North America's mountain ranges are largely concentrated on the continent's western side, where they constitute part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountains that stretches virtually continuously from North America to Central America, South America, and...
The largest mountain range in North America is the Rocky Mountains, which stretch from Canada to Mexico. They contain eight of the ten highest peaks in the United States. The other two highest peaks are found in Alaska. The Rockies' extensive network of valleys provides refuge from many of the region's harsh conditions. Native Americans used these sheltered places as shelter belts during times of war or famine. The Europeans later adopted this practice. Today, most national parks and monuments are found in the Rockies, including Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and Yosemite Valley.
North America's other major mountain range is the Andes, which runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean for more than 2,500 miles from Colombia to Chile. Eight of the ten highest peaks in the United States are found here, including Mt. McKinley (the world's tallest peak outside of Asia). The Rockies and the Andes each have their own unique characteristics, but they also have some things in common. For example, both have very steep sides, which makes them difficult to climb. In addition, there are large swaths of desert in between the two mountain chains.
The Andes Mountains are the world's largest mountain range. It spans seven South American countries: Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. The Andes are divided into three sections: the Southern, Central, and Northern Andes. They extend over 5,000 miles from Colombia to Patagonia.
The highest peak in the Americas is also found in the Andes: Mount McKinley (or Denali) in Alaska. Other high peaks include Carhuaz Apuseni in Romania, Vinson Massif in France, and El Misti in Honduras.
The name "Andes" comes from Spain's name for its country, "El Reino de Castilla-La Mancha". Castilla was the name of the kingdom that included modern day Spain while La Mancha refers to a region in that country with similar soil and climate.
The mountains have many names in different languages: "Peruvian Inca" or "Inca Ridge" in English, "Péruvien" in French, "Peruvião" in Portuguese, "Inciano Mounatin" in Italian, and "An Daingean" in Irish. These names come from the Incas who lived in the area around 1500 AD. They called the mountains "Aka Perú" which means "the white ones".
Mountains are most typically generated by Earth's tectonic plates interacting and physically elevating the land at its borders as a result of activity under the surface. The Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains in the United States, and the Andes in South America are three of the world's most well-known mountain ranges. However, many other large regions of earth also contain significant amounts of rock that has been raised up above ground level. For example, most of Europe is made up of mountains that once were parts of another continent, called Pangaea. When two continents split, the side with the more rigid structure tends to keep its shape while the weaker one melts away.
Mountain ranges cover about 10% of the planet's surface but contain almost half of the world's ice caps and 90% of its volcanoes.
Almost every continent except Australia and Antarctica contains major mountain ranges, with the exception of Europe which has many high plateaus instead. The tallest mountain on each of these 8 continents is shown in blue in the graphic below:
The Great Divide, which extends north and south across the Rocky Mountains, is North America's largest continental divide. The major watersheds all flow east, with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Rio Grande entering the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Lawrence entering the Atlantic.
The phrase "runs through" means that the great divide crosses from state or province to state or province. Thus, the Appalachian Mountains run through Virginia and West Virginia, the Ozark Mountains run through Arkansas and Missouri, and so on.
The term "continental divide" refers to the eastern and western halves of the North American continent. The divide is a line of high mountains that forms a barrier between two oceanic plates. It runs roughly parallel to the coast from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the South Atlantic Ocean in the south.
The word "divide" comes from the same Latin root as divorce. A division is a portioning off; a break up into parts. So, a continental divide is a part that separates the continents of North America and Europe.
The Great Divide runs approximately 3,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the South Atlantic Ocean in the south. It consists of several smaller divides within the larger one. For example, the Canadian Rockies consist of several ranges that block water flowing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Cordilleras are widespread in the Americas and Eurasia. The Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, and the mountains between them are collectively known as the Cordilleras in North America, and the entire area has been dubbed the Cordilleran region. The phrase "cordillera" is used in conjunction with a directional modifier (e.g., a directional range). Thus, a cordillera of Utah refers to a group of mountains in that state.
The Rocky Mountain Range forms a barrier between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, dividing western Colorado from the rest of the state. To the east lies the Great Plains, which extend west toward Kansas and Oklahoma. West of the Rockies is where California gets its name: From the Spanish word for "ridge", californio. The Sierra Nevada are on the border between California and Nevada. These three ranges make up what is known as the Continental Divide.
North of the Continental Divide is British Columbia, Canada, and south is Arizona and New Mexico in the United States.
The highest peak in the Cordilleras is Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) in Alaska. At 20,320 feet (6,190 m), it is more than twice as high as Mount Everest. The next highest peak is Pico de Orizaba at 16,000 feet (4,921 m).
Mountains rise up from both sides of the Continental Divide in western Colorado.
The Rocky Mountains are referred to as fold mountains. This indicates they developed when two of the Earth's tectonic plates collided. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range stretches from north to south along the west coast of the United States, largely in California and some in Nevada. It has a length of around 400 miles and a width of about 70 miles. It is made up of many parallel mountain ranges of volcanic origin, with peaks over 11,000 feet high.
The Rocky Mountains consist of a series of mostly flat-topped peaks that rise abruptly from the surrounding lowlands. They originate as an island arc system that was once part of the North American continent. The islands were first raised above sea level about 50 million years ago when lava flows spread across what is now western Canada and the United States.
This island arc system lies at the intersection of three major continental plates: the Pacific Plate to the east, the North American Plate to the west, and the Caribbean Plate to the south. As these plates collide, they push against each other with great force, causing the ocean floor to rise up and create new land. The result is a chain of mountains that extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
The Rocky Mountains formed as a result of volcanoes erupting on the interior of the former continent. Lava flows spread across the landscape as well as sediment deposits from rivers. As this occurred, the weight of the rock above caused it to collapse into deeper layers, forming steep-sided valleys.