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Virgin River

Virgin River

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The Virgin River is a tributary of the Colorado River
Colorado River
The Colorado River , is a river in the Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, approximately long, draining a part of the arid regions on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The watershed of the Colorado River covers in parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states...

 in the U.S. state
U.S. state
A U.S. state is any one of the 50 federated states of the United States of America that share sovereignty with the federal government. Because of this shared sovereignty, an American is a citizen both of the federal entity and of his or her state of domicile. Four states use the official title of...

s of Utah
Utah is a state in the Western United States. It was the 45th state to join the Union, on January 4, 1896. Approximately 80% of Utah's 2,763,885 people live along the Wasatch Front, centering on Salt Lake City. This leaves vast expanses of the state nearly uninhabited, making the population the...

, Nevada
Nevada is a state in the western, mountain west, and southwestern regions of the United States. With an area of and a population of about 2.7 million, it is the 7th-largest and 35th-most populous state. Over two-thirds of Nevada's people live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which contains its...

, and Arizona
Arizona ; is a state located in the southwestern region of the United States. It is also part of the western United States and the mountain west. The capital and largest city is Phoenix...

. The river is about 162 miles (260.7 km) long. It was designated Utah's first wild and scenic river in 2009, during the centennial celebration of Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located in the Southwestern United States, near Springdale, Utah. A prominent feature of the park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River...



Its origin is in Southwestern Utah, at the Navajo Reservoir in the Dixie National Forest
Dixie National Forest
Dixie National Forest is a United States National Forest in Utah with headquarters in Cedar City. It occupies almost two million acres and stretches for about 170 miles across southern Utah. The largest national forest in Utah, it straddles the divide between the Great Basin and the Colorado River...

, north of Zion National Park, and is formed by the confluence of the East Fork Virgin, that flows through Mount Carmel Junction
Mount Carmel Junction, Utah
Mount Carmel Junction and Mount Carmel are unincorporated areas located east of Zion National Park and north of Kanab in Kane County, Utah, United States. They lie in close proximity to the beautiful Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park....

 on the east side of Zion National Park and Parunaweap Canyon, with the North Fork Virgin River, that flows from Navajo Lake through Zion Canyon
Zion Canyon
Zion Canyon is a deep and narrow gorge in southwestern Utah, United States, carved by the North Fork of the Virgin River...

 in Zion National Park. The river flows in a southwesterly direction, passing south of the old townsite of St. George
St. George, Utah
St. George is a city located in the southwestern part of the U.S. state of Utah, and the county seat of Washington County, Utah. It is the principal city of and is included in the St. George, Utah, Metropolitan Statistical Area. The city is 119 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, and 303 miles ...

 where the Santa Clara River joins the Virgin at a place the Paiutes called Tonaquint. The river then flows across the northwestern corner of Arizona through the Virgin River Gorge
Virgin River Gorge
The Virgin River Gorge, located between St. George, Utah, and Littlefield, Arizona, is a long canyon that has been carved out by the Virgin River in northwest Arizona. The Virgin River rises on the Colorado Plateau and created the topography of both Zion National Park and the Virgin River Gorge...

 and past the towns of Beaver Dam
Beaver Dam, Arizona
Beaver Dam is an unincorporated community in Mohave County located in the extreme northwestern corner of the U.S. state of Arizona, in the Arizona Strip region. It is located along Interstate 15 approximately 10 miles northeast of Mesquite, Nevada...

 and Littlefield
Littlefield, Arizona
Littlefield is an unincorporated community in Mohave County located in the Arizona Strip region of the U.S. state of Arizona. It is located along Interstate 15 approximately 10 miles northeast of Mesquite, Nevada...

. It enters southern Nevada near the town of Mesquite
Mesquite, Nevada
Mesquite is a city in Clark County, Nevada, United States, adjacent to the Arizona state line and northeast of Las Vegas. As of the 2010 United States Census, it had a population of 15,277. The city is located in the Virgin River Valley...

 and empties into the Colorado at the Lake Mead
Lake Mead
Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States. It is located on the Colorado River about southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the states of Nevada and Arizona. Formed by water impounded by the Hoover Dam, it extends behind the dam, holding approximately of water.-History:The lake was...

 reservoir, approximately 40 miles (64.4 km) east of Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Nevada and is also the county seat of Clark County, Nevada. Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, and fine dining. The city bills itself as The Entertainment Capital of the World, and is famous...

. The last 30 miles (48.3 km) of the Virgin River forms the north arm of Lake Mead.


Despite flowing through an arid region, the Virgin River is home to a surprisingly diverse array of plants and animals. Southwestern Utah is located at the intersection of three physiographic regions: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert. The exceptional landscapes and habitats of this region harbor unique plant and animal communities and species found nowhere else in the world. Without the water of the Virgin River system, these species could not exist. The Virgin River directly supports hundreds of wildlife species including, woundfin, Virgin River chub, Virgin spinedace, flannelmouth sucker, desert sucker, speckled dace, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Many of these species are endangered or are considered sensitive species within the State of Utah. The Virgin River Program was established to balance increasing human demand and maintain this unique system.

Woundfin (Plagopterus argentissimus) Federally listed endangered species Size: 4″ (10.2 cm)
One of the most rare species on earth, the endangered woundfin is found only in a small section of the Virgin River. Woundfin have large fins and scale-less, streamlined bodies that help them survive in swift, silty conditions. Although small, it is shark-like in both appearance and action as it feeds on small insects in shallow areas along the river. Woundfin live only one to two years and their survival depends upon sufficient flow within the river, especially during hot summer months.

