Rocky Mountains in the United States
The Rocky Mountains, the Rockies for short, divide the western United States of America from the Great Plains.
The Rocky Mountain states contain many of the country's greatest national parks, Indigenous American communities, and a vivant Old West heritage. The land is great for outdoor life, such as skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and road and mountain biking, hiking, camping, kayaking, horseback riding, and white water rafting in the summer.
A state of wild contrasts: the difference in landscape from the flat plains in the east to the mountains and mesas in the west pales in comparison to the social and political contrasts between the densely populated Denver Area and the rural parts of the state.
A rugged state, with snow-capped mountains, whitewater rivers, desert, and extensive forests.
While Western Montana, including Glacier National Park, is dominated by mountains, Eastern Montana is flatter, with prairies and rivers.
The least populated state in the union, Wyoming's natural beauty is unspoiled compared to other parts of the region.
The Rockies also extend into northern New Mexico and north-central Utah (both however are considered part of the Southwest region). The Canadian Rockies are located in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia north of the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Generally speaking this area is rather rural and besides Denver, most places on this list might stretch your definition of "city", especially if you are used to the cities on either coast, Europe or East Asia.
- 1 Aspen – a ski resort in Colorado
- 2 Billings
- 3 Boulder
- 4 Boise
- 5 Cheyenne
- 6 Colorado Springs
- 7 Coeur d'Alene
- 8 Denver — the Mile High City, by far the biggest urban center in the region; also attracting young and creative folks
- 9 Jackson
- 1 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- 2 Craters of the Moon National Monument
- 3 Devils Tower National Monument
- 4 Glacier National Park
- 5 Grand Teton National Park
- 6 Great Sand Dunes National Park
- 7 Mesa Verde National Park
- 8 Rocky Mountain National Park
- 9 Yellowstone National Park
The Rocky Mountains are huge: in length as well as height. Ranging over 3,000 mi (4828 km) from British Columbia to New Mexico, and reach as high as 14,440 ft (4,401 m) above sea level (Mt Elbert in Colorado). For the past four centuries, visitors have come to encounter from the long flat plains in the east to the shocking and iconic wall of the Front Range just east of the continental divide—the Cheyenne aptly called the mountains, "Rock on the Horizon."
Northern Idaho (also called the "Panhandle") is on Pacific Time. This is one hour earlier than the rest of the region.
As the Rocky Mountains were a merciless barrier for American settlers, the indigenous Americans ruled the land well into modern times. The 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition charted the northern Rockies, and paved the way for the Oregon Trail from the 1840s and onwards, marking the beginning of the Wild West era.
Although traditionally considered to be a conservative region, demographic changes have shifted Colorado quite solidly blue in the last few elections.
- See also: Air travel in the US
The largest and most popular entry point into the region is Denver International Airport (DEN IATA), which is one of North America's principal flight hubs and serves as a hub or focus city for Frontier, Southwest and United. Domestic flights to the other major cities in the region, like Cheyenne, Boise, Billings, or Jackson, should be easy to find from any American hub airport.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
Amtrak has two daily routes that run through the Rocky Mountains. While trains can be more expensive than flying and only marginally faster than buses, these routes offer breathtaking views that you are unlikely to get elsewhere as well as perks such as more legroom or a couchette to sleep in. The trains also serve as an important link to the outside world for communities that have no or few other transport options.
- California Zephyr: Linking the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago this is perhaps Amtrak's most scenic route, showcasing a wide range of American landscapes. It stops in Denver, the ski resort of Glenwood Springs (near Aspen) among other smaller communities.
- Empire Builder: Running between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, this train runs along the northernmost parts of Montana, stopping in several small communities. Most notable, Whitefish, a popular ski and outdoor destination and at the Glacier National Park.
Route 25 is the major north-south highway, leading up from New Mexico, while I-70, I-80, and I-90/94 are the major east-west highways. Be aware that passes do get closed due to inclement weather (snow) in winter months, in particular I-70 is prone to this. Bus routes exist, mostly through Greyhound, but given the long distances, flying is often cheaper than paying for gas and bus fares on the road.
Getting around the Rocky Mountains can be tough. Mountain passes freeze in the winter, as you might expect, and many roads are risky, if not impassable under heavy snow. Moreover, you'll run through more gas per mile in the high altitudes. Flying is often a very good alternative in the winter, since Denver airport offers flights straight to ski slopes off in the mountains, as well as to virtually all the cities in the region.
During the warmer months, however, driving becomes a great way to explore the region. Some of the most spectacular drives in the country are located here among the high mountains and endless wilderness. It can also be the only way to get to destinations off the beaten path, since, as you might expect, there's not a lot of public transportation in this vast and lightly populated section of the country.
