The High Plains Physiographic Region

ES-546 Field Geomorphology


Brenda Zabriskie

Dr. James S. Aber, Instructor
ES 546ZA

Table of Contents
Description of Study Region

Road to the High Plains. Photo date 9/07 by Brenda Zabriskie.


Fig. 1 Geologic map of Kansas.
Taken from KGS.

Fig. 2 Revised map of physiographic
regions (Aber and Aber 2007).

The High Plains is one of eleven physiographic regions in Kansas. It constitutes the western third of the state, with vast flatlands to the west and gently rolling hills to the east. The barren, semi-arid plains are not completely void of interesting landscapes and boast a wide diversity of fauna and flora (KGS). The primary industry is cattle ranching with some irrigated and dry methods of agriculture on the eastern fringes. The farming and ranching communities depend heavily on the Ogallala aquifer for irrigation which has been dangerously depleted, gaining little if any recharge in the past few years. The spring and summer of this year had an exceptional amount of rainfall, yet not enough to regain much of what has been taken from the aquifer. The main source of the Ogallala's recharge comes from snowmelt in the rivers during the spring thaw in the Rocky Mountains and of course rainfall in local areas.

Fig. 3 Map of the High Plains. Physiographic regions and sub-regions of Kansas according Schoewe (1949), Map from ES 546 class syllabus, Dr. J. Aber.

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I obtained portions of my information through research at reputable sites such as USGS, GeoKansas, Department of Agriculture and Kansas Geological Survey. Although I gained much insight on a field trip to western Kansas with the class of ES 546 Field Geomorphology with Dr. James Aber. As we stopped at different geological sites, Dr. Aber would lecture about the morphology, geology and other important information concerning the area as it pertained to the class, and answered questions. I used my Garmin eTrex Summit GPS unit to take elevation and directional readings as well as marking "way points" at locations of interest. Using my Kodak Easy Share CX6330 I took many pictures , some I have included on this page. I also obtained samples of rocks and minerals that were identified with the help of Dr. Aber and other students.

Description of the Study Area

The High Plains are located in the Dry Domain of the United States' ecosystems, called the Central High Tablelands which is a sub division of the Great Plains-Palouse Dry Steppe (Dept. of Agriculture). The region is accentuated by flat undulating plains with scattered areas of inactive sand dunes, braided stream beds and sloping eroded terraces. "Loess covers the region concealing many of the rocks near the surface. It is a finely ground silt that was created as glaciers advanced, pulverizing rocks and sediments in their path" (GeoKansas). Although the western portion of Kansas was not glaciated, the loess has been transported and deposited by high winds and water from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and other regions. "In Tertiary times the sediments carried from the eroding Rocky Mountains, spread in a broad sheet extending eastward from their base, and built up a constructional plain. This plain is largely preserved to the present time, and constitutes the division known as the High Plains" (Adams, 1902). The topographic relief is low, outcroppings and canyons are largely restricted to stream and river beds such as the Arikaree Breaks in Cheyenne County, and the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers and eroded hillsides (Aber, 2007). Elevation rises gradually as one travels westward toward Colorado giving the impression of a vast level plain. Scott City elevation is approximately 883 meters above sea level whereas 56 - 64 km to the east, elevation at Horsethief Canyon is approximately 731 - 745 meters above sea level.

Photo date 9/07, B. Zabriskie

The image above looks west from Horsethief Canyon to the High Plains in the distance. Horsethief Canyon is the site of a large project for water conservation, in hopes to contain runoff from the High Plains and Ogallala aquifer for storage, irrigation and recreational uses. The project is being funded by the Pawnee Water Conservation District of Hodgeman, Lane, Ness and Finney Counties (Aber, 2007).

Mortar beds in the Scott State Lake area. Photo date 9/07, B. Zabriskie.

East side of incised valley cut by Ladder Creek and natural springs. Ruins of El Cuartelejo, only known Indian pueblo in Kansas is in the foreground. Established in 1600's by the Taos Inidan's and later occupied by the Picuris Indian's. Photo date 9/07, B. Zabriskie.

