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Utah's basement — Beaver Dam Wash is state's lowest elevation

BEAVER DAM WASH, Washington County — St. George isn't the hottest place in Utah, nor does it have the lowest elevation. Those superlatives belong to the Beaver Dam Wash in the extreme southwest corner of the state, at the Utah-Arizona state line.

Welcome to Utah's basement, in the Beaver Dam Wash, where an environment exists unlike anywhere else in the Beehive State. It's the Mojave Desert, where Joshua trees, blackbrush, creosote, yucca and other southern desert plants rule in an ovenlike environment this time of year.

Kings Peak is Utah's highest elevation at 13,538 feet above sea level, but at Beaver Dam Wash — 288 air miles away — the elevation dips more than two miles below Kings and is almost 600 feet lower than the city of St. George, located some 23 miles to the northeast.

The majority of sources out there — Internet and books — have Utah's lowest elevation all wrong. Utah's lowest point isn't 2,350 feet above sea level, as is commonly listed by Utah tourist sources. Nor is it an even 2,000 feet, as some other sources list.

Utah's lowest elevation here is "probably" 2,178 feet above sea level.

(In contrast, St. George has an average elevation of 2,800 feet and Salt Lake City's Temple Square is 4,327 feet above sea level.)

That's according to Mark Milligan, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, who found that quadrangle maps show the lowest spot is found in an area bounded by 2,160-foot and 2,180-foot contour lines.

"The border is much closer to the 2,180 contour and thus agrees with an elevation of 2,178 feet," he wrote in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News.

He found that even though the USGS Geographic Names Information also lists Utah's lowest elevation at 2,178 feet, in the same entry it uses the even 2,000-foot number as the state's least elevation, too.

Milligan believes 2,178 is as close an estimate to the low elevation as is possible. Since the Beaver Dam Wash is an area prone to flooding, its elevation can change.

"Of course, it is possible erosion may have recently lowered this portion of the wash," Milligan reported in his e-mail. "The precipitation that caused the 2005 flooding in St. George presumably caused flooding in the Beaver Dam Wash.

"I have not been there recently enough to remember what the bottom of the wash looks like in that area. So I would not even dare an educated guess as to whether to expect much erosion there from such floods."

Elaine York, West Desert regional director for the Utah Field Office of the Nature Conservancy, said the 2005 flooding did damage the Lytle Ranch facilities in the Beaver Dam Wash, about six miles north. (The ranch is now owned and operated by Brigham Young University.)

She suspects the lowest elevation could have dipped slightly from erosion last year.

"Beaver Dam Wash is a Mojave Desert eco-region," she said.

It's also an area famous for bird-watching, and a portion of the Beaver Dam Wash is under study as a possible wilderness area.

Mark Eubank, KSL's chief meteorologist, believes Utah's lowest spot is also usually its hottest most days.

"In general, the lower the elevation, the hotter the temperature," Eubank said. "That is why Death Valley is the hottest place in North America — elevation near 200 feet below sea level.

"There are no official temperature readings from Beaver Dam Wash, but I feel certain it averages hotter there than in St. George."

Eubank said Mesquite, Nev., to the southwest of Beaver Dam Wash, runs 2 to 5 degrees hotter than St. George most days.

Chris Gibson, meteorologist with the Salt Lake Office of the National Weather Service, agrees.

"It probably is the hottest place in Utah," he said.

Gibson said temperatures generally drop 5.5 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 feet of altitude descended. On a hot, still day, he believes Utah's lowest point would be a couple of degrees warmer than St. George.

Despite the hot temperatures in the Beaver Dam Wash, it isn't totally waterless. York said some perennial springs keep year-round water there, even though at times the water is underground slightly.

Utah's lowest point ranks fourth among the 50 states in height. Only Colorado (3,320 feet), Wyoming (3,099) and New Mexico (2,840) have higher "low" spot points. (Montana rates fifth-place with an 1,800-foot low point.)

Twenty-one of the states have sea level as their lowest point.

There's also increasing interest in "bagging" the lowest points in all 50 states and a Web site for America's Basement,, highlights the possibilities.

During a June 5 and 6 visit to Utah's lowest point, my GPS initially measured 2,176 in one of the lowest washes, where Utah's lowest point surely is. A few dozen feet away in another small wash eastward, it measured 2,174 feet and fluctuated, dropping to as low as 2,154. (GPS devices do not claim absolute accuracy on elevation measured.)

If you still need a more exact idea of where Utah's lowest point is, it is almost straight north up the Beaver Dam Wash, 15 miles north of Littlefield, Ariz., which I-15 en route to Mesquite/Las Vegas passes through.

Two Deseret Morning News colleagues and I found the Beaver Dam Wash to be a much larger region than imagined — with the wash being the lowest point in the area with a width of up to a half-mile at times.

We also found a trek here to be no walk in the park. Loose sand and gravel, marshes and thick brush make walking difficult, and the all-terrain vehicle tracks we saw at times may represent the smartest and easiest way to visit.

Temperatures on an unusually warm June 6 here were likely more than 100 degrees at 10 a.m. One thermometer measured 112 degrees! Thus, this is a much more comfortable place to visit in winter, early spring or late fall.

Cattle roam the area, and a fairly new and well-maintained barbed-wire fence separates Utah from Arizona — even here — meaning Utah's lowest spot is in the lowest of several dips along the north side of that fence.

Utah has six corner monuments marking the corners of its borders. The southwest corner monument is almost due west of Utah's lowest point — about 2.5 miles away. However, the topography of a steep hillside on the west slope of the Beaver Dam Wash means making a trip there on the same day is difficult.

To visit Utah's lowest point, you will need a truck or four-wheel drive vehicle, unless you want to walk an extra six miles along dirt roads in the desert. The road is not suitable for cars because of several dips that exceed a regular car's clearance.

To get there, drive to Littlefield, Ariz., on I-15 and take Exit 8; go north on the old highway that leads to Shivwits and back into Utah; go past the Beaver Dam, Ariz., community (elevation 1,860 feet) and cross the Utah-Arizona stateline.

Then look for a dirt road that heads left (west), 0.8 mile past the state line. Follow this road southwest and then straight south for almost five miles into the Beaver Dam Wash. You will cross two cattle guards and see several "Mormon pioneer trail" signs posted along the way. Ignore any side roads and always head due west.

Park near some large overhead power lines in a loose gravel area, near the perennial water of the Beaver Dam Wash.

Be sure to carry plenty of drinking water and do not hike in the afternoon on hot days. Starting elevation here is about 2,076.

Walk northward, carefully picking your route, about two miles, to a barbed-wire fence you can't miss. Cross the fence and find the lowest point from there. (The above ground steam water disappears just before the fence line.)

Retrace your steps to avoid having to bushwack and knowing the power lines to the south highlight your starting point.

Lynn Arave, Ravell Call and Ray Boren visited the Beaver Dam Wash and Utah's lowest point on June 5 and 6, 2006.