Where are the Rocky Mountains?
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Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains

October 2016 - What we call the Rocky Mountains is really three different mountain chains, one on top of the other. The oldest mountain chain started more than a billion years ago, before there were any plants or animals living on land. The only living things on Earth at that time were one-celled creatures floating around in the oceans.

About 300 million years ago, a second mountain range formed, and then erosion wore it away. The third and youngest mountain chain pushed the older mountains up more, about 60 million years ago, when the first monkeys were beginning to evolve on Earth, just after the dinosaurs died.

Most of the rocks of these younger mountains are igneous rocks like lava that shot out of volcanoes when the Earth was first forming, or metamorphic rocks like gneiss made out of that igneous rock. These rocks got pushed up into mountains because of plate tectonics, when the Pacific plate with California, Oregon, and Washington on it began pushing against the plate that had the rest of North America on it. Because of how the plates were shaped, the Rocky Mountains formed not on the very edge of the plate, but several hundred miles further away. These mountains stretch all the way from the southern United States up into Canada.

Like the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains are still growing even today as the Pacific plate continues to push against North America.

Learn by Doing - Graph the height of mountain chains
More about the Appalachian Mountains

Bibliography and further reading about the Rocky Mountains:

More about plate tectonics
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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