The Best U.S. Summits: Top Of The World

Who needs Everest when you can have these eight summits, all hikeable, all close to home, no sherpas or yaks required.

You seem nervous. I don’t blame you, because this will be an extraordinary day. We’ll push ourselves hard. We’ll peer dizzily down at thousands of feet of nothingness beneath our boot soles. Later, there’s a slight chance we might feel our hair sizzle and have to turn around quickly before lightning strikes. But it will be a great day.

I don’t need to tell you how magical mountains are. You’ve witnessed them from below. You’ve watched the first light of morning kiss the highest summit, then caress ever lower the mountain’s flanks until the whole world shares its warmth. By the time valley folk feel the sun’s embrace, the ethereal light is gone. Watching from beneath, you miss out on something only the heavens-and mountain climbers-know. Today we hope to find it.

Yes, the heights are calling. But you seem unsure about the climbing. Don’t worry. We’re going to experience the mountain through the sheer joy of hiking. As we scramble upward, we’ll sense the mountain gliding under our hands and feet as if she’s there for us and we for her. Sound corny? Then think of yourself as a kid climbing carefree in the well-rubbed branches of a favorite tree. You’ll remember that feeling later today.

Yes, that oft-maligned word “challenge” will be a big part of our day. But we’re not brutes wrestling the summit to the ground. How absurd. Nevertheless, at some point we’ll venture deep inside ourselves to pull out extra reserves of energy, courage, or mere tenacity. This will lend an air of “victory” to our climax-not victory over the mountain, but over our own weaknesses. If the weather permits and we reach the top, we’ll find an alchemy in that win. Because the scramble was so meaningful, so too becomes the summit-the golden crown on an exhausting journey.

But enough talk. Let’s grab our packs and go.

Snowmass Mountain

“This is one of the truly classic places in Colorado,” says Gerry Roach, author of Colorado’s Fourteeners (see Guidebook below). “I love how the summit, which lies in the heart of a wilderness, isn’t visible from any road.” One of the most rugged of Colorado’s famous Fourteeners also is one of its most remote-a marvelous combination for backpackers, especially when the mountain’s east side offers stupendous scampering up a ridge that’s “always interesting but never desperate,” according to Roach.

Route: From the trailhead, 10 miles west of Aspen, it’s a lovely 8-mile hike up Snowmass Creek. Camp near Snowmass Lake (at least 200 feet from the water), then ascend a nasty scree slope to the mountain’s large namesake snowfield, which you’ll climb to a rounded protrusion below Snowmass Mountain’s southeast ridge. Continue to the summit ridge at 13,700 feet. The most exciting part comes in the final quarter mile of climbing when you have to scramble to the summit using hand- and footholds.

Challenge factor: Moderately high. There’s some exposure along the summit ridge. Bring trekking poles (or an ice axe) to traverse the lower snowfield. Beware that the snow can turn icy in September and can freeze solid during cold spring mornings, requiring crampons and an ice axe.

Guidebook: Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, 2nd edition, by Gerry Roach (1999; Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO; 800-992-2908; $18.95).

Contact: No permits required. White River National Forest, Aspen Ranger District: (970) 925-3445.

Humphreys Peak

“I’ve been up this peak probably 100 times,” says Bruce Grubbs, author of Hiking Northern Arizona (see Guidebook below). “For me, the highlights are the distinct life zones you climb through on the way-the theory of life zones was coined here back in the 1880s-and the last mile you walk along the rim of the collapsed volcano. Up there you can see well beyond 100 miles. It’s like looking out the window of an airplane.” So strikingly does this highest peak in Arizona rise from the surrounding desert that the Navajo considered this one of the “pillars of the sky.” For an experienced backpacker, the ascent makes an exciting climax to a two- to three-day circuit around lower mountains and along the rim of the exquisite Interior Valley.

Route: Humphreys rises a vertical mile from the plateau, but the road from Flagstaff to the trailhead cuts the elevation gain in half. Complete the circuit of the Kachina, Weatherford, and Humphreys Peak Trails plus summiting in18 miles total. An overnight is best in early summer when snow can be melted for drinking; otherwise carry water. Camping in the Interior Valley and off-trail hiking above 11,400 feet are prohibited to protect vegetation.

Challenge factor: Moderately low.

The trail is steep and covered with sharp, baseball-size lava rocks. Packed snow and ice can make the trek slippery, and the wind can be fierce. Avoid the summit on midsummer afternoons when thunderstorms can rage.

Guidebook: Hiking Northern Arizona, by Bruce Grubbs (1996; Falcon Publishing Co., Helena, MT; 800-582-2665; $12.95).

Contact: No permits required. Peaks Ranger District, Coconino National Forest: (520) 556-7400.

