High Plains

High Plains backroad
Backroad winding across the High Plains, Cheyenne County.


The High Plains region in Kansas covers most of the western one-third of the state. The High Plains, as a whole, stretch south, north, and west beyond Kansas into several other states. This entire High Plains region is a subregion of the Great Plains, which cover much of the middle of the United States and extend into Canada (where they are called the Canadian prairies).

High Plains locator mapThe High Plains name comes from its elevation, which is, in general, higher than the rest of the Great Plains. The elevation within the High Plains rises from east to west with the highest point in Kansas being 4,039 feet at Mount Sunflower, a small rise in Wallace County within a half mile of the Colorado border.

The Kansas High Plains region is an area of vast flatlands and gently rolling plains. Topographic relief is largely restricted to streams and river valleys and is most notable in the Arikaree Breaks in the far northeast corner of the state, at Point of Rocks along the Cimarron River in the far southwest corner, and around Lake Scott State Park. All of these locations are accessible to the public, although the roads to Arikaree Breaks and Point of Rocks may be impassable in wet weather.

The High Plains are built from materials worn from the Rocky Mountains, which were formed by deformations of the earth's crust at intervals during the late Cretaceous Period, about 66 million years ago, and into the Neogene Period. By the late Neogene, vast amounts of sediment—sand, gravel, silt, and other rock debris—were eroding off the mountains and flowing eastward in meandering streams. Over millions of years, masses of material filled in stream valleys and covered hills to create a huge, gently sloping floodplain, the remnants of which are the High Plains.

The Ogallala Formation, a great wedge formed from the imported sand, gravel, and other debris, is now mainly buried underground. For the most part, it is in unconsolidated deposits. However, where the material was cemented together, it is a porous rock locally known as mortar bed. In some places, such as Lake Scott State Park, the cemented rock crops out at the surface. The Ogallala aquifer, the underground water-bearing portion of the formation, is the chief source of groundwater in western Kansas for crop irrigation, municipal water supplies, and industry.

The High Plains get less precipitation than other parts of the state, averaging between 15 and 25 inches a year. The combination of low precipitation, excessive winds, and abundant sunshine makes for a dry, or semiarid, climate. Short, drought-tolerant grasses cover the uncultivated areas, trees are scarce, and desert-type plants, such as small cacti and yucca, are common.

Arikaree Breaks, Point of Rocks, Lake Scott State Park, and Meade State Park in Meade County all provide unique views of the High Plains. Clark State Fishing Lake, on the boundary between the High Plains and the Red Hills regions, provides access to Ogallala Formation mortar beds as well as Permian red beds characteristic of the Red Hills.




Buchanan, R., and McCauley, J. R., 2010, Roadside Kansas: A Traveler's Guide to its Geology and Landmarks: Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 392 p.

GeoFacts: High Plains (pdf)