Red Butte Creek is NEON’s Core Aquatics site for the Great Basin (D15). The creek flows down the east-west trending Red Butte Canyon through the Wasatch Mountains and opens into the Salt Lake Valley. Red Butte Creek once served as the primary water source for the U.S. Army’s Fort Douglas. Red Butte Canyon is held by the U.S. Forest Service and is designated as a Research Natural Area (RNA) which is closed to public access. As a largely pristine watershed at the urban-wilderness interface, NEON’s data from Red Butte Creek will inform researchers and decision makers on changes to the health of this and other Great Basin watersheds. Learn more about NEON’s data collection methods.
Surface area, elevation
The drainage area that feeds Red Butte Creek is just over 8 square miles. The canyon itself is around 5.5 miles long with an elevation gain of 3215 feet from the canyon mouth at 5020 feet above sea level to the top of the canyon at 8235 feet.
Red Butte Canyon cuts a path down the western slope of the Wasatch Mountain range, which sits at the far eastern edge of the Basin and Range province, as it intersects with the Rocky Mountains above Salt Lake City, UT. While often considered to be the westernmost range of the Middle Rocky Mountains, the Wasatch share structural characteristics of the Basin and Range mountains found to their west. One of these characteristics is the steep normal fault running along their western edge which helped them rise and formed the steep slopes that Red Butte Canyon bisects. The Wasatch are a very young mountain range and are still rising at around 1mm per year, as they have for roughly the past 11 million years.
Red Butte Canyon holds keys to Utah’s past, with the oldest rocks present having been formed millions of years ago during the Mississippian Period, when Utah looked very different from today. Over the eons what is now Red Butte Canyon has been a sea of varying depths, as well as a desert, and many landscapes and ecosystems in between. This is evident in the rocks found underlying and protruding from the canyon, most of which are varieties of sandstone, shale, limestone, and quartzite.
These rocks strongly influence the soil profile of Red Butte Canyon, with related soils often found surrounding the rocks units that weathered to create them. These soils vary in depth from just under 8 feet deep to 2 feet or less, with a large variety of grain sizes represented. Ehleringer et. al. (1992) describe them as, “neutral to slightly basic, [soils] vary in color from brick red to dark brown, with textures generally ranging from sandy to loamy clays.”
Red Butte Creek is a free-flowing perennial stream from its headwaters near 8200 feet in elevation to around 5400 feet, when it flows into Red Butte Reservoir, then out through Red Butte Garden, and into Salt Lake City. While it is no longer a source of drinking water for the Salt Lake Valley, several recreational areas, such as the pond in Liberty Park, are fed by it. NEON’s data collection in Red Butte Creek takes place upstream of the reservoir from an altitude of around 5640 feet to 5460 feet. The water flow in Red Butte Creek is strongly influenced by seasonal trends such as the snowpack and precipitation, and base flow is maintained by groundwater inputs throughout the stream. The water is clear and quite alkaline with a high mineral content and high conductivity. The flow varies dramatically throughout the year and has high year-to-year variability as well. At the United States Geological Survey gauge station, just downstream of NEON’s study area, stream discharge has been measured for over 50 years, and has varied from less than one cubic foot per second to over 100 cubic feet per second.
Nearby land management
As with much of the Wasatch Mountains, Red Butte Canyon is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Red Butte Canyon is unique in the area, however, for its designation as a Research Natural Area. With few exceptions, only researchers with prior permission are allowed in the canyon, leaving it more pristine than other canyons and watersheds in the area. In addition, the reservoir in Red Butte Canyon is managed by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District to protect the population of endangered June Sucker (Chasmistes liorus) that have been introduced the lake.
Red Butte Canyon has several distinct plant communities occupying different niches. The mouth of the canyon sits in the Salt Lake Valley, with dominant vegetation reminiscent of that in the rest of the eastern Great Basin. As the canyon rises, it transitions through different vegetative zones until it enters a conifer community that resembles the southern Rocky Mountains.
The grass-forb community at the mouth of the canyon includes Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata), Antelope Bitterbrush (Pursha tridentata), and Broom Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae). At the bottom of the canyon lies a riparian zone covered by a canopy of Box Elder (Acer negundo) and Cottonwood (Populus spp.) trees. Under this, numerous smaller trees such as Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Dogwood (Cornus sericea), and Water Birch (Betula occidentalis) intermix with Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis), Goldenrod (Salidago spp.), and Horsetails (Equisetum spp.) along the water’s edge.
Red Butte Canyon’s walls rise out of the riparian zone into a community dominated by Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) and Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum). Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens) spreads under this canopy, and grasses and forbs fill in areas where the canopy breaks letting light through. As the elevation rises, Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) begins to dot the canyon and the oak-maple vegetative zone gives way to one dominated by taller stands of trees. Above this, heartier shrubs and forbs that can handle life high on the mountain surround populations of Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and White Fir (Abies concolor).
Cronquist, Arthur, Arthur Holmgren, Noel Holmgren, and James Reveal. Intermountain Flora. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Hafner, 1972. Print.
Ehleringer, James R., Lois A. Arnow, Ted Arnow, Irving B. McNulty, and Norman C. Negus. "Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area: History, Flora, Geology, Climate, and Ecology." The Great Basin Naturalist 52.2 (June 1992): 95-121. Print.
Hilpert, Lowell S., ed. Environmental Geology of the Wasatch Front, 1971. Salt Lake City: Utah Geological Association, 1972. Print.
Hintze, Lehi F. Geologic History of Utah. Provo, UT: Dept. of Geology, Brigham Young U, 1988. Print.
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