How Big are the Rocky Mountains?

Rockies taken at the peak of color during the morning sunrise at Moraine lake in Banff National Park | James Wheeler

If you spend as much time as we do thinking about mountains, then there is a good chance that you have asked yourself the most pressing question that there is about any mountain, which is, quite simply, How Big is it?

Our fascination with mountain landscapes is no doubt due to the sense of majesty and grandeur that they evoke. Mountains are bigger than we can even fathom, which is perhaps why so many of us have become obsessed with reaching the top of them. But asking how big a mountain is doesn’t really get us closer to a full understanding of it.

The Rocky Mountains are one of the most majestic natural formations on Planet Earth, so it is no surprise that they have become to subject of intense inquiry, wonder, and exploration. But if you want to know how big the Rocky Mountains are, then you’re going to have to accept that there is more than one answer, because, well, it’s actually more than one question.

Q: How TALL are the Rocky Mountains?

The Rocky Mountains contain the 78 of the 100 highest mountains in the continental United States, and are known for their towering “14er’s” that have become the goalposts of eager mountaineers looking to bag every one. The range’s highest peak is Mount Elbert at 14,400 feet above sea level, but ask us again in a few hundred thousand years, because they’re actually still growing.

Q: How WIDE are the Rocky Mountains?

Because the Rocky Mountains are more than just a single mountain range, and are in fact a conglomeration of over one hundred smaller mountain ranges, their approximate width is hard to pin down. According to maps acquired on Britannica, the narrowest section of the Rocky Mountains is about 70 miles wide, while the widest point is nearly 300 miles from side to side.  

And to think, people used to walk across these things!

Q: How LONG are the Rocky Mountains?

From end to end, the Rockies are about 3,000 miles in length if you draw a straight line from their northernmost point in Canada down to the southern tip near Albuquerque. That’s about 8% of the way around the circumference of the globe, and the third longest mountain range on the planet behind the Andes of South America and the Great Escarpment of Africa.

Q: How DEEP are the Rocky Mountains?

Now here is an interesting question … and one that we are going to have a hard time nailing down in a strict geological sense. Because the Rocky Mountains are the result of significant tectonic activity in which one continental plate was pushed beneath another, and the second plate kind of “crinkled up” as a result.

With this in mind, you might be able to define the Rockies themselves as extending down to the border between those two tectonic plates. The depth of these continental plates can vary significantly, but even the conservative estimates put them as deep as 18 miles beneath the Earth’s surface.

The Rocky Mountains pass through two Canadian provinces, two territories, and six American states. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico all claim their own specific parts of the Rocky Mountains, each with its own unique biology and geology.

To be sure, they are one of the most prominent and unique treasures of the North American continent, and their incredible size will continue to be a source of humility and awe for human beings for generations to come.

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