When the sun sinks down behind one of America’s tallest peaks, there is simply no better place on earth to be. It’s a sight that reminds us of how lucky we are to have these one-of-a-kind places in our nation, as well as how important it is that we protect them. For hikers and mountaineers, these incredible national park mountains are some of the most beautiful sites in North America – and some of the most challenging to scale.
The namesake mountain of Mount Rainier National Park is more than an iconic peak. It’s also a 14,410-foot active volcano, the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, and stands at the headwaters of six major rivers. Hikers who follow the trails that lead to the top of Mount Rainier meander through lush meadows and temperate rainforest at the foot of the mountain before ascending to ice-covered slopes.
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in both Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also one of the most beautiful area landmarks, with an observation tower at the top that provides panoramic views of the Smokies. Thanks to the Clingman’s Dome Road, it’s possible to drive most of the way to the top, but several hiking trails offer a more rewarding route.
Death Valley National Park is famous for being the lowest point in America – 279 feet below sea level – and that only makes the mountains that surround it seem more impressive. The 11,049-foot Telescope Peak is the tallest of the Panamint Mountains, an isolated “island” of mountains that stand in stark contrast to the harsh valley below.
The tallest in an area that features some very tall mountains, Longs Peak is the 14,259-foot pinnacle of Rocky Mountain National Park. A path known as the Keyhole Route challenges climbers to reach the top, a feat that requires traversing narrow ledges, ascending sheer vertical rock faces, and scrambling over boulder-strewn terrain.
While the Half Dome does not boast the highest point in Yosemite National Park – that honor goes to 13,114-foot Mount Lyell – its iconic profile is unmistakable. It was once thought that reaching the Dome’s peak was unattainable, but thousands of modern-day hikers accomplish this feat every year. That’s not to say it’s easy, however. The round-trip hike is at least 14 miles over difficult terrain, culminating with a steep ascent up the bare rock face.
At the northern terminus of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Maine’s Mount Katahdin is far from the highest peak on this list. Topping out at 5,269 feet, Katahdin is dwarfed by many western mountains, but its steep ascent over exposed slabs of broken rock is grueling. And for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who spend months following the trail from Georgia to Maine, reaching the summit of Baxter State Park’s Katahdin is nothing short of cathartic.
Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is the highest point in North America. At a towering 20,310 feet, it looms large in mountaineering lore. Located in the heart of Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve, it’s one of the most difficult peaks in America, and reaching the summit requires weeks of backcountry hiking and climbing.
This list represents only a fraction of the best mountains in the National Park System. You could spend a lifetime hiking to summits all over America and never see the same view twice. Some mountains are among the tallest, the most challenging, or the most scenic, but all have their own special character that makes them worth preserving and exploring.