The Rocky Mountains, commonly known as the Rockies, are a major
mountain range in western North America. The
Rocky Mountains stretch
more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from the northernmost part of
British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico, in the
Southwestern United States. Within the North American Cordillera, the
Rockies are somewhat distinct from the
Pacific Coast Ranges
Pacific Coast Ranges and the
Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada, which all lie further to the west.
Rocky Mountains were initially formed from 80 million to 55
million years ago during the Laramide orogeny, in which a number of
plates began to slide underneath the North American plate. The angle
of subduction was shallow, resulting in a broad belt of mountains
running down western North America. Since then, further tectonic
activity and erosion by glaciers have sculpted the Rockies into
dramatic peaks and valleys. At the end of the last ice age, humans
started to inhabit the mountain range. After Europeans, such as Sir
Alexander Mackenzie, and Americans, such as the Lewis and Clark
expedition, started to explore the range, minerals and furs drove the
initial economic exploitation of the mountains, although the range
itself never became densely populated.
Much of the mountain range is protected by public parks and forest
lands and is a popular tourist destination, especially for hiking,
camping, mountaineering, fishing, hunting, mountain biking, skiing,
4 Ecology and climate
5.1 Indigenous people
5.2 European exploration
6.1 Industry and development
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The name of the mountains is a translation of an
Amerindian name that
is closely related to Algonquian; the
Cree name as-sin-wati is given
as, "when seen from across the prairies, they looked like a rocky
mass". The first mention of their present name by a European was in
the journal of
Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre in 1752, where they
were called "Montagnes de Roche".
See also: Geography of the
United States Rocky Mountain System
Rocky Mountains are commonly defined as stretching from the Liard
British Columbia south to the
Rio Grande in New Mexico. Other
mountain ranges continue beyond those two rivers, including the Selwyn
Mountains in Yukon, the
Brooks Range in Alaska, and the Sierra Madre
in Mexico, but those are not part of the Rockies, though they are part
of the American Cordillera. The
United States definition of the
Rockies includes the Cabinet and
Salish Mountains of
Montana. Their counterparts north of the Kootenai River, the Columbia
Mountains, are considered a separate system in Canada, lying to the
west of the huge Rocky Mountain Trench. This runs the length of
British Columbia from its beginnings in the middle Flathead River
valley in western
Montana to the south bank of the Liard River. The
Rockies vary in width from 70 to 300 miles (110 to 480 kilometers).
Also west of the Rocky Mountain Trench, farther north and facing the
Muskwa Range across the trench, are the
Stikine Ranges and Omineca
Mountains of the
Interior Mountains system of British Columbia. A
small area east of Prince George,
British Columbia on the eastern side
of the Trench, the McGregor Plateau, resembles the Rockies but is
considered part of the Interior Plateau.
Front Range of the
Rocky Mountains near Denver, Colorado
The eastern edge of the Rockies rises dramatically above the Interior
Plains of central North America, including the Sangre de Cristo
New Mexico and Colorado, the
Front Range of Colorado, the
Wind River Range
Wind River Range and
Big Horn Mountains
Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, the
Absaroka-Beartooth ranges and
Rocky Mountain Front
Rocky Mountain Front of
Montana and the
Clark Range of Alberta. In
Canada geographers define three main groups
of ranges: the Continental Ranges,
Hart Ranges and
Muskwa Ranges (the
latter two flank the Peace River, the only river to pierce the
Rockies, and are collectively referred to as the Northern Rockies).
The Muskwa and
Hart Ranges together comprise what is known as the
Northern Rockies (the
Mackenzie Mountains north of the
Liard River are
sometimes referred to as being part of the
Rocky Mountains but this is
an unofficial designation).
Tetons are a rugged subrange in Wyoming.
The western edge of the Rockies includes ranges such as the Wasatch
near Salt Lake City and the Bitterroots along the Idaho-Montana
Great Basin and
Columbia River Plateau
Columbia River Plateau separate these
subranges from distinct ranges further to the west, most prominent
among which are the Sierra Nevada,
Cascade Range and Coast Mountains.
