When it comes to iconic summits, America has some true stunners. Celebrate International Mountain Day with us as we take a look at the U.S.’s best mountain peaks.
As a part of their conservation efforts, The United Nations has declared December 11th as Mountain Day. The international holiday marks the importance of our planet’s stunning peaks. After all, our mountain systems host nearly half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Moreover, they make up a solid 30% of the U.N.’s Key Biodiversity Areas.
Indeed, without mountains and the species they produce, humanity would never have developed agriculture – and as a result of it – modern civilization. Six of the main plants that supply over 80% of the world’s food: potatoes, barley, sorghum, tomatoes, apples, and maize (corn) – all originate from our mountains.
There’s no getting by without the freshwater these peaks produce, either. More than half of Earth’s population still rely on mountain freshwater for their everyday lives. On top of all this, mountains also happen to be perhaps the most inspiring and stunning natural features we humans have ever known.
Together, let’s take a look at both this unrivaled beauty – and importance – of our own American summits for Mountain Day.
Mountain Day: Mount Baker, Washington
Mount Baker is the subject of so many photographs and paintings that it often gets mistaken for other peaks. The dual-peaks of this gorgeous, towering summit rest in northern Washington state. Staying coated in snow for the majority of the year makes it a ski hotspot, as well.
At an elevation of 10,718 feet, Mount Baker is one of the highest peaks in the Cascades. Fellow Cascades mountain it is often mistaken for – Mount Rainier – eclipses it, however, at over 14,000 feet.
Much like Rainier, though, Baker is an active volcano. Moreover, it is an active glaciated andesitic stratovolcano. Talk about a mouthful! Baker as we know it formed during the most recent Ice Age, which came to an end around 15,000 years ago. During this age, lava flows regularly erupted, forming the enormous peaks we associate with Mount Baker today. Since then, it has become far less active, but historical reports from 1880 pinpoint a modern eruption.
Experts agree, thankfully, that Baker isn’t due for any grand events anytime soon. Let’s hope this holds true for the people of Washington, and for Baker’s beauty itself.
Maroon Bells, Colorado
While Mount Baker is up there, it is the Maroon Bells formation that is considered to be the most photographed of all mountain peaks in North America. As part of the “fourteeners”, these marvels of nature stand over 14,000 feet tall. Chances are many Americans are celebrating Mountain Day on these peaks as this article is read.
Towering over Aspen, Colorado, the Maroon Bells are a common sight for visitors to the famous winter ski town. Seeing their deep red coloration in Autumn, however, can prove far more striking. Such is the case in the breathtaking photo above.
Surrounding the peaks are their pristine National Forest lands, making this one of the cleanest, most revered vistas on the planet. Few landscapes compare to the glacial valleys around Maroon Bells. Indeed, the view above comes from the southwest, from the Maroon Creek valley. It is easy to see why this spot is very heavily photographed – and to stunning results.
Mountain Day at Denali or Mt. McKinley?
It is impossible, however, to mention the mountain peaks – or Mountain Day – in the U.S. without acknowledging Denali. Also known as Mount Mckinley, it is the highest mountain peak in all of the North American continent. As such, it is the centerpiece of the Denali National Park and Preserve.
Located in south-central Alaska, Denali rises to an absolutely staggering 20,310 feet above sea level. With this height, it is the third most prominent peak on the planet. In addition, it is also the third most isolated peak on Earth, following only Aconcagua in Argentina and, of course: Mount Everest in Nepal.
Garnering its name from the native Koyukon Athabascan people, Denali is typically translated to mean “The Great One”. The peak’s alternate name, Mount Mckinley, though, arose in 1896. Gold prospector William Dickey gave the incredible sight the name of his then-sitting U.S. President William McKinley. According to the park, Dickey chose to name the summit after his president out of McKinley’s support of the gold standard.
Strangely, President McKinley, a native of Ohio, never once visited the mountain, nor any part of Alaska.
The Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Similarly, there’s no mention of American Mountains without the Grand Tetons. Seen above from the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Grand Tetons are known as some of the most visually distinct – and remarkably gorgeous – mountains in the world. These North American wonders may as well be a mascot for Mountain Day themselves, with their dramatic rocky peaks and craggy personality.
The Grand Tetons also tote themselves as “the most astonishing peaks in North America for viewing and for exploring”,. With over 200 miles of trails extant, the National Park boasts accurately.
More specifically, The Grand Teton itself is the highest peak within the Teton range. At an elevation of 13,775 feet, it’s up there with the tallest North American mountains. But how did the Grand Tetons end up with a name so – different – from its fellow peaks?
Hilariously, at the time of its charting, French-Canadian trappers took to calling the mountain range “Grand Tetons”. One only needs to speak French to know that this translates… to “big breasts”.
Most Unique for Mountain Day: Bryce Canyon
While not necessarily a “mountain peak,” the millions of peaks in Bryce Canyon are as breathtaking as they come all the same. But what exactly are they?
These unique and beautiful spires are known as hoodoos. Each is made of softer rock and mineral, such as limestone, that erodes away after exposure to the elements over time. Erosion from rainwater is keenly responsible, but gravity and wind take their toll, as well. They can range from five inches to several hundred feet tall. Bryce Canyon, however you slice your hoodoos, houses the most on our planet.
Moreover, hoodoos, such as these absolutely gorgeous limestone examples in Bryce Canyon above, typically need an arid drainage basin, or “badland”, for their creation. Generally, these columns will form within sedimentary and volcanic rock.
So what separates a hoodoo from a typical rock spire, then? Hoodoos, by definition, must have a “variable thickness” to them. This usually gives each a “head” at the top and a “totem pole” shape to the body. Spires, however, have smooth profiles and a uniform thickness from the top down.
Furthermore, the more pliable nature of the mineral required to form hoodoos can produce remarkable natural events. Bryce Canyon details one such phenomenon for the gorgeous photo above. And at Bryce’s highest elevations in the south, visitors are at over 9,000 ft / 2,743 m, making the peaks of the canyon a worthy addition to any mountaineering list.
For much more on the fascinating history and sights of Bryce Canyon, head on over to our Greatest Photos and Backstory on Legendary National Park.
Honorable Mention: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When it comes to American peaks, however, bigger isn’t always better. One of the most recognizable mountain ranges on the planet the Great Smoky Mountains stretch of the Appalachian Mountains is as iconic as America gets. Sure, this author may be biased being raised within their hills – but just one photo from the Blue Ridge mountains says everything any Outsider will ever need to know.
This gorgeous sunset view comes from the Oconaluftee Overlook, another of the most-photographed mountain locations in all the U.S. Misty fog settles perfectly into this part of the Oconaluftee Valley, making the namesake of the Smoky Mountains immediately clear. While most tend to associate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Tennessee, this locale actually comes courtesy of North Carolina, which houses just as many of the Smokies’ brilliant sights.
If you set out for impressive peaks in the Smokies regardless, head for Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans is the highest elevation in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Likewise, it is also the highest point in all of Tennesse, but only the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River.
As one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, the Great Smoky Mountains are awash with rounded peaks, eroded stone valleys, babbling rivers, stunning waterfalls, and ancient forests. Quite simply, there’s nowhere else like it on the planet. As a result, it remains the most visited national park in the United States. If that doesn’t make it Mountain Day worthy, we don’t know what would.
For More Unique American Mountains…
- Check out our recent Best Photos and Facts of Oregon’s Breathtaking Crater Lake National Park.
- Similarly, we’ve gathered the most incredible photos & facts for Utah’s Legendary Bryce Canyon National Park.
- For our New England friends, these gorgeous photos from Acadia National Park will have you visiting Maine.
- Or, if you’re looking for somewhere even more iconic, Yosemite National Park awaits.
- Carlsbad Canyon is calling for those looking for more incredible rock formations, as well.
Happy International Mountain Day from all of us here at Outsider.com!