The Ogallala Formation is a part of the High Plains aquifer and underlies approximately 79,000 km2 in Kansas and is the shallowest and most abundant source of water in the region. The High Plains aquifer is found in eight states and covers approximately 450,000 km2 from the Dakotas to Texas (North Plains Groundwater Conservation District). The Ogallala ranges in depth from 0.3 meter (1 foot) to 400 m (1300 ft) in different areas and the average depth is 60 m (200 ft).

The Ogallala Formation consists of poorly sorted clay, silt, sand and gravel comprised of siliceous and calcareous minerals cemented together by calcium carbonate. Most of the Ogallala is underground yet portions can be seen in outcroppings at Lake Scott State Park where perennial springs join Ladder Creek to form Lake Scott. The morphology of the park is accentuated as an incised valley eroded over time by the creek and springs, exposing portions of the mortar beds of the aquifer and underlying Cretaceous bedrock.

Much of the vast praire lands are used for range animals, although in the lower elevations, agriculture is productive. It depends heavily on the Ogallala for irrigation purposes since the region's semiarid conditions receive only 381 mm - 635 mm (15 - 25 inches) per year. There are six primary rivers in western Kansas. Smoky Hill River is 900 km (560 miles) long and its origin is in eastern Colorado. It is an elongated drainage basin rising on the Great Plains, flowing east across Kansas to join the Republican River and form the Kansas River at Junction City. The Saline River is its chief tributary (Kansas Water Office, 2007). The Cimarron River has its source in the mountains of Union county, New Mexico. Flowing in an easterly direction, it's two branches enter Kansas in the southwest corner of the High Plains. The Cimarron is about 1,046 Km (650 miles) in length, of which about 281 Km (175 miles) are in Kansas (KSGen Web Project). The Arkansas River originates in Colorado then drops approximately 3,048 m (10,000 feet) in about 201 Km (125 miles) to form the Royal Gorge. The river traverses through Kansas and Arkansas on its 2,455 Km (1450 miles) journey as a tributary of the Mississippi/Missouri River system. One of the main issuses concerning groundwater is depletion related to diversion for irrigation agriculture, evapotranspiration by phreatophytes, and saltwater intrusion into the groundwater from surface water flows of the Arkansas River . The Arkansas River drainage basin covers nearly 505,000 km˛ (195,000 mi2), (Kansas Department of Agriculture, 2006).

Entering Lake Scott State Park, just north of Scott City. Photo date 9/07, B. Zabriskie.
Big Spring at Scott State Lake Park. One of many perennial springs. Photo by Grace Muilenburg, KGS.

Lake Scott State Park. Photo by John Charlton, KGS.

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Flora of the High Plains

Not only lack of rainfall determine vegetation, but type and depth of soil, since much of the high plains consists of loess and little other than prairie grasses and cacti grow here in a natural state. Various types of short prairie grasses cover the land such as Little Bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium, Buffalo grass-Buchloe dactyloides, Side-oats Grama-Bouteloua curtipendula, Blue Grama-Bouteleloua gracillis, and Prairie Threeawn-Aristida oligantha(Haddock).

Little Bluestem, common in many fields and pastures.

Wildflowers are abundant, blanketing the prairie with a rainbow of colors in the spring and fall. Many flowers are common in gardens around Kansas such as Black-Sampson Echinacea-Echinacea angustifolia, Butterfly Milkweed-Asclepias tuberose, Prairie Wild Rose-Rosa arkansas and Prairie Spurge-Chamaesyce missurica(Haddock).
Black-Sampson Echinacea. Butterfly Milkweed which butterfly's love.
Priarie Wild Rose, a garden favorite. Prairie Spurge, found in pastures and long road sides.

(Photos of flowers and grasses by Mike Haddock, Copyright © 1997-2007)

High Plains Industry

Center pivot and line irrigation are used regularly in agricultural regions. The main source of water for irrigation is the Ogallala aquifer, which has been greatly depleted. Naturally occuring recharge of the aquifer is by rainfall or flooding of rivers and streams. The Ogallala formation overlies Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous strata and consists mainly of unconsolidated deposits of sand, gravel, and clays cemented together to form porous sandstones.