The Rockies do not extend into the
Yukon or Alaska, or into central
British Columbia, where the Rocky Mountain System (but not the Rocky
Mountains) includes the Columbia Mountains, the southward extension of
which is considered part of the Rockies in the United States. The
Rocky Mountain System within the
United States is a United States
physiographic region; the Rocky Mountain System is known in
the Eastern System.
Rocky Mountains are notable for containing the highest peaks in
central North America. The range's highest peak is Mount Elbert
Colorado at 14,440 feet (4,401 m) above sea level.
Mount Robson in British Columbia, at 12,972 feet (3,954 m), is
the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
Mount Robson in British Columbia
Continental Divide of the Americas
Continental Divide of the Americas is located in the Rocky
Mountains and designates the line at which waters flow either to the
Pacific Oceans. Triple Divide Peak (8,020 feet
(2,440 m)) in
Glacier National Park is so named because water
that falls on the mountain reaches not only the
Atlantic and Pacific
Hudson Bay as well. Farther north in Alberta, the Athabasca and
other rivers feed the basin of the Mackenzie River, which has its
outlet on the
Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean. See Rivers of the
Rocky Mountains for a list of rivers.
Human population is not very dense in the Rocky Mountains, with an
average of four people per square kilometer and few cities with over
50,000 people. However, the human population grew rapidly in the Rocky
Mountain states between 1950 and 1990. The 40-year statewide increases
in population range from 35% in
Montana to about 150% in
Colorado. The populations of several mountain towns and communities
have doubled in the last 40 years. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, increased
260%, from 1,244 to 4,472 residents, in 40 years.
See also: Geology of the Rocky Mountains
The rocks in the
Rocky Mountains were formed before the mountains were
raised by tectonic forces. The oldest rock is
rock that forms the core of the North American continent. There is
Precambrian sedimentary argillite, dating back to 1.7 billion
years ago. During the Paleozoic, western
North America lay underneath
a shallow sea, which deposited many kilometers of limestone and
In the southern Rocky Mountains, near present-day Colorado, these
ancestral rocks were disturbed by mountain building approximately
300 Ma, during the Pennsylvanian. This mountain-building produced
the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. They consisted largely of Precambrian
metamorphic rock forced upward through layers of the limestone laid
down in the shallow sea. The mountains eroded throughout the late
Paleozoic and early Mesozoic, leaving extensive deposits of
Terranes started to collide with the western edge of
North America in
the Mississippian (approximately 350 million years ago), causing the
Antler orogeny. For 270 million years, the effects of plate
collisions were focused very near the edge of the North American plate
boundary, far to the west of the Rocky Mountain region. It was not
until 80 Ma that these effects began to reach the Rockies.
Rocky Mountains were raised in the
Laramide orogeny from
between 80 and 55 Ma. For the Canadian Rockies, the mountain
building is analogous to a rug being pushed on a hardwood floor:
the rug bunches up and forms wrinkles (mountains). In Canada, the
terranes and subduction are the foot pushing the rug, the ancestral
rocks are the rug, and the
Canadian Shield in the middle of the
continent is the hardwood floor.
Further south, the growth of the
Rocky Mountains in the United States
was probably caused by an unusual subduction, where the Farallon plate
dove at a shallow angle below the North American plate. This low angle
moved the focus of melting and mountain building much farther inland
than the normal 200 to 300 miles (300 to 500 km). It is
postulated that the shallow angle of the subducting plate greatly
increased the friction and other interactions with the thick
continental mass above it. Tremendous thrusts piled sheets of crust on
top of each other, building the extraordinarily broad, high Rocky
Tilted slabs of sedimentary rock in Colorado
The current southern Rockies were forced upwards through the layers of
Permian sedimentary remnants of the Ancestral Rocky
Mountains. Such sedimentary remnants were often tilted at steep
angles along the flanks of the modern range; they are now visible in
many places throughout the Rockies, and are prominently shown along
the Dakota Hogback, an early Cretaceous sandstone formation that runs
along the eastern flank of the modern Rockies.
