Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains

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15th November, 1806: Saturday. Marched early. Passed two deep creeks and many high points of the rocks; also, large herds of buffalo. At two o'clock in the afternoon I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with the spy glass, and was still more confirmed in my conjecture, yet only communicated it to doctor Robinson, who was in front with me, but in halt an hour, they appeared in full view before us. When our small party arrived on the hill they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains. Their appearance can easily be imagined by those who have crossed the Alleghany; but their sides were whiter as if covered with snow, or a white stone. Those were a spur of the grand western chain of mountains, which divide the waters of the Pacific from those of the Atlantic oceans, and it divided the waters which empty into the bay of the Holy Spirit, from those of the Mississippi; as the Alleghany does, those which discharge themselves into the latter river and the Atlantic. They appear to present a natural boundary between the province of Louisiana arid New Mexico and would be a defined and natural boundary. Before evening we discovered a fork on the south side bearing S. 25° W. and as the Spanish troops appear to have borne up it, we encamped on its banks, about one mile from its confluence, that we might make further discoveries on the morrow. Killed three buffalo.

27th November, 1806: Thursday. Arose hungry, dry, and extremely sore, from the inequality of the rocks, on which we had lain all night, but were amply compensated for toil by the sublimity of the prospects below. The unbounded prairie was overhung with clouds, which appeared like the ocean in a storm; wave piled on wave and foaming, whilst the sky was perfectly clear where we were. Commenced our march up the mountain, and in about one hour arrived at the summit of this chain: here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day's march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return.

Proceeding westwardly across the meridian above specified (ninety-fifth), the hilly country gradually subsides, giving place to a region of vast extent, spreading towards the north and south, and presenting an undulating surface, with nothing to limit the view or variegate the prospect, but here and there a hill, knob, or insulated tract of tableland. At length the Rocky Mountains break upon the view, towering abruptly from the plains, and mingling their snow-capped summits with the clouds.

On approaching the mountains, no other change is observable in the general aspect of the country, except that the isolated knobs and tablelands above alluded to become more frequent and more distinctly marked, the bluffs by which the vallies of watercourses are bounded present a greater abundance of rocks, stones lie in greater profusion upon the surface, and the soil becomes more sandy and sterile. If, to the characteristics above intimated, we add that of an almost complete destitution of woodland (for not more than one thousandth part of the section can be said to possess a timber-growth) we shall have a pretty correct idea of the general aspect of the whole country.

These mountains have their sides and summits partially varied with little copses of pine, cedar, and balsam fir. A mile and a half beyond this creek the rocks approach the river on both sides, forming a most sublime and extraordinary spectacle. For five and three quarter miles these rocks rise perpendicularly from the water's edge to the height of nearly twelve hundred feet. They are composed of a black granite near its base, but from its lighter colour above and from the fragments we suppose the upper part to be flint of a yellowish brown and cream colour. Nothing can be imagined more tremendous than the frowning darkness of these rocks, which project over the river and menace us with destruction. The river, of one hundred and fifty yards in width, seems to have forced its channel down this solid mass, but so reluctantly has it given way that during the whole distance the water is very deep even at the edges, and for the first three miles there is not a spot except one of a few yards, in which a man could stand between the water and the towering perpendicular of the mountain: the convulsion of the passage must have been terrible, since at its outlet there are vast columns of rock torn from the mountain which are strewed on both sides of the river, the trophies as it were of the victory. Several fine springs burst out from the chasms of the rock, and contribute to increase the river, which has now a strong current, but very fortunately we are able to overcome it with our oars, since it would be impossible to use either the cord or the pole.

The Bayou Salade, or Salt Valley, is the most southern of three very extensive valleys, forming a series of table-lands in the very centre of the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, known to the trappers by the name of the "Parks." The numerous streams by which they are watered abound in the valuable fur-bearing beaver, whilst every species of game common to the west is found here in great abundance. The Bayou Salade especially, owing to the salitrose nature of the soil and springs, is the favourite resort of all the larger animals common to the mountains; and, in the sheltered prairies of the Bayou, the buffalo, forsaking the barren and inclement regions of the exposed plains, frequent these upland valleys in the winter months; and feeding upon the rich and nutritious buffalo grass which, on the bare prairies, at that season, is either dry and rotten or entirely exhausted, not only are enabled to sustain life, but retain a great portion of the "condition" that the abundant fall and summer pasture of the lowlands has laid upon their bones.

