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The Rockies stand alone

Everything you ever wanted to know about this glorious, historic mountain range that spans the U.S. and Canada. The beauties are worth the trip even if you don't ski.

By CLEO PASKAL
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


photo
[Photo: Dan Leeth]
Campers in a four-wheel-drive pause in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

The Rocky Mountains comprise a massive range of peaks in northwest America. They stretch more than 3,000 miles, from Alaska to central New Mexico, and contain some of the most well-known beauty spots on the continent, including Yellowstone National Park and Canada's Lake Louise.

The jagged mountains, alpine meadows, thrashing rivers, charming towns and enormous ice fields make the chain a magnificent vacation destination. But those of us living in the South don't tend to pay much attention to the Rockies unless we are among the thousands of skiers who flock to them each winter.

So, what else do we know -- and need to know -- about the Rockies? Here's probably everything you ever wanted to know about them but were afraid to ask.

Where did they come from?

The Rockies are the children of a tumultuous affair between continental plates.

Over millions of years, the North American and the Pacific plates have been thrusting toward each other, pushing up mountain ranges as they jostle for position. Reassuringly for visitors, everything has been fairly quiet for the past few centuries (the eruption of Mount St. Helen's aside) -- although that might mean the Pacific Coast (the most vulnerable area) is in for a hefty jolt before too long.

Another result of the meeting of the plates is that the Rockies mark the Continental Divide. On one side, rivers drain into the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. On the other, they head toward the Pacific.

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The mountains sweep up suddenly from the flat plains of central North America. Until the introduction of the horse in the 1700s, the Plains Indians used to hunt buffalo by persuading a passing herd to stampede off one of the region's cliffs.

You can visit the site of that meeting of human ingenuity, geography and hunger at the UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitor center of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, 10 miles northwest of Fort Macleod and more or less on the way from Calgary to Banff, in the Canadian province of Alberta. At some points below the cliff the bones are about 33 feet deep.

What about wandering humans?

For years, the range was a major impediment to the western expansion of European settlers, because crossing it was considered a potentially deadly experience; witness the buffalo.

Consequently, non-natives only started exploring the Rockies not much more than 200 years ago. For the British colony that was vast Canada, that meant maritime British Columbia was isolated from its colony cousins on the other side of the range.

Once the United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, some politicians also started eyeing that western part of Canada. For instance, in 1868 Minnesota's lawmakers drew up a resolution favoring the annexation of the Canadian prairies.

Britain decided the Rockies would have to be breached if the empire was to maintain a coast-to-coast hold in North America. And so, the Canadian Pacific Railway pierced the mountains (at the cost of countless workers' lives, many of them Chinese).

Was the railway a success?

In a sense, the railway built Canada, because the linkage made Canadians think East-West instead of the more natural North-South: Logically, Canadian prairie farmers would have more in common with the American prairie farmers just south than with, say, the fishermen hundreds upon hundreds of miles to the east and west. Communities popped up along the tracks, and goods could be transported from the center of the country to the ports in days rather than weeks. But Canadian Pacific didn't stop with trains. It had ships, hotels, telegraphs, traveler's checks and one of the best marketing machines in the world; it advertised its combination of ship-train-ship as the fastest way to get from Europe to Asia.

But CP's biggest marketing accomplishment was to make Canada a destination in and of itself. William Cornelius Van Horne, turn-of-the-20th-century CP executive, saw the Rockies and famously declared, "Since we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists."

When railway workers discovered the first hot spring (already well-known to local native communities), the site of CP's "Castle In The Mountains," the Banff Springs Hotel, was decided.
photo
[Photo: Jens Christian Justinussen]
The building of the Canadian Pacific’s track through the Rockies united Canadians east and west and made the mountains an acclaimed destination.

The hotel is a huge, rambling, glorious faux-Scottish baronial castle, built on a mountainside with fabulous views of peaks, rivers and elk grazing on its golf course. People of a certain class from all over North America and Europe began riding the trains to see what was advertised as "50 Switzerlands in one." They spent the season, fishing, horseback riding, or trying out that trendy sport, mountaineering.

