Arizona has one of the most diverse landscapes of any state; from lowland deserts to alpine forests, you can drive from one geological scenery to the other in merely hours.
Even though Arizona is primarily a desert, the rivers and streams cut through the scorched earth, creating canyons and washes that wind through the landscape.
Similar to the great rivers of the rest of North America that flow to the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans depending on which side of the Continental Divide they are on, Arizona’s rivers, creeks, and streams behave much the same way regarding the Arizona Divide.
Did you know that Arizona has its own divide? While a fraction of the length of the mighty Continental Divide, the Arizona divide still dictates where Arizona’s rivers, streams, and creeks flow.
Read on to find out what the Arizona Divide is, where it is located, and what makes it unique to this state.
What is a Continental Divide? and What Does It Have to Do with Rivers?
A continental divide is an elevated boundary, whether that be a mountain range or plateau system, that dictates which body of water the rivers on either side flow into.
In the case of the Great Continental Divide also know as the Continental Divide of the Americas, which runs nearly vertically down North and South America from Alaska all the way down to the southernmost tip of South America, if a river originates on the east side of the Continental Divide, then the water will eventually flow into the Atlantic Ocean, even if it is thousands of miles away. Same thing for the headwaters for rivers on the western slopes of the Continental Divide; these rivers will eventually flow into the Pacific Ocean.
What is the Arizona Divide?
The Arizona Divide is a ridge located just west of Flagstaff along I-40, marked with a green road sign at an elevation of 7,335 feet. From this point, water that originates in the area either flows north or northwest into the Colorado River, or south or southwest into the Gila River.
Rivers originate in higher elevations and are formed by natural springs or snow runoff, and many rivers and creeks in Arizona are seasonal, only running during the spring months and monsoon season.
This ridge isn’t the highest point in Arizona (that honor goes to nearby Humphrey’s Peak) but the importance of this seemingly unimportant area in northern Arizona has been studied by researchers for years. They noted that water that originates on the south or southwest side of the divide ends up flowing into the Gila River and its tributaries, while the water that is on the north/northwest side of the Arizona Divide ends up in the mighty Colorado River.
If you look at a map of Arizona’s rivers, you’ll notice that the Gila River does eventually meet the Colorado River down in the very southwest corner near Yuma, and all this water then enters the Pacific Ocean from there. However, the elevation at the Arizona Divide means all of the water that falls as snow or rain goes in two general directions first, before being rerouted by multiple watersheds towards the southwesternmost corner of the state.
Although the Colorado River is the largest river in Arizona, the rivers and streams that flow south of the Arizona Divide towards the Gila River are far more numerous and carry more water overall. Due to the location of the Arizona Divide, much of the bottom two-thirds of the state flows in a southward direction from the divide while the rest flows north towards the Colorado plateau and watershed.
In short, the Arizona Divide is a geographical feature of the state that dictates which rivers, streams, and creeks empty into one of the two major watersheds.
Is the Arizona Divide Part of the Continental Divide?
It is not! The Continental Divide runs through Arizona’s eastern neighbor, New Mexico. The Continental Divide is not too far from the New Mexico/Arizona border, however. The mountain ranges and elevated areas that make up the Continental Divide run along New Mexico’s western border, while the Arizona Divide meanders through roughly the middle of the state from east to west.
Can I Hike the Arizona Divide?
While the Continental Divide has a 3,000+ mile long trail made of designated trails, dirt roads, and paved roads from Mexico to Canada, the Arizona Divide does not have an official trail that follows the divide of the watersheds.
The Arizona Divide runs roughly east/west, but the famous and well-maintained Arizona Trail runs north/south from the Mexico to the Utah border. Several through-hikers attempt to complete the Arizona Trail every year, which does happen to cross near the Arizona Divide close to Flagstaff.
Things to Do Near the Arizona Divide
1- Downtown Flagstaff is only 5 miles east of the Arizona Divide, providing plenty of restaurants, souvenir shops, and community events to entertain. Flagstaff itself is growing quickly, with many Arizonans preferring to escape the stifling heat of the southern part of the state.
2- Just 45 minutes driving to the east and you’ll stumble upon one of the most beautiful and intriguing place in the state : The Arizona Meteor Crater.
3- Humphrey’s Peak is just northwest of Flagstaff, with skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer. The fall colors on the flanks of Arizona’s highest peak are truly stunning, as the quaking aspens show off their golden leaves. The multitude of trails on and around Humphrey’s Peak makes this area a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.
4- Williams, Arizona is only 30 minutes to the west of the Arizona Divide, and this small community is home to Bearizona, a small but highly entertaining zoo. The drive-through section of the park allows you to get up close and personal with bears, wolves, deer, and more!
5- Less than an hour south of the divide is Sedona, a laid-back town with a spiritual vibe that attracts visitors from all over the world. The soaring red rock cliffs, tranquil Oak Creek, and lovely shops in downtown Sedona makes visiting this town a must-do for anyone in the area.
6- A little farther north from the Arizona Divide lies the most famous landmark of them all: the Grand Canyon. Millions of visitors flock to this “giant hole in the ground” every year, but a small percentage of these tourists actually venture below the rim. However you choose to experience the Grand Canyon, it’ll surely be an experience to remember!
The Arizona Divide, much like the longer Continental Divide, creates a sort of geological boundary that dictates which direction the water flows. Located just west of Flagstaff, the any water that falls south of this ridge will eventually flow into the Gila River watershed, while any water that falls (as snow or rain) north of the divide will head towards the Colorado river.
The Arizona Divide isn’t as easily defined and mapped out as the Continental Divide, but it does run a meandering, oftentimes curving line across the state from east to west. The importance of understanding the divide cannot be understated for Arizona’s residents; since the desert gets little rain every year, most of Arizona’s residents depend on the Colorado and Gila River watersheds to sustain life in the desert.