Snowy ranges, one behind the other, extended to the distant horizon, folding in their wintry embrace the beauties of Middle Park. Pike's Peak, more than one hundred miles off, lifted that vast but shapeless summit which is the landmark of Southern Colorado. There were snow patches, snow slashes, snow abysses, snow forlorn and soiled-looking, snow pure and dazzling, snow glistening above the purple robe of pine worn by all the mountains; while away to the east, in limitless breadth, stretched the green-grey of the endless" Plains. Giants everywhere reared their splintered crests. From thence, with a single sweep, the eye takes in a distance of 300 miles - that distance to the west, north, and south being made up of mountains ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen thousand feet in height, dominated by Long's Peak, Gray's Peak, and Pike's Peak, all nearly the height of Mont Blanc! On the Plains we traced the rivers by their fringe of cotton-woods to the distant Platte, and between us and them lay glories of mountain, canyon, and lake, sleeping in depths of blue and purple most ravishing to the eye.

As we crept from the lodge round a horn of rock, I beheld what made me perfectly sick and dizzy to look at - the terminal Peak itself - a smooth, cracked face or wall of pink granite, as nearly perpendicular as anything could well be up which it was possible to climb, well deserving the name of the "American Matterhorn"

Scaling, not climbing, is the correct term for this last ascent. It took one hour to accomplish 500 feet, pausing for breath every minute or two. The only foothold was in narrow cracks or on minute projections on the granite. To get a toe in these cracks, or here and there on a scarcely obvious projection, while crawling on hands and knees, all the while tortured with thirst and gasping and struggling for breath, this was the climb; but at last the Peak was won. A grand, well-defined mountain-top it is, a nearly level acre of boulders, with precipitous sides all round, the one we came up being the only accessible one.

We placed our names, with the date of ascent, in a tin within a crevice, and descended to the Ledge, sitting on the smooth granite, getting our feet into cracks and against projections, and letting ourselves down by our hands, Jim going before me, so that I might steady my feet against his powerful shoulders. I was no longer giddy, and faced the precipice of 3500 feet without a shiver. Repassing the Ledge and Lift, we accomplished the descent through 1500 feet of ice and snow, with many falls and bruises, but no worse mishap, and there separated, the young men taking the steepest but most direct way to the Notch, with the intention of getting ready for the march home, and Jim and I taking what he thought the safer route for me - a descent over boulders for 2000 feet, and then a tremendous ascent to the " Notch." I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and Jim severed it with his hunting-knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow. We were driven lower down the mountains than he had intended by impassable tracts of ice, and the ascent was tremendous. For the last 200 feet the boulders were of enormous size, and the steepness fearful. Sometimes I drew myself up on hands and knees, sometimes crawled; sometimes Jim pulled me up by my arms or a lariat, and sometimes I stood on his shoulders, or he made steps for me of his feet and hands, but at six we stood on the Notch in the splendour of the sinking sun, all colour deepening, all peaks glorifying, all shadows purpling, all peril past.

The scene of the drive is at a height of 7500 feet, watered by two rapid rivers. On all sides mountains rise to an altitude of from 11,000 to 15,000 feet, their skirts shaggy with pitch-pine forests, and scarred by deep canyons, wooded and boulder-strewn, opening upon the mountain pasture previously mentioned. Two thousand head of half-wild Texan cattle are scattered in herds throughout the canyons, living on more or less suspicious terms with grizzly and brown bears, mountain lions, elk, mountain sheep, spotted deer, wolves, lynxes, wild cats, beavers, minks, skunks, chipmonks, eagles, rattlesnakes, and all the other two-legged, four-legged, vertebrate and invertebrate inhabitants of this lonely and romantic region. On the whole, they show a tendency rather to the habits of wild than of domestic cattle. They march to water in Indian file, with the bulls leading, and when threatened, take strategic advantage of ridgy ground, slinking warily along in the hollows, the bulls acting as sentinels, and bringing up the rear in case of an attack from dogs. Cows have to be regularly broken in for milking, being as wild as buffaloes in their unbroken state; but, owing to the comparative dryness of the grasses, and the system of allowing the calf to have the milk during the daytime, a dairy of 200 cows does not produce as much butter as a Devonshire dairy of fifty. Some "necessary" cruelty is involved in the stockman's business, however humane he may be. The system is one of terrorism, and from the time that the calf is bullied into the branding-pen, and the hot iron burns into his shrinking flesh, to the day when the fatted ox is driven down from his boundless pastures to be slaughtered in Chicago," the fear and dread of man " are upon him.

