Geography Facts About the Rocky Mountains

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The Rocky Mountains or Rockies, is a huge and rugged mountain range in western North America with an area of approximately 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers). The Rocky Mountains extend over a vast geographic area from the center of the state of New Mexico (USA) to the northeast of the province of British Columbia (Canada).

The Rocky Mountains form the longest mountain range in North America. Here are some geography facts about this mountain range.

The Rocky Mountains range spans the Canada provinces of British Columbia and Alberta and the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado. and New Mexico.

The Great Plains bordering the eastern slopes of the Rockies and the western boundary is formed by the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain Trench.

The Rocky Mountains are Part of the North American Continental Divide

It is a plateau that expands from northwestern Montana to northern British Columbia and splits the mountain chain from the parallel occidental ranges. The Rocky Mountains are part of the Great Divide that separates the rivers that drain into the Atlantic or the Arctic, from flowing into the Pacific Ocean. In the Rockies are born the following rivers: Arkansas, Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, Rio Grande, Saskatchewan, Fraser, Peace and Snake.

Night sky view of the Milky Way rising above the snow-capped peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Night sky view of the Milky Way rising above the snow-capped peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photo: P. Gaines/NPS, public domain.

The Rocky Mountains comprises a series of ranges with defined geological beginnings.  The rocks that make up these mountains were formed prior to their elevated formation. The interior of the mountain ranges mostly consists of pieces of continental crust over one billion years old. An older mountain range in the south eroded but its rocks have integrated into the Rocky Mountains.

When Were the Rocky Mountains Shaped?

The Rocky Mountains were shaped during a period of strong plate tectonic activity resulting in its jagged landscape in this part of North America.  During the late Cretaceous, to be precise, the Laramide orogeny, a series of pulses at three different times contributed to the elevation of the Rocky Mountains.  The erosion by glaciers that followed the Laramide orogeny created the final shape of the Rocky Mountains.

Home to One of the Highest U.S. National Parks

Rocky Mountain is one of the highest national parks in the United States with elevations ranging from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet. The North American Continental Divide and 77 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high are located within the park’s limits.

Highest Continuous Paved Road in the United States

When Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) opened in the Rockies in 1932, it became the highest continuous paved highway in the United States. The road spans 48 miles between Estes Park on the Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side and Grand Lake on the west.

Drivers along the road will climb 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes at the road reaches its highest elevation of 12,183 ft (3,713 m) near Fall River Pass.

Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, proclaimed in 1931 about the road, “You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.”

Photo of Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountains.
Trail Ridge Road, at an elevation of almost 12,000 feet, transports visitors across Rocky’s alpine tundra. Photo: NPS, public domain.

North America’s Most Visit Glacier

The Canadian Rocky Mountains are home to Athabasca Glacier, the most visited glacier in North America. For the past 125 years, the Athabasca Glacier has been receding or melting. The melting glacier has left a moonscape of jagged moraines in its wake, having lost half its volume and retreating more than 1.5 kilometers.

Highest Mountain in the Rocky Mountains

With an elevation of 14,440 feet (4401.2 meters), Mount Elbert is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, as well as the highest point in the state of Colorado and the contiguous United States (after Mount Whitney).

Mount Elbert is located in San Isabel National Forest in Colorado.

Looking southwest from Mt. Elbert (14,439 ft/4,401 m) across the Sawatch Range, Colorado, towards Castle Peak (14,278 ft/4,352 m).
Looking southwest from Mt. Elbert (14,439 ft/4,401 m) across the Sawatch Range, Colorado, towards Castle Peak (14,278 ft/4,352 m). Photo: Cal Ruleman, USGS. Public domain.

References

Eaton, G. P. (1987). Topography and origin of the southern Rocky Mountains and Alvarado Ridge. Geological Society, London, Special Publications28(1), 355-369.

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