Virgin River chub (Gila seminuda) Federally listed endangered species Size: 18 ” (46.4 cm)
Rare and beautiful, this fish is the top native predator in the Virgin River. Chub are a fast streamlined fish with a sloped forehead, humped back, and thin rounded tail. The Virgin River chub feeds on small fish, insects, and plant matter. Chub prefer deep pools and runs with boulders and debris for cover. Virgin River chub were once an important food source for Native Americans and early pioneers. Listed as an endangered species, the Virgin River chub is found from Pah Tempe Hot Springs down to Halfway Wash, Nevada.

Desert sucker (Catostomus clarkii) State of Utah wildlife species of concern Size: 18″ (46.4 cm)
The desert sucker gets its name from the way it feeds on aquatic vegetation and insects. It uses its thick cartilaginous lips to scrape and suck food from rocks and boulders along the bottom of the river. Desert Suckers are very colorful during the spring spawning season, developing bright orange and black ‘racing stripes’ along their sides. Desert suckers are considered a sensitive species in Utah, where they are only found in the Virgin River and its tributaries.

Speckled dace (Rhinichthys osculus) Size: 4 ” (10.2 cm)
One of the most widespread species in western North America, the speckled dace is found in large numbers throughout the Virgin River and its tributaries. Speckled dace prefer rocky areas but are comfortable living in all habitats and stream sizes. Speckled dace exhibit a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors across their range. Males display bright red “lipstick” and red fins to attract mates during breeding season.

Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailii extimus) Federally listed endangered species
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher occurs in dense riparian habitats along streams rivers, and other wetlands. At low elevations, the flycatcher breeds in dense, patchy habitats composed of mid-sized to tall trees and shrubs. At higher elevations, it occurs in dense stands of low to moderate height riparian shrubs. Vegetation density within 4m (13 ft) is especially important. Preferred habitats are almost always associated with standing or slow-flowing water. The destruction of riparian habitats has caused a severe decline in the populations of the southwestern willow flycatcher. Currently, this sub-species exists only in fragmented and scattered locations throughout its range. Historically, the breeding range reached from southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, southwestern Colorado, and northwestern Mexico. The flycatcher is a migratory bird that winters in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Currently, the breeding range for the flycatcher is similar to the historic range, though much of the riparian habitat in the southwest has been degraded by agricultural practices, invasion of non-native vegetation and urban development. The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is an insectivore, taking insects from the air, or picking them from the foliage. The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is present on breeding grounds by mid-May. By late May, nests are built, usually in a branched tree fork near the water. Typically, three eggs are laid and then incubated for 12-13 days.

Virgin spinedace (Lepidomeda mollispinis mollispinis) State conservation species Size: 5″ (12.7 cm)
The Virgin spinedace looks, feeds, and behaves like a miniature trout. This silvery minnow gets its name from the sharp spiny rays in its dorsal fin. Virgin spinedace are found only in the Virgin River Basin. Unlike the woundfin and chub, which live only in the Virgin River, spinedace are also found throughout many tributary streams. Virgin Spinedace prefer deep pools and runs and are at home in both clear and turbid water.

Flannelmouth sucker (Catostomus latipinnis) State conservation species Size: 2+’ (64.8 cm)
The flannelmouth sucker is the largest native fish in the Virgin River, growing over two feet in length and weighing over six pounds. The flannelmouth’s thick fleshy lips contain taste buds that help it find food along the bottom of the River, including aquatic invertebrates, organic debris and algae. Flannelmouth suckers are usually found in deep sandy areas of the Virgin River, but large numbers congregate in shallow gravel areas for spawning in the spring.
Water in the river's lower valley provides irrigation for the cultivation of cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

, pomegranate
The pomegranate , Punica granatum, is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub or small tree growing between five and eight meters tall.Native to the area of modern day Iran, the pomegranate has been cultivated in the Caucasus since ancient times. From there it spread to Asian areas such as the Caucasus as...

s, and fig
Ficus is a genus of about 850 species of woody trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes, and hemiepiphyte in the family Moraceae. Collectively known as fig trees or figs, they are native throughout the tropics with a few species extending into the semi-warm temperate zone. The Common Fig Ficus is a genus of...


The Nevada river valley's significance is commemorated by Nevada Historical Marker 56.

Virgin River Gorge

The scenic Virgin River Gorge is in northwest Arizona just south of the Utah state line. It is a popular winter rock climbing
Rock climbing
Rock climbing also lightly called 'The Gravity Game', is a sport in which participants climb up, down or across natural rock formations or artificial rock walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a pre-defined route without falling...

 area noted for its steep and overhanging limestone walls. Interstate 15
Interstate 15 in Arizona
Interstate 15 is an Interstate Highway, running from San Diego, California, United States, to the Canadian border, through Mohave County in northwest Arizona. Despite being isolated from the rest of Arizona, in the remote Arizona Strip, and short in length at , it remains notable for its scenic...

 follows the Virgin River for several miles through the Virgin River Gorge.

See also

Further reading

  • Carlson, D.D. and D.F. Meyer. (1995). Flood on the Virgin River, January 1989, in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada [Water-Resources Investigations Report 94-4159]. Salt Lake City: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Hereford, R., G. Jacoby, and V.A.S. McCord. (1995). Geomorphic history of the Virgin River in the Zion National Park area, southwest Utah [U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 95-515]. Reston, VA: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Langenheim, V.E. et al. (2000). Geophysical constraints on the Virgin River Depression, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona [U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-407]. Menlo Park, CA: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Wilkowske, C.D., V.M. Heilweil, D.E. Wilberg. (1998). Selected hydrologic data for the central Virgin River basin area, Washington and Iron counties, Utah, 1915-97 [U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-407]. Salt Lake City: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

External links