Discover the many facets of the West's greatest mountain range in these four majestic parks.
Some photographers seem fated to take only mundane shots—until they get to a place like Emerald Lake, an aptly named jewel of a spot in Colorado. With boulders fringing the clear water and Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain beyond, the scene frames itself. Hit the trail early enough and you might be the only person around. Just you, a few noisy gray jays, some dragonflies, and a view nearly impossible to imagine down at sea level.
That's just one snapshot of the Rocky Mountains, the longest range in North America and the backbone of the West, stretching 3,000 miles from northern New Mexico into British Columbia. Fur trappers roamed here, gold prospectors arrived in waves, and homesteaders struggled over forbidding passes. Seeing the entire Rockies would require a life's commitment—not to mention a lot of hiking shoes and gorp—but the national parks along the chain offer you a shortcut. You won't find condos or working copper mines. What you will find are enchanting trails, icy lakes, snowcapped peaks, and plenty of fellow adventurers.
A couple of hours northwest of Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park (970-586-1206, nps.gov/romo )—home to Emerald Lake—packs a lot of scenery into its 415 square miles. Trail Ridge Road covers less than 50 miles between the towns of Estes Park on the east side and Grand Lake on the west. You start in the meadowy lowlands where elk herds laze and graze. The road soars upward through aspens and pines to jaw-dropping lookouts toward massive Longs Peak (14,259 feet). It keeps climbing above tree line to a high-alpine tundra of short grasses and wildflowers before dropping into the wet Kawuneeche Valley, where moose often munch on the greenery.
Weather permitting, you can drive to the high country on Old Fall River Road, a one-way dirt and gravel route that ascends 4,000 feet in just 11 miles. Expect a lot of switchbacks and slow going.
Any trip through the park offers a course in geologic history. Those craggy peaks towering above your car? They crumpled upward 50 million to 100 million years ago as a huge slab of the earth's crust—the Farallon plate—bulldozed its way under the western edge of North America. That's the simple story, anyway, but the facts of the Rockies' birth remain mysterious. The mountains are a long way from the Pacific, and geologists are still working out how such a distant collision could have created one of the world's great ranges. Meanwhile, the rest of us can only marvel at the immense forces needed to lift and fold that much rock.
Rainbow Curve viewpoint on Trail Ridge Road gives you a lofty perspective on the other great event that shaped these mountains. Looking down at the vast U-shaped valley of Horseshoe Park, you can practically picture the 500-foot-thick glacier that plowed through here during the last ice age 12,000 to 30,000 years ago. The granite outcrops on the sides of the valley have been buffed to a high polish, a testament to the power of ice.
Relentless glacial action following massive uplift: The story is much the same from one end of the Rockies to the other, even as the view changes. To take in a truly iconic vista—the Snake River rolling through an S curve backed by jagged peaks—you have to head north to Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park (307-739-3300, nps.gov/grte ). Ansel Adams captured that scene and there's a good chance one of your uncles or cousins has, too. The sheer granite peaks shoot up abruptly from plains— no foothills, no gradual slopes—as if they'd been dropped from the sky.
The view shifts subtly as you drive the 21 miles between Moose Junction and Jackson Lake Junction. The sun catches patches of snow, and crags pop in and out of sight. You'll want to keep an eye out: Wildlife moves freely back and forth from nearby Yellowstone National Park. That brown lump in the sagebrush could be a bison—or a grizzly.
Many visitors simply enjoy the sights from the road, but the Tetons always reward a closer look. A $12 boat ride across Jenny Lake brings you to hiking trails leading to waterfalls, canyons, and rock faces. From the dock, you can walk a little more than half a mile to Hidden Falls, a frothy 100-footlong cascade. Or you can hoof it nearly five miles up to Forks of Cascade Canyon, skirting Grand Teton (13,770 feet) and Mount Owen (12,928 feet). For scenery without much strain, you can take a guided raft trip on the Snake; the stretch through the park doesn't have many rapids, but spying a beaver or a moose can put a little splash in an afternoon outing.
Follow the Rockies northward another 500 miles to reach Glacier National Park (406-888- 7800, nps.gov/glac ), a northwest Montana reserve named for a vanishing feature. Scientists counted more than 100 large glaciers in 1910, when the park was designated, but today only 25 remain. Glacier doesn't quite reach the height of some parts of the Rockies, so it's more vulnerable to climate change. Still, visitors traveling the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road can count on catching a distant view of Jackson Glacier holding tight to a mountain bowl.
Even as the namesake glaciers disappear, that 50-mile road connecting the west entrance to the village of Saint Mary will always show off the essence of the park: hairpin turns, sweeping vistas, and a better-than-average chance to see a mountain goat or bighorn sheep. Without ever getting far from your car you can picnic on the rocky beaches of Lake McDonald, walk through giant trees at the Trail of the Cedars, and savor views of the imposing bare-rock pinnacles of Heavens Peak and Reynolds Mountain. After crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, the road tracks the shoreline of Saint Mary Lake—its little tree-covered island may be the entire park's most picturesque patch of ground—for about 10 miles before winding up on the prairie, just as the ancient glaciers did.
Enormous rivers of ice are still plentiful in Banff National Park (403-762-1551, pc.gc.ca/banff ), Canada's first national park and a perfect distillation of Rocky Mountain splendor.
The Wapta Icefield alone covers more than 30 square miles of the Continental Divide, which means visitors can go ice climbing or skiing in any season. Runoff from the glaciers lends a telltale turquoise hue to the lakes below, including Lake Louise, a retreat renowned for its perfect combination of blue water and sheer peaks.
The 554-room Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise dominates the eastern shoreline, where its multistory wings—the oldest from 1913—splay out a short distance from a popular ski area. It's a busy site, but you can always walk your way to a little isolation. From the upper Lake Louise parking lot, it's an easy hike to the glacier-fed stream that gives the lake its brilliant color.
Lake Louise lies near the start of the Icefields Parkway, a 140-mile highway that winds northward along the range past a boggling panorama of lakes, rivers, peaks, and glaciers, eventually reaching the Columbia Icefield, where an easy walk on Forefield Trail takes you to the dwindling foot of Athabasca Glacier. If hobnobbing with a river of ice doesn't sound appealing, you can always plunge into the outdoor pool at Upper Hot Springs and admire lofty Mount Rundle through the steam. That's what the Rockies are all about: great scenery from every vantage point. Cameras optional.
Photography by Tobi 87/Wikipedia (Moraine Lake); Ken Thomas/Wikipedia (Going-to-the-Sun Road); pdphoto.org  (Tetons sunrise)
This article was first published in July 2013. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
More places to enjoy the Rockies
Four national parks—as expansive and glorious as they are—still offer only glimpses of the vast Rocky Mountains. Here are six other locations where you can feast your eyes on the scenery of the West's great range.
Request the Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook and Idaho-Montana map, the Colorado & Utah TourBook and Colorado-Wyoming map, and the Western Canada & Alaska TourBook and Alaska & Northwest Canada map at AAA.com  or any AAA branch. To find a place to stay near any of the parks, visit AAA.com/hotels . All four parks remain open to visitors year-round.