Rocky Mountains in Colorado

Known also as The Rockies, there are some, the author included, who naively believed the Rockies were Canadian. Those of you who have opened a geography book since the age of fifteen know, of course, that the Rocky Mountains snake their way from the northwestern regions of Canada, in a gentle southeast direction through the US states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico - for a hard-to-get-your-head around 4,830 km. So if you have been sucked into the successful international marketing movement that the Rockies are all Canadian Mounties and five star, week long train rides, think again.
Colorado has a seriously big claim on the giants that tower over the state like omnipresent guardians though, with the Rockies’ highest peak of Mount Elbert in Colorado, standing at 4,401 m. Mount Elbert is one of what is known, in the US, as a ‘Fourteener’, because it is higher than 14,000 feet (4,270 metres) above sea level. Serious climbers tackle the ‘fourteeners’ and you will hear it being referred to as you travel throughout the state. Just for comparison, Ben Nevis is 1344 metres, Mont Blanc 4810 metres and Mount Kilimanjaro 5,895 m.

The Rocky Mountains in Colorado are actually part of the Southern Rocky Mountain subregion, and the eastern side of the range is the most visited. The most famous section, part of what is known as the Front Range, is where the Rocky Mountain National Park is located, which gives the impression that this is where the Rockies stop. But in fact this national park, although vast, only represents a small fraction of the Rockies in Colorado. The park is, however, home to one of the highest points, Longs Peak (4,346 m), the source of the Colorado River and one of the most extraordinary roads, the Trail Ridge Road, which connects the town of Estes Park in the east with Grand Lake in the west. With snow on the high peaks for most of the year, it is not surprising that this road is closed in winter. The Front Range is also home to mountain towns like Estes Park, Boulder and Loveland, so there are a lot of places to accommodate tourists.

The Rocky Mountain National Park is also where you will see the Continental Divide at one of its most visible points. The Continental Divide in the Americas is the line that divides the flow of water between the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean. Which means that, in general, rain or snow that drains on the east side of the Continental Divide flows toward the Atlantic Ocean while precipitation on the west side drains and flows toward the Pacific Ocean. It is an imaginary line of course, but when you are out hiking, many guides will point it out all the time, so that sometimes it feels a little like this is something only Coloradans can see. But the geological division does follow a ridge through the mountains, and what you can see is a change in landscapes, from tough alpine tundra on one side, to greener, forested Sound of Music style meadows on the other.

There is a Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that you can follow through the Rocky Mountain National Park comprising almost 50 kms of breathtaking scenery where you can get up close and personal with these exhilarating extremities. There are plenty of hiking opportunities through the more mellow montane landscapes too. The route is entirely along existing, well-maintained trails which you can find more about on the Rocky Mountain National Park website. However, a good map is hard to find in the usual points of call. Locals consider mapper and hiker Jonathan Ley to be the CDT god, and you can find out more about his regularly updated maps here. Like many hikes in Colorado it is at a high altitude, so take all necessary precautions and take time to let your body adjust.

The Rocky Mountain National Park is located in the Front Range section of the Rocky Mountains, which are then divided up into other sub ranges throughout Colorado. Mount Elbert, for example is in the Sawatch range where there are, just to confuse you, fifteen ‘fourteeners’ in total. The state highway 82 traverses the range at Independence Pass, another of those jaw dropping drives that is a must if you are traversing the state and which, again, is closed in winter. The famous ski resort of Aspen is shared between the Sawatch and the neighbouring Elk Mountain range along the Roaring Fork River. Most of the Elk Mountain range, which starts southwest of Aspen, is located in the White River National Forest and the Gunnison National Forest, as well as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and Raggeds Wilderness. If you are traveling through the Roaring Fork River valley towns of Aspen, Snowmass, Crested Bute or Glenwood Springs these are the peaks that will dominate your trip.
Rachel Balduzzi photo
Rachel Balduzzi, educational guide, Rocky Mountain Nature Association
Rachel Balduzzi explains the fragrances of the surrounding trees on the Fern Lake Trail and the differences between moose and elk. [01:54]
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Colorado or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
March madness kicks in on the Elk Mountain range with The Grand Traverse, a high endurance 65 miles long, through the night, backcountry ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen, a course that is based on the mail routes of the 1880's. Less harsh, although still for the hardcore, is the new summer trail running and mountain bike version. The highest peaks in the Elk Mountain range are its fourteeners, the two most famous of which are Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, known collectively as the Maroon Bells and which are said to be (although not sure who said) the most photographed place in the US. Good rumour though and it is certainly meritorious of such medals, with tears-to-your-eyes sort of beauty.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the southeast of the state which is also the southernmost point of the Rocky Mountains, rise out of the prairies in that way that you are not sure if they are dark clouds on the horizon or actual land at first. But as you approach, it becomes quite clear. The national forests of Rio Grande and San Isabel are the best points of contact for these mountains, as is the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where the giant dunes border the park in the most picture perfect way. The San Juan Mountain range are in the southwest of Colorado, and were the center of much of the mining that took place here in the 19th and 20th centuries. The riches are from tourism now, with thriving small towns like Telluride, Ridgway, Durango, Ouray and Silverton all finding their wealth in green activities in their mountains. The San Juan National Forest is the main port of call for taking on the wilder spots of these mountains.

Responsible Travel would like to thank the Colorado Tourism Office for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jasen Miller] [Intro: Sonja Wilkinson] [Snow covered mountains: pxfuel]