Arikaree River - lowest point in Colorado

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Additional research and/or photo credits: Ron Michaels; Scott Smith

A quick note on spelling: the river is "Arikaree", but the community is "Arickaree". I didn't notice the difference initially, and when I was first making these pages, I was spelling the river with a "c". I've since corrected the text, but you'll notice my map still has the incorrect spelling.

As I was first writing these pages (June 2000), just about every source that I could find was indicating that the lowest point in Colorado is where the Arkansas River flows out of the state, near the town of Holly (3,350 feet above sea level). I'm guessing all such information can probably be traced back to the original list of state low points created by the United States Geological Survey in the 1980s (more info on that here).

Well, as you've probably gathered by now: it's not true. Here's a portion of the USGS 7.5' map ("Holly East") that shows that spot on the Arkansas:

I never would've questioned this "fact" - until I noticed that, on the late-1990s issues of the Colorado Department of Transportation's Official State Highway Map, they began listing a different spot as Colorado's lowest: the point where the North Fork of the Republican River flows out of the state, at 3,337 feet. Below is a scan of that portion of the map:

Below is a section of the USGS map ("Laird") which shows that spot.

Well, this got me thinking: if USGS didn't check carefully enough, then maybe CDoT didn't either. So I checked all the quad maps showing rivers that flow out of the state. And sure enough - CDoT's not right, either. I found a spot in Colorado that's remarkably lower than both the Arkansas and the Republican.

The place where the Arikaree River flows out of Colorado is only 3,315 feet above sea level. That's 35 feet lower than the Arkansas, and 22 feet lower than the Republican. Below is a map of the area:

But don't just take my word for it - check the USGS quad ("Willow Creek Ranch"), below:

I highlighted the 3,310 contour line in yellow, and the 3,320 line in orange (the 3,320 contour is not labeled on this part of the map, but you can see that the supplementary 3,330 line is - and you can also see the spot elevation point labeled 3,321). Below is a closer view of the same map, where the river exits the state:

I'll admit it's only an educated guess when I claim this location is 3,315 feet. But clearly it's between 3,320 and 3,310 - and it appears to be directly between the places where those two contours cross the river. Regardless, there's no question that this spot is lower than the other two places on the Arkansas and the Republican.

I don't know how CDoT discovered that the North Fork of the Republican was lower than the Arkansas. One possibility is this: there is a USGS stream gauge for this river, located where it crosses the state line. Those gauges have published elevations (you can view the webpage for this particular gauge here), so I wonder if maybe someone came across that figure and realized that it was lower than the Arkansas...

At any rate, it doesn't appear that any perfunctory research was done on the subject - because it only took me a few minutes to find the spot on the Arikaree. I've got a results page and timeline here, which I keep up-to-date with the latest responses to my discovery.

Now for a few photos - this first one was taken from County Road RR south of Laird Colorado, looking south and a little east:

Smith, Feb. 2009

That gives a good feel for what this part of the country looks like in general - virtually no trees, except along the creekbeds. In the distance, you can see a darker area - those are trees lining the valley of the Arikaree River. Beyond that are the Arikaree Breaks in the northwest corner of Kansas - this is the same road that provides access to the tri-state corner of Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. You can drive pretty much right up to that point, but there is no public access to the lowest point in Colorado. The photo below was taken from Road RR, looking due south along the CO-KS stateline:

Michaels, May 2015

The fenceline in the middleground runs along the state border, so if you visually extend that line to the riverbed in the background (marked by the cottonwood trees), that's the Colorado lowpoint, where the Arikaree flows out of the state. The shot below shows what the river looks like in that area:

Smith, Feb. 2009

That's the lowest elevation in the state. This point holds the distinction of being the highest lowpoint of all 50 states. As a matter of fact, Colorado's lowest point is higher than the high points of 18 other states! But what I find even more remarkable is the fact that the Arikaree manages to get down to this elevation by the time it exits Colorado. If you follow the Arikaree upstream, you'll find that its source is a few miles northwest of Limon, at an approximate elevation of 5900 feet. This land forms the western edge of a "table" that's tilted ever-so-slightly to the east. This table sits about 500 feet above both Big Sandy Creek (a tributary of the Arkansas) and Bijou Creek (a tributary of the South Platte). So, how does the Arikaree manage not only to make up that 500 feet, but also to get to an even lower elevation than both of those rivers by the time it reaches the stateline, which is only about 100 miles to the east? Does it pass through land that is perhaps more subject to erosion? That seems like a possibility when you consider that this lowpoint is in an area known as the Arikaree Breaks: a small, scenic region with canyon-like characteristics that can come as a surprise to people passing through here who aren't expecting anything other than the level land typical of most high plains locations.