The History of the Rocky Mountains

IMG_1691 (1)Many travelers are motivated to visit a variety of destinations by intellectual curiosity; Curiosity about culture, people and history. Curiosity about nature, science, and how our planet works. Unique natural features, such as Arches National Park and the Badlands, always make me wonder. How did this these distinct features come to be? Why can this be seen on this little section of our planet and seemingly not everywhere else? Is there anything similar, anywhere else?

This leads us back to history; history that pre-dates human beings. The geological processes that produced the colors, shapes and terrain we admire often occur over multiple millions of years. Some even pre-date any of our mammalian ancestors. Over the course of any one person’s lifespan, it is highly unlikely that any changes in our natural world resulting from geological processes will be noticeable. Nonetheless, geological processes can manifest themselves in some rather explosive ways, including earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes.

All this is true of unique natural features like Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the ring of volcanoes in places like Iceland and Hawaii. This is also true of the larger natural feature that in many ways defines life in Western North America; The Rocky Mountains.

As it turns out, the Rocky Mountains, as far as mountain ranges go, are quite unique.

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This past weekend, Drs. Robert Anderson and Lon Abbott of the University of Colorado-Boulder, lead a group of people up Sugarloaf Mountain to examine the geological history of the Rocky Mountains. This event was put on by the TEDxMileHigh organization as one of their adventures.

Sugarloaf Mountain is a relatively easy hike 15 minutes West of Boulder, along the Boulder Canyon. The distance from the trailhead to the top of the mountain is only about 1.4 miles, and the vertical gain is less than 600 feet. However, it is said to have one of the best views of Boulder Canyon in the area.

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This particular hike was chosen to as a backdrop for presenting Colorado’s geological history based on the specific terrain features that appear along the trail. For example, 1.7 Billion Years ago, Colorado was a shallow Ocean with tall mountains sticking up out of the ground, much the way present-day New Zealand is. Some of the mountains in the distance resemble the mountains that one would see had they been floating (or canoeing) across this area at the time.

300 Million years ago, it was a tropical seashore. The Rocky Mountains themselves formed from a period of time roughly 70 Million years ago to about 40 Million years ago. More recently (over the past 8 million years), the Great Plains, which the trail periodically overlooks, began to subside, creating the sharp contrast between the flat terrain east of the mountains and the high peaks of the Central Rockies that we see in our present day world.

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At this exact elevation threshold, roughly 8500 feet, the type of rock observed changes, also a result of some of the long-term processes that created the Rocky Mountains.

The same combination of processes and events created some of the most celebrated unique rock formations of the region, including Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods. Thanks to the University of Colorado Department of Geology, this short hike became a trip through time.

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The view at the top didn’t disappoint. It was interesting to see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains on an October day with some sun, but also plentiful cloudiness. It felt quite different from many of my hiking days Colorado, where there is often near total sunshine. I had previously forgotten about how much I enjoy seeing mountainous terrain like this, with sections of it lit by the sun, and other sections shadowed by the clouds, creating unique color contrasts that gradually shift over time.

The geological history of the Rocky Mountains is somewhat unique, and has yet to be fully explained. Geographically speaking, looking at a present day map of the world, the Rocky Mountains are fairly unique due to how far away from any major fault line they are.

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Many mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayans are right on a fault line and associated with geological activity; earthquakes and volcanoes. Colorado is not a hotbed for either, making for a somewhat unique mountain experience.

Geologists are still trying to explain why the mountains formed here the way they did. The Rockies continue to puzzle the scientific community. Why the mountains are as tall as they are when other properties of the Earth’s crust would indicate otherwise? Why did the Great Plains subside and become “disconnected” from the Front Range? Nevertheless, since geological processes are so slow, the mountains, as we see them today, are unlikely to change too much within any of our lifetimes.

Regardless of whether we are intellectually curious about why they are the way they are, or simply want to ski, hike, raft and climb, there are there and will continue to be there for us. They are confusing but consistent, much like life itself.

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