Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area landform origins northeast of Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming, USA

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

The Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area northeast of the Bighorn Mountains discussed here is located in northern Wyoming, USA. Although detailed topographic maps of the Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area have been available for more than fifty years detailed map evidence has not previously been used to interpret the region’s geomorphic history. The interpretation provided here is based entirely on topographic map evidence. The Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area is interpreted to have been eroded during immense southeast-oriented flood events, the first of which flowed on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest points in the present-day drainage divide area.

Preface:

The following interpretation of detailed topographic map evidence is provided as evidence in the Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project, which is compiling similar evidence for all major drainage divides contained within the Missouri River drainage basin and for all major drainage divides with and within certain adjacent drainage basins. The research project is interpreting evidence in the context of a previously unexplored geomorphology paradigm, which is briefly described in the introduction below. Project essays are listed on the sidebar category list under their appropriate Missouri River tributary drainage basin, Missouri River segment drainage basin (by state), and/or state in which the Missouri River drainage basin is located.

Introduction:

  • The purpose of this essay is to use topographic map interpretation methods to explore Wyoming Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area landform origins northeast of the Bighorn Mountains. Map interpretation methods can be used to unravel many geomorphic events leading up to formation of present-day drainage routes and development of other landform features. While each detailed topographic map feature provides detailed evidence to be explained, the solution must be consistent with explanations for adjacent area map evidence as well as solutions to big picture map evidence puzzles. I invite readers to improve upon my solutions or to propose alternate solutions that better explain evidence and are also consistent with adjacent map area and big picture evidence. Readers may do so either by making comments here or by writing and publishing their own essays and then leaving a link to those essays in a comment here.
  • This essay is also exploring a paradigm in which erosional landforms are interpreted as evidence left by immense glacial melt water floods. Implied in that interpretation is the immense floods were derived from a thick North American ice sheet that created a deep “hole” in the North American continent and also melted fast. The previously unexplored paradigm being tested in this and similar essays is a thick North American ice sheet, comparable in thickness to the present day Antarctic ice sheet, occupied approximately the North American region usually recognized to have been glaciated and through its weight and erosive actions created a “deep” North American “hole”, through its weight and deep erosion (and perhaps deposition) along major south-oriented melt water flow routes caused significant crustal warping and tectonic change, through its action of melting fast produced immense floods that flowed across the continent, and through its action of melting fast systematically opened up space in the ice sheet created “hole” so headward erosion of newly developed north-oriented drainage systems captured immense south-oriented melt water floods and diverted immense melt water floods north into space the ice sheet had once occupied.
  • If this previously unexplored paradigm is correct the geographic region explored by this essay should contain evidence of immense floods that were captured by headward erosion of new valley systems so as to cause the floods to flow in a different direction. Ability of this previously unexplored paradigm to explain Wyoming Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area landform evidence northeast of the Bighorn Mountains will be regarded as evidence supporting the “thick ice sheet that melted fast” paradigm.

Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area location map

Figure 1: Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area general location map (select and click on maps to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 1 provides a location map for the Wyoming Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area discussed here. The North, Middle and South Forks of the Powder River meet in the Kaycee, Wyoming area and the Powder River then flows north in Wyoming (figure 1 center) before turning northeast to flow into Montana. North of figure 1 the Powder River flows to the northeast oriented Yellowstone River. Clear Creek is a Powder River tributary flowing east from the Bighorn Mountains to Buffalo, Wyoming and then northeast to join the Powder River. The Tongue River begins in the northern Bighorn Mountains and flows northeast through Ranchester, Wyoming and then into Montana, where north of figure 1 it joins the northeast oriented Yellowstone River. Note the location of Hanging Woman Creek, which flows north-northwest to the Tongue River. Other essays address Clear Creek-Powder River and Clear Creek-Crazy Woman Creek drainage divide evidence east of the Bighorn Mountains, Crazy Woman Creek-Powder River drainage divide evidence east of the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming’s Powder River-Little Powder River drainage divide evidence, Powder River-Belle Fourche River drainage divide evidence, and Wyoming’s Belle Fourche River-Cheyenne River drainage divide evidence (plus many other region drainage divide areas) and can be found under appropriate river names on the sidebar category list. This essay interprets Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide evidence in the context of an immense southeast-oriented flood that was systematically captured by headward erosion of deep northeast and north-oriented valleys to divert the flood waters further and further to the northeast and north. Flood waters east of the Bighorn Mountains flowed southeast from Montana across the Powder River Basin to the deep Cheyenne River valley, which eroded headward around the Black Hills south end. Flood waters were then captured by headward erosion of the deep Belle Fourche River valley around the Black Hills north end and then southwest into the Powder River Basin. Next headward erosion of the deep Powder River valley captured the flood waters and diverted the flood flow further north and northeast. Finally, headward erosion of the deep Tongue River valley captured the southeast-oriented flood waters and diverted the flood flow still further to the north and northeast. This does not address Bighorn Mountain drainage divide evidence, although the does present evidence suggesting large volumes of flood water flowed from the Bighorn Mountains.

Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area detailed location map

Figure 2: Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area detailed location map. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 2 provides a detailed location map for the Wyoming Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek drainage divide area. Campbell County is the unlabeled Wyoming county east of Sheridan County. Sheridan County is located in northern Wyoming and north of Sheridan County is the state of Montana. South of Sheridan County is Johnson County (not labeled on figure 1). The Powder River flows through eastern Johnson County and eastern Sheridan County before turning northeast to flow across the Campbell County northwest corner and into Montana. Clear Creek flows east from the Bighorn Mountains in Johnson County to Buffalo, Wyoming and then northeast to join the Powder River in northeast Sheridan County. Buffalo Creek flows east-northeast to Clear Creek near where Clear Creek joins the Powder River and will be important here. The Tongue River originates in the Bighorn Mountains west of the city of Sheridan, Wyoming and flows northeast to Ranchester, Wyoming before turning east and then at Acme, Wyoming northeast to flow into Montana. Figure 1 shows Powder River, Clear Creek and Buffalo Creek tributaries from the northwest to be southeast-oriented and Tongue River tributaries from the southeast (west Acme) to be primarily northwest-oriented. Tongue River tributaries from the northwest are primarily southeast-oriented and Powder River tributaries from the east are primarily northwest-oriented. This northwest-southeast drainage alignment is evidence major north and northeast-oriented trunk stream valleys eroded headward across what must have been a southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex. That anastomosing channel complex resulted from an immense southeast-oriented flood that flowed from Montana across the entire Powder River Basin. This essay will begin in northeast Sheridan County and using topographic maps follow the Tongue River-Powder River and Clear Creek and Buffalo Creek drainage divide southwest and then follow Tongue River tributaries north to the Sheridan area, and then west to the Ranchester area where the Tongue River will be seen.

Tongue River-Powder River drainage divide area at Montana-Wyoming border

Figure 3: Tongue River-Powder River drainage divide area at Montana-Wyoming border. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 3 illustrates the Tongue River (Hanging Woman Creek)-Powder River drainage divide in northeast Sheridan County, Wyoming. Powder River and Big Horn Counties are located in Montana. The northeast-oriented Powder River is located in the figure 3 southeast corner. Hanging Woman Creek originates in the figure 1 southwest corner and then flows northwest, however all other northwest-oriented drainage routes are Hanging Woman Creek tributaries. Note how all Powder River tributaries are southeast-oriented. Northwest-southeast oriented through valleys link the northwest-oriented Hanging Woman Creek tributary valleys with the southeast-oriented Powder River tributary valleys. The northwest-southeast drainage orientation and the through valleys provide evidence the deep Powder River valley eroded headward into a high level topographic surface (at least as high as the highest figure 3 elevations today) to capture multiple southeast-oriented flood flow routes and to divert the flood waters northeast. The southeast-oriented tributary valleys eroded headward from the newly eroded deep Powder River valley along southeast-oriented flood flow routes. The northwest-oriented valleys were subsequently eroded when the deep Tongue River valley eroded southwest to the north of the figure 3 map area. Headward erosion of the deep Tongue River valley beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes to the newly eroded Powder River valley causing flood waters on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes to reverse flow direction and to flow northwest into the newly eroded deep Tongue River valley. This northwest flow was augmented by capture of yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood routes located south and southwest of the actively eroding Tongue River valley head.