Center pivot irrigation used in the lowland area of the High Plains. Photo by John Charlton, KGS.
Aerial photo of pivot irrigation. Photo by John Charlton, KGS.
Dry farming on the High Plains.

The soil on the High Plains is fertile due to the cap of loess which extends the entire region. The dominant agricultural crops are corn, milo, grain sorghum, and winter wheat. There is little oil production, yet drilling rigs can be seen in areas where extensive research has taken place. Other industries present on the plains is Natural Gas (Helium) Plant in Grant County, Harper Ranch fields with both gas and oil reserves in Clark County and wind powered energy turbines along highway 56 in Gray County.

Helium plant, one of the natural resourses found on the High Plains. Photo by John Charlton, KGS. Harper Ranch oil and natural gas field, Clark County. Photo by John Charlton, KGS.
Wind powered energy turbines located along highway 56 just east of Montezuma in Gray County. Photo by John Charlton, 2007, KGS.

Photos courtesy of KGS IDB.

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The geology of the High Plains is unlike any found in Kansas. The surficial sediment consists mostly of Quaternary wind blown loess with some Tertiary sandstone, shale and conglomerates; Cretaceous shale and limestone are also present with Quaternary alluvium in the stream and river valleys (Dept of Agriculture). The bedrock age is Neogene silt, sand, gravel and mortar beds cemented with calcium carbonate which forms a porous sandstone that allows storage of water (Aber, 2007). The Cretaceous Period lasted from 144-65 ma at which time the midcontinent was covered by a relatively shallow sea. In Kansas it is represented by marine and esutarian deposits from the Early Cretaceous (Albina), Cheyenne Sandstone and Kiowa Shale that overlay the Wellington Formation of the Lower Permian and Morrison Formation of the Upper Jurassic at the base to the Pierre Shale at the top (Frye, 1952).

A generalized map of North American continent during the Late Cretaceous. The Western Interior Sea covered most of the Midwest from the present Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. (Map modified from an exhibit at University of Nebraska State Museum) Photo courtesy of Mike Everheart, 2007.

Mortar beds date back to the Late Miocene, 5-10 ma and are visible in outcroppings along the eroded areas. This salient characteristic is somewhat prominent along the eastern border of the High Plains. The mortar beds are the result of a giant alluvial fan or series of alluvial fans created by ancient rivers originating from the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains were formed in the late Cretaceous Period and into the Tertiary Period lasting approximately 66-1.6 ma. The earth's crust underwent intervals of uplift and deformation during the creation of the Rocky Mountains then late in the Tertiary Period underwent erosion by wind and water (KGS). Most of the eolian sediment is a mixture of granite, quartzite, quartz and chert, among other sediments, marked by white to light gray ridges with darker gray shale below.

Lake Scott State Park, mortar beds of the Ogallala Formation. Photo date 9/07, B.Zabriskie.

The geomorphology of western Kansas has been recognized since the mid 1800's as discussed by W.M. Davis. Davis states "It is briefly stated that valley's are eroded by their rivers, yet there is a vast amount of work performed in the erosion of valley's in which rivers have no part" (Davis, 1899). The erosion that Davis is speaking about takes place in the ravines, gullies and slopes in western Kansas, formed by the weathering of rain, wind and ice. The processes that shape the High Plains are exogenetic in nature as the surface is developed on relatively nonresistant and uniform rocks. The planation of the region can be catagorized into three groups (Fig. 3). (1) Graded surfaces of the interfluves, judged to have developed prior to Illinoian time; (2) flanking pediments, controlled by the position of an adjacent stream course, developed during late Pleistocene time; and (3) "pedimented tributary" valley's or "concavo-convex" gullies that have developed since mid-Wisconsinian time (Frye, 1954).

