Only when you traverse the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho does the immense size of the American West really hit home. 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 snow-capped 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 struggled over the area’s rich resources during the nineteenth century.
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 with a liberal, progressive reputation. 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, its most conservative and traditionally Western, best known for gurgling, spitting Yellowstone, adjacent Grand Teton National Park and the nearby Bighorn Mountains. Rugged, remote whitewater rafting hub Idaho holds some of the Rocky Mountains’ last unexplored wildernesses, most notably the mighty Sawtooth range.
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. 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 experienced the mountains unless you embark on a hike or two.
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.