Size isn’t everything in a mountain. Neither is topographic prominence, or isolation, or vertical rise, or geologic age, or symmetry, or wildness.
The best mountains, of course, are those that get lodged in your heart so that you feel them even when you’re far away, and lodged in your subconscious so that you dream about them. Maybe it’s the Grand Teton or Denali; maybe it’s that anonymous desert butte or that glorified hillock you keep coming back to—a personal sacred summit, “stats” be damned.
That said, stats serve a useful (and sometimes entertaining) purpose. Whether you’re seeking applicable knowledge about specific peaks, or just hoping to be a human repository of ‘did you know’ facts among your climbing and hiking buddies, this hodgepodge of mountain trivia should help.
From the fundamentals, like highest and most prominent, to the obscure little tidbits and other random stuff in between, here’s a brief breakdown of some of America’s best mountains (for one reason or another).
The Highest: Elevation Revelations
Drawing from this Summitpost ranking of the highest summits in North America with at least 2,000 feet of clean prominence (a cutoff that excludes the sub-peaks of a massif), here’s our U.S. top 10:
- Denali (Alaska Range, AK): 20,320’
- Mount St. Elias (St. Elias Mountains, AK, shared with Yukon): 18,008’
- Mount Foraker (Alaska Range, AK): 17,400’
- Mount Bona (St. Elias Mountains, AK): 16,500’
- Mount Blackburn (Wrangell Mountains, AK): 16,390’
- Mount Sanford (Wrangell Mountains, AK): 16,237’
- Mount Fairweather (St. Elias Mountains, AK, shared with B.C.): 15,325’
- Mount Bear (St. Elias Mountains, AK): 14,831’
- Mount Hunter (Alaska Range, AK): 14,573’
- Mount Whitney (Sierra Nevada, CA): 14,495’
Alaska obviously takes the cake when it comes to the country’s loftiest peaks, but when we consider sheer number of mountains 14,000 feet or higher, it’s the Colorado Rockies ahead of the pack with a whopping 55 Fourteeners.
Tallest in the Lower 48
What if we exclude those Far North monsters from consideration? Here are the tallest peaks (again, with 2,000 feet or more of clean prominence) in the Lower 48 States:
- Mount Whitney (Sierra Nevada, CA): 14,495’
- Mount Elbert (Sawatch Range, CO): 14,433’
- Mount Massive (Sawatch Range, CO): 14,421’
- Mount Harvard (Sawatch Range, CO): 14,420’
- Mount Rainier (Cascade Range, WA): 14,411’
- Mount Williamson (Sierra Nevada, CA): 14,375’
- Blanca Peak (Sangre de Cristo, CO): 14,345’
- Uncompahgre Peak (San Juan Mountains, CO): 14,314’
- Crestone Peak (Sangre de Cristo, CO): 14,294’
- Mount Lincoln (Mosquito Range, CO): 14,286’
The Southern Rocky Mountains, the elevational climax of the entire Rocky Mountain chain, dominate this list nearly as thoroughly as Alaskan peaks dominated the first one.
That’d actually be Mount Whitney: Both it and the other Sierra Nevada Fourteener, Mount Williamson, are a bit more equatorward than the Southern Rockies’ southernmost, 14,047-foot Culebra Peak in the Sangres.
Edit: The Southernmost 14er is actually 14,032-foot Mount Langley in the Sierra Nevada.
Of course, elevation isn’t everything: The amount by which a mountain stands above its immediate surroundings—aka prominence—is often the more important measure when it comes to visual grandeur. Here are the United States’ top peaks ranked by prominence:
- Denali: 20,146’ of prominence
- Mauna Kea (HI): 13,803’ (its elevation above sea level—because it rises out of the ocean, of course)
- Mount Rainier: 13,210’
- Mount Fairweather: 12,995’
- Mount Blackburn: 11,640’
As Peaklist shows, Denali only loses out on the global scale prominence-wise to Everest (with 29,028 feet) and Aconcagua (with 22,841 feet), crowns of Asia and South America, respectively.
According to this Peaklist tally, the Lower 48 has 57 mountains boasting 5,000 feet or more of prominence (so-called “ultras”), all but two in the West. The Appalachians, of course, supply those eastern ultras: Mount Washington in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with 6,158 feet of prominence, and Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, with 6,092 feet.