There was not time to note the great natural wonders that lay along the route. Some one would speak of a remarkable valley, a group of cathedral-like rocks, some mineral springs, a salt basin, but we never deviated from the direct route to see them. Once as we halted near the summit of the Rocky Mountains for our "nooning", digging through three or four inches of soil we found a stratum of firm, clear ice, six or eight inches in thickness, covering the whole level space for several acres where our train had stopped. I do not think even yet I have ever heard a theory accounting for the strange sheet of ice lying hard and frozen in mid-summer three inches below the surface.

About the 22nd of August, 1826, I left the Great Salt Lake, accompanied with a party of fifteen men, for the purpose of exploring the country to the south west, which was then entirely unknown to me, and of which I could obtain no satisfactory information, from the Indians who inhabit the country on its north east borders. My general course on leaving the Lake, was S.W. and W., passing the Little Uta Lake, and ascending Ashley's River, which empties into it, where we found a nation of Indians, calling themselves Sumpatch, who were friendly disposed towards us.

After leaving the Little Uta Lake, I found no further sign of Buffalo - there were, however, a few of the Antelope and Mountain Sheep, and an abundance of Black Tailed Hares. Leaving Ashley's River, I passed over a range of mountains, S.E. and N.W., and struck a river, running SW, which I named Adams River, in compliment to our President. The water of the river is of a muddy cast, and somewhat brackish. The country is mountainous to the east, and on the west are detached rocky hills and sandy plains. Passing down this river some distance, I fell in with a nation of Indians, calling themselves Pa Utches. These Indians, as well as the Sumpatch, wear robes made of rabbet skins; they raise corn and pumpkins, on which they principally subsist - except a few hares, very little game of any description is to be found. About ten days march further down, the river turns to the SE, where, on the SW of it, there is a remarkable cave, the entrance to which is about ten or fifteen feet high, and five or six feet in width: after descending about fifteen feet, it opens into a large and spacious room, with the roof, walls and floor of solid rock salt, (a piece of which I send you, with some other articles which will be hereafter described.) I followed Adams river two days travel further, where it empties into the Seeds Keeder, which I crossed and went a south course down it, through a barren, rocky and mountainous country. In this river are many shoals and rapids. Further down, a valley opens, from five to fifteen miles in width. The land on the river bank is fertile and timbered. I here found another tribe of Indians, who call themselves Ammuchiebes. They cultivate the soil, and raise corn, beans, pumpkins and mellons in abundance, and also a little wheat and cotton. I was now nearly destitute of horses, and had learned what it was to do without food; I therefore concluded to remain here fifteen days, to recruit my men; and in the mean time, succeeded in changing my few remaining horses, and was enabled to purchase others, from a party of runaway Indians, who had stolen them from the Spaniards. I here obtained some information respecting the Spanish country - obtained two guides - recrossed the Seeds Keeder, and travelled a west course fifteen days, over a country of complete barrens, and frequently travelling from morning until night without water. Crossed a salt plain eight miles wide and twenty long. On the surface of the ground is a crust of white salt, underneath is a layer of yellow sand, and beneath the sand a few inches, the salt again appears. The river Seeds Keeder, I have since learned, empties itself into the Gulf of California, about 80 miles from the Amuchiebes and is there called the Colorado.

I afterwards arrived at a river, which I named (after a tribe of Indians residing on its banks) Wim-mel-che. I found here a few beaver and elk, deer and antelopes in abundance. I made a small hunt, and then attempted, with my party, to cross Mount Joseph, and join my partners at the Great Salt Lake. In this, however, I was disappointed. I found the snow so deep on the mountain, that my horses could not travel. Five of my horses having already perished for want of food, I was compelled to return to the valley. Here leaving my party, I set out on the 20th May, accompanied by two men, and taking with us seven horses and two mules, which were laden with hay, and provisions for ourselves, and in eight days we succeeded in crossing Mount Joseph, with the loss of only two horses and one mule. The snow on the top of this mountain, was from four to eight feet deep, but so solid that our horses only sunk into it from six to twelve inches.

