What Is the Continental Divide?

(Last Updated On: September 11, 2019)
What Is the Continental Divide?

You’ve likely heard the term before – so what is the Continental Divide? And why is it important?

In North America, the Continental Divide, also known as the Western Divide or the Great Divide, is a hydrological divide that runs through Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It separates the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean from those that drain into the Atlantic.

Before exploring the Continental Divide more in depth, however, it’s first important to better understand what a hydrological divide even is, and how they work. So let’s take a closer look at the topic.

What Is a Continental Divide?

According to National Geographic, a continental divide can be defined as “a naturally occurring boundary or ridge separating a continent’s river systems”, where “each river system feeds into a distinct ocean basin, bay, or sea”. 

In other words, it’s a long boundary that essentially separates drainage basins. Here it’s important to realize that while the focus of this post might be on the Continental Divide (the main North American one), continental divides (lowercase) are found throughout the world.

Where Are Continental Divides?

Continental divides can be found on every continent. They can run through several countries and regions, and are defined by the boundaries of the continent. Most of the time, they are high ledges that commonly run through mountainous areas, but sometimes they are just highlands.  

It is even possible (and common, actually) for a continent to have multiple divides when it is surrounded by more than two bodies of water. An example of this is in North America, which is believed to have more than three divides (an exact number has not been officially determined by scientists because the exact border between ocean basins is not universally accepted). 

Where Is the Great Divide?

The North American Great Divide runs through Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. It spans primarily through Northwestern Alaska down through the Rocky Mountains along the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, and through the West-Central U.S. states it spans north-south from Montana to New Mexico. It continues south,and runs parallel to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre del Sur. There are beautiful sights that can be viewed from this boundary, including the Hanging Garden and the Wind River Range. 

Again, keep in mind that while the Great Divide is often referred to as the Continental Divide, this can be misleading because North America (and the world in general) has more than just one continental divide.  

Other Continental Divides in North America

Another continental divide is the Northern or Laurentian Divide, which spans from the Seward Peninsula to Montana’s Triple Divide Peak, and then runs east through Montana, Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. 

The Eastern Divide, also known as the Appalachian Divide, separates the Atlantic Seaboard from the Gulf of Mexico. However, some people argue against it being a real North American Divide, stating that the Gulf of Mexico is actually part of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Among the other proposed North American divides are the Saint Lawrence River Divide, which runs through Central and Eastern North America; the Great Basin Divide, separating the Great Basin from the Pacific Ocean; and the Arctic Divide, which separates the Hudson Bay and Atlantic Ocean watersheds from each other. 

Now that you know about the Continental Divide, check out this article to learn more Interesting Geography Facts about North America.

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