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What Are the Rocky Mountains?

By Lori Spencer
Updated: May 17, 2024

The majestic Rocky Mountains begin in New Mexico and stretch all the way to Canada, at points rising some 14,000 feet (4,267 m) into the clouds. Mount Elbert, Colorado is the tallest point in the Rocky Mountain range, at an elevation of 14,433 feet (4,402 m), while Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs reaches 14,110 feet (4,300 m) above sea level. Pike’s Peak attracts more than a million tourists per year, making it the second most visited peak in the world. Wildlife enthusiasts, adventurers and mountaineers travel from around the globe to explore, ski and climb these massive peaks.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado provides a natural habitat to 66 mammal species, including mountain lions, coyotes, moose, wolverines, elk, and the rare lynx. Canada's Banff National Park is home to the golden mantled ground squirrel, bighorn sheep, hoary marmots, and grizzly and black bears. The largest herds of moose in North America are to be found in the Alberta-British Columbia foothills forests. On the United States side of the Rocky Mountains, predatory grizzly bears and gray wolves are gradually being reintroduced back into their original ranges, along with the peregrine falcon and once almost-extinct bald eagle.

Initially inhabited by Paleo-Indians and indigenous tribes such as the Apache, Ute, Bannock, Sioux, Blackfoot, Cheyenne and Crow, the Rocky Mountains were later explored by Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540. Two centuries later, French fur traders Pierre and Paul Mallet became the first Europeans to discover this mountain range and dubbed it the "Rockies" — a name they learned from local native American tribes. In 1793, Sir Alexander MacKenzie famously completed the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America via the Rocky Mountains. The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 paved the way for further American exploration and settlement of the mountain range.

More than 100 individual mountain ranges compose the Rockies, measuring approximately 3,000 miles (4,828 km) from New Mexico to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. The ranges extend north into British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. Interstate 25 serves as the eastern edge in the United States, while the Rocky Mountain Trench is the western boundary line in Canada. Much of the range is still unsettled by humans and remains protected land owned by the U.S. and Canadian governments for conservation purposes. National parks abound; Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain National Park and Royal Gorge, Colorado are some of the most well-known on the U.S. side. In Canada, Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Mount Robson, Hamber, and Assiniboine National Parks are some of the country's most popular recreation and tourist destinations.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Scrbblchick — On May 03, 2014

The first time I went to the Rockies, the altitude really got to me. We drove up Pike's Peak, and while I wouldn't have missed the view for anything, being at 14,000 feet for a while made me sick. The locals said to drink a lot of water, since that helps carry oxygen to your red blood cells.

If I go again, I am seriously considering taking a small oxygen tank if we go back to Pike's Peak.

By Pippinwhite — On May 02, 2014

My first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains came as I drove through downtown Denver. I was amazed. Southern mountains are green and rolling. They don't come to sharp, bald peaks like the Rockies do.

While driving from Denver to Breckenridge, I was hard put to drive instead of gawk. The Rockies are truly awe-inspiring.

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