After travelling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph, I struck the SW corner of the Great Salt Lake. The country between the mountain and this Lake, is completely barren, and entirely destitute of game. We frequently travelled two days, without water, over sandy deserts, where no sign of vegetation was to be seen. In some of the rocky hills we found water, and occasionally small bands of Indians, who appeared the most miserable of the human race. They were entirely naked, and subsisted upon grass seeds, grasshoppers, fee. On arriving at the Great Salt Lake, we had but one horse and one mule remaining, and they so poor, they could scarcely carry the little camp equipage we had with us. The balance of the horses we were compelled to eat as they gave out.

The next camp was in the South Pass, so named by Fremont, who had set up a cairn of stones here; the summit of Rocky Mountains. The flying snow fell in our faces as we looked away... toward the setting sun. It seemed to us all, weary as we were, that the rest of the way must be down hill to the vast ocean. Our camp was by the Pacific Springs. We were now drinking of the waters that flowed to the mighty ocean! What exultation! What glory and achievement!

At Salt Lake, a beautiful city and the scene of honest industry, we rested long, sold some worn-out cattle, the carriage and the two horses; keeping one for mother and baby. We three little fellows had learned to walk well; and walk we did now all the time; all but Jimmy, who had to sleep some each day in the wagon. We, joined with others, built a raft of dead cottonwood logs and crossed cold, swift. Green River on a raft.

To cross such a plain is to grow homesick for the mountains. I longed for the Black Hills of Wyoming, which I knew we were soon to enter, like an ice-bound whaler for the spring. Alas! and it was a worse country than the other. All Sunday and Monday we travelled through these sad mountains, or over the main ridge of the Rockies, which is a fair match to them for misery of aspect. Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications - how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not seen them; not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush; over all, the same weariful and gloomy colouring, grays warming into brown, grays darkening into black; and for sole sign of life, here and there a few fleeing antelopes; here and there, but at incredible intervals, a creek running in a canon.

The air is so bracing that we all feel equal to anything. Mr. Struble has already killed a fine "spike" elk for camp eating. We camped in a bunch, and we have camp stoves so that in case of rain or snow we can stay indoors. Just now we have a huge camp fire around which we sit in the evening, telling stories, singing, and eating nuts of the pinon pine. Then too the whole country is filled with those tiny little strawberries. We have to gather all day to get as much as we can eat, but they are delicious. Yesterday we had pie made of wild currants; there are a powerful lot of them here. There is also a little blueberry that the men say is the Rocky Mountain huckleberry. The grouse are feeding on them. Altogether this is one of the most delightful places imaginable. The men are not very anxious to begin hunting. A little delay means cooler weather for the meat. It is cool up here, but going back across the desert it will be warm for a while yet. Still, when they see elk every day it is a great temptation to try a shot.

How the West Was Built: A Geologic History of the Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains stretch almost 3,000 miles, all the way from British Columbia to New Mexico, forming some of the most iconic mountain views in North America. As stunning as a Rocky Mountain vista is, there is an older, more mysterious period to their history known as the Ancestral Rocky Mountains.

In a recent, three-year, $426,071 collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation, Saylor and his collaborators will reconstruct the history of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, the sedimentary rock which formed today’s Rocky Mountains. This research will include piecing together a history of an ancient river system that was re-routed due to mountain formation. Collaborators include UH professor of geology Tom Lapen and Washington and Lee University professor of geology Jeffrey Rahl.

1. The Rockies are Home to a Supervolcano

Did you know that a supervolcano lies hidden in the Rocky Mountains?

The volcano is located in the Yellowstone National Park and goes by the name Yellowstone Caldera. This is one of the reasons why you can see geysers in Yellowstone, and why there is an overpowering smell of phosphor in the air throughout the national park.

As the volcano’s eruptions occur millions of years apart, we will probably not see the Yellowstone volcano erupt in our lifetime, but never say never! Other signs of volcanic activity can be seen all over the Rocky Mountains, such as at the hot springs in Grand County.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visited US national parks and this supervolcano helps create the sights that we flock there to see! Click here if you’re actually planning a trip there and looking for some fantastic Yellowstone accommodation!

