A geeky geographic overview of the Canadian Rockies

From my explore Canada travel series | Read other chapters – See photo gallery

Geography basics, starting with the big picture

The Pacific ring of fire is an area where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean. This ring winds around the edge of the Pacific Ocean from Australia to Asia to the Americas; the American Cordillera being its eastern edge. This continuous sequence of mountain ranges (Cordillera) form the western backbone of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica along the Pacific Ocean. I’ve visited a number of places in the Western Cordillera in my travels in Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, and hiked mountains and volcanoes.

The North American Rockies stretch from the province of British Columbia in Canada to the state of New Mexico in USA, forming a subset of the American Cordillera which runs from Alaska to Antarctica.

Confused? This chart might help:
Pacific Ring of Fire (wraps all around the Pacific Ocean)
  → American Cordillera (mountains from Alaska to Antarctica)
      → North American Cordillera (Western mountains in North America)
          → North American Rocky mountains (USA and Canada Rockies)
              → Canadian Rocky mountains (Canada Rockies)

Now that you can (hopefully) picture this on a world map, let us focus on the Canadian Rocky mountains which obviously are the portion of Rocky mountains that lie within Canada. Bounded to the east by the Canadian prairies and to the west by the rocky mountain trench, these are the first wall of mountains confronting a traveller moving westward. Canadian Rockies span two provinces: British Columbia and Alberta.

Characteristics and significance

Mount Robson (3,954 m / 12,972 ft) is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and is at the top of a very vertical mountain. The 3km rise to the summit occurs from a distance of only 4km at it’s base, forming the first natural triplet of a Pythagoras right angled triangle: 3x4x5.

Snow Dome (3,456 m / 11,339 ft) has the distinction of being the hydrological apex of North America. Water from this point flows into three different watersheds: Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean, and Atlantic Ocean… woohoo!

Active glaciers and ice fields still exist throughout the region. The most significant is the Columbia ice field, the largest in North America’s subarctic interior. Characteristic species found in alpine meadows include Rocky Mountain goat, bighorn sheep, northern pika and hoary marmot. Forest mammals include moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, caribou, red deer and red squirrel. Carnivores include grey wolf, grizzly bear, black bear, wolverine, lynx and puma.

↑ Lake Louise, a glacial lake with emerald blue waters (which turns into white ice during winter) 😉

My mountain, your mountain!

Mountain ranges on the northern (Canadian) side have different nature compared to their southern (American) counterparts, to an extent the difference is attributed to the distance from the equator.

  Canadian Rockies American Rockies
Geological composition Layered sedimentary rock (e.g. limestone) Metamorphic and igneous rock (e.g. granite)
Elevation Shorter than American Rockies but more vertical relief Taller than Canadian Rockies but shorter rise (shorter from base to summit).
Shape More jagged (as a result of glaciers), sharper peaks, U-shaped valleys gauged by glaciers More rounded, V-shaped valleys carved by rivers
Conditions Colder and wetter, lower tree-line Lesser glaciers and rivers, higher tree line


Canadian Rockies are mostly sheltered under the national park system. Four national parks – Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho – and three adjacent provincial parks are Natural UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1984.

Criteria for selection:

(vii) The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems and deeply incised canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty, attracting millions of visitors annually.

(viii) The Burgess Shale is one of the most significant fossil areas in the world. Exquisitely preserved fossils record a diverse, abundant marine community dominated by soft-bodied organisms…

UNESSCO inscription

Plenty of winter sport options are available in this region which is quite unusual for someone living in Toronto. Unlike Calgary, there are no real mountains in Toronto’s vicinity, a fact that I often lament about. Hopefully some day I can go on a multi-day hiking trail and camp in the wilderness. Skiing I am not so sure… lol

↑ Gondola at Banff National Park

So that was my geeky intro to the Northen Rocky mountains and the type of things I read before visiting a place. Have you been to the Rockies? How did you research the place?

From my explore Canada travel series | Read other chapters – See photo gallery