain range formed millions of years ago by the activity of the Earth’s continental plates. It runs from Alaska to the tip of South America and determines whether rain flows into the Pacific or the Atlantic.

It is important because it shares water resources. This in turn creates ecological habitats and weather patterns such that the continental divide dictates where we can successfully grow crops and thrive.

In the past, the continental divide was part of the indigenous nation’s creation mythology, and in the settler era it was a massive physical obstacle to westward expansion.


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