Tongue River-Buffalo Creek and Buffalo Creek-Clear Creek drainage divide area

Figure 4: Tongue River-Buffalo Creek and Buffalo Creek-Clear Creek drainage divide area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 4 illustrates the region south and somewhat west of the figure 3 map area and includes overlap areas with figure 3. Clear Creek flows northeast across the figure 4 southeast corner and joins the northeast-oriented Powder River east of figure 4. Buffalo Creek flows east-northeast from the figure 4 west edge (southwest quadrant) to join Clear Creek at the figure 4 east center edge. Northwest-oriented drainage in the figure 4 northwest quadrant flows to northwest-oriented Hanging Woman Creek and eventually to the Tongue River. Note how Clear Creek tributaries are southeast and northwest-oriented as are Buffalo Creek tributaries. Hanging Woman Creek headwaters are northwest-oriented. Again this northwest-southeast oriented drainage alignment is evidence the deep Clear Creek valley eroded southwest to capture multiple southeast-oriented flood flow routes as would be expected in a large-scale southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex. The northwest-oriented tributary valleys were eroded by reversals of flood flow on the northwest ends of beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes. Through valleys also link the headwaters of northwest-oriented streams with headwaters of southeast-oriented streams. A good example can be seen in the figure 4 north center where the southeast-oriented South Fork of North Buffalo Creek valley is linked by a through valley to a northwest-oriented stream (that northwest-oriented stream is Hanging Woman Creek). The through valleys are also evidence flood waters once flowed southeast across the figure 4 map region on a topographic surface at least as high as the present day Tongue River-Powder River drainage basin divide.

Tongue River-Clear Creek drainage divide area near Ulm, Wyoming

Figure 5: Tongue River-Clear Creek drainage divide area near Ulm, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 5 illustrates the Tongue River-Clear Creek drainage divide southwest of the figure 4 map area and there is no overlap area. Northeast-oriented Clear Creek flows across the figure 5 southeast corner to the figure 5 east center edge. Northwest-oriented drainage in the figure 5 northwest quadrant flows to northwest-oriented Dutch Creek, which flows to north-oriented Prairie Dog Creek, which in turn flows to the northeast-oriented Tongue River. Again Clear Creek tributaries from the north and west are uniformly southeast-oriented, while headwaters of Tongue River tributaries are northwest-oriented. Further, through valleys cross the Tongue River-Clear Creek drainage divide and provide evidence multiple flow routes once moved southeast across the figure 5 map region. Figure 5 evidence again supports the interpretation that an immense southeast-oriented flood moved across the figure 5 map area on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest figure 5 elevations and was captured by headward erosion of he deep Clear Creek valley, which diverted southeast-oriented flood flow to the northeast, and the flood flow was subsequently captured by headward erosion of the deep Tongue River valley (not seen in figure 5), which beheaded the southeast-oriented flood flow routes and caused reversals of flood flow on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes. Those reversals of flood flow eroded the northwest-oriented tributary valleys and also created the present day Tongue River-Clear Creek drainage divide. Evidence presented here is not adequate to determine the flood water source. However, the evidence from numerous other Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project essays (published on this website) can be used to trace the flood waters headward to a North American ice sheet location. Rapid melting of a thick North American ice sheet located in a deep “hole” would not only explain the flood water source, but would also explain why deep valleys eroded southwest to capture southeast-oriented melt water floods and to divert the flood waters further and further to the northeast and north (into space in the deep “hole” the rapidly melting ice sheet had once occupied).

Tongue River-Piney Creek drainage divide area southwest of Ulm, Wyoming

Figure 6: Tongue River-Piney Creek drainage divide area southwest of Ulm, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 6 illustrates the region south and west of the figure 5 map area and includes overlap areas with figure 5. As will be seen in figure 7 below the figure 6 map area is just east of the Bighorn Mountain front. Northeast-oriented Clear Creek is located just southeast of the figure 6 southeast corner. Piney Creek (which will be seen further west in figure 7) flows southeast in the figure 6 southwest corner and then northeast and east to join northeast-oriented Clear Creek east of figure 6. Boxelder Creek is the major northeast-oriented Piney Creek tributary located in the figure 6 southeast corner. The north-oriented stream flowing along the figure 6 west edge (north of Piney Creek) is Prairie Dog Creek, which turns north-northwest and then northeast before reaching the northeast-oriented Tongue River. Other figure 6 northwest-oriented streams are headwaters of northwest-oriented Prairie Dog Creek tributaries. The deep Piney Creek valley eroded west from what must have been the newly eroded northeast-oriented Clear Creek valley to capture southeast-oriented flood flow before southeast-oriented flood waters could reach the actively eroding Clear Creek valley. The deep northeast-oriented Boxelder Creek valley eroded southwest to capture southeast-oriented flood flow routes before those flood flow routes were beheaded by headward erosion of the Piney Creek valley and the flood water diverted more directly to the Clear Creek valley. Headward erosion of the deep Piney Creek valley in the Kearny, Wyoming area captured a significant southeast-oriented flood flow route and eroded headward (northwest) along that flow route. Figure 7 below will illustrate where flood waters moving along that flow route came from. Figure 6 evidence is similar to the figure 3, 4, and 5 evidence and supports the interpretation that deep northeast-oriented valleys eroded headward into the figure 6 map region to capture southeast-oriented flood flow moving on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest figure 6 elevations today.