Immediately after the Laramide orogeny, the Rockies were like Tibet: a
high plateau, probably 6,000 metres (20,000 ft) above sea level.
In the last 60 million years, erosion stripped away the high rocks,
revealing the ancestral rocks beneath, and forming the current
landscape of the Rockies.
Glaciers, such as
Jackson Glacier in
Glacier National Park, Montana,
as shown here, have dramatically shaped the Rocky Mountains.
Periods of glaciation occurred from the
Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million
– 70,000 years ago) to the
Holocene Epoch (fewer than 11,000 years
ago). These ice ages left their mark on the Rockies, forming extensive
glacial landforms, such as U-shaped valleys and cirques. Recent
glacial episodes included the
Bull Lake Glaciation that began about
150,000 years ago and the
Pinedale Glaciation that probably remained
at full glaciation until 15,000–20,000 years ago.
All of the geological processes, above, have left a complex set of
rocks exposed at the surface. For example, volcanic rock from the
Neogene periods (66 million – 2.6 million years ago)
occurs in the
San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains and in other areas. Millennia of
severe erosion in the
Wyoming Basin transformed intermountain basins
into a relatively flat terrain. The
Tetons and other north-central
ranges contain folded and faulted rocks of
draped above cores of
Archean igneous and metamorphic
rocks ranging in age from 1.2 billion (e.g., Tetons) to more than 3.3
billion years (Beartooth Mountains).
Ecology and climate
Main article: Ecology of the Rocky Mountains
There are a wide range of environmental factors in the Rocky
Mountains. The Rockies range in latitude between the
Liard River in
British Columbia (at 59° N) and the
Rio Grande in
New Mexico (at 35°
N). Prairie occurs at or below 1,800 feet (550 m), while the
highest peak in the range is
Mount Elbert at 14,440 feet
(4,400 m). Precipitation ranges from 10 inches (250 mm) per
year in the southern valleys to 60 inches (1,500 mm) per year
locally in the northern peaks. Average January temperatures can
range from 20 °F (−7 °C) in Prince George, British
Columbia, to 43 °F (6 °C) in Trinidad, Colorado.
Therefore, there is not a single monolithic ecosystem for the entire
Rocky Mountain Range.
Tundra in the
Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Instead, ecologists divide the Rocky Mountain into a number of biotic
zones. Each zone is defined by whether it can support trees and the
presence of one or more indicator species. Two zones that do not
support trees are the Plains and the Alpine tundra. The Great Plains
lie to the east of the Rockies and is characterized by prairie grasses
(below roughly 1,800 feet (550 m)).
Alpine tundra occurs in
regions above the treeline for the Rocky Mountains, which varies from
12,000 feet (3,700 m) in
New Mexico to 2,500 feet (760 m) at
the northern end of the
Rocky Mountains (near the Yukon).
The USGS defines ten forested zones in the Rocky Mountains. Zones in
more southern, warmer, or drier areas are defined by the presence of
pinyon pines/junipers, ponderosa pines, or oaks mixed with pines. In
more northern, colder, or wetter areas, zones are defined by Douglas
firs, Cascadian species (such as western hemlock), lodgepole
pines/quaking aspens, or firs mixed with spruce. Near treeline, zones
can consist of white pines (such as whitebark pine or bristlecone
pine); or a mixture of white pine, fir, and spruce that appear as
shrub-like krummholz. Finally, rivers and canyons can create a unique
forest zone in more arid parts of the mountain range.
Bighorn sheep (such as this lamb in Alberta) have declined
dramatically since European-American settlement of the Rocky
Rocky Mountains are an important habitat for a great deal of
well-known wildlife, such as elk, moose, mule and white-tailed deer,
pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, badgers, black bears,
grizzly bears, coyotes, lynxes, and wolverines. For example,
North America's largest herds of moose is in the Alberta-British
Columbia foothills forests.
