The Rocky Mountains (or the Rockies) have been rising since the Cretaceous Period (towards the end of the time of the dinosaurs). They boast the highest peaks in the Lower 48 states and run from the Yukon Territory in northern Canada down to New Mexico in the United States.

The Rockies stretch for some 3,000 miles (4,800 km) and are the largest mountain system in North America. They are distinct from the tectonically younger Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada, which both lie farther to its west. Being so long and large there are massive climatic, geologic, and ecological differences between different parts of the range system. There are many noticeable differences between the American and Canadian Rockies.


The Size And Subdivisions of The Rockies

Being so large there is a wide range of environmental factors in the Rocky Mountains and there is not a single monolithic ecosystem for the entire Rocky range.

  • Length: 3,000 miles (4,800 km)
  • Age: Formed 80 to 55 Million Years Ago
  • Highest Peak: Mount Elbert 4,400 Meters (14,440 ft)
  • Precipitation: Ranges From 250 millimeters (10 in) In the Southern Valleys to 1,500 millimeters (60 in) In Some Northerly Peaks

The Rocky Mountains can be divided into a number of biotic zones (including two zones that do not support trees - The Great Plains and the Alpine tundra).

The Rockies are made up of around 100 separate ranges which are divided into four broad groupings: These are

  • The Canadian Rockies: The Canadian Rockies, Northern Rockies of Montana, and northeastern Idaho
  • The Middle Rockies: The Rockies of Wyoming, Utah, and southeastern Idaho
  • The Southern Rockies: Mainly in Colorado and New Mexico
  • The Colorado Plateau Rockies: Located In the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona

Related: 25 Images Of Canada's Rockies That Make America's National Parks Second-Rate

Canadian Rockies Verus the Colorado Rockies

For the sake of comparison, this article will mostly be concerned with contrasting the Alberta Rockies of the Canadian Rockies (that's where the famous Canadian national parks of Banff/Lake Louise, Jasper National Park, and the Columbia Icefields are) and the Colorado Rockies - as these are the most famous in the United States.

National Parks in Canada:

  • Banff National Park
  • Jasper National Park
  • Kootenay National Park
  • Waterton Lakes National Park
  • Yoho National Park

National Parks In The USA (Colorado Rockies Only)

  • Rocky Mountain National Park

Broadly speaking, the Canadian Rockies are surprisingly different from the American Rockies to the south. They are different in appearance and geology.

How They Differ - The Impact Of The Glaciers

With that the Canadian Rockies are more rugged and jagged - this may make sense when one recalls the dramatic pictures of the Yoho and Banff National Parks in Canada. The increased jaggedness has been caused by the colder northern Canadian Rockies having been more heavily glaciated throughout their geologic past.

In contrast, the American Rockies are more rounded and less gouged out by glaciers. This is why many people consider the Canadian Rockies to be more visually stunning than the taller Colorado Rockies. The highest mountain in the Rockies is Mount Elbert in Colorado and it is known as the "gentle giant."

  • Glaciers In Colorado: 14 Named Glaciers
  • Glaciers In Alberta: Around 1,167 Glaciers

Additionally, as there are no glaciers feeding into the rivers, there aren't the same amount of turquoise rivers and lakes that the Canadian Rockies are famous for in Alberta. There are more than 135 permanent snow or ice bodies mapped in Colorado, but only 7 of these are larger than 0.1 km2. Colorado has 14 named glaciers. By contrast, Alberta has some 1,167 glaciers (with 17,595 glaciers in B.C. and Alberta combined) according to Alberta Water.

Valley Shape:

  • Canadian Rockies: More U-shaped Valleys Carved By Glaciers
  • American Rockies: More V-Shaped Valleys Less Carved By Glaciers

The Canadian Rockies in Alberta has more and much more easily accessed glaciers than their American counterparts. In Alberta, many glaciers are accessible from the highway.

Related: Climbing Aboard Canada's Rocky Mountaineer, One Of The Most Scenic Trains In The World

Other Differences Between The Rockies

The Canadian Rockies also tend to be wetter as well as cooler. This gives them larger rivers, more glaciers, as well as moister soil than their American counterparts. The difference in the vegetation extends to the treeline. In the Canadian Rockies, it tends to be much lower than the American Rockies resulting in more jugged rock being bare and visible.

  • Glacier National Park's Rockies: Not Part of The Colorado Rockies And Not Compared Here (Geographically Part of The Canadian Rockies)

While the Canadian Rockies are mostly composed of layered sedimentary rock like limestone and shale, the American Rockies are more gneiss and granite forms of metamorphic and igneous rock.

Type Of Rock:

  • Canadian Rockies: Mostly Composed of Limestone and Shale Forms of Layered Sedimentary Rock
  • American Rockies: Mostly Composed of Gneiss and Granite Forms of Igneous and Metamorphic Rock

On the party scene, however, one can't beat partying in Colorado. Perhaps one of the best ways to see the Colorado Rockies is by hot air balloon.

Next: 10 Stunning Lakes To Hike To In The Canadian Rockies