Tongue River-Piney Creek drainage divide area near Story, Wyoming

Figure 7: Tongue River-Piney Creek drainage divide area near Story, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 7 illustrates the region west of the figure 6 map area and includes overlap areas with figure 6. Piney Creek flows southeast from Story, Wyoming (where the North and South Piney Creek meet) to the figure 7 southeast corner near Kearny. Prairie Dog Creek headwaters flow north just east of Banner and turn northwest and then north and northeast before joining the northeast oriented Tongue River. Northwest-oriented streams in the figure 7 northeast quadrant are Prairie Dog tributaries. Little Goose Creek flow north-northeast in the figure 7 northwest corner. Note how North Piney Creek flows north-northeast and South Piney Creek flows northeast in deep valleys carved in the figure 7 southwest quadrant forested hills before coming together near Story. Note also how there is a through valley north of Story connecting the Piney Creek valley with the north-oriented Prairie Dog Creek valley and also how the alignment of the northeast oriented South Piney Creek valley suggests it was eroded headward as a north-oriented valley, probably a southward extension of the north-oriented prairie Dog Creek valley. Apparently the deep Piney Creek valley (east of the uplift area) eroded west and northwest to capture a major northeast and north-oriented flood flow coming from the Bighorn Mountain uplift area. This essay is concerned with evidence east of the Bighorn Mountains and will not address most North and South Piney Creek evidence further upstream. Figure 7 does provide evidence that must be addressed here. For example, just north of where North Piney Creek turns east is Moncreitte Ridge. Immediately southwest of Moncreitte Ridge are two northwest-southeast oriented through valleys (or passes) carved into the high ridge connecting Moncreitte Ridge with the hills to the southwest (there is a spring located in the southwest through valley). Those through valleys provide evidence southeast-oriented flood water once flowed from what is now the deep north-oriented Little Goose Creek drainage basin. Those two high level northwest-southeast oriented through valleys are approximately 300 meters higher than the Piney Creek valley elevation at Story, where North and South Piney Creek meet. This evidence, and other similar evidence, suggests flood waters either removed more than 300 meters of material from the region studied here and/or crustal warping during the flood raised the Bighorn Mountains as they were being eroded.

North-oriented Tongue River tributaries southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming

Figure 8: North-oriented Tongue River tributaries southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 8 illustrates the region north of the figure 7 map area. There is a gap between the figure 7 and the figure 8 map areas. All drainage routes shown here flow to the Tongue River, which is located north of the figure 8 map area (and which will be shown in figure 9 below). North-northwest-oriented Prairie Dog Creek (seen in figure 7) flows from the figure 8 south center edge to the figure 8 north center edge. Little Goose Creek (also seen in figure 7) flows north-northeast in the figure 8 southwest quadrant and then north into Sheridan, Wyoming. Big Goose Creek flows northeast into Sheridan in the figure 8 northwest corner. Northwest-oriented Dutch Creek is located in the figure 8 northeast corner. Unlike the figures 3, 4, 5, and 6 map areas the figure 8 map area does not show a predominance of northwest-southeast oriented drainage alignment. Dutch Creek is northwest-oriented and Little Goose Creek south of Sheridan has some northwest-oriented tributaries. Also, Prairie Dog Creek is north-northwest oriented. However, southeast-oriented tributaries are rare and it appears as though north-oriented drainage  prevailed here. The multiple north-oriented valleys suggest there was a large quantity of north-oriented flood flow, especially in the Little Goose Creek valley. As seen in figure 7 the Little Goose Creek headwaters are in the Bighorn Mountain uplift area to the south, which suggests not only did Prairie Dog Creek once carry significant volumes of north-flowing flood water coming from the Bighorn Mountain uplift area, but Little Goose Creek did also. In other words, the figure 8 region may have initially been eroded by southeast-oriented flood water coming from Montana, but it was more recently eroded by north-oriented flood water coming from somewhere in the Bighorn Mountain uplift area or to the west or northwest of the Bighorn Mountains.