CP began opening up other hotels, such as Chateau Lake Louise, less than an hour's drive from Banff. This hotel on the edge of Emerald Lake is often considered to have one of the best views in the world. The Canadian government declared the area Canada's first National Park, in large part so they could get a piece of the tourist action. Today, the four National and two Provincial parks in the Rockies make up one enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Have the locals always appreciated nature?

White settlers in the Rockies were not always in tune with nature. Even in Banff National Park, wolves were killed, lakes were dynamited in order to replace endemic fish with species sought more by anglers, and elk were imported from Yellowstone.

Slowly, mistakes in the major parks in both nations were realized and confronted.

Much of the Rockies are preserved as parks so that visitors will see wildlife -- from moose to lynx to mountain goat to grizzly bear. Visitors are warned not to feed any of the wildlife because once an animal associates humans with food it becomes unmanageable. This is especially pertinent for bear, black or grizzly.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Denver International Airport, with direct service from Tampa International, is the most logical destination to start exploring the Rockies; Denver is located on the "Front Range" of the mountains. Denver-based Frontier Airlines begins direct service between the two airports later this month.

WHAT TO DO THERE: For sampling the Rockies the easy way -- a consideration for sea-level-based Floridians -- nothing beats driving to the top. Twisting and coiling back on itself, the road to the 14,264-foot summit of Mount Evans is the highest auto road in North America.

The drive to the summit is about 60 miles from the Capitol building in Denver, due to the curves and switchbacks necessary in climbing 9,000 vertical feet. During the 14-mile drive up, visitors pass herds of big horn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats, which live along the road and are visible almost every day.

Starting point for this climb is Echo Lake, a deep blue alpine lake backed by the snowcapped peak. There are even picnic benches and fishing spots along the lakeshore.

Although it is 46 miles from Denver, Echo Lake is a Denver park, part of the city's noted Mountain Park System.

The Mount Evans road opened early this month for the summer and will stay open until at least Labor Day. It has stayed open as late as Oct. 1, depending on snowfall -- at these altitudes it can snow any month of the year.

Admission is $10 per carload. The National Parks Golden Eagle Passport is accepted. From Denver take Interstate 70 west to Idaho Springs (Exit 240) then Colorado Highway 103 for 14 miles to Echo Lake. For more information, go to www.mountevans.com, or call (303) 567-3000.

For the spectrum of activities throughout the Colorado Rockies, free planning guides are available from these two sources: call toll-free (1-800-233-6837), or www.denver.org, and toll-free (1-800-265-6723), www.colorado.com.

UP NORTH: With the great exchange rate favoring the U.S. dollar, the Canadian part of the range can be a good deal financially.

The closest major airport to Banff National Park is in Calgary, 50 miles (80 km). If you are interested in the B.C. Rockies, the other gateway is Vancouver. If you would like to take the train, apart from VIA (www.viarail.ca), you can take The Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver, a land-cruise style overnight train (www.rockymountaineer.com or toll-free 1-800-665-7245). For more information on the B.C. side of the Rockies visit www.bcrockies.com, email: info@bcrockies.com or call (250) 427-4838. For Alberta try: www.travelalberta.com. For Banff and Lake Louise: www.BanffLakeLouise.com, or (403) 762-0270.

WHAT TO DO THERE: In the winter, skiing, in both nations. In the summer, just about anything.

The Rockies are really the playground publicists claim them to be. There is whitewater rafting, golf, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, windsurfing, spelunking, birdwatching, glacier exploring, mountain biking and lots more. For instance:

Hunt for the remnants of really old fish in the Burgess Shale, a UNESCO site and just about the best place in the world to see Cambrian fossils. For more structured bone digging, try the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, 86 miles northeast of Calgary. You can see displays of flying reptiles, huge carnivores, marine invertebrates and other longlost critters. If you want to get even more up close and personal, you can go on a dig or dig watch. Go to www.tyrrellmuseum.com; call (403) 823-7707.

See the Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). If just buying souvenirs at Sgt. Preston's Outpost in Banff isn't enough, go to www.rcmp.ca and coordinate your visit with one of the musical rides. Lots of music, horses and wholesome fun. Breathe the fresh air.

Watch the wind ruffle the leaves.

Sigh with contentment.

Freelance writer Cleo Paskal lives in Ville St. Laurent, Quebec.

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