The Rocky Mountains, North America’s premier mountain range, are aptly called “the crown of the continent”. They stretch 2,000 miles (3,000 km) from Canada to Arizona, connecting with the Alaska Range in the north and the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Mountain-making in the Rockies occurred over a period of 20 million years, some 60 million years ago, and about 15,000 years ago nomadic hunter-gatherers came to the region. Blackfoot, Crow, Shoshone, and Ute Indians were living in the Rockies when white explorers arrived in the late eighteen century. Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872.
Today, these mountains act as a magnet for the city-worn, with their glorious snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows, glacier-carved valleys, sapphire lakes, vast forests, and abundant wildlife.
There are four major national parks in the United States Rockies. Each is worthy of at least a week-long visit, or you can take a three-week car trip to visit them all, heading west from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park, and then north. Grand Teton and Yellowstone lie at the heart of the Rockies in northwestern Wyoming, and Glacier, which joins Waterton Lakes National Park at the border with Canada, is in northern Montana.
The Rockies afford a wide variety of activities throughout the seasons. They make their own weather, with frequent rain stroms in summer and blizzards in winter. Summer is the best time for hiking, birding, and camping but spring and fall are also delightful, having the added benefit of few visitors. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to explore the mountains in winter.
Grand Teton National Park combines some of the finest scenery in the Rockies with plentiful wildlife. The peaks of the Tetons are awesome. The largest, Grand Teton, rises 7,500 feet (2,500 km) above the broad valley of Jackson Hole, through which the Snake River runs.
Large herds of elk and pronghorn roam the sagebrush plains, while at higher levels black and grizzly bears live in the spruce and pine forests. Along the banks of the Snake River, bald eagles, and ospreys hunt for fish. Jenny Lake is a major trail-head, offering walks to lakes where beaver live, and 200 miles (320 km) of ragged back-country trails for hikers and climbers.
From spring to fall, the river flats and meadows are bright with almost 900 species of wildflower. Of the park’s 305 bird species, perhaps the endangered trumpeter swan is the most treasured. Sadly, the parks in the Rockies are being loved to death – Grand Teton alone receives over 3 million visitors a year and housing developments around Jackson Hole are right on the park’s boundary. Park programs show visitors how to minimize their impact of the environment. Local communities are being taught the value of reintroducing wolves to control growing elk and deer populations.