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Science and Children >  > The High Plains 
The article and classroom activities below are reprinted from the September 1996 issue of Science and Children, a magazine published by the National Science Teachers Association for elementary and middle science school teachers.

By Ranel Stephenson Capron, Richard Brook, and Elizabeth Rieben
Artwork and Associated Research by Shelly Fischman

Photo of the High Plains - Land of Extremes

By Ranel Stephenson Capron, Richard Brook, and Elizabeth Rieben


Activity 1
Activity 2

"...it is surprising how clearly the most distant objects can be distinguished. The atmosphere becomes so transparent that it is only the curvature of the earth's surface that limits the view from the highest points."

—John Lambert, describing the High Plains in the 1850s.

"The Great American Desert." In 1820, explorer Stephen Long used these words to describe the High Plains—an area of high-elevation, short-and mid-grass prairies at elevations of 600 to 1,500 meters found east of the Rocky Mountains. Except for the badland scenes in old Westerns, depicting endless distances of windswept and seemingly barren landscape, the High Plains have been generally overlooked, avoided, or misunderstood. Early nineteenth-century descriptions of the High Plains ranged from "green velvet" to "nothing but dirt and prickly pear cactus," illustrating the immense variability of the landscape.

The area's inhospitable nature—scarcity of water and trees, high elevation, dramatic temperature changes, endless wind, and harsh climate—deterred all but the hardiest of homesteaders. For the most part, the High Plains were not considered a place to settle; most people were just passing through on their way farther West to the water-, mineral-, and lumber-rich Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast areas.

Last updated: 11-13-2009