Rocky Mountains

Lucius O'Brien, 1887, watercolour (courtesy Library and Archives Canada). Rocky Mountain range, BC (courtesy Pat Morrow/First Light Associated Photographers). At elevation 3954 metres, Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains (photo by James Marsh). Aerial view of the Rocky Mountain range, BC (photo by Pat Morrow, courtesy First Light Associated Photographers). Glacier National Park, Mount Sir Donald (photo by John Woods).

Rocky Mountains, North America's largest mountain system, are widely known for their vistas of spacious subalpine valleys and rugged, exposed rock faces. The Canadian segment of the Rockies extends 1200 km from the American borders of BC and Alberta to the Liard River Basin, flanked on the west by a distinct trench and on the east by rolling foothills. The Canadian Rockies of song, film, painting and postcard, however, are in the Main Ranges, near the rail and highway routes through 2 mountain passes. These and other passes mark the southern boundary between BC and Alberta and mark the Continental Divide, where Pacific watersheds back onto Atlantic and Arctic sources.


The human record in the Canadian Rockies is less than 4000 years old. Kootenay and Secwepemc peoples long travelled the southern passes to hunt on the Prairies. European explorers approached by northern routes Alexander Mackenzie, the first (1793) to cross the Rockies, used the Peace River. On the same route, Simon Fraser established the first Rocky Mountain trading post at Hudson's Hope (1805). Kicking Horse Pass was chosen in 1882 for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) link between the Prairies and coastal BC.

Castlelike mountain resorts built on the rail line at Banff and Lake Louise have become all-season recreation centres for Banff National Park's (established 1885) many alpine attractions, which attract 4.5 million visitors annually.

Development of the Yellowhead Pass area, southwest of Edmonton, followed the same pattern, adding railway lines (1911, 1915), Jasper National Park (established 1907 1.8 million visitors annually), the community of Jasper and a resort hotel. Four adjoining national parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho) form the largest body of mountain parkland in the world. Together these parks were declared a World Heritage Site in 1984. Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park, Montana, comprise another world heritage site (1995).

Throughout this area the Rockies form northwest-trending waves of sedimentary rock up-piled by vast thrust faults in the Tertiary age (65-1.65 million years ago) and eroded by glaciers, remnants of which remain. Magnificent mountain forms, commonly higher than 3050 m, include castellate, matterhorn, sawtooth and dipping strata peaks. The highest is Mount Robson.

Economic Importance

To the south, in the Crowsnest Pass area of the border ranges, a CPR railway line built in 1898 opened Rocky Mountain coal and minerals to underground mine development. Open-pit mines near Sparwood and Elkford, BC, have greatly expanded the area's coal production since the 1960s. The southern Alberta foothills of the Rockies have been a cattle ranching centre since the 1870s. Natural-gas drilling has progressed into foothill country in recent decades.

North of the Kakwa River, the Rockies are entirely in BC. They subside to modest heights (maximum 2542 m) with rounded, often timbered summits and little evidence of glaciation. The forest industry followed highway (1952) and railway (1958) construction northeast from Prince George. Open-pit coal mines at Quintette and Bullmoose mountains in the BC foothills started in 1983. Closure of the Quintette coal mine in 2000 forced nearly half of the residents of the town of Tumbler Ridge to leave. The higher Muskwa Ranges, north of the Peace River, are penetrated by the Alaska Highway, but remain little developed.

Historic and cultural options

Holzwarth Historic Site — The park’s visitor centers and the Holzwarth Historic Site, on the park’s west side, host collections of historical artifacts, including old maps and tools, biological and geological specimens from throughout the park, photographs, and other cultural offerings as curated by park rangers. Walking through the site puts you straight into an old Western — complete with the town, no facade necessary. You don’t need a tour to view them simply stop into the sites during open hours. Additional collections can be found at the Denver Botanic Gardens and YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park.

Ranger-led tours — No matter when you visit, inquire about ranger-led tours within the park. Park rangers lead historical presentations at the park’s auditoriums and amphitheaters throughout the summer. Talks are free, though only the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and Kawuneeche Visitor Center don’t require park admission to visit. Check the park’s website for the current schedule. The park service also runs guided tours of Trail Ridge Road during busy times. These are the best way to learn about how early nomadic natives routed their way through the park, and where remnants can be found. Tours stop at notable views and historical points. Call 970-577-7477 to inquire about scheduling and to make a reservation.

