What (and Where) Are the Great Plains?

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With a long history of Native American and pioneer settlements, the Great Plains were a paradise for those in search of the American Dream. If you’re looking to explore the midwest, here’s what you need to know about the region of North America known as the Great Plains.

What Are the Great Plains?

Sunrise over Nebraska fields
Credit: marekuliasz/ iStock

The region known as the Great Plains is a massive stretch of flat grassland that takes up a major portion of midwestern North America. The plains stretch thousands of miles from north to south, and hundreds of miles from east to west. In total, they encompass anywhere from 500,000 square miles to more than a million square miles, depending on which map you consult. Ten U.S. states and three Canadian provinces have territory within the Great Plains.

Where Are the Great Plains?

Colorado landscape in the fall
Credit: timorse/ Unsplash

Different maps indicate different geographical borders for the Great Plains, but they're roughly bordered by the Canadian Shield and the Missouri River to the east, and the Rocky Mountains to the west. North to south, the region stretches from the Prairie Provinces in Canada — Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba — all the way down to Texas, passing through Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Geographical Features

The Badlands in North Dakota
Credit: Different_Brian/ iStock

Most of the region features vast plateaus and semi-arid grasslands. Although the Great Plains are generally flat, there are some regions where hills, streams, and valleys are common — especially in Montana and North Dakota. And in the southern and central parts of the Great Plains, you might see more rolling hills. Early settlers who traveled across the plains described them as nothing but a "sea of grass." The land was flat enough to make travel easy, but the grass was sometimes so tall that horsemen had to stand on horses' backs to see over it.

Climate

Tornado near a dirt road
Credit: mdesigner125/ iStock

Since the Great Plains cover so much ground, the climate varies depending on elevation and latitude. Warm air travels from the Gulf of Mexico and travels freely throughout the southern region of the plains. Of course, the farther north you go, the colder it gets. In the summer, temperatures in the southern expanses of the Great Plains often reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while in the north, the mean temperature is around 66 degrees.

The amount of precipitation varies widely throughout the plains, too. Moist air from the Gulf of Mexico brings a lot of rain to the southern plains, where some places receive more than 40 inches of rain annually. In other areas, such as in the northwest and Canada, precipitation totals are much lower — around 14 inches per year. However, the northern Great Plains can receive up to 40 inches of snow in the winter, compared to less than an inch in the south. Other meteorological events include massive thunderstorms, hailstorms, and tornadoes, which are common across the Great Plains in the spring.

Wildlife

Group of small prairie dogs sit near a hole in the middle of a grass field
Credit: Frank Fichtmueller/ Shutterstock

Bison are by far the most famous residents of the Great Plains. Native American tribes followed the massive herds and used their meat and hides to sustain their way of life. At one point, there were more than 60 million bison that roamed the plains, but during the westward expansion, most of them were killed. Bison are no longer considered endangered, but their numbers are still far lower than what they used to be. Today, there are about 20,000 bison in the wild.

In addition to bison, there are plenty of other critters that call the Great Plains home, including:

  • Black-footed ferrets
  • Pronghorns, deer, and elk
  • Prairie dogs
  • Wolves
  • Bears

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