Getting to Know California’s Twelve 14ers

When it comes to 14ers—those towering mountain peaks with elevations of at least 14,000 ft—there are three American states that dominate the conversation: Alaska, Colorado, and California. (Of course, Washington also has one in Mt. Rainier, but all the rest of America’s 96 fourteeners can be found in the aforementioned Big Three.)

Alaska wins on size. The 22 highest fourteeners all reside in The Last Frontier. Colorado wins on volume. There are a whopping 53 fourteeners in The Centennial State. And California? Well, California might just win on underrated yet overwhelming beauty. The Golden State doesn’t garner as many headlines for its lineup of fourteeners. But scattered amongst the Sierras and Cascades is a humble yet hugely scenic group of towering beauties.

Here, we’re taking a tour of each of California’s twelve 14ers from south to north.

1. Mount Langley - 14,032’

A sweeping view of Mt. Langley(Opens in a new window) A sea of rock from the summit of Langley. Photo by Walther Nunez

Mount Langley(Opens in a new window) is a distinguished Sierra Nevada peak well-known for a few things. It’s the southernmost fourteener in the US. In the 1870s, early climbers regularly confused it with nearby Mount Whitney. And maybe most notably? Langley is considered by many to be the easiest of California’s fourteeners to climb. (Though ease is of course relative!)

The North and South faces offer excellent technical rock climbing. The Old Army Pass and the New Army Pass meanwhile provide a Class-1 hike over the course of 26.5 beautiful miles and 5,940 feet of total elevation gain. The views along the way and from the top—of Owens Valley to the east and the Kern River Valley to the west—are exceptional.

2. Mount Muir - 14,018’

Mount Muir(Opens in a new window) is considered a fourteener by some, and not by others. Who are we to split hairs over (literally) a couple of feet? Muir’s clean prominence from saddle to peak is 298 feet, whereas some people’s definitions of an independent peak require 300 feet of clean prominence. Whether you’re a stickler or not, this much is clear: Mount Muir is a darn fine mountain. And its proximity to Mount Whitney and the John Muir Trail (recognized as Nüümü Poyo, The People's Trail), which contours along the west side of Mount Muir and serves as the easiest approach, making it a must-visit for Class 3 scramblers and climbers.

3. Mount Whitney - 14,505’

A sweeping view of peaks of Mt. Whitney(Opens in a new window) The tallest mountain in the lower 48. Photo by Ross Stone

The Big Kahuna of California fourteeners also happens to be the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 ft. Mount Whitney(Opens in a new window) is a downright legendary peak. It towers above Owens Valley with a dramatically sheer 10,075 feet of clean prominence. And for climbers and hikers the world over, it provides a big ticket bucket list challenge. Situated on the boundary of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest, the surrounding scenery is as good as it gets. Just make sure you have a permit, as this frequently climbed peak requires all hikers entering the Mount Whitney zone to have one.

4. Mount Russell - 14,094’

Less than a mile north of Mount Whitney, Mount Russell(Opens in a new window) is another sawtooth spire indicative of this stretch of the Sierra Nevada range. Russell is like the underloved stepbrother to Whitney, receiving only a fraction of her visitors each year. For bona fide climbers, however, Russell is an underrated gem, offering sheer walls on its west and southwest faces and various Class 3-4 routes on the south, east, and north sides of the peak.

5. Mount Williamson - 14,379’

A sweeping view of Mt. Williamson(Opens in a new window) The west face of Mount Williamson in the John Muir Wilderness. Photo by Bret Lowrey

Mount Williamson(Opens in a new window) is the second-highest mountain in California and the sixth-highest in the Lower 48. Sprouting up from the John Muir Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, this peak is a bit more remote than some of its Sierra Nevada neighbors. And the proof of this pudding can be experienced in the approach trail itself, which gains a meaty 8,000 feet in 11 miles from the trailhead to Shepherd’s Pass. From the pass, climbers can have their cake and eat it too (to continue with the dessert idioms). They can opt for Williamson, nearby Tyndall, or simply bask in the alpine glory of Williamson Bowl, where five pristine lakes dot the landscape.