The status of most species in the
Rocky Mountains is unknown, due to
incomplete information. European-American settlement of the mountains
has adversely impacted native species. Examples of some species that
have declined include western toads, greenback cutthroat trout, white
sturgeon, white-tailed ptarmigan, trumpeter swan, and bighorn sheep.
United States portion of the mountain range, apex predators
such as grizzly bears and gray wolves had been extirpated from their
original ranges, but have partially recovered due to conservation
measures and reintroduction. Other recovering species include the bald
eagle and the peregrine falcon.
Since the last great ice age, the
Rocky Mountains were home first to
indigenous peoples including the Apache, Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfoot,
Cheyenne, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispel, Crow Nation, Flathead, Shoshone,
Sioux, Ute, Kutenai (Ktunaxa in Canada), Sekani, Dunne-za, and others.
Paleo-Indians hunted the now-extinct mammoth and ancient bison (an
animal 20% larger than modern bison) in the foothills and valleys of
the mountains. Like the modern tribes that followed them,
Paleo-Indians probably migrated to the plains in fall and winter for
bison and to the mountains in spring and summer for fish, deer, elk,
roots, and berries. In Colorado, along with the crest of the
Continental Divide, rock walls that Native
Americans built for driving
game date back 5,400–5,800 years. A growing body of scientific
evidence indicates that indigenous people had significant effects on
mammal populations by hunting and on vegetation patterns through
Recent human history of the
Rocky Mountains is one of more rapid
change. The Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado—with a
group of soldiers, missionaries, and African slaves—marched into the
Rocky Mountain region from the south in 1540. The introduction of
the horse, metal tools, rifles, new diseases, and different cultures
profoundly changed the Native American cultures. Native American
populations were extirpated from most of their historical ranges by
disease, warfare, habitat loss (eradication of the bison), and
continued assaults on their culture.
In 1739, French fur traders Pierre and Paul Mallet, while journeying
through the Great Plains, discovered a range of mountains at the
headwaters of the Platte River, which local American Indian tribes
called the "Rockies", becoming the first Europeans to report on this
uncharted mountain range.
Sir Alexander MacKenzie in 1800
Sir Alexander MacKenzie (1764 – March 11, 1820) became the first
European to cross the
Rocky Mountains in 1793. He found the upper
reaches of the Fraser River and reached the
Pacific coast of what is
Canada on July 20 of that year, completing the first recorded
transcontinental crossing of
North America north of Mexico. He
arrived at Bella Coola, British Columbia, where he first reached
saltwater at South Bentinck Arm, an inlet of the
Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) was the first scientific
reconnaissance of the Rocky Mountains. Specimens were collected
for contemporary botanists, zoologists, and geologists. The expedition
was said to have paved the way to (and through) the Rocky Mountains
Americans from the East, although Lewis and Clark met at
least 11 European-American mountain men during their travels.
Mountain men, primarily French, Spanish, and British, roamed the Rocky
Mountains from 1720 to 1800 seeking mineral deposits and furs. The
North West Company
North West Company established
Rocky Mountain House
Rocky Mountain House as a
trading post in what is now the
Rocky Mountain Foothills
Rocky Mountain Foothills of
Alberta in 1799, and their business rivals the Hudson's
Bay Company established Acton House nearby. These posts served as
bases for most European activity in the
Canadian Rockies in the early
19th century. Among the most notable are the expeditions of David
Thompson (explorer), who followed the
Columbia River to the Pacific
Ocean. On his 1811 expedition, he camped at the junction of the
Columbia River and the Snake River and erected a pole and notice
claiming the area for the
United Kingdom and stating the intention of
North West Company
North West Company to build a fort at the site.
By the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, which established the 49th
parallel north as the international boundary west from Lake of the
Woods to the "Stony Mountains"; the UK and the USA agreed to what
has since been described as "joint occupancy" of lands further west to
Pacific Ocean. Resolution of the territorial and treaty issues,
the Oregon dispute, was deferred until a later time.