Fig. 3. Profile of graded erosional slopes in western Kansas. (A) Pre-Illinoian erosion surface in interstream bed area dissected in post-Illinoian Pleistocene time. Scarp is in Fort Hays limestone and graded surface developed in Carlile shale (Cretaceous). (B) Idealized flanking pediment. (C) Flanking pediment developed in the Smoky Hill chalky shale member, Niobrara formation (Cretaceous). (D) Flanking pediments fo Cimarron River Valley developed in Pliocene and Pleistocene alluvial deposits, largely non-indurated. (E,F) "Concavo-convex" gully developed in late Pleistocene loess overlying the Pliocene Ogallala formation. (G) Generalized cross profile or "concavo-convex" gullies of northwest Kansas (Frye, 1954).

Of these graded slope features, the "pedimented tributary valley's" or "concavo-convex" gullies are the most impressive and found extensively in northwestern Kansas. Here the native soil has not been broken or culltivated and so the erosion lacks a continuous center channel. The Airkaree Breaks in Cheyenne County is a good example where more than 90% of the soil has developed from loess deposits (GeoKansas).

Playas, depressional areas that create ephemeral lakes, are a most interesting topographic feature of the Kansas High Plains. Playas are characterized by mudcracks and precipitated salt crystals, forming salt pans. They range in surface area from 0.5 to 25 ha and drain an area of approximately 300 ha (Zartman, R.E., and B.L. Allen) and are the primary source of recharge to the Ogallala aquifer. Evaporite dissolution has been and is on-going in parts of central and western Kansas due to both natural processes and human activities and has resulted in features ranging over several orders of magnitude in size. "Several theories have been proposed for the formation of playas. The most recent theory proposes that playa basins form and expand as a result of hydrologic and geomorphic processes when water collects in depressions on the prairie. As the ponded water percolates into the subsoil, carbonic acid forms from the oxidation of organic material. The acid dissolves the underlying carbonate material (caliche). Loss of caliche leads to enhanced premeability of surface water that increases downward transport of solutes, particulate rock, and organic matter and expands the basin in a ciruclar fashion from a central point. Land subsides from loss of caliche and the basin deepens" (Haukos, 1992).

Not only are playas critical in the recharge of the Ogallala aquifer, they are an integral part of the ephemeral wetlands of Kansas. Migrating and local waterfowl depend on the playas as a natural habitat. Agriculture has taken it's toll on the prairie playas, as chemicals and sediment threaten to infiltrate and deter the natural perculating process. The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working to prevent continued damage. A new program that aims to restore and conserve these small, isolated wetlands is called Wetland Restoration. The Non-floodplain Initiative (CP23A) has been inacted and in conjunction with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP), they developed an incentive program. The Playa Lake Signup Incentive Program, is open to landowners who enroll in the USDA program. Each landowner will be paid a one-time payment of $15 per acre for not developing or cultivating the existing playa on the property (KDWP).

Aerial of playas filled after recent storms, Scott County. Photo by Rolfe Mandel, KGS, 2007. Aerial of Comanche County, note flooded roads and fields. Photo by Rolfe Mandel, KGS, 2007.
Dry playa lake bed in Scott County. Note white evaporite minerals on lake bed surface. Photo by Rolfe Mandel, KGS, 2007.

Photos courtesy of KGS IDB.

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Through my research, I have found that the High Plains of Kansas are more than just barren prairie. It supports a diversity of wildlife and range animals with more than just short prairie grasses and open spaces. The key to all life on the prairie is water. With the incessant use of the Ogallala aquifer for agriculture, we may see the end of crop fields in the prairie region in the not so distant future. From a geological aspect, the plains holds answers to questions about the weathering Rocky Mountains, glacial deposits, and ancient rivers that once flowed over the plains. The alluvium in stream and river beds give numerous hints about the life and death of the mountains.

The topography, while void of trees and dwellings, holds surprisingly unique landscapes. The area known as the High Plains of Kansas has undergone considerable change since the Early Cretaceous Period. It has taken over one hundred years to date, to uncover the history that lies beneath the soil interbeded in the limestone and shale of the plains region. As more evidence surfaces we may find that Kansas had a more diverse history than that which has already been discovered. With climate change and continuing exogenetic and endogenetic processes the geomorphology of Kansas may yet again transform from the dry, semi-arid climate that is present now to a milder, more temperate region similar to past millennia.


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Created December 9, 2007, for the Earth Science Department at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas 66801: Latest update January 10, 2008.

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