Though many people assume the Rocky Mountains reach all the way to the Pacific, they are only 120 miles deep from east to west. The “Rockies” consist of four sets of ranges between Alberta’s foothills and the Rocky Mountain Trench/Columbia Valley. Each of these ranges is separated by parallel valleys.

The Front Ranges are those east of the Bow, North Saskatchewan, and Athabasca Rivers (for those driving, east of the Bow Valley Parkway and Icefields Parkway). The eastern slopes of this range were worn down by multiple glacial periods and rise over a mile above the height of the foothills. The Endless Chain Ridge, runs with a knife edge for 20 miles on the east side of Highway 93 always a mile above the roadway. These ranges are relatively dry, sitting in the “rain shadow” of the more westerly (and often higher) mountains.

Saskatchewan Glacier in Columbia IcefieldThe Eastern Main Ranges form the Continental Divide, where water on one slope falls toward the Pacific Ocean 600 km away, and water on the other slope flows to the Arctic Ocean 1,300 km away or the Hudson’s Bay 1,680 km away. This range contains the 20 tallest peaks in the Canadian Rockies, including Mount Robson (3,954 metres, 12,972 feet). The elevation results in massive amounts of snowfall, creating some of the largest glaciers, including the Columbia Icefield.

The Western Main Range includes the mountains west of the Kootenay River. Rivers cutting through this range are much steeper and deeper than those to the east, because they travel a much shorter distance to the ocean. The valley bottoms are at a much lower elevation and receive more rainfall, resulting in rich growths of tall, lush forests.

The Western Range lies between Golden and Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. These mountains rose first and are more eroded and rounded than the ones to the east, are mostly of weak shale. The mountain valleys are more V-shaped than those in the eastern Rockies, because these mountains escaped much of the glacial impact of the past few ice ages.

The Rocky Mountain Trench forms the western boundary of the Rockies, with a broad valley that extends in a north-westerly direction for hundreds of miles, the home of the Columbia River, which begins near Radium Hot Springs. The weather warm and drier than to the east, with a 100 more frost-free days each year than in Banff. To the west of the Columbia River are the Buggaboo, Selkirk and Purcell ranges that are so popular with heli-skiers. Despite their proximity, these are not really part of the “Rockies”.

Geological Terminology

Here are some geological terms you’ll run into when visiting the mountain parks.

Arch-shaped folds in the rocks. The top of the arch is stretched and cracked making it susceptible to erosion. Opposite of “synclines”.

Castle Mountain, 25 km south of Lake Louise, Banff National Park

Castellated mountain
Found in the Eastern Main Ranges where strong limestone or dolomite layers are separated by weaker layers of shale, creating a layer-cake appearance (example: Castle Mountain).
A break or fissure in a glacier, caused by bending over the shape of the underlying bedrock.
Dogtooth mountain
Sheets of rock thrust nearly vertically during mountain building, with some layers eroded away more than others. Most frequent in the Front and Western Main ranges.

Columbia Glacier, Jasper National ParkGlacier A permanent build-up of ice and snow caused by snowfalls that exceed summertime melting (Did you know? Canada has over 29,000 glaciers). Glaciers are often at high elevations and slide down the mountain because of the weight of the snow and ice on top.

Mount Assiniboiine, Banff National Park

Horn mountain
A peak eroded by glaciers on several sides of the summit, as shown by sharp ridges up the slope of the mountain (for example: Mt Assiniboine, Mt Chephren, Crowsnest Mountain).
Gravel and rocks left behind as a glacier retreats. The accumulation found at the sides is called a “lateral moraine” and the pile at the lowest point is a “terminal moraine”.

SMount Rundle, Banff, Banff National Park
Overthrust mountainFlat slope on one side, and heavily eroded on the other (for example: Endless Chain, and Mount Rundle)

Three Sisters peaks, at Canmore, Alberta

Sawtooth mountain
These mountain feature a series of parallel ridges marking peaks of strong layers, separated by eroded weaker layers (for example: Sawback Range, Mt Ishbel).

Sunwapta Glacier, Banff National Park

Sedimentary rock

Formed by layers of erosion sediment settling in ancient oceans or seas, compressed under pressure.

U-shaped folds in rocks. The bottom is compressed and therefore fairly erosion-resistant. Opposite of “anti-clines”.
Rocks in a continental plate lifted skyward by collision with another plate.