It’s prime time for getting up in the high country, so here at the Mountain House blog, we thought we’d compile some miscellaneous mountain trivia for you to casually drop at your next slopeside campfire.
Here are the five most skyscraping peaks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico:
Alaska accounts for the nine-highest peaks in the USA; besides Denali, Mount Foraker (17,400 feet), and Mount Hunter (14,573 feet) in the Alaska Range and Mount St. Elias and Mount Fairweather (15,325 feet) in the St. Elias Mountains, the Wrangell Mountains are also notably tall (topped by 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn). Outside of the Last Frontier, California’s Sierra Nevada, the Southern Rockies of Colorado, and the king peak of the Cascade Range compose the top five of the Lower 48:
Though California’s Sierra Nevada includes the highest peak in the Lower 48 (Mount Whitney), the Southern Rockies of Colorado include by far the most “Fourteeners” (peaks at least 14,000 feet high). The Sawatch Range takes the cake, as the above list suggests, with 15 Fourteeners, including the three highest peaks in the entire Rocky Mountain chain (Canada included).
It’s worth noting this Summitpost list of North America’s highest peaks with at least 2,000 feet of clean prominence, prominence being a mountain’s loom above immediately surrounding terrain. That tabulation gives two other Southern Rocky Mountain ranges the edge over the Sawatch in terms of the number of high peaks: the San Juan Mountains with 10 and the Sangre de Cristos of Colorado and New Mexico with eight. (The Sangre de Cristos also include the southernmost Fourteener in the Rockies: 14,047-foot Culebra Peak.)
Those burly San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado - the largest single chain in the Rocky Mountains - are said to claim more acreage above 10,000 feet than any other mountain range in the USA.
The five highest mountains east of the Mississippi all lie within the Southern Appalachians, and specifically within two ranges: North Carolina’s Black Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina line.
Mount Mitchell, incidentally, is named for a University of North Carolina professor, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who in 1835 climbed the peak and verified with barometric observations that it was taller than New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, which many believed at the time was the East’s tallest mountain.
Although Mount Washington - at 6,288 feet, the tallest mountain in New England and infamous for its walloping weather - is shorter than numerous Southern Appalachian peaks, it and Mount Mitchell stand alone as the only two “ultra-prominent” peaks in the East: that is, peaks with 5,000 or more feet of prominence. (The western U.S. has more than 50 of these “ultras,” as they’re called. Denali is the most topographically prominent peak in North America; its 20,320 feet of prominence place it third on the global list after Mount Everest and Argentina’s Aconcagua.)
In terms of the loftiest U.S. peak within shouting distance of the Atlantic, top honors go to 1,529-foot Cadillac Mountain on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, part of Acadia National Park. Cadillac’s also one of the earliest places in the country to catch the sunrise.
The St. Elias Mountains of Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia are the tallest coastal mountains on the planet. Their second-highest peak, Mount St. Elias, rises to 18,008 feet only about 10 miles from saltwater at Icy Bay. As you can imagine, that also means these wild, ice-locked mountains - which include the Fairweather Rangeas their southern portion - account for some of the most impressive topographic relief on the continent.
As Robert Hixson Julyan notes in Mountain Names, the two highest peaks in the Alaska Range both got their Euro-American names from Ohio senators: Denali was named Mount McKinley in1896 for William McKinley, then campaigning for his successful bid for the White House, while Mount Foraker was named after Senator Joseph B. Foraker three years later.
In 2015 the indigenous Koyukon name Denali (“high” or “tall”) was restored to North America’s highest peak. According to Julyan’s Mountain Names, the native Tanana people called Mount Foraker by two names: Sultana, “the woman,” or Menlale, “Denali’s wife.”
While the Lower 48 can’t compete with Alaska and Canada in the glacial ice department - no surprise, given the latitudinal breakdown - the conterminous USA still boasts some impressive (if shrinking) glaciers. The all-around hotspot is the snow-blasted Pacific Northwest, and specifically the Cascade Range and Olympic Mountains. Mount Rainier, with some 35 square miles of glacial cover, boasts more ice than the rest of the Cascades put together. Its Carbon Glacier, on the north side, is especially superlative: the longest (close to six miles), most voluminous (0.2 cubic miles), and lowest-elevation (reaching 3,500 feet) of any glacier in the Lower 48.
Wyoming is actually the second-iciest state in the Lower 48 after Washington - though it’s a major step down in ice extent between the two of them - and its Wind River Range harbors the largest glaciers in the American Rockies.
That would be Pacific Tarn in the Tenmile Range of Colorado’s Southern Rockies, pooled at the impressive elevation of 13,420 feet (higher than the high point of 43 U.S. states).
In terms of major mountain ranges, the last to be mapped in the Lower 48 were the Henry Mountains of southeastern Utah, not cartographically captured until the early 1870s. (They rise not far from the last major Lower 48 river to be mapped: the Escalante.)
At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest in the Himalaya is, of course, the tallest mountain in the world. But actually, the story’s not quite so clear-cut as that. It’s certainly the highest point on Planet Earth above sea level, but by certain measures, it’s not the loftiest mountain. Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, a massive shield volcano, is the tallest when you measure the distance from its base - which lies 20,000 or so feet below sea level - to its summit: better than 33,000 feet.
Mauna Kea’s neighbor, meanwhile, Mauna Loa - which also beats Mount Everest in the base-to-summit department, with a rise of close to 31,000 feet - is the world's most massive volcano that protrudes above sea level, accounting for about 18,000 cubic miles.
Before we wrap up this hodgepodge of mountain nuggets, we thought we’d throw in a couple of Mountain House ones! Did you know that…
Check out more details on our history - appropriate, given we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this year - right here!