Mount Tyndall

“This peak is so spectacular,” says Cameron Burns, coauthor of Climbing California’s Fourteeners (see Guidebook below), “that the first ascent party thought they were climbing the highest summit in the Sierra.” Pioneering Sierra climber Clarence King made that mistake in 1864. As you wend your way up Tyndall’s easy, northwest ridge, you’ll see why King thought he was on the grandest mountain in the land. At the summit, the 2,000-foot sheer east face drops out like a trapdoor under your feet. Steady your trembling knees enough to take in the staggering views of peak after granite-walled peak for as far as the eye can see.

Route: This is a Sierra rarity where you can do a nontechnical climb via a tough-but-scenic eastern approach normally reserved for hardcore climbers. From the Shepherds Pass trailhead southwest of Independence (on U.S. 395), the hike is a strenuous 10 miles to the beautiful Shepherds Pass, where campsites are available. The obvious ridge .5 mile west of the pass is the Northwest Ridge Route. In the upper reaches, you work your way around a little rock tower before gaining the summit ridge.

Challenge Factor: Moderate. The ridge is easy to follow, but quite exposed near the top. In bad weather, take care that you don’t wander eastward near the drop-off.

Guidebook: Climbing California’s Fourteeners: 183 Routes to the Fifteen Highest Peaks, by Cameron M. Burns and Steven F. Porcella (1998; The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA; 800-553-4453; $19.95).

Contact: Quotas, permits, and a fee of $3.25 per person per night apply. Inyo National Forest Wilderness Reservation Service: (888) 374-3773; or Online Information Source:

Mount Richardson

“This area has so many attractions,” says Alan Kane, author of Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies (see Guidebook below). “that it’s hard to pinpoint any one as the best. Since Mt. Richardson is the highest in that area, it’s a great introduction to what you can do the next day, and the next….” Indeed, from a camp at Hidden Lake, you can scramble up a half-dozen beautiful peaks, then move on toward the Skoki Valley or Baker Lake and find even more. The possibilities for hiking and climbing are limited only by your imagination and energy. Climbing Richardson involves little more than a long hike up stable talus. If the snow has completely melted, consider continuing from Richardson up the more difficult neighboring Pika Peak.

Route: After an unavoidable 2.5 miles of walking along the Temple Lodge access road to the Lake Louise ski area in Banff National Park, it’s a mere 3 miles farther through alpine terrain to the camp at Hidden Lake. From there, you’ll see nothing but wide-open views of inviting peaks. The route up Richardson follows obvious talus slopes on the south ridge directly above Hidden Lake.

Challenge factor: Moderately low for Richardson; moderately high if you follow the ridgeline and continue up Pika, which is Class 3.

Guidebook: Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, by Alan Kane (1999; Rocky Mountain Books, Calgary, Alberta; 403-249-9490; $16.95).

Contact: Quotas, permits, and a fee of $4 (U.S.) per person per night apply for camping at Hidden Lake. Book up to 90 days in advance. Lake Louise Visitor Center: (403) 522-3833.

Peak 11825

“I’m amazed that this giant is unnamed,” says Tom Lopez, author of Exploring Idaho’s Mountains (see Guidebook below), “especially since it offers such a classic scramble with a super view. To me, Idaho’s unnamed peaks are diamonds in the rough.” The Pioneers are one of Idaho’s premier mountain ranges, filled with pristine lakes, uncounted and unnamed 11,000-foot peaks, and true wilderness (albeit undesignated). An excellent trail leads to the mountain’s base, but the route up the southwest ridge provides a typical Idaho mix of good solid rock and loose talus. The east side of the Pioneers, Lopez insists, is nearly unknown even to Idahoans.

Route: Twenty-two miles northeast of Ketchum, a series of dirt roads leads to various Copper Basin access points. Begin your out and back hike on the Fall Creek/Surprise Valley Trail, hiking for 5 miles past Surprise Lake and up to beautiful Betty Lake. To reach the southwest ridge of Peak 11825 from the pass between Surprise and Betty Lakes, you’ll need to negotiate the southern flank of a rock fin. Once on the ridge, always bypass obstacles on their south sides.

Challenge Factor: Moderately high. Though the east face takes an awesome plunge, the steep southwest ridge is uncomplicated hiking.

Guidebook: The current edition of Exploring Idaho’s Mountains: A Guide for Climbers, Hiking and Scramblers, by Tom Lopez (1990; The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA; 800-553-4453; $17.95), does not include Peak 11825, but it does feature its two neighbors, Pyramid and Standhope. The new edition, due out in 2000, will set the record straight.

Contact: No permits required. Sawtooth National Forest: (208) 737-3200.

Mount Colden

“The Trap Dike Route gives you 2,000 vertical feet of the most satisfying unroped climbing on the East Coast,” says Don Mellor, author of Climbing in the Adirondacks (see Guidebooks below). The ascent begins in a deeply eroded dike, where you’ll climb ladderlike up fractured rock past a waterfall. After several hundred feet, you’ll break out onto a 30-something-degree slab of smooth granite that will eventually leave your hamstrings begging for mercy. Fortunately, the summit views of neighboring high peaks are as sweet as they come. What’s more, you’ll have the satisfaction of having done the historic Adirondack climb.

