The 12 Tallest Mountains in the United States

Denali claims the highest elevation in the U.S. at 20,210 feet.

Silhouette of person standing arms outstretched with Denali in background
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The tallest mountain in the U.S. is Denali, located near the center of the Alaska Range. In fact, most of the United States’ tallest mountains are located in Alaska and are appropriately characterized by icy summits and glacial surroundings. That’s not to say that other mountain ranges in the U.S. don’t have some worthy peaks. Though maybe not as impressive as Denali’s 20,310 feet, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney in California, stands at 14,494 feet.

Here are the 12 tallest mountains in the country, what makes each one unique, and some of the valuable natural resources they hold.

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Denali (Alaska)

Mount Denali rising above a forest of fall colors
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Denali—no longer called by its colonial name, Mount McKinley—means "the tall one" in native Alaskan language. While it's widely accepted as the U.S.'s highest peak, its exact measurement has been debated since the late 1800s. To set the record straight, an advanced survey expedition team set out in 2015 with the latest GPS equipment and geoid models, determining its height as 20,310 feet. This has become the most widely accepted measurement today.

Denali is located inside the Denali Biosphere Reserve and National Park in south-central Alaska, within the northern boreal forest biome known for housing at least 39 mammals, including grizzly bears, gray wolves, and moose. According to the National Parks mountaineering summaries, between 1,000 and 1,300 permits are issued to U.S. and international climbers every year.

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Mount Saint Elias (Alaska)

Mount Saint Elias from the base, with glacier in foreground

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The second tallest mountain in the U.S. rises 18,008 feet on the Yukon, Canada, and Alaska border inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is the largest national park in the U.S., encompassing more than 13 million acres—the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and the country of Switzerland combined. This park houses numerous plants and animals, but also the fossilized remains of many organisms.

Mount Saint Elias' Tlingit name is Yahtse-tah-shah. The first ascent of it was completed in 1897 by a team led by the Duke of Abruzzi. These days, the mountain is mostly used for skiing, as it has one of the longest ski runs in the world.

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Mount Foraker (Alaska)

Snow-covered Mt. Foraker peak rising above clouds against blue sky
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Located in the central Alaska Range, the 17,400-foot Mount Foraker is the third-highest peak in the U.S. Its native names are Sultana, meaning "the woman," and Menlale, meaning "Denali's wife." In 1899, a U.S. lieutenant dubbed it Mount Foraker after fellow U.S. lieutenant and then-Ohio senator Joseph B Foraker.

It was first climbed in August of 1934 by Charles Houston, T. Graham Brown, and Chychele Waterston. Today, the peak sees far fewer climbers than its neighbor, Denali. Because the pass to climb both is included within one permit, most mountaineers opt for the more famous of the two.

Mount Foraker is also protected by Denali National Park and Preserve, where it provides important habitat for the region’s wildlife and plants.

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Mount Bona (Alaska)

Aerial view of Mount Bona peaking through clouds at sunset

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Mount Bona in eastern Alaska stretches 16,421 feet and is part of the Saint Elias Mountains. The stratovolcano is believed to have had its last volcanic eruption in 847 A.D. and is now home to a vast expanse of glaciers and ice fields. In fact, the state’s oldest glacier ever recorded was recovered from a basin between Mount Bona and Mount Churchill, dated to be about 30,000 years old.

The mountain provides an important source of ice for both the Klutlan Glacier, which flows into Canada’s Yukon Territory, and the nearby Russell Glacier system. Since it is almost completely covered in ice, climbers on Mount Bona are rare.

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Mount Blackburn (Alaska)

Snow-capped Mount Blackburn in the background of lush green forest

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Also located within Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska is Mount Blackburn, standing at 16,390 feet. That makes it the fifth-highest peak in the U.S. and the highest peak in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains.

In 1912, George Handy and Dora Keen summited its eastern side, completing the historic climb without guides. The eastern peak of the mountain didn’t see another climber until almost 70 years later, when Gerry Roach made a second ascent in 1977.

Since the mountain is so close to the Gulf of Alaska, it experiences some of the worst weather in North America; a combination of frequent storms, inaccessibility, and its remote location has resulted in less than 50 summit attempts over the last 30 years.

