Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains are the largest mountain range on the North American continent and stretch across the United States and Canada. This article focuses on the Rockies of the USA and only touches on aspects of the Rocky Mountains in Canada.




New Mexico has significant portions of the Rocky Mountains. In Canada they run through parts of the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.



In the USA:
1 Aspen
2 Boise
3 boulders
4 Denver
5 Jackson
6 Park City
7 Salt Lake City


Getting there

The largest airport in the region is Denver International Airport (IATA: DEN), which is one of the busiest airports in the USA and serves as a hub for United Airlines and the low-cost airline Frontier Airlines. There are also direct flights from Europe, e.g. B. with Lufthansa from Frankfurt and Munich. Other notable airports are in Boise (Idaho), Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Aspen (Colorado), Bozeman, Billings and Missoula (Montana) and Jackson (Wyoming) - but these are only important for domestic flights.

Several long-distance Amtrak lines run through the region: The California Zephyr (Chicago-Denver-San Francisco) runs through the heart of Colorado and stops in Denver, among other places. in Granby at Rocky Mountain National Park and Glenwood Springs near Aspen Ski Resort. The Empire Builder (Chicago-Minneapolis-Portland/Seattle), on the other hand, runs parallel to the Canadian border through the northern parts of Montana and Idaho with stops at e.g. in Havre, Glacier National Park and Sandpoint. Finally, the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Kansas City-Los Angeles) travels just a short distance through southeastern Colorado, stopping in La Junta and Trinidad.


Geology and geography

Huge mountains had already formed in North America 600-750 million years ago, but they were almost completely eroded again in the following 400 million years. Only a few rock masses in the south still come from that past time.

Today's Rocky Mountains were largely formed during what geologists call the Laramic orogeny, which began about 70 million years ago and ended about 30-40 million years ago. After the mountains were about as high as the Himalayas are today, parts of Northwest America began to stretch and large parts of the crust in the Southwest of the mountain plateau underwent a strong stretching process, breaking them up into mountain ranges, plateaus and valleys. This area is now referred to as the Basin and Range Province and includes the Great Basin Desert and adjacent regions.

Between the late Pleistocene and the Holocene (70,000-11,000 years ago) the Rocky Mountains were largely glaciated.

The Rocky Mountains consist mostly of metamorphic and igneous rock. Younger sedimentary rocks are also found on the margins of the southern Rocky Mountains, and Tertiary volcanic rocks are sometimes found in the San Juan Mountains and other areas.

The width (east-west extent) of the mountain ranges varies greatly. The Rocky Mountains in the US state of Colorado are the widest at 500–600 km. From the Yellowstone area to the north, they split into several mountain ranges, some with narrow widths of 50 to 120 km.

On average, the Rocky Mountains are 2000-3000 meters high. The highest mountains in the Rocky Mountains are found in the area of the US state of Colorado and its direct neighbors, where there are many peaks over 4000 m. From Glacier National Park to the north, the peaks are increasingly glaciated. Also in the northern half there are partially extensive plateaus - the largest is the Great Divide Basin - which are bounded by parallel mountain ranges. In the southern part, the mountain forms mostly show more rounded erosion forms.

In the Yellowstone National Park area, the earth's crust is sometimes very thin and interspersed with magma. Thousands of volcanic objects such as geysers and hot springs can be found there.



Westerly winds often prevail in the Rocky Mountains, driving clouds up from the Pacific and causing them to accumulate and rain down. This has resulted in above-average rainfall for the Pacific coast and drought for the Great Plains beyond. The weather in the Rocky Mountains themselves is accordingly mostly cloudy. An exception is the Yellowstone area, where there can be weeks of fine weather.

The climate of the Rocky Mountains is typical of the highlands. The average temperature is around 6 °C. July is the hottest month at 28 °C, while January is the coldest at −14 °C. The annual precipitation is estimated at 36 cm.

Summers in the Rocky Mountains are warm and dry with 15 °C and 15 cm of precipitation. In July there are thunderstorms for an average of 18 hours. Especially in August, thunderstorms often lead to forest fires.

Winter, on the other hand, is very cold and wet, with −2 °C and 29 cm of precipitation. Snow layers of five to six meters are not uncommon; in the north they can even be 15-18 meters. However, warm air masses sometimes penetrate inland from the Pacific in winter. This wind is called the Chinook and can cause sudden increases in temperature of 20 to 25°C.


Effects of climate change

For several years, forest dieback has been taking on alarming proportions throughout the Rocky Mountains. The reason for this is a massive increase in pests that benefit from the milder climate. Coniferous trees, which are attacked by the mountain pine beetle, are particularly affected. Although this does not kill the trees, it does introduce a fungus that prevents the transport of water upwards, so that the trees dry up. In the case of felled trees, the dark tissue areas destroyed by the fungus can be clearly seen between the light-colored heartwood and the bark. In the Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), the dead trees have already been removed from the campsites for safety reasons, so that pioneer plants (fireweed, thistles, but also real wild roses) are spreading there. This attracts z. B. moose and wapiti in the immediate vicinity of the tourists.

Because of the huge areas and the known dangers of pesticides on the ecosystem, no countermeasures are currently being taken.



The vegetation of the Rocky Mountains can be divided into several altitude levels. Except in the boreal reaches of Canada, where the spruce-dominated northern plains coniferous forests give way to montane forests of spruce and pine, the large expanses of lower montane areas of the Rockies are generally covered with pine forests. Spruce and fir species characterize the narrower areas up to the tree line.