Astronomy tour — Local astronomers and park rangers lead astronomy sessions on select Friday evenings, July through August, culminating in a night sky festival in August. The 30-minute sessions include telescope viewings and a lecture from the astronomer, beginning after sunset at the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead. Other astronomy events take place in summer as conditions allow, check the park website for current information.

Moraine Park Discovery Center — On the east side of the park, Moraine Park Discovery Center holds a small museum and an amphitheater where the Moraine Park Lodge once operated, founded by explorer and guide Imogen Green MacPherson in 1903. The site is protected in the US Register of National Historic Places, and is adjacent to the equally historic William Allen White Cabins.

Historic buildings and trails — Throughout the park are a number of registered buildings including the Comfort Stations at Timber Creek Campground and Aspenglen. Many visitors stop into the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center without even realizing it is a National Historic Landmark — but by knowing this in advance, you’ll be prepared to engage on-site rangers in how it became so. It was built by none other than Taliesin Associated Architects — yes, Frank Llyod Wright’s firm, though Wright himself had recently passed prior to construction — as part of the NPS Mission 66 project, which sought to upgrade the guest experience at parks across the country. Near the summit of Trail Ridge Road, the Alpine Visitor Center is the highest-elevation visitor center in the National Park System, and a perfect place to stop for a souvenir.

Historic photo stops — In addition to historic buildings, Trail Ridge Road itself is lined with historically significant pull-outs where guests can photograph their surroundings with only a slight chance of craned neck syndrome. On the second switchback up from the east entrance, Many Parks Curve looks out upon much of the eastern section of the park including Horseshoe Park, a vast expanse left by one of the region’s founding glaciers. You’re gazing at living history.

Further up is the summit of Trail Ridge Road, the peak of not only today’s highway but of the path used by Native tribes and nomads long before the invention of the combustion engine. A stop here immediately puts into perspective how easy we have it today.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Rocky Mountain National Park

On January 26, 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park was established. Rocky Mountain encompasses 415 square miles of spectacular mountain environments that is just a short drive from Denver, Colorado. One of the U.S.'s most visited national parks, Rocky Mountain hosted more than 4.5 million people in 2016 for world-class recreation opportunities from hiking, biking and fishing to horseback riding, camping and mountaineering.

As we celebrate more than a century of Rocky Mountain National Park, check out 7 facts about this amazing park.

1. Rocky Mountain is one of the nation’s highest national parks. With elevations from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet, Rocky Mountain makes you feel like you are on top of the world. Within the park’s boundaries are 77 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high and the Continental Divide. The park’s Alpine Visitor Center also sits at the highest elevation of all National Park Service sites. With towering landscapes that take visitors to new heights, it’s no surprise that Rocky Mountain is world-renowned for its gorgeous scenery.

At an elevation of 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest peak in the park. Photo of Longs Peak reflected in Bear Lake by Steve Perry (

2. Rocky Mountain offers more than rugged mountains. Here, you’ll see an amazing range of landscapes in a short distance. A maze of evergreen trees covers the mountainsides in subalpine areas. Hidden among the trees are crystal-clear lakes and fields of wildflowers that may surprise you. Approximately one-third of this national park is above the limit where trees grow in northern Colorado (around 11,500 feet above sea level), creating the alpine tundra ecosystem. The Montane ecosystem has the richest diversity of plant and animal life. Meandering rivers and open meadows are surrounded by hilly slopes.

Sunset at Sprague Lake will leave you speechless. Photo by Steven Sawusch (

3. The park’s Trail Ridge Road inspired awe even before the first motorist traveled it. Completed in 1932, Trail Ridge Road took visitors to new heights and was called a "scenic wonder road of the world." Cresting just over 12,000 feet, it is the highest continuous paved highway in the nation -- it is so high that drivers will climb 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes! Covering 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west, it is still a major attraction for park visitors today.

Trail Ridge Road twists through the landscape, gaining in elevation. Photo by National Park Service.

4. Most of the park is designated as wilderness. Nearly 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain was designated as wilderness by Congress in 2009, protecting the wild beauty of the park’s meadows, forests, alpine peaks and tundra. Learn about Leave No Trace principles before exploring the park’s wilderness areas.

