The United States has two main systems of mountain ranges that cut their way up the country. To the west are the famous Rockies and to the east are the Appalachians. These mountain ranges include some of the continent's most famous national parks as well as the most popular national park.

The two mountain ranges are very different and offer very different experiences. While the Rockies are jagged, rugged, and "Rocky", the Appalachians are very different and even "Smoky". So what are the differences between these two great mountain ranges? Here are some things about the ranges to help one decide.


The Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains is a very old system of mountains that first formed around 480 million years ago during the Ordovician Period - that's long before the time of the dinosaurs who appeared around 250 million years ago.

It is believed that during their peak, they would have reached heights similar to that of the Alps in Europe of the Rocky Mountains in the West. But as they have long ceased to be pushed up, they have been gradually weathered by natural erosion. Today individual mountains average around 3,000 feet.

Today the greatly eroded Appalachians form a series of alternating ridgelines and valleys. The Appalachians are not considered to include the Adirondack Mountains as they are a distinct and growing range that's part of the Canadian Shield.

Most of the Appalachians are in the United States but at their northern extreme, they do extend into southeastern Canada and reach Newfoundland.

  • Age: Around 480 Million Years Ago During The Ordovician Period
  • Width: 100 to 300 Miles
  • Length: 1,500 Miles (From Newfoundland to Central Alabama)
  • Highest Point: 6,684 Feet - Mount Mitchell, North Carolina

Once the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma and Arkansas were part of the Appalachian. But in geologic time they become disconnected. The highest point in these mountains is Mount Magazine at 2,753 feet.

AT-Thru And National Parks Of the Appalachians

For people who would like to really explore the Appalachians and are willing to quit their job to do it. Consider the famous AT-Thru trail (and if one is planning an AT-Thru hike, then be sure to pack the right essentials).

Otherwise, there are a few national parks in the Appalachians with the main ones being the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. In fact, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in the United States.

  • Popular National Parks: The Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah

While the Great Smoky Mountains national park doesn't have the oldest mountains, its mountains are definitely up there. Scientists have estimated that the mountain range that lies between Tennessee and North Carolina is anywhere between 200 and 300 million years old, which makes it one of the oldest in the world.

Related: Everything You Didn't Know About The Smoky Mountains (That's Worth Knowing)

Rocky Mountains

The Rockies are the "younger" of the two mountain ranges in the USA. These monsters stretch for an impressive 3,000 miles from the northernmost part of western Canada to New Mexico - although their exact definition is a matter of debate. These renowned ranges were first formed 80 million to 55 million years ago (in the later history of the dinosaurs and after their extinction - from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene Period).

Over the years, they have been sculpted by glaciers into dramatic peaks and valleys for which they are famous today. Much of the ranges are protected today and are particularly popular as a tourist destination - particularly for camping, hiking, mountaineering, hunting, snowmobiling, skiing, and the like.

The Rockies are also distinct from the tectonically younger Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevadas (both of whom are further west).

  • Age: Around 80 to 55 Million Years Ago During The Cretaceous Period and Paleogene Periods
  • Width: 70 to 300 Miles
  • Length: 3,000 Miles (From Northern Canada to New Mexico)
  • Highest Point: 14,440 Feet - Mount Elbert, Colorado

Related: Hot Air Ballooning Is The Best Way To See Colorado's Rocky Mountains, And Here's How

National Parks of The Rockie Mountains

There are a wealth of national parks in the Rockie Mountains. These national parks include the first national park ever created (Yellowstone) and some of the world's most iconic national parks. Perhaps the most dramatic national park in the United States to see and enjoy the dramatic natural scenery.

National Parks in the United States:

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

National Parks in Canada:

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

There are many ways of exploring these stunning works of natural art. One novel way in the United States is to take a hot air balloon ride in Colorado. While in Canada, consider taking the world-famous Rocky Mountaineer train.

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