Route: Tony Goodwin, editor of Guide to Adirondack Trails (see Guidebooks below), suggests a scenic three- to four-day, 32-mile loop beginning near Averyville. Spend the first night near Moose or Duck Ponds. The second day, hike past Wallface Cliff and camp near Scott’s Dam to avoid the crowds. The Trap Dike Route begins in the obvious chasm on the southwest flank of Avalanche Lake. Move out of the dike and onto the slabs when the walls of the chasm become low enough to allow escape (use the second opportunity to gain the slabs; the first option is more difficult). Follow the trail back to Lake Colden, then over Avalanche Pass to Adirondack Loj.

Challenge Factor: High. It is steep passing the waterfall at the bottom, and the upper slabs are easy but unnervingly smooth. Do not venture onto the slabs if they are wet or there is a chance of rain. Try this route only if you have prior experience at walking up smooth granite slabs with lots of exposure below.

Guidebooks: Climbing in the Adirondacks: A Guide to Rock & Ice Routes in the Adirondack Park, by Don Mellor (1996; Adirondack Mountain Club, Lake George, NY; 800-395-8080; $24.95); and Guide to Adirondack Trails 1: High Peaks Region, 12th edition, edited by Tony Goodwin (1998; Adirondack Mountain Club, $16.95).

Contact: No permits required. Adirondack Mountain Club: (518) 668-4447.

Mount Katahdin

“The Knife Edge is the most spectacular feature of Katahdin,” writes Stephen Clark, author of Katahdin: A Guide to Baxter State Park & Katahdin (see Guidebook below). Along the ridge “there are only three ways to go: forward, backward, or straight down.” For this reason the bladelike ar?te connecting two of Katahdin’s highest summits has become the prized “trail” for the mountain’s most adventuresome hikers. The best way to reach the summit is from Chimney Pond, a campground described by Clark as the most dramatic east of the Rockies; you’ll gaze directly upward at 2,000 vertical feet of glacially carved granite. Adjust your eagle eyes to see the hikers tiptoeing across the Knife Edge.

Route: Start at Roaring Brook trailhead and hike 3.3 miles to the lean-tos at Chimney Pond Campground. From there, Cathedral Trail gains 2,300-feet in a mere 1.6 miles to Baxter Peak, the mountain’s high point. Then it’s quite a few skips to the South Peak, followed by the heart-stopping Knife Edge traverse, and finally the knee-crushing 2,000-foot, 1.3-mile drop back to Chimney Pond.

Challenge factor: Moderate. You’ll be stepping carefully across the Knife Edge. Make sure the weather is in your favor because this is an exposed and potentially dangerous position.

Guidebook: Katahdin: A Guide to Baxter State Park & Katahdin, by Stephen Clark (1988; North Country Press, Unity, ME; 800-722-2169; $13.95).

Contact: Chimney Pond Campground (all lean-tos; no tenting allowed) has a quota, requires reservations, and costs $6 per person per night. Baxter Park headquarters: (207) 723-5140.

Mount St. Helens

“Of all the hundreds of summits that I’ve stood on, none are more glorious than that lowly walkup, Mt. St. Helens.” So says yours truly, author of The Climber’s Guide to North America, Vol. 1: West Coast Rock Climbs (1984; Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO; 800-337-5012; $22). St. Helens is the exception to my summit rule. I don’t climb this mountain for the steep, beautiful, view-filled hike; I climb it to reach the top. You can see why if you turn to the fold-out picture on the next page. All the way up, you trudge the monotonous slope of a cinder cone. But step onto the summit and you’ve entered an exploded world of unparalleled power, a spectacular display of raw geology. Scattered across the horizon, you’ll see a speckling of snow-covered volcanoes, all patiently waiting to show what they’re made of.

Route: The standard route on Monitor Ridge is a one-day round-trip from the trailhead. For an overnight excursion, camp instead at Butte Camp Dome, which is 2.2 miles from the trailhead at Redrock Pass. Ascend the snow slopes from there, roughly a 4-mile trudge to the summit. In the summer after the snow has melted, follow the Loowit Trail 2.2 miles to Monitor Ridge for a more pleasant ascent. For the ultimate in volcano experiences, hike the 31-mile, three-day loop around St. Helens, then top it off with a summit climb.

Challenge factor: Moderate. Beware not to step onto hidden cornices overhanging the interior. This is one of the few Cascade volcanoes that’s unglaciated and completely nontechnical.

Guidebook: Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes, by Jeff Smoot (1992; Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO; 800-337-5012; $14.95).

Contact: Permits, quotas, and a fee of $15 per person apply. Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument: (360) 247-3961.