Photo of Rocky Mountain’s Spirit Lake courtesy of Crystal Brindle.

5. Rocky Mountain has an extensive museum collection. Rocky Mountain’s museum collection preserves artifacts and specimens that tell the story of the park -- from household items that were part of historic homes in the park and historic photos to watercolors and oil paintings of the park’s scenery. In total, the collection includes 33,465 cultural objects, 294 works of art, 10,495 biological specimens and 455 geological specimens. Be sure to stop by the park’s visitor centers to see some of these museum items on exhibit.

A snapshot from Rocky Mountain’s dedication in 1915. Photo in public domain.

6. Rocky Mountain is one of country’s top wildlife watching destinations. The park is home to more than 60 species of mammals, including elk, bighorn sheep and moose. Besides the charismatic megafauna, the park has more than 280 recorded bird species, six amphibians, one reptile (the harmless garter snake), 11 species of fish and countless insects, including a surprisingly large number of butterflies. If wildlife viewing isn’t your thing, check out some of the other things to do at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Every autumn, elk descend from the high country to montane meadows for the annual breeding season. Called rutting, bull elk compete with one another for the right to breed with a herd of females. Photo by Claud Richmond (

7. While most people visit Rocky Mountain in the summer, winter holds its own magic. When you visit in the off season, you can trek through a silent forest full of fresh, white snow or explore the park’s many beautiful lakes, now covered in sheets of richly colored ice. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and sledding are great ways to experience all that the park has to offer in winter. For the experienced and well-prepared, Rocky’s steep terrain provides many opportunities for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

During this season, Rocky Mountain is transformed with snow and ice, trading in greens for a suit of white. Photo by Crystal Brindle, National Park Service.

Do your part to help protect this special place, and take the #RockyPledge.

How Were The Rocky Mountains Formed?

A woman hiking on the Rockies in Colorado with her dog. Image credit: Larry Barrett/

The mountains began as a series of rocks, with the interior mountain range consisting of pieces of continental crust that are over one billion years old.

The Rocky Mountains formed during the Laramide orogeny period between 80 million to 55 million years ago. The Laramide orogeny period, also known as the mountain-building period, saw the Farallon ocean plate move underneath the North American tectonic plate at a low angle. This unusual subduction resulted in the forming of mountains, but further inland than what would be expected of this kind of tectonic activity. A series of pulses in conjunction with strong tectonic activity caused the earth’s crust to pile on top of each other this began the formation of the Rocky Mountains along the west of North America.

The mountains get their shape from the erosion that has taken place over the last 60 million years. The glaciers of the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs had a particular impact in forming the Rockies. The rocks and sediment in the moving glaciers carved out the landscape and created the rugged mountains that still stand today. Remnants of the ice ages can still be found throughout the Rockies’ national parks in the form of much smaller glaciers, moraines and glacial lakes.

History of Rocky Mountain Communities

Over the last 27 years, we have seen our residents achieve individual success through stable housing and strong programs.

Rocky Mountain Communities builds brighter futures by investing in resident-focused aff­ordable housing and services, empowering individuals and families to thrive.

In 1992, three community members founded Greater Denver Mutual Housing Association, now doing business as Rocky Mountain Communities (RMC), in response to the startling lack of affordable housing in Colorado. Unfortunately, since that time, the need for affordable housing has continued to grow. In Colorado, more than 40 percent of renters spend over 30 percent of their income on housing costs each month. Additionally, an estimated 25 percent spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. The percentage of working Coloradans struggling with high housing costs increased by 27 percent between 2005 and 2014, exceeding the 22 percent increase nationwide. Affordable housing options are critical for low-income families because the gap between their incomes and housing costs puts them at immediate risk of a housing crisis or homelessness. When families are rent burdened, less of their income is left for food, education, healthcare and other basic needs. Starting with only two properties in 1994, over the last 27 years RMC has expanded to operate seven properties across Colorado to meet the increasing need, and is completing construction of an 8 th property in the spring of 2019. RMC has served more than 11,000 families since 1992.