Crowning Peaks of the East
Speaking of the East, it obviously gets the shaft when the country’s mountains are ranked by elevation, but those timeworn Appalachians and Adirondacks include plenty of imposing highlands in their own right.
The eastern counterpart to the Southern Rockies would be the Southern Appalachians, where the 1,600-mile-long Appalachian Mountains reach their pinnacle in the Blue Ridge of the Tennessee-North Carolina borderlands. The 10 highest summits are:
- Mount Mitchell (Black Mountains, NC): 6,684’
- Mount Craig (Black Mountains, NC): 6,647’
- Clingmans Dome (Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC): 6,643’
- Mount Guyot (Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC): 6,621’
- Balsam Cone (Black Mountains, NC): 6,611’
- Mount Le Conte (Great Smoky Mountains, TN): 6,593’
- Mount Gibbes (Black Mountains, NC): 6,571’
- Potato Hill (Black Mountains, NC): 6,475’
- Mount Chapman (Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC): 6,417’
- Richland Balsam (Great Balsam Mountains, NC): 6,410’
The Southern Appalachians contain a little more than 50 peaks beyond 6,000 feet: the so-called “Southern Sixers.” These account for all the 6,000-plus-foot peaks in the Appalachians, save for one: 6,288-foot Mount Washington, some 1,500 miles north of the nearest Southern Sixer (Roan Mountain in North Carolina’s Roan Highlands).
The Presidential Range is the crowning crest of the White Mountains, which more broadly compose the highest country in New England. The Whites include all 20 of the tallest mountains in the Northeast with one majestic exception: 5,268-foot Katahdin in Maine.
Steepest, Most Relief
The Wellsville Mountains of northeastern Utah, basically a northerly spur of the Wasatch Range, are often called the steepest mountains in the country. A mere five miles wide or so, the Wellsville crest makes an impressively narrow and high blade. Without so much as a friendly foothill or two, the terrain lurches up nearly 5,000-feet from valley lowlands on either side to the razor-edge divide, which reaches 9,372-feet at Box Elder Peak.
Faulting has formed plenty of other impressive mountain fronts in the Lower 48, though few ranges have the double-sided sharpness of the Wellsvilles. The eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada towers as much as 10,800-feet above the Owens Valley. The Tetons form their celebrity rampart above Jackson Hole via some 7,000-feet of vertical rise, while the sweep is better than 8,000 feet between the High Plains and the Colorado Front Range.
With gulfs of 4,000 to 6,000 feet common between valley floors and peaks, the North Cascades definitely make the short list of the steepest overall ranges in the Lower 48. Their standout relief is largely due to being an uplifted maritime mountain block that’s been absolutely chewed up by ice.
Northernmost and Southernmost
Alaska’s remote, ravishing Brooks Range is the northernmost mountain range in the continental USA. The southernmost? The remote, ravishing Chisos Mountains in Texas’s Big Bend National Park.
What’s the real rooftop of the Lower 48? Well, you could argue more than a few spots, but certainly three burly alpine battlements in the Rocky Mountains should be part of the conversation:
- In the Middle Rockies, the Beartooth Plateau forms an awesome 10,000-foot-plus shelf of Precambrian gneiss and granite, rolling tundra, and several hundred lakes.
- On the southerly side of the Middle Rockies, meanwhile, Utah’s Uinta Mountains—said to be the Western Hemisphere’s biggest west-east-oriented mountain range—swell to another mighty above-timberline kingdom. The Uinta crest supports a continuous swath of barrens above 11,000 feet that’s more than 300 square miles across: perhaps the biggest single expanse of tundra-land in the conterminous U.S.
- The San Juan Mountains in the Southern Rockies, meanwhile, hold court over more than 10,000 square miles—they’re the largest component range of the American Rockies—and it’s said they contain more land above 10,000 feet than any other part of the U.S.
Other corners of the Colorado Rockies as well as Wyoming’s hallowed Wind Rivers deserve mention in terms of sheer extent of high-elevation country. And we definitely can’t overlook the High Sierra on this count: As Stephen Whitney observes in his excellent Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide to the Sierra Nevada, a 90-mile reach of the Sierra crest between Duck Pass in the north and Trail Pass in the south lies at or above 11,000 feet.
Mountain Superlatives: Volcano Department
Let’s talk fire mountains. (And let’s emphasize mountains, leaving badass supersized calderas such as Yellowstone and California’s Long Valley out.)
The volcano with the greatest summit elevation in the USA is also the fourth tallest mountain in the country: 16,500-foot Mount Bona, a stratovolcano in Alaska’s St. Elias Mountains. (In North America, only three Mexican volcanoes are taller than Bona.)
In terms of the distance between mountain top and base, though, the Big Island of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the undisputed champion—and also, by that measure, the planet’s king mountain. Though just 13,803 feet above sea level, this great shield volcano’s feet lie nearly 20,000 feet below sea level, giving it a total rise of more than 33,000 feet.
Though Mount Shasta’s the second-highest stratovolcano in the Cascades, a few hundred feet shy of Mount Rainier, it’s the most massive at some 85 or 90 cubic miles. But it’s out-bulked by two huge (if topographically subtle) Cascade shield volcanoes: the 120-cubic-mile Newberry Volcano in central Oregon and the 140-cubic-mile Medicine Lake Volcano in north-central California.
Alaska, as usual, makes ‘em bigger: Mount Wrangell, an andesitic shield volcano in the Wrangells, encompasses some 216 cubic miles.
In this case, though, Hawaii makes ‘em even bigger: At some 18,000 cubic miles, Mauna Loa on the Big Island is the heftiest volcano in the world that juts above sea level. (The recently discovered Tamu Massif, a submarine shield volcano some 1,000 miles east of Japan, is likely the biggest volcano on the planet.)
Mountain Superlatives: Big-Wall Department
Debating the greatest big walls of the world is real bar room fodder for climbers and geologists alike: You can really get down into the weeds (er, gravel?) distinguishing between walls and cliffs, purely vertical and nearly vertical drops, and so on.
Instead of rappelling too far down into technicalities, let’s just spotlight some of the superlative mountain walls of the U.S. (We’re excluding the sidewalls of gorges here, such as the 2,250-foot-tall Painted Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as monumental cliff escarpments of the kind you’ll find on the Colorado Plateau.)
It may be outdone (numbers-wise) by such epic mountain prongs as the Trango Towers in Pakistan’s Karakoram or Baffin Island’s Mount Thor, but Yosemite’s El Capitan is surely the most famous big wall on the planet. Its 3,000-foot granite face above Yosemite Valley marks ground zero for big-wall climbing. And El Cap’s only “the Chief” of numerous Sierra walls in Yosemite country, including Half Dome (2,000 feet) and Washington Column (1,800 feet).
The Rockies harbor their own share of wow-worthy walls. Take the North Face of Mount Hooker in the Wind River Range, a fiercely remote 1,800-foot bulkhead. And then there’s the most celebrated big wall in the Southern Rockies: the Diamond, the 900-some-foot east face of Longs Peak in the Front Range. Greater yet—and maybe second only to El Capitan in the Lower 48—is the fault-scarp west face of Notch Peak in Utah’s House Range: This limestone and dolomite cliff boasts a nearly vertical drop of 2,200 feet.
Not many walls in the Lower 48 are so ferocious as the north face of Mount Rainier: the infamous Willis Wall. This 3,600-foot headwall of the Carbon Glacier—the biggest cirque in the Cascades—sports a 300-foot overhang of ice cliffs that have the nasty habit of shedding frozen shrapnel. That, coupled with regular issues of rockfall and avalanches, makes the Willis Wall Rainier’s riskiest climbing approach.
The Last Frontier’s home to some of the all-around gnarliest walls and rock faces in North America, not least the mythic Devils Thumb stabbing out of the far flung fortress of the Stikine Icecap on the B.C. line. The still-unclimbed northwest face of this granite tooth (err, thumb) has a staggeringly steep 6,700-foot pitch—a wall just about unrivaled on the continent.
Other superlative walls rear from that most rugged division of the Alaska Range, the isolated and dangerously storm-swept Kichatna Spires.
Highest Mountain Lake
That’d be Pacific Tarn at 13,420-feet in Colorado’s Tenmile Range. As this interesting roundup by the guy who christened Pacific Tarn points out, there are several other lakes in the Southern Rockies above 13,000 feet. Better known is Lake Waiau, pooled at 13,020 feet on Mauna Kea; a sacred Native Hawaiian landmark, this cinder pond actually freezes over most winters—quite the novelty, by Hawaii standards.
Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Featured image provided by Sam Beebe.