Brief by Central Staff
Colorado Geography – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine
Some of us who live along the Arkansas River have boasted that its drainage includes both the highest point in Colorado (14,433-foot Mt. Elbert in Lake County) and the lowest (3,350 feet, where the Arkansas crosses the Kansas line a few miles east of Lamar).
It turns out that we were wrong. We were in good company, since that’s what the U.S. Geological Survey has listed as Colorado’s lowest point for as long as anyone can remember.
It probably came about because someone theorized that the lowest point had to be where a major river (like the Arkansas, South Platte, Colorado, or Rio Grande) left the state, and upon checking those, the Arkansas turned out to have the lowest exit point.
Enter Dale Sanderson, a cartographer for Qwest in Denver (small world, though; Colorado Central is produced in a Salida house that we bought from his uncle John in 1989). He noticed that the 1999-2000 official map from the Colorado Department of Transportation listed a new lowest Colorado point.
The CDOT low point — 3,337 feet — is at the Colorado-Nebraska border, in Yuma County where the Republican River leaves the state east of Wray.
Sanderson wondered how that had been missed for all the years, and also wondered if an even lower point might have escaped notice.
So he delved into the USGS maps, and he found one, also in Yuma County. It’s at 3,315 feet, where the Arickaree River flows into Kansas (Yuma County borders both Kansas and Nebraska; geographic trivia buffs might take note of Cimarron County in the Oklahoma panhandle, which holds the record for U.S. counties by bordering four states: Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico).
Both the Republican and the Arickaree rivers have their headwaters out on the plains, and neither is tributary to the Arkansas. The Arikaree just crosses the northwest corner of Kansas and joins the North Fork of the Republican in southen Nebraska.
The North and South Forks unite about 30 miles east of that, and flow east, then south into the Kansas River, which joins the Missouri at Kansas City. So Colorado’s real low point isn’t on Arkansas River drainage, and we’ll have to settle for having the three highest points in Colorado (Elbert, Massive, and Harvard) all on Arkansas drainage.
We might also note that even though Colorado’s lowest point has dropped by 35 feet, Colorado still has the highest low point of the 50 states. The runner-up is Wyoming, at 3,099 feet where the Belle Fourche flows into South Dakota — or so says the USGS.
The easiest way to reach Sanderson’s website is to go to our www.cozine.com and click on the “Headwaters Hill” on the map, which will take you to Sanderson’s site.