Although affordable housing is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty for families in Colorado and often may be the only thing keeping them from becoming homeless, housing alone is often not enough for families to achieve self-sufficiency and long-term financial stability. This is why RMC also provides programs and services to address its residents’ other needs. This programming is grounded in a philosophy of empowerment: Residents inform the types of programs RMC implements at its various locations in order to build strong, supportive communities that help residents achieve their goals.

Since its founding in 1992, RMC has served more than 11,000 families. As of January 1, 2019, Rocky Mountain Communities will be home to 2,460 individuals, including more than 900 children under the age of 18.


Alden, Peter, et al. National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Rocky Mountain States. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Chronic, Halka. Pages of Stone. Seattle: Mountaineers, 1984– 1988.

McPhee, John. Rising from the Plains. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.

Schmidt, Jeremy. Adventuring in the Rockies: The Sierra Club Travel Guide to the Rocky Mountain Regions of the United States and Canada. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986.

Rocky Mountains - History

The Rocky Mountain National Park . . . for centuries people have marveled at their rugged beauty, they’ve photographed ’em, climbed’em, hiked ’em, camped in ’em, sung songs about ’em, but how did they get there? What’s the story? Well, to be honest, not one but many geological events have been involved in creating the splendid recipe which became the Rocky Mountain National Park.

  • take hundreds and millions of years of rock formations
  • mix with the repeated uplift of these mountains by the most gigantic of tectonic forces and . . .
  • add millions of years of erosion by ice and water, carving out and sculpting the mountains into how they are today

That’s the recipe which was used to form the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Geological History of the Rocky Mountain National Park

The rocks in the Rocky Mountain National Park started out life as shale, sandstone and siltstone, as well as some volcanic rocks which were deposited around 2 billion years ago (yes, billion, how many noughts is that . . . no, I’m not sure either). Anyway, the rocks in the Never Summer Mountains are a bit newer, but I mean the rest of the rocks in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Anyway, these rocks were all caught up in the collision zone between tectonic plates and huge sections of the Earth’s crust . . . wham, bam, the rocky mountains were born, well, the core of the ancient mountain range anyway . . . they were crystallized by the enormous heat and pressure from the collision. Anyway, over time (millions of years actually) these mountains were eroded and ended up being a pretty flat surface, which (approximately 500 million years ago) was covered with shallow seas. During the next 200 million years or so hundreds of thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks were deposited and then . . . another mountain range was uplifted in the area. Wow, there’s sure been a lot of eroding and forming, eroding and forming going on . . .

You see, the top of the mountains were the bottom of the sea . . . the landscape is flat / high / flat / high etc. etc.

Rocky Mountain National Park

The area which is now the Rocky Mountain National Park was intermittently eroded and covered by seas around 65 million years ago (you see, it’s getting closer). There have been tons of bones found within the sedimentary rocks dating right back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous times . . . you’ve got it . . . Jurassic . . . dinosaurs lived in the Rocky Mountain National Park during this period.

Rocky Mountain NP - Alluvial Fan

Let’s go back in time just a little, to 130 million years ago when the major tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust began colliding again, along what was to become the west side of North America. The uplift which was caused by this began to affect the area which we now know as Colorado Rockies around 70 million years ago. The area began to rise, and the Cretaceous sea withdrew, so that the thick layer of sedimentary rocks which had been accumulated beneath the sea began to erode. All this took just a few million years, by which time the sedimentary rocks had completely eroded away once again exposing the igneous and metamorphic rocks of the region.

Simplification, that’s a great buzz word and just what we needed, an idiots guide to mountain building!

Glaciers in the Rocky Mountain National Park

Okay, let’s skip forward a few million years (it doesn’t sound like a long time if you say it quick) to two million years ago, when the climate of the Earth cooled and the Ice Age arrived (not the animated movie, the real Ice Age). During this time large sheets of ice floated around large areas of the Northern Hemisphere, and much of North America and Europe was covered by ice. The valleys between the high mountains became glaciers, probably around 1.6 million years ago, and each time a glacier flowed down between the valleys the valley sides and bottom were eroded, each glacier removing evidence of the one which moved before it.

The climate started to warm (where have I heard that before) around 12,000 to 15,000 years ago and the glaciers melted and disappeared. The glaciers which are still present in the Rocky Mountain National Park are nothing to do with the Ice Age, they’re only found in locations which receive large amounts of snow blowing across the mountain faces which melts only very slowly throughout the summer.

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