What Is the Source of the Colorado River?

The Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River is a 1,450-mile long river in North America that flows through parts of the United States and Mexico. The river begins in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is located in the northern region of the U.S. state of Colorado. Its headwaters appear very different than the more well-known parts of the river. In fact, the start of the Colorado River is only a small drainage line that is fed by a wet meadow environment in the park. The primary water source of this meadow is La Poudre Pass Lake. The surface of the lake has an elevation of 10,174 feet above sea level in a mountain pass by the same name (La Poudre Pass).

La Poudre Pass is located at the Continental Divide of the Americas, which is the line separating the hydrological features of the Americas. To the east of the line, all watersheds empty into the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico. To the west of the line, all waterways empty into the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of California. Just south of the line is the La Poudre Pass Lake and the wet meadow from which the Colorado River begins its journey before flowing into the Gulf of California.

Colorado River Course

The Colorado River runs through five U.S. states and two Mexican states before emptying into the Gulf of California. The river's drainage stream headwaters flow in a generally southwestern direction, picking up more water and growing much wider and deeper along its course. It crosses the Colorado Plateau in the western part of Colorado before flowing into the state of Utah and the northwestern region of Arizona, which is famous for its 277 mile path through the Grand Canyon. The canyon measures 6,093 feet at its deepest point and 18 miles across at its widest point. After leaving the canyon, the Colorado River turns south and forms the border between the U.S. states of Arizona and Nevada, before forming the border between Nevada and California. At the town of Needles, California, the Colorado River crosses the border into Mexico, flows through the Colorado Desert and forms the border between the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora. Finally, after 1,450 miles, the Colorado River drains into the Gulf of California, which is separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Baja California Peninsula.

Dams and Diversions

The course of the Colorado River has been manipulated by various development projects. In fact, the river has been subjected to 69 different forms of man-made development, including dams and diversions. The first of these diversions is located right at the Colorado River's headwaters. Known as the Grand Ditch, the project prevents the waterways of the Never Summer Mountains from flowing into the Colorado River so that the waters can be used for irrigation of local farmlands instead.

The most well-known project on the Colorado River is the Hoover Dam, which is located between the U.S. states of Nevada and Arizona. The dam traps water from the Colorado River to create Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the United States, and is used both to supply local communities and to generate power.


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