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Humboldt River

The Humboldt River is an extensive river drainage system located in north-central Nevada. It extends in a general east-to-west direction from its headwaters in the Jarbidge, Independence, and Ruby Mountains in Elko County, to its terminus in the Humboldt Sink, approximately 225 direct miles away in northwest Churchill County. Most estimates put the Humboldt River at 300 miles to 330 miles long, however, due to the extensive meandering nature of the river, its length may be more closely estimated at 380 miles. It is located within the Great Basin Watershed and is the third longest river in the watershed behind the Bear River at 355 miles and the Sevier River at 325 miles. The Humboldt River Basin is the largest sub-basin of the Great Basin encompassing an area of 16,840 square miles. It is the only major river system wholly contained within the state of Nevada. It's discharge averages

390 cu ft/s but can be as low as 0 cu ft/s and as high as 17,000 cu ft/s.

It is the only natural transportation artery across the Great Basin and has historically provided a route for westward migration. Additionally, two major railroad routes loosely follow its path. Interstate 80 follows the river's course from its source to its mouth. The river is named for the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.


The region of the river in northern Nevada was sparsely inhabited by Numic-speaking people at the time of the arrival of European American settlers. The region was little known by non-indigenous peoples until the arrival of fur trappers in the early 19th century.

The first recorded sighting of the river was on November 9, 1828, by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company, during his fifth expedition to the Snake Country. Odgen came southward along the Little Humboldt, encountering the main river at the confluence near Winnemucca. Ogden explored the river for several hundred miles, blazing a trail along it and making the first known map of the region. He initially named the river "Unknown River", due to the source and course of the river still unknown to him, and later "Paul's River", after one of his trappers who died on the expedition and was buried on the river bank. He later changed it again to "Mary's River," named after the Native American wife of one of his trappers, which later somehow became "St. Mary's River". However, in 1829 he suggested that "Swampy River" best described the course he had traversed.

In 1833 the Bonneville–Walker fur party explored the river, naming it "Barren River". Washington Irving's 1837 book describing the Bonneville expedition called it "Ogden's River", the name used by many early travelers. By the early 1840s, the trail along the river was being used by settlers going west to California. The river provided drinkable water to earlier travelers on foot, but later emigrants using wagons required the significant riparian vegetation along its length as forage for their draft animals.

In 1841 the river (then known as Mary's River) first became the route of the California Trail with the Bartleson–Bidwell Party, later becoming the primary land route for migrants to the California gold fields. In 1845 the river was explored by John C. Frémont, who made a thorough map of the region and gave the river its current name. In 1869 the river was used as part of the route of the Central Pacific segment of the Transcontinental Railroad.

In the 20th century, the valley of the river became the route for U.S. Route 40, later replaced by Interstate 80. In the latter part of the 20th century, about 45,000 people lived within 10 miles of the river, roughly a third of the population at that time of the State of Nevada outside of Western Nevada and Southern Nevada, before the rapid 21st-century growth of Southern Nevada changed these population figures.

Watershed and course

The Humboldt River can be divided geographically into the upper, middle, and lower divisions based on Palisade Canyon and Emigrant Canyon being the major constriction points along the Humboldt River Valley. The upper basin begins in northeastern Nevada and drains about 5,000 square miles upstream from Palisade. The middle basin has a drainage area of about 7,800 square miles and lies between Palisade and Emigrant Canyon, a narrow gap located just downstream from Comus. The lower basin is an area encompassing some 4,100 square miles from below Emigrant Canyon and extending through the Humboldt Sink in northwestern Nevada.

A hydrologic definition instead divides the Humboldt River drainage into two basins—one above and one below Palisade—based on flows that increase above and decrease below this part of the river. The river in the upper basin is 92 miles long and in the lower basin it is 218 miles long. The major tributaries of the upper Humboldt River basin are (heading downstream) Bishop Creek, Marys River, Lamoille Creek, North Fork Humboldt River, South Fork Humboldt River, Susie Creek, Maggie Creek, and Marys Creek; and of the lower basin they are Pine Creek, Reese River, and the Little Humboldt River.

The source of the main stem of the river is a spring called Humboldt Wells at the northern tip of the East Humboldt Range, just outside the city of Wells. The river flows west-southwest through Elko County past the communities of Elko and Carlin. Approximately 15 miles upstream from Elko, the river receives the North Fork of the Humboldt River and receives the South Fork approximately 7 miles downstream of Elko.

In northern Eureka County it passes through Palisade Canyon between the south end of the Tuscarora Mountains and the north end of the Shoshone Range. At Battle Mountain the river turns northwest for approximately 50 miles, then west at Red House and past Golconda and a spur of the Sonoma Range. It merges with the Reese River near Battle Mountain and receives the Little Humboldt River approximately 5 miles upstream from Winnemucca.

Past the junction with the Little Humboldt, the river turns southwest, flowing past Winnemucca and through Pershing County, along the western side of the Humboldt Range and the West Humboldt Range. In central Pershing County, the Rye Patch Dam impounds the river, forming the Rye Patch Reservoir, which stores water to irrigate farms near Lovelock, 22 miles downstream. The Humboldt empties into an intermittent lake in the Humboldt Sink on the border between Pershing and Churchill counties, approximately 20 miles southwest of Lovelock.

The river gains most of its water from snowmelt in the mountains in the eastern part of the watershed, most importantly the Ruby Mountains, Jarbidge Mountains, and Independence Mountains. River flow generally decreases downstream to the west, partly due to water removal from the river for irrigation, especially near Lovelock. Stream-gauge measurements undertaken by the United States Geological Survey suggest that Palisade Canyon, between Carlin and Beowawe, is the point where the river's flow ceases to increase and begins to decrease. Also, since the Humboldt's water comes almost exclusively from snowmelt, its flow is highly variable from season to season (peak flow occurs during the spring melt) and from year to year (depending on the amount of snow every winter).

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