Centrally located in the Intermountain West, Utah is bordered
by all of the mountain states except Montana and is often
called the "Crossroads of the West."
The state's centrality is important to the prosperity
of the Wasatch Front, Utah's core area, and particularly
to the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. The term "Salt
Lake Empire" refers to the large geographical area that
comes under considerable economic and/or religious influence
from Salt Lake. The empire penetrates significantly into
Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada, somewhat in Arizona, and is
not of much consequence in either New Mexico or Colorado.
Size At 84,916 square miles or 54,340,240 acres, Utah
is the thirteenth largest state in the United States.
Approximately three percent of the surface is covered
by water. Landform Rising to 13,528 feet, Kings Peak is
the highest spot in Utah, and Beaver Dam Wash in the southwestern
corner of the state is the lowest point at 2,350 feet.
Only the Uinta Mountains have peaks that exceed 13,000
feet, and there are twenty-four of them that do. Three
other mountains systems have peaks that exceed 12,000
feet-the La Sal, Tushar, and Deep Creek Mountains. The
highest peak in the Wasatch Mountains, Mount Nebo, is
Utah's landform is divided among three major physiographic
provinces: the Great Basin or Basin and Range province,
the Colorado Plateau province, and the Rocky Mountain
The largest of the provinces in Utah is the Colorado Plateau.
It has been described as a land of layered, flat-lying
sedimentary rock. The story of the earth's movement and
history can often be read in the tilt and erosion of the
layered strata. Within Utah's portion of the Colorado
Plateau are five national parks, six national monuments,
a national recreation area, and several state parks. It
has one of the largest deposits of hydrocarbons in the
world-coal, oil, oil shale, tar sands, gilsonite, and
natural gas. It also has significant amounts of uranium.
Water is the most important agent for change within the
Colorado Plateau. The Utah section of the plateau is drained
by the Colorado and Green rivers and their tributaries.
The plateau's varied exposed surface materials can be
spectacular in appearance. Utah's portion of the Colorado
Plateau can be further divided into the Uinta Basin, Canyonlands,
and High Plateaus subprovinces.
The Great Basin, located mainly in Utah and Nevada, is
the northern part of the larger Basin and Range province.
A large majority of Utah's portion of the Great Basin
is called the Bonneville Basin because at one time it
lay beneath ancient Lake Bonneville. The lowest part of
the Bonneville Basin (and of the Great Basin) is covered
by the Great Salt Lake, a remnant of the much larger ancient
lake. The surface of the Great Salt Lake is about 4,200
feet above sea level; the Sevier Basin is around 4.700
feet in elevation; and the Escalante Basin is approximately
It is believed that the mountains of the Great Basin are
fault-block in origin, the same as the Wasatch Mountains
and the Sierra Nevada that border the Basin. The mountains
have formed along a generally north-south axis and they
have valleys or basins separating them. Both the mountains
and the basins tend to be from about 25 to 50 miles long
and from 15 to 20 miles wide. Many of the basins are self-contained,
meaning that they drain internally and are areas of water
and soil accumulation.
Of the three major provinces, the physiographic province
that covers the smallest area in Utah is the Rocky Mountains,
which is divided between the Wasatch and the Uinta Mountains.
This province is particularly valuable to the state for
the water, recreation, and minerals it provides.
The Wasatch Mountains follow a north-south axis from the
Idaho border southward to Mount Nebo near Nephi. They
are a fault-block range that is structurally similar to
the mountains of the Great Basin. Water from Wasatch streams
has been essential to the settlement along the base of
the range throughout recorded history.
The Uinta Mountains are one of the few east-west ranges
in the Rocky Mountains. Unlike the fault-block mountains
of the Great Basin and the Wasatch, the Uinta Range is
a folded anticline bordered by the Uinta Basin to the
south and the Green River (or Wyoming) Basin to the north.
The Uintas offer excellent recreational opportunities,
but they are not as heavily used as the Wasatch Mountains
because they are more distant from population centers.
