Top of the World
Humans seem irresistibly drawn to the high places of the world. Some visit mountaintops for spiritual solace, some climb for the view. Others ascend treacherous slopes to prove to themselves and the world that it can be done. But the one truth is that wherever there are mountains, there are people trying to climb them.
Here at GORP, we appreciate the alpine spirit. But not everyone with a yearning to reach the top is an expert mountaineer, prepared with all the paraphernalia and training to clamber up a vertical pitch. For those with lofty aspirations and less technical know-how, we've chosen a collection of American summits achievable by the fit hiker. That's not to say you should treat these mountains lightly. All have taken their toll on unprepared enthusiasts, and on at least one, the leadership and training provided by an experienced guide are virtually mandatory.
So grab your pack and walking stick and set out for the high country. You may be aiming for the top of the world, but you will soon realize the journey up the mountain is as rewarding as any view from the summit.
Salt Lake Summits
The Destination: Utah boasts the highest summits, on average, of any state. Peak baggers, or those looking to walk in the footsteps of Mormon pioneers and Shoshoni clan members, fan out across the state, seeking the highs of alpine ranges to the north and desert terrain to the south.
Travel Tip: Mount Nebo is a good hike for those seeking a wilderness experience, with lighter foot traffic than the more popular Timpanogos Wilderness. For those looking to branch out, Notch Peak Wilderness, 200 miles south of Salt Lake City will reward hikers with stellar views and dry, rocky climbing.
Word to the Wise: Utah's alpine trails are beautiful, but they'll tear your feet up! Gravel approach roads, talus, boulders, and general roughness take a toll on feet. Wear good boots, ideally made of a single piece of leather with lug soles.
The Destination: Only hardcore mountaineers are likely to scale all Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks and join the 50+ club. But mere mortals without technical training can summit several of the state's highest mountains. Mount Elbert is the state's tallest, towering above Independence Pass. The Collegiate Peaks present the Ivy League, Mounts Harvard and Columbia. The southwest portion of the state harbors two of the "easiest," though no fourteener really deserves that label. Uncompahgre stands as a lonesome sentinel over a wild land known as "The Big Blue." Mount Sneffels commands a vista that encompasses three more fourteeners and a half dozen thirteeners that line St. Sophia Ridge and the unique pinnacle of Lizard Head.
Travel Tip: When the aspen turn in late September, the slopes around these fourteeners take on a golden hue. The weather is brisk, the crowds are gone. No time is more rewarding for a trek to the Top of Colorado.
Word to the Wise: Day hikes, rock scrambles, non-technicalthose words describe these summits and may make them sound easy. Don't be fooled. At the 14,000-foot mark, the trailheads can be almost a mile down. Most of the air is down there, too! Fitness is critical.
High Peaks Farther Afield
Adirondacks High Peaks
The Destination: Mount Marcy, at 5,344 feet, is the highest peak in New York State's Adirondack Park and in the state. Mount Marcy presides over the High Peaks Region in the park, which draws peak baggers like honey draws hungry bears. This is the territory of the "46ers," a (very) loosely organized club of those who've climbed the 46 highest peaks in the 'Dacks.
Travel Tip: Visit one of the Adirondacks' great camps while in the region. Built by 19th-century industrialists, these compounds might include private bowling alleys, ballrooms, carriage houses, and librariesa far cry from the two-person tent and backpack carried by most Adirondack visitors.
Word to the Wise: The hiking season in the Adirondacks extends from May to October, but the key word is unpredictability. A sunny day can turn to a rain; the thermometer can climb to the low 90s in May or dip below freezing. The first snows hit in September, but warm days can extend well into October. Plan clothing, supplies, and lodging accordingly.
The Destination: The Cascade Range, a string of still-active volcanoes running north to south from the Canadian border to northern California, offers alpine hikers in the Pacific Northwest a spectacular assortment of challenging summits. Of these peaks, the two guaranteed to test the mettle of aspiring mountaineers are Mount Rainier, the tallest of the Cascades (14,410 feet), and Mount Shasta, the second-tallest (14,162 feet) and largest by volume. Both of these mountains require crampons and ice-axes for a summit assault (which is why they are popular training grounds for Everest expeditions), but either can be attempted by less-experienced climberswith a good guide and weather, snow conditions, and those fickle mountain gods permitting.
Travel Tip: Summer is "peak" season in the Cascadeslonger days tend to soften the snow and provide more daylight for climbing. A summit attempt coordinated with a full moon will afford even more potential activity time. Both hikes are typically completed in two days, so prepare for snow-camping conditions en route.
Word to the Wise: Know your limits. Many experienced alpinists attempt Rainier and Shasta numerous times before reaching their summits, not because the climb is demanding, but because unpredictable Pacific Northwest weather foils their plans. With this in mind, climbers need to check the forecast ahead of time and be prepared to turn back when storms threaten.
The Presidential Peaks
The Destination: Clustered in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, the Presidential Peaks are the five highest mountains in all of New England and the epitome of the East Coast alpine experience. Though these peaksWashington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe and Madisonare small by Western standards (the tallest is only 6,288 feet), they feature many of the characteristics and conditions associated with higher altitudes. Giant cairns, plummeting headwalls, deep ravines, broad lawns of delicate flowers, barren summits, and stunning views are all the elements of a Presidential outing.
Travel Tip: If you've got the time and the inclination, a visit to the Presidentials is best undertaken over a week-long vacation. That way all five peaks can be climbed, with a few days leeway should conditions turn for the worst. There are also plenty of lower-altitude trails and traverses between the mountains that make for excellent side trips.
Word to the Wise: Before you set out, make sure to prepare for the challenging weather that's likely to be encountered in this region of arctic peaks. The strongest winds ever recorded were on the summit of Mount Washington, and plenty of summer hikers have had their casual hikes turned into battles for survival when brutal conditions pushed down from Canada.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication