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The Rockies

Exploring the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho could literally take a lifetime. Stretching over one thousand miles from the virgin forests on the Canadian border to the deserts of New Mexico, America’s rugged spine encompasses an astonishing array of landscapes – geyser basins, lava flows, arid valleys and huge sand dunes – each in its own way as dramatic as the region’s magnificent white-topped peaks. All that geological grandeur is enhanced by wildlife such as bison, bear, moose and elk, and the conspicuous legacy of the miners, cowboys, outlaws and Native Americans who fought over the area’s rich resources during the nineteenth century.

Apart from the Ancestral Puebloan cliff-dwellers, who lived in southern Colorado until around 1300 AD, most Native Americans in this region were nomadic hunters. They inhabited the western extremities of the Great Plains, the richest buffalo-grazing land in the continent. Only after the territory was sold to the US in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase was it thoroughly charted, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition that traversed Montana and Idaho in 1805. As a result of the team’s reports of abundant game, the fabled “mountain men” had soon trapped the beavers here to the point of virtual extinction. They left as soon as the pelt boom was over, however, and permanent white settlement did not begin until gold was discovered near Denver in 1858. Within a decade, speculators were plundering every accessible gorge and creek in the four states in the search for valuable ores. The construction of transcontinental rail lines and the establishment of vast cattle ranches to feed the mining camps led to the slaughter of millions of buffalo, and conflict with the Native Americans became inevitable. The Sioux and Cheyenne, led by brilliant strategists like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, achieved decisive victories over the US Army, most notably at Little Bighorn – “Custer’s Last Stand”. By the late 1870s, a massive military operation had cleared the region of all warring tribes.

Most of those who followed saw the Rockies strictly in terms of profit: they took what they wanted and left. Small communities in this isolated terrain remain exclusively dedicated to coal, oil or some other single commodity, and all too often the uncertain tightrope walk between boom and bust is evident in their run-down facades.

Each of the four states has its own distinct character. Colorado, with fifty peaks over 14,000ft, is the most mountainous and populated, as well as the economic leader of the region. Friendly, sophisticated Denver, the Rockies’ only major metropolis, is also the most visited city, in part because it serves as gateway to some of the best ski resorts in the country. Less touched by the tourist circus is vast, brawny Montana, where the “Big Sky” looks down on a glorious verdant manuscript scribbled over with gushing streams, lakes and tiny communities.

Vast stretches of scrubland fill Wyoming, the country’s least populous state, best known for gurgling, spitting Yellowstone, adjacent Grand Teton National Park, and the nearby Bighorn Mountains. Rugged, remote, and desolate Idaho holds some of the Rocky Mountains’ last unexplored wildernesses, most notably the mighty Sawtooth range.

Between early June and early September you can expect temperatures in the high sixties all the way up to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, depending on whether you are in the high desert of Wyoming, the plains of Idaho or the mountains of Colorado. Be prepared for wild variations in the mountains – and, of course, the higher you go the colder it gets. The altitude is high enough to warrant a period of acclimatization, while the sun at these elevations can be uncomfortably fierce. In fact, parts of Wyoming and Colorado bask in more hours of sunshine per year than San Diego or Miami Beach. Spring, when the snow melts, is the least attractive time to visit, and while the delicate golds of quaking aspen trees light up the mountainsides in early autumn, by October things are generally a bit cold for enjoyable hiking or sports. Most ski runs are open by late November and operate well into March – or even June, depending on snow conditions. The coldest month is January, when temperatures below 0°F are common.

Attempt to rush around every national park and major town and you’ll miss out on one of the Rockies’ real delights – coaxing your car along the tight switchback roads that wind up and over precipitous mountain passes, especially through the majestic Continental Divide. Remember to check in the rear-view mirror as you go, though – you might be missing that perfect photo. At some point it’s worth forsaking motorized transport, to see at least some of the area by bike; the Rockies contain some of the most challenging and rewarding cycling terrain on the continent. And of course, you cannot really claim to have seen the area unless you embark on a hike or two.

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