Climate and Weather While Utah is widely perceived to
be a desert state, and statistically it is the second
driest state in the nation, its climate, soils, and vegetation
are as diverse as are its landforms.
Utah has three climatic regions-humid, sub-humid or semi-arid,
and arid-and each region covers about one-third of the
state. The high mountains and plateaus are humid; the
lower basins, valleys, and flatlands are often arid; and
the transitional places in between are sub-humid to semi-arid.
The arid region generally receives less than eight inches
of precipitation annually and has an annual evapo-transpiration
rate often 30 to 50 inches. The humid zone generally has
eighteen inches or more of precipitation, and its precipitation
by definition exceeds the evapo-transpiration rate.
While most of the moisture in Utah is associated with
frontal systems from the Pacific Ocean, there is a period
in mid- to late summer when convectional rainfall is very
important, particularly in the southern and eastern parts
of the state. During this time, moist air masses from
the Gulf of California or the Gulf of Mexico periodically
enter the state. The moist air is unstable and convectional
processes frequently cause cloudbursts and flash flooding.
The heavy convectional precipitation tends to be localized,
but in the narrow canyons of southern Utah the danger
of flash floods is high both from local cloudbursts and
from heavy downpours that might fall many miles upstream.
Natural Hazards Earthquakes and landslides are the two
most serious landform-related natural hazards in Utah,
whereas floods, wind, fire, and avalanches are the most
prominent weather-related ones.
Earthquake danger in Utah is high because of the large
number of faults located in the state. The most significant
of them from a natural hazards perspective are whose slippage
would affect the more densely populated areas of the state.
This makes the Wasatch Fault easily the most dangerous
of all because it is located near where the majority of
the state's people live and work. The Sevier Fault has
had more earthquakes of a higher intensity than the Wasatch
Fault, but it affects fewer people.
An earthquake associated with a major movement of the
Wasatch Fault would cause great damage along the fault
line. However, it might create even more destruction in
the valley below because of what is called "liquefaction"
of the earth. Liquefaction would occur if the shock of
a major earthquake caused the groundwater along the Wasatch
Front to mix with the Lake Bonneville-deposited alluvial
soils in such a way that the soils would lose their ability
to support structures. This is what caused the devastating
damage of the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. Both Mexico
City and the valleys of the Wasatch Front are located
on old lake beds.
Landslides and mudslides received much attention during
the above-average precipitation period of the 1980s. There
were many such slides, and a few of them were among the
largest recorded in North America. It was reported that
the Manti Canyon slide of the 1970s, and the Twelve Mile
Canyon slide in Sanpete County and the Thistle slide,
both in 1983, were respectively the fourth, fifth, and
sixth largest landslides ever recorded in North America.
Avalanches, along with flash floods, are the primary weather-related
killers in Utah. Almost every year snow avalanches claim
several lives in the state, primarily in the Wasatch Mountains.
Possibly the worst possible scenario for a natural disaster
in Utah would be a major earthquake when the ground in
the valleys and on the slopes was wet. This might produce
the maximum possible damage from shaking, liquefaction,
and slides. Historical Geography Utah was still Mexican
territory when the Mormon pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley
in 1847. It became a part of the United States at the
conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848. Brigham Young promptly
announced an entity he called the State of Deseret, a
territory that included Utah, Nevada, western Colorado,
western New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, part of Idaho
and Wyoming, and a large area in southern California including
the coastline from San Diego and to about Santa Monica.
It was some 265,000 square miles in area. San Diego was
to be the seaport for the state.
Washington denied the petition for statehood and the Utah
Territory was formed instead. The Utah Territory of 1850
included Nevada, western Colorado, and a part of Wyoming.
The original territory was reduced in size several times
and in 1868 the state assumed the present size and shape
of the state.
Planning was of paramount importance to both Mormon leaders
Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Their cities and towns
were laid out in detail. Brigham Young's Utah was probably
the most planned region of its size in the America of
his day and perhaps of any day since. For the pioneers
planning included political, cultural, and economic activities
as well as urban and regional site planning. Their intent
was to develop a strong center in the Salt Lake Valley
that could preside over a far-flung empire of settlements.
