Geography of the Rocky Mountains

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

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The Rocky Mountains are a large mountain range located in the western part of North America in the United States and Canada. The "Rockies" as they are also known, pass through northern New Mexico and into Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. In Canada, the range stretches along the border of Alberta and British Columbia. In total, the Rockies stretch for over 3,000 miles (4,830 km) and form the Continental Divide of North America. Additionally, because of their large presence in North America, water from the Rockies supplies about ¼ of the United States.

Most of the Rocky Mountains are undeveloped and is protected by national parks like the Rocky Mountain National Park in the U.S. and local parks like the Banff National Park in Alberta. Despite their rugged nature though, the Rockies are a popular tourist destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping skiing, fishing, ​and snowboarding. In addition, the high peaks of the range make it popular for mountain climbing. The highest peak in the Rocky Mountains is Mount Elbert at 14,400 feet (4,401 m) and is located in Colorado.

Geology of the Rocky Mountains

The geologic age of the Rocky Mountains varies based on location. For example, the youngest parts were uplifted 100 million to 65 million years ago, whereas the older parts rose 3,980 million to 600 million years ago. The rock structure of the Rockies consists of igneous rock as well as sedimentary rock along its margins and volcanic rock in localized areas.

Like most mountain ranges, the Rocky Mountains have also been affected by severe erosion which has caused the development of deep river canyons as well as intermountain basins such as the Wyoming Basin. In addition, the last glaciation which occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch and lasted from about 110,000 years ago until 12,500 years ago also caused erosion and the formation of glacial U-shaped valleys and other features such as Moraine Lake in Alberta, throughout the range.

Human History of the Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains have been home to various Paleo-Indian tribes and more modern Native American tribes for thousands of years. For example, there is evidence that Paleo-Indians may have hunted in the region as far back as 5,400 to 5,800 years ago based on rock walls they constructed to trap game like the now-extinct mammoth.

European exploration of the Rockies did not begin until the 1500s when the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado entered the region and changed the Native American cultures there with the introduction of horses, tools, and diseases. In the 1700s and into the 1800s, exploration of the Rocky Mountains was mainly focused on fur trapping and trading. In 1739, a group of French fur traders encountered a Native American tribe that called the mountains the "Rockies" and after that, the area became known by that name.

In 1793, Sir Alexander MacKenzie became the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains and from 1804 to 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first scientific exploration of the mountains.

Settlement of the Rocky Mountain region then began in the mid-1800s when Mormons began to settle near the Great Salt Lake in 1847, and from 1859 to 1864, there were several gold rushes in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia.

Today, the Rockies are mostly undeveloped but tourism national parks and small mountain towns are popular, and agriculture and forestry are major industries. In addition, the Rockies are abundant in natural resources like copper, gold, natural gas, and coal.

Geography and Climate of the Rocky Mountains

Most accounts say that the Rocky Mountains stretch from the Laird River in British Columbia to the Rio Grande in New Mexico. In the U.S., the eastern edge of the Rockies forms a sharp divide as they rise abruptly out of the interior plains. The western edge is less abrupt as several sub-ranges like the Wasatch Range in Utah and the Bitterroots in Montana and Idaho lead up to the Rockies.

The Rockies are significant to the North American continent as a whole because the Continental Divide (the line which determines whether water will flow to the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean) is in the range.

The general climate for the Rocky Mountains is considered highland. Summers are usually warm and dry but mountain rain and thunderstorms can occur, while winters are wet and very cold. At high elevations, precipitation falls as heavy snow in the winter.

Flora and Fauna of the Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains are very biodiverse and has various types of ecosystems. However, throughout the mountains, there are more than 1,000 types of flowering plants as well as trees like the Douglas Fir. The highest elevations, however, are above the tree line and thus have lower vegetation like shrubs.

The animals of the Rockies the elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, bobcat and black bears among many others. For example, in Rocky Mountain National Park alone is populated by about 1,000 head of elk. At the highest elevations, there are populations of ptarmigan, marmot, and pika.


National Park Service. (29 June 2010). Rocky Mountain National Park - Nature and Science (U.S. National Park Service). Retrieved from:

Wikipedia. (4 July 2010). Rocky Mountains - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from:

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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of the Rocky Mountains." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Briney, Amanda. (2020, August 26). Geography of the Rocky Mountains. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of the Rocky Mountains." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).