Spain ceded their rights north of the 42nd Parallel to the
United States, though these rights did not include possession and also
included obligations to Britain and Russia concerning their claims in
the same region.
After 1802, American fur traders and explorers ushered in the first
widespread Caucasian presence in the Rockies south of the 49th
parallel. The more famous of these include
Americans William Henry
Ashley, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Colter, Thomas Fitzpatrick,
Andrew Henry, and Jedediah Smith. On July 24, 1832, Benjamin
Bonneville led the first wagon train across the
Rocky Mountains by
using South Pass in the present State of Wyoming. Similarly, in the
wake of Mackenzie's 1793 expedition, fur trading posts were
established west of the
Northern Rockies in a region of the northern
Interior Plateau of
British Columbia which came to be known as New
Caledonia, beginning with Fort McLeod (today's community of McLeod
Lake) and Fort Fraser, but ultimately focused on Stuart Lake Post
(today's Fort St. James).
Negotiations between the
United Kingdom and the
United States over the
next few decades failed to settle upon a compromise boundary and the
Oregon Dispute became important in geopolitical diplomacy between the
British Empire and the new American Republic. In 1841 James Sinclair,
Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, guided some 200 settlers
Red River Colony
Red River Colony west to bolster settlement around Fort
Vancouver in an attempt to retain the
Columbia District for Britain.
The party crossed the Rockies into the Columbia Valley, a region of
Rocky Mountain Trench
Rocky Mountain Trench near present-day Radium Hot Springs, British
Columbia, then traveled south. Despite such efforts, in 1846, Britain
ceded all claim to
Columbia District lands south of the 49th parallel
to the United States; as resolution to the Oregon boundary dispute by
the Oregon Treaty.
Cherokee Trail near Fort Collins, Colorado, from a sketch taken 7 June
Thousands passed through the
Rocky Mountains on the Oregon Trail
beginning in the 1840s. The Mormons began to settle near the Great
Salt Lake in 1847. From 1859 to 1864, gold was discovered in
Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, sparking several gold
rushes bringing thousands of prospectors and miners to explore every
mountain and canyon and to create the Rocky Mountains' first major
Idaho gold rush alone produced more gold than the
Alaska gold rushes combined and was important in the
financing of the
Union Army during the American Civil War. The
transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and Yellowstone
National Park was established as the world's first national park in
1872. Meanwhile, a transcontinental railroad in
originally promised in 1871. Though political complications pushed its
completion to 1885, the Canadian
Pacific Railway eventually followed
the Kicking Horse and Rogers Passes to the
Pacific Ocean. Canadian
railway officials also convinced Parliament to set aside vast areas of
Canadian Rockies as Jasper, Banff, Yoho, and Waterton Lakes
National Parks, laying the foundation for a tourism industry which
thrives to this day.
Glacier National Park (MT) was established with a
similar relationship to tourism promotions by the Great Northern
Railway. While settlers filled the valleys and mining towns,
conservation and preservation ethics began to take hold. U.S.
President Harrison established several forest reserves in the Rocky
Mountains in 1891–92. In 1905, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt
extended the Medicine Bow Forest Reserve to include the area now
managed as Rocky Mountain National Park. Economic development began to
center on mining, forestry, agriculture, and recreation, as well as on
the service industries that support them. Tents and camps became
ranches and farms, forts and train stations became towns, and some
towns became cities.
Industry and development
Economic resources of the
Rocky Mountains are varied and abundant.
Minerals found in the
Rocky Mountains include significant deposits of
copper, gold, lead, molybdenum, silver, tungsten, and zinc. The
Wyoming Basin and several smaller areas contain significant reserves
of coal, natural gas, oil shale, and petroleum. For example, the
Climax mine, located near Leadville, Colorado, was the largest
producer of molybdenum in the world.
