If there is a mountain range that elicits awe from Canadians and Americans alike, it is the Rocky Mountains. Affectionately called ‘the Rockies’, this range cuts through North America.
Name: Rocky Mountains
Other names: the Rockies
Highest Point: Mount Elbert (4,401 m/ 14,440 ft)
Length of range: 4,800 km (3,000 miles)
Variation in width: 110-480 km (70-300 miles)
Location: Liard river in British Columbia, Canada to Rio Grande river in New Mexico, USA.
INTRODUCTION TO THE ROCKIES.
The range’s name is a translation from a Native American (Algonquin/Cree) name As-sin-wati, meaning ‘a rocky mass’. The present name was first mentioned in 1752, though when the nickname The Rockies was first coined is unclear.
As one of the world’s great ranges containing over 100 individual ranges, The Rockies form the backbone of North America.
GEOGRAPHY OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
Stretching between north-western Canada and southern USA, this huge range creates an interrupted border through the west of North America. The most impressive jagged, steep-sloped glacier-clad peaks are found in the Canadian Rockies, while much of the American Rockies are smaller, squarer and more accessible mountains, especially those in the east.
It is part of the American Cordillera, an even larger chain of ranges that stretches from Alaska through Mexico.
The Rocky Mountains are located surprisingly far inland, rising from plains, deserts and prairies already at elevations between 1,200-2,400 m (4,000-8,000 ft). As such, the local relief (how far you would need to climb to reach the summit) is much smaller than ranges of comparable height such as the Alps in western Europe.
The Rockies are not a single, uninterrupted range but a collection of around 100 discrete ranges, often separated by significant distances. Unlike the Himalayas, you can often find a way to avoid traverse across high passes by simply going around!
The rock in this range is the same as forms the core of the North American continent. Formed 1.7 billion years, it was first uplifted in the western edges 300 million years ago (Ma), forming the Ancestral Rocky Mountains.
Today’s peaks were only uplifted between 80 and 55 Ma. The plate collision that caused the Canadian Rockies uplifted the rock like a wrinkle, creating the narrow chain of mountains.
In the south, the unusually shallow subduction of the Fallaron plate in the west caused Rocky Mountain building to spread out over a far wider area, creating the vast width common in the American Rockies.
Division of Range:
The Rocky Mountains are sub-divided into the groups of individual ranges. In Canada, the groupings are the Continental Ranges (Northern Front Range, Park Ranges and Kootenay Ranges) and the Northern Rockies (Hart Ranges and Muskwa Ranges).
In the USA, the division is between the Central, Western and Southern Rocky Mountains. These divide the ranges geographically like a triangle, with the Western Rocky Mountains accounting for Utah, Idaho and south-west Wyoming and the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains meeting in south-east Wyoming either side of the Wyoming Basin.
In the east, many of the Rocky Mountains in the USA are fault block mountains, explaining their square appearance, sudden drops on their eastern flanks into the Great Plains and long, gradual ascents on the western flanks.
In the west, the ranges become less connected and distinct, merging in and out of the deserts of the Great Basin and creating a greater variety of form and mountain building histories.
The most common range name is the Front Range, which appears four times along the eastern side of the Rockies, from the Far Northern Front Range in Canada to the Front Range in Colorado.
The Rocky Mountains are part of the watershed line known as the Continental Divide of the Americas, with water from the western Rockies heading to the Pacific and the eastern Rockies draining to the Atlantic.
Rivers rising from the range include the Rio Grande, Missouri and Platte (Atlantic); the Colorado, Columbia and Yukon (Pacific) and the Peace, Athabasca and Liard rivers (Arctic).
Water from one peak, Triple Divide Peak (2,440 m/ 8,020 ft) in Montana, actually flows in both these directions as well as to Hudson Bay in the north-east.
The Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 1,075 km (415 sq miles), a tiny fragment of the whole range, in north Colorado.
Other US National Parks that help conserve sections of the range include Grand Teton, Badlands, Yellowstone, Wind Cave and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In Canada, Watertown Lakes, Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks feature sections of the range too.
The weather in this mountain range can vary to extremes, though below 2,865 m (9,400 ft) temperatures tend to remain moderate, or at least more stable, through much of the year.
At higher elevations, it is known to snow across the Rockies into July, while some northern peaks remain snow-covered throughout the year. However, compared to other vast ranges, the Rockies are not widely snow or ice covered, particularly in the warmer southern sections.
