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Mountain Ranges
    Date first written: 2004.09.27     Last Review: 2016.06.11

A mountain range is a group of mountains, bordered by lowlands or passes. Thus mountain ranges have an area and boundaries, they are not simply a list of peaks. A mountain range does not necessarily have the same geology. For example, the BC Coast Range contains both volcanoes and metamorphic uplifts. What makes it a range is that all the mountains are together. Similarly the North Cascades are a mixture of large volcanoes such as Mount Baker, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, with a large number of non-volcanic mountains.

A "well formed" mountain range is one that does not contain any internal passes that are lower than the bordering passes. Although most mountain ranges in North America follow this rule, there are exceptions such as the Pantheon Range near Mount Waddington. In this case Nirvana Pass runs right through the range. The southern Pantheon range is more properly part of the Waddington Range.

Mountain ranges can often be named according to their highest peak. However this system would break down as soon as you had a hierarchy of mountain ranges. Therefore most mountain ranges have a separate name from the highest peak. For example, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is Mount Robson. In the Selkirk mountains is Sir Sandford.

The boundaries of a mountain range are sometimes somewhat fuzzy. In some cases, the exact boundary of the mountain range is not well defined. For example, the only official definition of most mountain ranges in Canada is where the printing was put on the original map. These maps are stored in the basements of Ottawa, along with the original field notes from the surveys. There are no official polygons, survey points or waypoints that define the ranges.

Mountain "Groups" are just another name for a mountain range. Eg: Assiniboine Group, Royal Group, Joffre Group, Murchison Group. In most cases, these groups are named according to the highest peak, but not always. Eg: Muchison Group is named after Muchison, but the highest in "Royal Group" is King George. Many of these group names have been formally accepted and are printed on government maps.

Names of Mountain Ranges: Mountain ranges are not necessarily given an official name that ends with "range". In Canada, the official names for large mountain ranges often contain the word "mountain" rather than "range". For example, the Canadian Rockies, British Columbia Coast Mountains", Torngat Mountains, Selkirk Mountains, Monashee mountains, and so on. I used to refer to these as mountain chains, and tried to visualize a hierarchy, where "mountain chains" were broken down into "ranges". Unfortunately Mountain Ranges do not neatly fit into hierarchies, because they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Mountain ranges are not regions either, because they are not exhaustive. The difference between a Mountain Range and a Mountain Region is that mountain ranges do not necessarily fit together. A mountain range can end in some foothills, and then way on the other side of the country another range can start. The prairies are not part of any mountain range. In some cases mountain ranges are named with the word "Icefield" as in the Columbia Icefields, the Lillooet Icecap.

A mountain range is a cluster of mountains that are given a name to make it easy to talk about them.

What is the difference between a Range and a Mountain or Massif? There is really no difference other than the way people want to discuss the landforms. For example, Mount Logan consists of a dozen or so sub-peaks, and covers a bigger area than many mountain ranges. However, in usage, the term "range" has much more connotation of area than the term mountain. It is more normal to ask where the borders are for a certain range, than to ask where the borders are for a mountain.

The Canadian Mountain Encyclopedia (bivouac) breakdown of North America into mountain regions and sub-regions was really an exercise in formally defining a hierarchy of mountain ranges. In some cases, there were already names such as Selkirk Mountains that could be used for the ranges. But in many cases, we needed a name. Rather than constructing a lot of unfamiliar names, ranges were named according to the highest peak.

For a complete descripton of the range hierarchy of North America, see Hierarchial Subdivision of North America into Mountain Regions