What (and Where) Are the Alps?

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The Alps are the most predominant mountain range in western Europe. They’re famous for their incredible, picturesque landscapes and world-class ski resorts. Plus, they were featured in an extremely popular movie. If you want to sing your heart out while overlooking dramatic mountain views like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” here’s what you need to know about the Alps.

What Are the Alps?

Aerial view of the Alps landscape showing large rocky mountain peaks covered in snow
Credit: Iren Key/ Shutterstock

The Alps are a small section of a massive mountain chain that stretches from North Africa through Europe and all the way into Asia. Although the Alps might not be the largest or highest mountain range in the world, they’re still the most prominent physiographic region in western Europe and have a major effect on the climate and geography of the surrounding region. The Alps are approximately 750 miles long and 125 miles wide and cover more than 80,000 square miles of land. The highest point in the Alps is Mont Blanc in France, which towers 15,771 feet above sea level.

Where Are the Alps?

Santa Maddalena village with the Alps in the background
Credit: Janoka82/ iStock

If you want to visit the Alps, you’ll have to travel to western Europe. The Alps form an arc starting at the Mediterranean Sea, wrap around northern Italy into Austria, and then stretch southward into Serbia. In total, the Alps run through eleven different countries:

  • France
  • Italy
  • Switzerland
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Slovenia
  • Croatia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Montenegro
  • Serbia
  • Albania

Of all the countries, Switzerland and Austria are the only ones that can be considered true alpine countries since most of the land in these two nations is mountainous.

Climate

Alpine village in Switzerland resting on a snowy mountain, surrounded by trees
Credit: Maryna Patzen/ Shutterstock

Since the Alps run through so many different regions and experience changes in elevation, the climate varies greatly depending on location. Lower elevations are typically much warmer and drier compared to areas surrounding the higher peaks. Once you get above 5,000 feet, the climate changes drastically. It’s not uncommon for snowfall at higher elevations to reach 33 feet! Mountain passes are mostly inaccessible from November through May. Due to such heavy snow, avalanches in these high-altitude areas are common.

Wildlife

Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) in natural environment, United Kingdom
Credit: Ian_Sherriffs/ iStock

Even with the harsh mountain terrain and large amounts of snow, there is still plenty of wildlife in the Alps. Smaller mammals such as rabbits, mice, squirrels, and shrews enjoy living in the lower altitudes. Some of the most popular residents of the Alps are the mountain goats that like to climb along the precarious rocky ledges. With smaller animals, predators such as lynxes and birds of prey like owls are common in the Alps.

Plants

Clear water surrounded with trees in the Austrian Alps
Credit: DaLiu/ iStock

The lower slopes of the Alps contain mostly deciduous forests filled with large trees such as oaks, poplars, elms, chestnuts, maples, and birches. As you reach higher altitudes in the mountains, only the hardiest plants can survive. Spruce and larch trees can survive at roughly 8,000 feet. Arolla pines can also grow in extreme conditions. Arollas are slow-growing and can live up to 800 years. Since these pine trees grow so slowly, their wood is extremely dense, which makes it ideal for building mountain chalets. Unfortunately, it was such a popular building material that deforestation almost drove them to extinction. They’re currently protected in the Alps and cutting them is strictly prohibited.

Economy

Snow covered cottages at the Austrian Alps, surrounded by pine trees and snowy cliffs
Credit: Max Topchii/ Shutterstock

The Alps are one of the most populated mountain ranges in the world with around 13 million residents. Until the mid-19th century, the Alpine economy was largely based on agriculture and mining. Vineyards and pastures filled the lower regions, while iron and coal mines covered the mountainsides.

After the end of World War II, the Alps became a popular year-round tourist destination. In a little over 50 years, more than 600 ski resorts have opened on the Alpine slopes and many of them cater to people looking for high-end luxury accommodations. Some of the most expensive ski resorts in the world are located in the Alps. Today, millions of tourists flock to the Alps each year to take in the beauty and enjoy the variety of outdoor activities.

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