As a colonizer, Brigham Young believed that to claim land
it had to be occupied. He instructed teams of immigrants
to settle the corridors that radiated from the Salt Lake
hub. Membership in a settlement team was sometimes a church
calling. Brigham Young personally selected the sites for
many of the settlements and then suggested how to lay
out the communities. As a planner and colonizer, Brigham
Young presided over the establishment of some 360 communities.
History ranks him as one of the leading colonizers of
Soon after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, the
pioneers colonized the productive areas that surrounded
the valley. This was largely the Wasatch Front as far
north as Brigham City along with a southern corridor to
the border of the territory. A few outlying settlements
were also established at an early date; they included
Genoa (Mormon Station), close to Reno, Nevada, in 1845;
San Bernardino, California, in 1851; and Lemhi, Idaho,
Following the death of Brigham Young, rural counties in
Utah maintained basically stable populations until after
World War I. The state's population was relatively small
compared to that today and agriculture was much more important
to the economy then. From the 1920s to the early 1970s,
however, there was a general and pronounced migration
to the Wasatch Front, particularly to the Salt Lake Valley.
During the 1970s, population losses ceased for counties
in Utah and the migration structure for the state changed
from one of losses to one of sharp gain. In fact, more
people entered Utah from 1970 to 1980 than migrated to
the state from 1847 to 1910.
As the decade of the 1980s began, the state continued
to have net in-migration; but this soon ceased and for
several years, beginning about 1984, there was a net out-
migration. The state's population continued to increase,
however, because of a high natural increase rate. In the
early 1990s the trend once again reversed as Utah's healthy
economy attracted more people to the state than those
who left. Economic Geography Land Ownership. Federal ownership
accounts for 67 percent of the land in Utah, with another
four percent included in Indian reservations. The primary
federal landlords are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM),
the Forest Service, the Department of Defense, and the
National Park Service.
Private ownership claims 22 percent of the land, and the
remaining seven percent is owned by the state. Agriculture.
Much of the naturally best agricultural land in Utah is
along the Wasatch Front, but is not farmed. It is used
for cities, suburbs, factories, shopping centers, roads,
and highways. Agriculture cannot compete favorably with
more lucrative land uses in this region.
Livestock dominates Utah agriculture because grazing is
the best and sometimes the only reasonable agricultural
use for huge areas of the state due to the climate, the
landform, or both. Dry farming and growing fruit on benchlands
are other ways farmers have accommodated to the natural
The most important of the market-oriented agricultural
activities is the dairy industry. There is some truck
gardening to supply fresh produce to the local markets,
but it is much less significant today than it was in the
past. Turkey and mink growing are two prominent targets
of opportunity products, while cotton and sugar beets
were of historical importance. Human Geography People.
Utah has one of the nation's youngest populations, lowest
deathrates, and highest birthrates. In recent years, however,
both the birth and the fertility rates have declined sharply.
Still, the state's natural increase rate is among the
highest in the nation and will probably continue to be
The percentage of people classified as minority by the
Census Bureau is low, at less than 10 percent being well
below the national average. People of Spanish origin comprise
the largest of the census-enumerated minority groups,
and blacks comprise the smallest. More than half of the
state's population claim English ancestry, which is the
highest of any state in the nation. Scandinavian and German-rooted
people are the next most numerous. Settlement Patterns.
A few statistics highlight Utah's settlement patterns.
In 1990 approximately 77 percent of the state's population
resided along the Wasatch Front on 4.3 percent of the
land area. Close to 42 percent of the state's inhabitants
live in Salt Lake County on only 0.98 percent of the land.
This means that 95.7 percent of the land is away from
the Wasatch Front, but it holds only 23 percent of the
people. Fifteen of the state's twenty-nine counties have
a population density of less than five people per square
mile, whereas the figure is close to 1,000 per square
mile for Salt Lake County. Away from the Wasatch Front
settlement is in small cities or towns. Residence on isolated
farms or ranches is rare.
Albert L. Fisher