Molybdenum is used in
heat-resistant steel in such things as cars and planes. The Climax
mine employed over 3,000 workers. The Coeur d'Alene mine of northern
Idaho produces silver, lead, and zinc. Canada's largest coal mines are
British Columbia and Sparwood, British Columbia;
additional coal mines exist near Hinton, Alberta, and in the Northern
Rockies surrounding Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia.
Abandoned mines with their wakes of mine tailings and toxic wastes dot
the Rocky Mountain landscape. In one major example, eighty years of
zinc mining profoundly polluted the river and bank near Eagle River in
north-central Colorado. High concentrations of the metal carried by
spring runoff harmed algae, moss, and trout populations. An economic
analysis of mining effects at this site revealed declining property
values, degraded water quality, and the loss of recreational
opportunities. The analysis also revealed that cleanup of the river
could yield $2.3 million in additional revenue from recreation. In
1983, the former owner of the zinc mine was sued by the Colorado
Attorney General for the $4.8 million cleanup costs; five years later,
ecological recovery was considerable.
A drilling rig drills for natural gas just west of the Wind River
Range in the
Rocky Mountains contain several sedimentary basins that are rich
in coalbed methane.
Coalbed methane is natural gas that arises from
coal, either through bacterial action or through exposure to high
Coalbed methane supplies 7 percent of the natural gas
used in the United States. The largest coalbed methane sources in the
Rocky Mountains are in the
San Juan Basin
San Juan Basin in
New Mexico and Colorado
Powder River Basin
Powder River Basin in Wyoming. These two basins are estimated
to contain 38 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Coalbed methane can be
recovered by dewatering the coal bed, and separating the gas from the
water; or injecting water to fracture the coal to release the gas
(so-called hydraulic fracturing).
Agriculture and forestry are major industries.
dryland and irrigated farming and livestock grazing.
frequently moved between high-elevation summer pastures and
low-elevation winter pastures, a practice known as transhumance.
Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Going to the Sun Mountain
Going to the Sun Mountain in
Glacier National Park
See also: List of U.S. Rocky Mountain ski resorts, List of
resorts, List of B.C. ski resorts
Every year the scenic areas and recreational opportunities of the
Rocky Mountains draw millions of tourists. The main language of the
Rocky Mountains is English. But there are also linguistic pockets of
Spanish and indigenous languages.
People from all over the world visit the sites to hike, camp, or
engage in mountain sports. In the summer season, examples of
tourist attractions are:
In the United States:
Yellowstone National Park
Glacier National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
In Canada, the mountain range contains these national parks:
Banff National Park
Jasper National Park
Kootenay National Park
Waterton Lakes National Park
Yoho National Park
Glacier National Park in
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes National Park in
Alberta border each other and are collectively are known as
Glacier International Peace Park
In the winter, skiing is the main attraction, with dozens of Rocky
Mountain ski areas and resorts.
Columbia Mountains in
British Columbia contain major
resorts such as Panorama and Kicking Horse, as well as Mount
Revelstoke National Park and
Glacier National Park.
There are numerous provincial parks in the
British Columbia Rockies,
the largest and most notable being Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park,
Mount Robson Provincial Park,
Northern Rocky Mountains Provincial
Park, Kwadacha Wilderness Provincial Park, Stone Mountain Provincial
Park and Muncho Lake Provincial Park.
United States portal
Needles of larches in
Alberta turn yellow in autumn.
Geology of the Rocky Mountains
List of mountain peaks of the Rocky Mountains
Rocky Mountains subalpine zone
Geography of the
United States Rocky Mountain System
Central Rocky Mountains
Western Rocky Mountains
Southern Rocky Mountains
Little Rocky Mountains
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1896–1954 / 1954–1968
World War I
World War II
Nazism in the United States
Cold War (1991–2008)
War on Terror
War in Afghanistan
Recent events (2008–present)
Outline of U.S. history
Technological and industrial
minor outlying islands
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President of the United States
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separation of powers
United States Code
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political status of Puerto Rico
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Red states and blue states
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Black American Sign Language
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Ages of consent
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Separation of church and state