Winter snowstorms and blizzards and summer thunderstorms and high winds mark the seasonal extremes. Spring and autumn seasons seem to arrive at drastically different times at different points on the range, with some summer seasons offering very short hiking windows.
WILDLIFE OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
Along the range, ten forested zones are designated by the USGS. In the south, these consist of pinyon pines, oaks, ponderosa pines and junipers. In the north, the colder conditions change the make-up of the forest with douglas firs, western hemlock, lodgepole pines, aspens and spruce.
The western slopes contain Cascadian forests. Well-supplied with rain, these fir, hemlock and larch forests are lush and dense. The higher elevations include montane serial forest, subalpine pine forest and treeline shrubs.
A wide range of forest types can be found in the canyons, with the greater variation caused by the unique topography, climate and abundance of water and nutrients.
Beyond the forested areas, two other main zones exist: the plains (low elevations) and the alpine tundra (above the treeline).
The plains are predominantly found to the east, where the Great Plains meet the sheer relief of the Rockies’ Front Ranges. Grasslands and prairies contain flora such as needle grasses, cottonwoods and dropseeds, as well as shorter species like buffalo grass, Junegrass and galleta. The presence of other vegetation depends much on the characteristics of the local soil and topography.
The alpine tundra consists of high meadows, barren fields and rock slopes (talus). These consist mainly of species found in the Arctic (47% of all species) reflecting the difficult conditions. Alpine sagebrush, tufted hair grass and clovers are some these hardy plants that have the best views in the range.
Wildflowers bloom at lower elevations around early May as the ground thaws from its winter freeze. Higher up in the alpine tundra (above 3,500 m/ 11,500 ft), wildflowers are not seen until early August.
With such a wide sweep of ranges, the wildlife of the Rocky Mountains varies along its length. However, some creatures are found commonly throughout many of the individual ranges, including the grizzly bears that appear as a pre-planning preoccupation of most hiking reports (though rarely do they actually appear in the accounts).
Of the larger mammals roaming this range, the elk are a common sight during their autumn mating season. Between September and October they descend to clash horns and (hopefully) create their offspring in the montane meadows.
Another large mammal is the symbol of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Bighorn Sheep. With their large backward-curving horns, they are the largest wild sheep in North America, with males twice the size of females. They can be spotted at lower elevations in late spring and early summer, and are otherwise seen jumping between ledges high on the slopes.
Black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, marmots, pika and snowshoe hares also reside in the Rocky Mountains. The largest herds of moose are found in the foothills of Alberta and British Columbia.
The Canadian lynx is one you’re unlikely to spot as it is listed on the endangered list. Gray wolves and grizzly bears have also been forced out of their original habitats by human presence, but conservation efforts have seen their successful return to specific habitats.
Above, the skies are rich with colourful bird life. Some are specifically adapted to alpine conditions, like the camouflaged white-tailed Ptarmigan, while others dwell in the waters that surround the mountains, such as the ring-necked ducks.
Hummingbirds, woodpeckers, owls and birds of prey are all numerous throughout the range, while the most diverse group are passerines, which include sparrows, warblers, crows and jays. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons are the probably both the range’s most impressive birds and the most threatened, though a slow recovery for both species seems to be their positive current status.
WALKING AND CLIMBING IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
Given the small relief of many peaks, and the gentle sloping sides of many of theUS Rockies simpler climbs are generally found in these mountains than in ranges of comparable height.
Of the more challenging ranges to attempt are the Teton Range (Wyoming), the Crestones (Colorado) and the Sawtooths (Idaho). Even so, only around 20 of the Rockies summits require significant technical know-how to reach (including Grand Teton, see below).
The high point in the Rockies is the summit of Mount Elbert (4,401 m/ 14,440 ft) in the Southern Rocky Mountains. It is in the Sawatch Range, which contains the three highest Rocky Mountain peaks: Mount Massive (4,398 m/ 14,428 ft) and Mount Harvard (4,396 m/ 14,421 ft) after Mount Elbert.
The 30 highest Rocky Mountain peaks, mostly 14ers, are all found in Colorado, with the next highest being Gannett Peak (4,209 m/ 13,809 ft) in Wyoming.
North of the border, the high point is Mount Robson (3,954 m/ 12,972 ft), whose impressive appearance is partly down to its total vertical relief of 2,969 m (9,741 ft), climbing this distance steeply from Kinney Lake in just 4 km (2.5 miles).
Again, as is the pattern through much of the Rockies, Mount Robson appears larger than some of its taller southern neighbours, and also poses significantly more climbing challenges. Yet, it is only the 67th highest Rocky Mountain.
