If you’re like us, chances are you pretty much always have mountains on the mind. What follows is a range-hopping tour of some of the most flat-out gorgeous and imposing peaks in the Lower 48. Consider it fuel for the mountain-lust fire.
Our list includes a mix of well-known and lesser-known eminences and covers as much ground as possible. While nodding here and there to climbing routes on these showstopper peaks, the emphasis is on nabbing the zoomed-out view to best appreciate their arresting profile and commanding presence.
Castle Peak, Idaho
Massive Castle Peak (11,815 feet) truly lords over the White Cloud Mountains of south-central Idaho. From most aspects it presents a brooding gray, grooved edifice—not least the mighty north face, approached by the sawtooth Serrate Ridge that climbers on the Big Gully route to the summit follow—but the pale southeast face of this bicolored mountain makes it appear as a surreal whitish pyramid at a distance from that direction.
The lovely lakes of Chamberlain Basin to the immediate southwest provide prime, front-row views of Castle, while peakbaggers in the Sawtooths, Boulder Mountains, and Pioneers get the long-range views that point up the summit’s imperial bearing in the White Clouds.
Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado
At 14,309 feet, Uncompahgre Peak(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) crowns southwestern Colorado’s enormous San Juan Mountains (home to nearly a dozen fourteeners and a heck of a lot of alpine acreage). It’s also the high point of the entire Colorado River watershed, and the sixth-loftiest peak in the Centennial State. Uncompahgre looms as a castellated, tilted prong with an impressively steep north face: a distinctive shape that, coupled with its great height and prominence, gives it a standout role in many a sightline in the region.
You can make the straightforward climb to Uncompahgre’s summit from the south via the Nellie Creek Trail, or admire it at a distance from surrounding vantages—notable among them Slumgullion Pass, which presents a classic prospect of the San Juans’ chief peak as well as its handsome neighbors, including the strikingly toothy Wetterhorn.
Pilot Peak, Wyoming
The ice-whittled fang of 11,708-foot Pilot Peak(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) and its arete-linked companion to the north, Index (11,313 feet), create one of the signature tableaus of Yellowstone Country. Pilot is a dark-brown spike of a matterhorn in the Absarokas standing guard over the valley of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. It is part of the remote alpine of the North Absaroka Wilderness just a stone’s throw from Yellowstone National Park’s northeastern corner.
You can goggle at Pilot (and its stubbier sidekick Index) from U.S. Route 212 after dropping off the Beartooth Plateau, pick out its spire easily from a host of Greater Yellowstone peaks—including its fellow matterhorn on the other side of the Yellowstone Plateau, the Grand Teton—or get up close and personal with its grizzly-thumped flanks via the Republic Pass trailhead.
Chief Mountain, Montana
Aloof, square-topped Chief Mountain(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (9,080 feet) is both a geologic and sacred landmark lying along the Rocky Mountain Front of northwestern Montana. This is where the Great Plains lap up against the Northern Rockies. Directly on the border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Chief Mountain—known to the Blackfeet, for whom it holds immense spiritual significance, as Ninaistako—is an example of what geologists call a klippe: a sort of leftover chunk of a thrust-faulted slab isolated by erosion.
Specifically, this grand peak is a lonely erosional remnant along the Lewis Overthrust, which skidded a deck of Precambrian rock some 50 miles eastward over much more recent Cretaceous-age strata. So Chief Mountain stands atop rock more than a billion years younger than its ancient limestone.
It’s on full display from highways 17 and 89, and from the Slide Lake, Gable Pass, and Lee Ridge trails in Glacier.
Hozomeen Mountain, Washington
The ferocious double peaks of Hozomeen(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) are one of the signature symbols of the sublimely precipitous North Cascades. It surges almost impossibly above the Skagit drainage’s Ross Lake and the canyon of Lightning Creek just south of the B.C. border. North Peak, which reaches 8,066 feet, is the high point of the “Hozomeen Group,” and plenty sheer. But the marginally lower South Peak is even more so—and the tougher climb.
You can nab a glimpse of Hozomeen’s wild towers from the North Cascades Highway, but vastly better views await those willing to brave the punishing grade of North Cascade footpaths. Literary buffs favor the reach-out-and-touch-it look from the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak to the near south—the vantage from which Jack Kerouac fell hard under Hozomeen’s spell (which you can read about in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels).
Banner Peak, California
Set in the high, rugged Ritter Range, which parallels the Sierra Crest southeast of Yosemite National Park, Banner Peak(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) stands arm-in-arm with that subrange’s tallest peak, the fetching 13,143-foot Mount Ritter. Banner—named by a U.S. Geological Survey topographer who saw a banner cloud streaming off the summit—is a fantastic-looking mountain, craggy and sharp and dark: its metavolcanic rock giving it a strikingly different guise than the granitic domes and knobs more associated with the High Sierra.
Blue-ribbon views of Banner Peak abound in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and from more distant mountaintops. But the quintessential one comes from the shores of Thousand Island Lake, which Banner guards downright possessively.
Baboquivari Peak, Arizona
Here’s another summit that, like Castle Peak in Idaho’s White Clouds, dominates its range. Baboquivari(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) is a hulking, 7,730-foot granite pillar in the linear, periodically jaguar-prowled Baboquivari Mountains of far southern Arizona. A 2,040-acre sliver of this sky-island range, including the eastern face of Baboquivari Peak, falls within Arizona’s smallest wilderness area; to the west lie the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Muscling from Sonoran Desert footings into its own rarefied sky-realm, Baboquivari Peak—which Southwestern author Edward Abbey aptly compared to a “big, aching tooth”—is sacred to the Tohono O’odham, host to the creator I’itoi.
Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
At 5,946 feet, Grandfather Mountain(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) is far from the loftiest summit in the Southern Appalachians—after all, the Black Mountains, Great Smokies, Great Craggies, Great Balsams, and Roan Highlands to the west and southwest contain a feast of “Southern Sixers.” But the Grandfather massif—or Tanahwa, “Hawk Mountain,” as the Cherokee traditionally know it—is easily one of the most impressive uplifts in the eastern United States. It’s craggier and rougher than many of its taller brethren, and the suitably dramatic-looking high point of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Its exposure and prominence also give Grandfather Mountain some big-time weather, not least a fair share of ferocious winds.
The Blue Ridge Parkway that skirts Grandfather Mountain provides access to the trails along its up-and-down spine as well as good up-close looks from vantages such as Rough Ridge and Beacon Heights. But many a Southern Appalachian summit delivers the faroff perspective illustrating Tanahwa’s great topographic power; take a gander, for example, from Elk Knob or the high balds of Roan Mountain.
Gothics, New York
The Great Range of the Adirondack High Peaks come chock full with superb summits. But for sheer visuals it’s hard to beat 4,736-foot Gothics. Its huge, bare rock faces give it the gray, stone-flanked aesthetic behind its name and nicely embody the burly, somber, grand mood of this ancient mountain dome.
Take on the famous Great Range Traverse(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) as your epic dayhike, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to ooh and aah at Gothics’ grandeur from such neighboring heights as Saddleback and Pyramid. A climb up Big Slide Mountain, near to but not part of the Great Range, also memorably includes Gothics in its panorama.
Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs. Featured image provided by Bureau of Land Management.(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)
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