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Mount Sanford (Alaska)

Mount Sanford and pink sky reflecting in lake
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Apart from being the sixth highest mountain in the U.S., the Mount Sanford shield volcano is also one of the country’s highest Quaternary volcanoes. Its last known eruption was during the Pleistocene period, which lasted from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.

Mount Sanford's elevation is 16,237 feet. It's little studied and rarely climbed because its summit is completely covered in ice. Several large-magnitude eruptions over the past 2,000 years covered the area with volcanic ash, famously known as the White River Ash.

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Mount Fairweather (Alaska)

Up-close view of Mt. Fairweather's snow- and ice-covered peak
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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve's 15,325-foot Mount Fairweather was named by British navigator Captain Cook in 1778 for the good weather encountered at the time of his visit. Before Cook's arrival, it went by the Tlingit name Tanaku.

The first successful ascent of Mount Fairweather occurred in 1931. It wasn’t summited again until 27 years later. Since that second climb, there have been only 43 successful summits, the last of which happened in 2011.

Thanks to its location just above Glacier Bay, Mount Fairweather can be seen from hundreds of miles away on clear days. More often, though, it's obscured by cloud cover and notoriously stormy weather on the mountain (contrary to its name).

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Mount Hubbard (Alaska)

Hubbard Glacier and watercolor sky with icy water in foreground
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Mount Hubbard straddles the Alaska-Yukon border. The Canadian side is located within Kluane National Park and Reserve and the U.S. side within Wrangell–St. Elias National Park. In 1890, geologist Israel Russell named the 14,950-foot mountain after Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, because National Geographic had co-sponsored Russell’s expeditions.

The mountain is separated from Mount Vancouver by Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in North America at 76 miles long, seven miles wide, and 600 feet tall.

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Mount Bear (Alaska)

Mountaineers trekking across the Klutlan Glacier toward Mount Bear
U.S. Geological Survey / Getty Images

Mount Bear is located just four miles west of the Alaska-Canada border. It’s at least 14,831 feet in elevation, and its icy plateaus contribute to both the Barnard Glacier and the Klutlan Glacier complexes.

Its remoteness and proximity to more well-known peaks like Mount Logan and Mount Lucania together deter many potential summiteers. It is protected by the preserve and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. A drop from the summit of Mount Bear to the Barnard Glacier is a whopping 10,000 feet down over 12 miles.

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Mount Hunter (Alaska)

Cloud-shrouded Mt. Hunter looming over forest silhouette
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Mount Hunter is often considered the steepest and most technical of the three main peaks in Denali National Park and Preserve. It rises 14,573 feet, about 7,000 feet above Alaska’s Kahiltna Glacier.

With such a rugged reputation, very few people have attempted to climb Mount Hunter since it was first summited by by Fred Beckey and Henry Mehbohm in 1954. The accomplishment is still considered one of the boldest climbs ever completed in the Alaska Range, especially since both mountaineers had been part of the first Northwest Buttress expedition of Denali earlier that same year.

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Mount Whitney (California)

Ground-level view of rugged Mount Whitney at golden hour
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Known for being the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney—Shoshone name Tumanguya—is in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains on the border of Sequoia National Park and the famous John Muir Trail. Accessing the 14,494-foot summit is only possible for climbers through a special permit, and the U.S. Forest Service only reserves permits by lottery or six months in advance.

Because its summit is above the tree line and requires climbing more than 6,000 feet in 11 miles, Mount Whitney has an alpine climate and ecology with very few plants and animals, although some examples include the low-growing sky pilot cushion plant and transient butterflies.

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Mount Alverstone (Alaska)

Looking over snowy mountain range with Mount Alverstone summit showing

Gary Clark / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Also located within the Saint Elias Mountains on the border of Alaska and Yukon, 14,500-foot Mount Alverstone (or Boundary Peak) shares a large massif with Mount Hubbard to the south and Mount Kennedy to the east. The mountain was named after Chief Justice of England Lord Richard Everard Webster Alverstone, known for casting the swing vote that decided the Alaska boundary dispute of 1903.

It was climbed for the first time in 1951 by a team led by Walter Wood, who also ascended Mount Hubbard during the same expedition. Mount Foresta, a smaller mountain near Mount Alverstone, is named for Wood’s daughter who tragically died in a plane crash while he was summiting the mountain.

View Article Sources
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