(Find these countries and the Alps on the Europe Physical Map.)
The Alps span a distance of roughly 750 miles. At their broadest point, they are more than 125 miles wide. They cover an area of 80,000 square miles, which is roughly equal to the size of the state of Kansas. Much of this area lies in four countries: Switzerland, Austria, France, and Italy.
Geographers and mapmakers divide the mountain system into three sections: the Western, Central, and Eastern Alps. Within each section are principal ranges and lesser ranges.
The loftiest mountains are found in the Western and Central Alps. Mont Blanc, which lies in the Western Alps along the border between France and Italy, is the highest Alpine peak. It soars to a height of 15,771 feet.
Another of the Alps’ most famous mountains is the Matterhorn (14,692 feet), which rises from the Switzerland-Italy border. Its distinctive fang-like peak has come to symbolize the Alps. The Matterhorn was thought to be unclimbable until a group of seven mountaineers reached its summit in 1865.
Some of Europe’s greatest rivers are born high up in the Alps. These rivers include the Rhone, the Rhine, and the Po. Many tributaries of the Danube also originate in the mountains. Through these and other rivers, waters from the Alps flow into the North, Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Black seas. (Find these seas on the Europe Physical Map.)
The Alps began to form some 44 million years ago as the African tectonic plate pushed northward against the European plate. The powerful pressure pushed deep layers of rock upward to tremendous heights. In fact, geologists think that the Alps were once nearly as high as the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world today.
Over the course of millions of years, erosion wore down the Alps until they had lost perhaps half their original height. Glaciers sculpted the peaks and valleys. Gradually, the mountains took their present forms.
Because they represent such a formidable physical barrier, the Alps have played a major role in the settlement patterns and history of Western Europe. Today, the mountains are a popular tourist destination. In the winter, people come to ski, snowboard, and engage in other winter sports. In the summer, they come to hike the steep slopes, visit mountain villages, and simply enjoy the spectacular Alpine scenery.