From the ancient Appalachian Mountains of the East to the massive Rockies of the West, American mountains are as diverse as the landscapes they command. Whether you’re a beginner looking to bag your first summit or a seasoned mountaineer in search of a perilous expedition, here are some of the best mountains to climb in the U.S.
For the panorama enthusiast
Great Smoky Mountain National Park, TN
6,644 feet, 2025 meters
Standing at 6,644 feet, Clingman’s Dome is both the highest point in Tennessee and along the Appalachian Trail. But reaching the top is not as difficult as its height would imply. The most popular route involves driving along Clingmans Dome Road to a parking lot and hiking the final half-mile to the top. This route is quite steep, but short, and brings you right to the flying saucer-esque observation tower that provides spectacular panoramic views of the park. For more seasoned hikers, we recommend starting at Newfound Gap and following the historic Appalachian Trail 7.7 miles to the summit.
For the 14er peak-bagger
14,440 feet, 4,401 meters
Colorado features 53 14ers (summits higher than 14,000 feet), and the tallest of them all is Mount Elbert, the second-highest mountain in the contiguous United States. However, despite its record-setting height, Elbert is one of the more accessible peaks on the list. It does require a full day and a whole lot of strength and endurance to climb, but you don’t need any special equipment or technical climbing skills. The standard and most popular route starts at the North Mount Elbert trailhead and involves nine miles of round-trip hiking.
For the landscape photographer
Yosemite National Park, CA
8,842 feet, 2,692 meters
Few views are more recognizable than that of Half-Dome, the majestic rounded peak that overlooks the wild Yosemite Valley. Whether you choose the 14.2 mile Mist Trail route or the 16.5 mile route along the John Muir Trail, you’re in for a full day of hiking, a strenuous ascent, and a lot of dangerous sections with precarious drop-offs. But with the view from the summit, it’s well worth the risk and effort. Keep in mind that, due to heavy crowds and bottle-necking, you must acquire a permit in order to access the final section of the trail (a near vertical ascent of Half-Dome peak), which includes a series of cables and clips that will keep you secure along a stretch steep enough to test the treads of your boots. Most permits are awarded through a lottery system that takes place at the end of March, so be sure to plan ahead!
For the Thru-hiking thrill-seeker
Baxter State Park, ME
5,269 feet, 1,606 meters
For the several thousand hikers that attempt a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year, the three syllables of Maine’s highest point represent a lot more than a mountain. Katahdin is the end-goal, the final push, the summit of which acts as the northern terminus to the historic long-distance trail. Those who reach the top have entered the ranks of an elite group of trekkers. But, of course, you don’t have to be an AT-hiker to climb Mount Katahdin. The centerpiece of picturesque Baxter State Park is open to all, offering several different summit routes of varying difficulty. For true adventurers, we recommend taking the Helen Taylor Trail to the Knife Edge, a perilous narrow ridge that connects Pamola Peak with Baxter Peak. The three-foot wide path is, admittedly, responsible for the most deaths on the mountain, but if you can handle the vertigo-inducing drop-offs on either side, the view is utterly breathtaking.
For the East Coast adrenaline junkie
Mount Washington State Park, NH
6,289 feet, 1,917 meters
Most serious climbers set their sights on the West, where the prominent peaks of the Rockies and Cascades rise over 10,000 feet, offering difficult, technical climbs. But don’t be blindsided by Washington’s low elevation. This vicious mountain amid the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains is wild and unpredictable, having claimed almost 150 lives over the past 150 years. Notorious for its erratic weather, the mountain houses a weather observatory at the summit where freakishly strong winds were recorded at 231 mph back in 1934. During the winter, local guides take advantage of the mountain’s heavy snow and glacial conditions to teach beginning mountaineering courses, coaching aspiring explorers to navigate avalanches and use technical gear such as ice axes and crampons. In the summer, you can opt for a less technical, but still strenuous, trail such as the Tuckerman Ravine Trail or Boott Spur.
For the weekend warrior
Sierra Nevada, CA
14,505 feet, 4,421 meters
The highest peak in the lower 48 states is more accessible than you might expect. Though you’ll need ice axes and crampons in the spring and early summer, from mid-July through early October, all you’ll need to reach the summit will be a permit, a sturdy pair of boots, and lots of water! The easiest and most popular route to the top is the 11-mile Mount Whitney Trail, which, if you push it, can be done in a single, strenuous 22-mile day. We recommend taking your time and allowing yourself two to three days round trip, which will ensure that you have enough time to pause and enjoy the astounding views along the way.
For the beginning mountaineer
Mount Rainier National Park, WA
14,410 feet, 4,392 meters
Rainier is a Washington icon, a heavily glaciated peak that stands watch over the city of Seattle, rising majestically from the tranquil Cascade countryside surrounding it. Mountaineering can be an intimidating hobby to pick up (you can’t exactly throw yourself right into Everest’s perilous Khumbu Icefall), but if there’s one place to start, Rainier is it. While the route to the top is short and relatively safe, it is highly technical, so guiding companies such as RMI Expeditions and American Alpine Institute often use the mountain to teach beginners and intermediates the skills they need to tackle higher peaks. They’ll guide you through the alpine forests and wildflower meadows that coat the bottom of Rainier all the way to its snowy summit.
For the serious mountaineer
Denali National Park, AK
20,310 feet, 6,190 meters
Difficulty: Experts only
Do not underestimate Denali. This behemoth of a mountain is the highest point in North America, and it is no piece of cake to climb. Sporting a success rate of only 50 percent and having claimed over 100 lives, Denali has turned away even the most seasoned mountaineers, pushing them back down to base camp with raging storms and unexpected avalanches. But for the lucky few who make the summit, the experience is unforgettable, generally taking two to three weeks and affording unparalleled views of the surrounding Alaska Range. Denali is one of the Seven Summits, a mountaineering challenge in which climbers attempt to reach the highest peak on every continent. Among those seven mountains, Denali is often considered the second most difficult, behind only Everest.
Header image by Teal Thomsen