6. Mount Tyndall - 14,025’

A mere 1.5-miles west of Williamson across Shepherd’s Pass, Mount Tyndall(Opens in a new window) is yet another knife’s-edge showstopper. Accessible via an easy Class 2 scramble up the Northwest Ridge or other non-technical routes on the west side of the peak, Tyndall can be great for beginners. Or, by tackling the much more technical routes on the steeper east face, it can be great for more seasoned climbers too. Most people try to tackle Tyndall and Williamson together, given how long and strenuous the approach trail to get to their bases is.

7. Split Mountain - 14,064’

Named on account of the shape of its double summit, Split Mountain(Opens in a new window) is one of the easier fourteeners in California from a technical perspective. But don’t underestimate the physical challenge. From the trailhead to the top requires a sizable 7,500 ft in elevation gain. Arguably the most memorable part of this hike isn’t the twin summit itself, but the ice-cold waters of Red Lake at its base. Swimming in and spending the night at the edge of this alpine lake before summiting in the morning is a fantastic way to experience this mountain.

8. Middle Palisade - 14,018’

Ahh, the Palisades. This 6-10 mile stretch of steep, rugged peaks is the highest continuous ridge along the Sierra Crest. Within this spiny granite cathedral is some of the finest alpine climbing in not just California, but the entire country. Situated at the center of this ridge is the Middle Palisade(Opens in a new window)—a beautiful peak looming over an immense glacier. Most summit routes on the northeast side require crossing this glacier, which can be tricky during the summer months following dry winters.

9. North Palisade - 14,248’

The Palisades somewhat complicate the conversation around California fourteeners. Within this star-studded spine of granite spires is a string of peaks that are all technically above 14,000 ft: Starlight Peak, Polemonium Peak, Thunderbolt Peak. But because they’re less than 300’ higher than the adjacent North Palisade(Opens in a new window) 14er, they’re technically not considered an “official” California fourteener. In other words, the North Palisade puts nearby peaks to shame. And puts mountaineers on a one-way trip to Pain Cave, USA. The easiest route to the top is Class 4. It’s the fourth highest mountain in California, and one of the burliest.

10. Mount Sill - 14,159’

Only half a mile east of North Palisade, Mount Sill(Opens in a new window)’s distinctive thumb-shaped peak rises as the second tallest in the Palisades. There are ten established routes to the top. From Class 2 and 3 scrambles up the Southwest Slope to highly technical 5.10 climbs, Mount Sill delivers the mountaineering goods. Arguably the most iconic route is the 5.7 Swiss Arete, which slices up the hump above Glacier Notch. With a variety of approaches and climbing routes, summiting Sill is the ultimate choose your own (fourteener) adventure.

11. White Mountain Peak - 14,252’

A landscape view of White Mountain Peak(Opens in a new window) White Mountain Peak in all its glory. Photo by Rick McCharles

Whereas each of the fourteeners we’ve mentioned so far have largely been bunched together in little clusters of high-altitude clout, White Mountain Peak(Opens in a new window) is the peerless wonder. It’s the third highest peak in California. It’s one of only two fourteeners not located in the Sierras. And its isolation of 67 miles (aka, the minimum distance to the next point of equal elevation) makes this mountain a true standalone stalwart. Despite the loftiness, reaching the summit is actually fairly straightforward. The 7 mile Class 1 route up the South Face is low-grade enough to accommodate mountain bikes. The more demanding 10 mile West Ridge Route is a punchy Class 2 climb with 9,000 feet of elevation gain.

12. Mount Shasta - 14,179’

A landscape view of Mt. Shasta with a lake in the foreground(Opens in a new window) The Shasta summit looms like the icon that it is over Castle Lake. Photo by Francois Olwage

Considered the cardinal peak of the Cascades, the pride and joy of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Mount Shasta(Opens in a new window) is an icon of the highest order. How many other fourteeners in California can boast being a potentially active volcano? Anser: zero. But Shasta is much more than just a voluminous volcano; it’s a magnificent, majestic, downright mystical mountain with huge appeal for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. Surrounding its base is a labyrinth of lakes and hundreds of miles of trails. Its summit meanwhile is a notch in any mountaineer’s belt. More than 15,000 people attempt to summit this behemoth each year, only a third succeed. If legendary stature mixed with stuff-of-lore scenery is what you’re after, Mount Shasta just might be the ticket.

For fourteener chasers, the rocky citadels of the Sierras, Cascades, and White Mountains may just be the greener pastures you’re looking for.

Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Donna Elliot(Opens in a new window)