While the region very much grew around the railroad, today rail travel is even sparser than in the rest of the US. That said, the Denver area has a decent commuter rail / light rail system and there is the Winter Park Express during the skiing season right to the slopes of Winter Park (Colorado).
The sights here are not urban in the slightest. With the exception of Denver, there are no large cities. Wyoming has fewer people than Alaska and is proud to be America's least populated state. Colorado boasts the highest overall elevation in the USA. Come here to admire the wildlife and spectacular vistas in the National Parks. Many of North America's most renowned parks are here, from the geysers of Yellowstone, to the glaciers in Montana, to elk and bighorn sheep wandering among the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. Black and Grizzly bears, wild cats, and buffalo are also found in the region.
Also of interest are the old mining and cowboy frontier towns that once contained most of the region's population. Many old gold mine towns have transformed themselves into a tourist economy destination, with tours leading right down into old gold mines. The cowboy towns remain, however, and that way of life has not yet died out. A good example is Leadville, Colorado. In addition, regional cultures including the indigenous Hispanic and American Indian populations, add long and proud heritages to the mix.
Outdoor adventure is the main course on the Rocky Mountain platter. There's wonderful hiking just about everywhere, from the ravines in the plains in the east, to canyons in the west, to the high mountain trails along the Rocky Mountains spine. Trails are managed by the National Park service, State Park services, and National Forest and Grasslands services. Camping is widely available throughout all the wilderness regions of the Rocky Mountain states. Outside of the National Parks, it's not even regulated—you can just drive into any national forest and pitch a tent wherever your fancy. Hunting and fishing is regulated heavily by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to protect local fauna from overhunting, but the activities are widely practiced, and you'll have some beautiful areas in which to enjoy them.
The biggest draws to the region is the fantastic downhill winter sports. Ski resorts like Aspen and Vail rank among the world's finest, and are priced accordingly. But there's a wealth of other more affordable, and still fantastic options. The ski season in the Rockies starts early in the late Fall, and lasts long until the late Spring. The snow quality is magnificent, and the weather usually surprises with how warm it can be.
Sporting events are not quite so widely available as you would find in other parts of the country (simply because there are fewer big cities here), but Denver makes up for that, with a lively sports culture, and one great football team, the Denver Broncos. If you're interested in the cowboy culture of the Rockies, look for a rodeo—especially away from the ski resorts and the biggest national parks, they're not half as touristy as you might suspect.
You can find great food in the Rocky Mountains if you know where to look for it. Given the vastness of the region, fine dining is generally concentrated in urban areas like Denver, college towns like Laramie or Boulder, the fine old lodges in the most popular National Parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, as well as the end-destination ski resorts like Jackson Hole, Aspen, Telluride and Vail. Fast food, chain restaurants, diners and bars and grills are the norm for the majority of the Rockies. Throughout the countryside, you'll be pretty much limited to small places with plenty of character, but also the same old dishes — hamburgers and steak are staples here. It is, however, a very good place to add elk and bison to the list of animals you have consumed.
Drinking, on the other hand, is a time honored activity in the Rockies, and it is done well. Colorado in particular is home to an enormous quantity of microbreweries, and you'll never be in want of good local beer throughout the region. Liquor laws are very lax compared to the rest of the country (in general, there are fewer laws out here), and you can often pick up some beers at a drive thru window!
You're very unlikely to be the victim of crime in the Rockies, but you do need to be vigilant about safety in the wilderness. Don't get too close to buffalo, who will charge your car if provoked (and the bulls could smash a car in two if they wanted). Don't leave any food in non-scent proof or reachable containers, and hang your food in a bear bag far enough from your tent where a nosy bear wouldn't check both out in the same outing.
The cold in the winter is the deadliest force around—-make certain that someone else knows where you are when you venture out, and when you plan to return. Always research the conditions in advance, and prepare for them adequately. Many people die in avalanches, or even freeze to death in their vehicles every year. Lightning is the number one killer at high altitudes, and high country weather can change in less than 10 minutes.
Make a point of registering with the local park service when embarking on a multi-day hike, so they know you're out there, and have an idea of how to rescue you should that becomes necessary.
Respect private property. If the sign reads no trespassing, it means no trespassing. Many rural residents, while usually friendly to outsiders, own firearms and don't take kindly to unwelcome people venturing onto their land.
The Rockies don't stop here, and there's an extraordinary wealth of high mountain trekking opportunities just west in Utah. And to the north are the beautiful Canadian Rockies.
If you're looking for more National Parks, but with a change of pace, head south into the Southwest for iconic red rock and desert parks.