Key Trekking Routes
If you’re thinking of hiking the Rockies, why not start by considering doing the whole range? The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a 4,990 km (3,100-mile) long, 70% signposted, winding trail along the watershed line from northern Canada to New Mexico.
The highest, most remote and, arguably, most challenging National Scenic Trail, its full length is only attempted by around 150 hikers annually. Day and section hiking is perhaps more realistic. With five states offering varied terrain to choose from, somewhere along the CDT will be an adventure worth going on.
In the south, the Colorado Trail takes you over and through 800 km (500 miles) of mountain wilderness between Durango and Denver. Acclimatisation is important, as this trail hangs at an average 3,050 m (10,000 ft) of elevation, passing through the two highest sub-ranges of the Rockies: the San Juan Mountains and the Sawatch Range.
Given its frequently remote nature, it is also one for serious hikers, or at least well-prepared ones. It also passes the mining town of Leadville, host of the gruelling Leadville 100 ultra marathon.
In the Canadian Rockies, a number of shorter multi-day hikes range from the accessible Skoki Circuit through the Slate Mountains to the Jasper Trail, probably the best known of them. Offering premier mountain views for the majority of its 44.5 km (27.5 mile) length, this two to three day hike through Jasper National Park shows off much of the Canadian Rockies jagged characteristics.
SUMMITING IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
In the numerous national parks, many of the Rocky Mountains can be summited. Below are a selection of the best summit hikes in the range.
• Mount Elbert (4,401 m/ 14,440 ft)
Although the highest peak, it is far from the most challenging summit adventure. With class I walk-up routes, anyone with moderate fitness can easily take on Mount Elbert and stand at the pinnacle of the Rocky Mountains.
The two principal routes are the South and North Mount Elbert Trails. A less traveled option is the two-day hike, the Black Cloud Trail. Crossing creeks, hiking through dense woodland and bagging the subsidiary South Elbert peak en route, this is a more strenuous adventure, but one which surely has the bragging rights back at camp.
• Grand Teton (4,199 m/ 13,755 ft)
The jagged skyline of the Teton Range dominates the National Park named after its highest peak. Grand Teton has over 100 established climbing routes to its summit, ranging from moderate technical level (Standard Route) to tough mixed-alpine challenges.
Most routes begin in Garnet Canyon and are either one or two-day return trips. The Standard Route is a 22.5 km (14 mile) two-day hike, gaining 1,280 m (4,200 ft). Head up between June and September for favourable conditions.
• Longs Peak (4,346 m/ 14,259 ft)
In the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Longs Peak proposes a challenging ascent during a round-trip of 26 km (16 miles).
Known as the Keyhole Route, from trailhead to summit you gain 1,478 m (4,850 ft), scaling boulders, scrambling and working hard to stay on track. With sudden drops of several hundred metres (and more) on the side of the ledge paths, and a descent that is best taken in parts shuffling on your behind, this is a thrilling full-day ascent.
Alternatively, take a ‘shortcut’ to the summit by climbing straight up the big wall ramparts.
• Nine Canadian Rockies (in nine days)
Instead of choosing one Canadian Rocky Mountain, how about a trip where you scale one every day for nine straight days? The details of such an adventure can be found here.
Varying in elevation between Tunnel Mountain (1,692 m/ 5,551 ft) and Mount Temple (3,540 m/ 11,614 ft), these peaks will take you through quintessential Canadian Rockies rugged, glacial-lake terrain.
Climbing to heights above the snow line, the best to time this trip is between July and September for the most favourable conditions.
OTHER ADVENTURE SPORTS.
If you’re after something other than hiking, throughout the Rockies you’ll find plenty to keep adrenalin high and boredom low.
Skiiing and snowboarding is best experienced in the northern sections, with the Canadian Rockies full of resorts ready to send you sailing down snowy slopes. Banff is one of the most popular ski destinations along the range, though far from the only option.
Mountain biking is commonly accessible throughout the Rockies, though routes along the Front Ranges and the more steady elevation changes of the Southern and Central Rocky Mountains make them favourable destinations.
For a longer two-wheel journey, try the Tour Divide from Banff to the Mexican border.
At 4,418 km (2,745 miles), it is longer than the Tour de France, is self-supported and is hosted as an annual race. You’ll be part of a select bunch if you attempt the race: in 2009 only 43 cyclists took the starter’s gun and only 16 crossed the finish line.
LATEST BLOG POSTS
I quit the rat-race to live a more adventurous life. This is my journey.