Elevations of the Southern Rocky Mountains
The first two stages are characterized by sandy soils and precipitation of around 500 mm. There are hardly any dense forests, instead there are isolated trees with strong undergrowth. The lowest mountain forest level at 1500-2200 m is dominated by various juniper (Utah and one-seeded juniper) and pine species (Colorado fir, coastal pine), the montane level up to 2700 m by yellow pine and Gambel oak. Between 1800 and 2400 m one often encounters rocky mountain larches.

From the third stage (2700–3200 m) the mountain forest becomes denser and the undergrowth decreases. Therefore, the northern, higher Rocky Mountains are much more densely forested than the southern ones, which are often overgrown with grass to the top. The rainfall at this level is about half that at the bottom two. Douglas fir, American aspen and Colorado fir are common here.

The subalpine zone extends to the tree line at about 3800 m. The trees there grow less tall and the forests are spreading. The most common tree species at this stage are the Engelmann, blue and white spruce, Scots fir and Nevada stone pine and bristlecone pine.

On the last vegetation level, the alpine tundra, small plants such as shrubs, bushes, flowers and grasses grow. Among the woody plants, shrubby willow species (e.g. arctic willows) are particularly well represented. The perennials are dominated by the buttercup family (Ranunculus adoneus), occupational herbs (Erigeron simplex), borage family (Eritrichum aretioides) and succulent family (Rhodiola integrifolia); in the case of the grasses, meadow grass and grass hair tress.


History of Human Settlement

Towards the end of the last great ice age, an ice-free corridor opened up between the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains and the Laurentide Ice Sheet. In climate history and paleontology, there is a debate as to whether and from when the corridor was passable for huntable game and people following it. It is considered a possible migration path of people into the interior of the continent during the settlement of America.

As the glaciers continued to retreat, Native American peoples inhabited the Rocky Mountains. At the time of the conquest of North America by European colonists, the Absarokee, Apache, Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Flathead, Lakota, Shoshone and Ute, among others, lived temporarily or permanently in the Rocky Mountains or the plateaus in between. Many of these peoples migrated to the plains in the fall and winter to subsist on bison and other big game, and to the mountains in the spring and summer to fish, hunt game, and gather berries and roots.

Beginning in 1720, the first white trappers, hunters, and mineral seekers invaded the Rocky Mountains. Soon the mountains were known as a rich fur region. Fur trading companies such as the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company in Canada and the American Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company (later: Rocky Mountains Fur Company) in the USA fought fiercely for dominance in the Rocky Mountains. White Rocky Mountain pioneers included William Henry Ashley, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Colter, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Andrew Henry, Jedediah Smith, and David Thompson. In 1793, Alexander MacKenzie of the Hudson's Bay Company became the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains. Its route led from Fort Chipewyan across the Peace and Fraser Rivers to what is now Vancouver. The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 was the first scientific exploration of the mountains. Botanists, zoologists, geologists, and other professionals began collecting data about the Rocky Mountains. The expedition was the beginning of the conquest of western North America. In the spring of 1824, Jedediah Smith discovered the South Pass in present-day Wyoming, a crossing in the middle Rocky Mountains that could be crossed by caravans and covered wagons. The pass became the focal point of all trade and settler flows in the settlement of the American West between 1830 and 1869.

In 1847 the Mormons began to settle at the Great Salt Lake. Gold was found in Colorado in 1858. As a result, the whites opened up the area, built a transcontinental railway and opened Yellowstone, the world's first national park. More and more white settlers settled in the valleys and mining towns and pushed the Indian peoples into reservations. Towards the end of the 19th century, other areas in the Rocky Mountains were placed under protection. The US government defined mining, logging, farming, and recreational zones. Camps and tent sites became forts and farms and eventually villages and towns.


Tourism and industry

Mining and tourism are the main industries in the Rocky Mountains. There is also livestock, forestry and some agriculture.

Valuable minerals such as lead, gold, copper, molybdenum, silver, tungsten and zinc have been found in the Rocky Mountains. The plateaus in between also contain coal, natural gas, petroleum and oil shale.

The Climax mine near Leadville, Colorado was the world's largest producer of molybdenum for over 100 years (1879-1986). Molybdenum is used as an alloying element for heat-resistant steel, for example in turbines and power plants. The mine at Climax once employed over 3000 workers. The Coeur d'Alene mine in northern Idaho produces silver, lead and zinc. Canada's largest coal mine is in the Crowsnest Coal Field near Sparwood and Elkford in British Columbia, and there are also coal mines near Hinton in Alberta.

In many places in the Rocky Mountains, the exploitation of mineral resources led to contaminated and polluted water and soil.

With an average of four people per square kilometer, the population density of the Rocky Mountains is quite low and there are few cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, the mountains are a popular holiday destination for people who either want to enjoy the scenery or want to do sports. Millions of tourists travel to the Rocky Mountains every year. In summer, the most popular attractions in the US are Pikes Peak, Royal Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Glacier National Park and in Canada Waterton Lakes National Park, Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Yoho National Park, Kootenay National Park, Mount Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. Mount Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park lie west of the actual Rocky Mountains in the Columbia Mountains, separated by the wide Rocky Mountain Trench through which the Columbia River flows. In winter, on the other hand, skiing is the main attraction. The main ski areas are Aspen, Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain in Colorado; Alta, Park City and Snowbird in Utah; Sun Valley in Idaho; Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly Big Mountain) and Big Sky in Montana; Lake Louise and Sunshine Village in Alberta, and Fernie and Whistler in British Columbia.