Tongue River valley north of Sheridan, Wyoming

Figure 9: Tongue River valley north of Sheridan, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 9 illustrates the Tongue River valley north of the figure 8 map area and includes overlap areas with figure 8. Dutch Creek flows from the figure 9 southeast corner to reach Prairie Dog Creek, which is flowing north-northwest and northeast to reach the northeast-oriented Tongue River north of the figure 9 map area. The Tongue River is east-oriented in the figure 9 northeast quadrant, but turns northeast at Acme, Wyoming to flow to the figure 9 north center edge. Little Goose Creek flows north-northwest from Sheridan to the Tongue River near Acme. Tongue River tributaries in the northwest quadrant are southeast or east-southeast oriented and Little Goose Creek has east-southeast oriented tributaries, but the large north-oriented valleys in figure 9 suggest significant north-oriented flood flow moved to the deep northeast-oriented Tongue River valley. Events recorded by the figure 9 evidence probably begin with southeast-oriented flood flow moving across the entire 9 map area on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest figure 9 elevations today (however evidence for the initial southeast-oriented flood flow here is not as strong as in figures 3, 4, 5, and 6). Headward erosion of the deep Prairie Dog Creek-Dutch Creek valley (and closely following the Prairie Dog Creek valley to the west) from what must have been an actively eroding deep Tongue River valley head next captured significant amounts of southeast-oriented flood flow including large amounts of flood waters flowing from what is now the Piney Creek drainage basin upstream from Story, and diverted the captured flood waters north to the newly eroded Tongue River valley. Probably closely following headward erosion of he Prairie Dog Creek valley the Little Goose Creek valley eroded south and captured significant amounts of southeast-oriented flood waters in the Bighorn Mountain area south of Sheridan and diverted the captured flood waters north to the newly eroded deep Tongue River valley. Once the deep Tongue River had eroded west and southwest from the figure 9 area southeast-oriented flood water could no longer reach the figure 9 area from the northwest, but could reach the figure 9 area only by flowing southwest of the actively eroding Tongue River valley head and then flowing north to reach the newly eroded and deep Tongue River valley. Figure 8 evidence illustrates one such possible flow route. But to flow on such routes the yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood water had to flow over areas now several hundred meters higher than the Sheridan, Wyoming elevation.

Little Goose Creek headwaters southwest of Sheridan, Wyoming

Figure 10: Little Goose Creek headwaters southwest of Sheridan, Wyoming. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 10 illustrates Little Goose Creek headwaters area southwest of Sheridan and includes overlap areas with figures 7 and 8. Figure 10 has been reduced to show a larger area. Moncreitte Ridge discussed in figure 7 and the North Piney Creek valley south of it are located in the figure 10 southeast corner. The East Fork Little Goose Creek flows north-northeast from the figure 10 south center edge and joins southeast-oriented Tepee Creek, with the combined flow flowing southeast in a deep canyon until turning north-northeast to flow through Big Horn, Wyoming and then to Sheridan. West of Little Goose Creek north-northeast oriented Rapid Creek flows from the figure 10 southwest quadrant to the figure 10 north edge. The north-northeast oriented East Fork of Big Goose Creek flows from the figure 10 south edge (just south of the Rapid Creek headwaters) and then turns north-northwest to flow to northeast-oriented Big Goose Creek (figure 10 west center), which flows past Beckton, Wyoming to the figure 10 north edge. Northwest-southeast oriented through valleys link  southeast-oriented Tepee Creek headwaters with the northeast-oriented Rapid Creek valley, The north-northeast oriented East Fork Big Goose Creek is linked by a through valley with north-northeast oriented Rapid Creek headwaters. And numerous other through valleys can be found linking drainage routes in the mountains, which rise rapidly to the southwest. Some of the northwest-southeast oriented through valleys are related to northwest-southeast oriented structures (e. g. hogbacks), however even if valleys parallel structures water eroded the valleys. The north-oriented flood flow that eroded the north-oriented Prairie Dog Creek and Little Goose Creek valleys seen in figures 8 and 9 came from this mountainous region.

Additional information and sources of maps studied

This essay has provided only a sample of the detailed topographic map evidence supporting the flood erosion interpretation. Many additional illustrations could be provided. Readers are encouraged to look at mosaics of detailed topographic maps to see the abundance of available data. Maps used in this study were created and published by the United States Geologic Survey and can be obtained directly from the United States Geological Survey and/or from dealers offering United States Geological Survey maps. Hard copy maps can also be observed at United States Geological Survey map depositories which are located throughout the United States and elsewhere. Illustrations used here were created using National Geographic Society TOPO software and digital map data. TOPO software and map data can be obtained from the National Geographic Society and/or dealers offering National Geographic Society digital map data.

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