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California has the highest quantity of mountains in the lower 48 states – 6,106 named mountains altogether. The formation of California’s mountain ranges is attributed to major tectonic activity, bur geographic features are considered undeveloped in geologic terms and mountains are continuing to form and grow today.

The state is generally divided into two sections: Northern California and Southern California. However, scientists often divide the state into eleven distinct geomorphic provinces: Klamath Mountains, Cascade Range, Modoc Plateau, Coast Ranges, Great Valley, Sierra Nevada, Basin Ranges, Mojave Desert, Transverse Ranges, Peninsular Ranges and Colorado Desert.

Mount Shasta

Each of these geomorphic provinces include a diverse set of mountain ranges, but some are more extraordinary than others. Cascade Range, Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada are the most popular in Northern California, while the Traverse Ranges and Peninsular Ranges are more popular in Southern California.

Cascade Range

Southern California’s Traverse Ranges – named for their east to west orientation - begin at the Southern end of California Coast Ranges and traverse 5 major counties: Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside. Notable peaks within the Traverse Ranges are: Mt. San Gorgonio, Anderson Peak, Mount San Antonio, Sugarloaf Mountain, Mount Baden-Powell, Cucamonga Peak, Telegraph Peak, Ontario Peak, and Frazier Mountain.

Mount San Antonio

The Cascade Range, in Northern California, actually extends from Lassen Peak (or Mount Lassen), located in Lassen Volcanic National Park, all the way North into British Columbia. The most popular peaks in the California Cascade Range are Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta, which is home to the highest peaks in the entire Cascade Range.

Mount Lassen

Located in the heart of California, you’ll find the largest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Other peaks in the Sierra Nevada range from 11,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level and are composed of mostly granite. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is home to three of California’s most awe-inspiring national parks - Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park - and contains several of California’s 14-ers: Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson, North Palisade, Mount Sill, Mount Russell, Polemonium Peak, Split Mountain, Mount Langley, Mount Tyndall and Middle Palisade.

Mount Whitney

California's National Parks

California boasts of rich and diverse natural landscapes. It is the home to scenic beaches, craggy peaks, isolated islands, one of the hottest deserts in the world, and the trees that are considered to be the tallest and the largest by volume. Unsurprisingly, California has nine National Parks (out of 62 US total), more than any other state in the USA. The largest state of Alaska is the second scoring only eight National Parks so far.

The 9 National Parks in California include:

  • Channel Islands are five isolated islands, preserving and protecting the wealth of natural and cultural resources off the coast of Santa Barbara.
  • Death Valley's intriguing name suggests that few survive in this extreme area. The lowest spot in North America, Badwater Basin at 282ft below sea level, is encompassed here. At the same time, such surrounding peaks as Telescope Peak 11,053 ft soar into the skies. To prove its name, Telescope Peak allows unobstructed view as far as 100 miles.
  • Lassen Volcanic is often considered California’s best-kept secret. The park’s namesake summit, Lassen Peak, is one of the largest lava domes on Earth.
  • Redwood National Park protects almost half of all remaining coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth.
  • Yosemite is a crown jewel of the US National Park Service, thanks to its sheer granite cliffs and unique post-glacial landscape, let alone its majestic sulphur-spitting geysers.
  • Joshua Tree National Park is home to Yucca brevifolia growing in fiercely adverse conditions of the Mojave Desert. With branches reminding of arms raised in prayer, the tree was named after the prophet Joshua.
  • Sequoia National Park is home to several giant sequoia groves, the largest by volume trees in the world. Those include the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth.
  • Kings Canyon is famous for the deep and rugged glacier-carved valley. It is adjacent and jointly managed with Sequoia National Park.
  • Pinnacles named for the protruding lava spires of an extinct volcano is the newest National Park in the USA.

Major Trails and Hiking Areas

Northern California

Mount Whitney is California’s most popular fourteener. The Mt. Whitney trail is a well-maintained, 11-mile out and back footpath that begins at 8,360 ft and continues to approx. 14,498 feet - a total elevation gain of 6, 137 ft. There are over a dozen routes to the summit, for varying levels of hikers. A permit is required.

Mount Whitney

Mt. Langley is the southernmost of all the California 14-ers and has an incredible vantage point of the Southern Sierras. Mt. Langley is considered to be a great starter climb for those interested in acclimating to fourteen thousand-foot peaks. The peak can be easily accessed via the Cottonwood Lakes Trail, a 19-mile trail, which sits at 10,000 ft.

Mount Langley

Thousand Island Lake Loop, is a 22-mile trek that overlaps with two of the most iconic thru-hikes in the states: The Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail. However, you don’t need to travel the whole trail to experience some of the best wilderness in California. From the High Trail you can catch a glimpse of craggy summits Mt. Ritter, Banner Peak and the Minarets in as little as 3 miles. Continue on for 7.8 miles to experience an unobstructed view of the 12,945-foot Banner Peak.

Mount Ritter

Lassen Peak is a 6-mile round trip trek up to the 10,000-foot summit in Lassen National Park. It only requires 2,000 feet of elevation gain, because the trail starts at 8,000 feet. From the top you can see all the way to Mt. Shasta.

Mount Shasta

Southern California

Mount Baldy, also known as Mount San Antonio, is a Southern California icon located in the San Gabriel Mountains. An 11-mile out and back hike and 3,800 feet of elevation, will take you to two peaks: one at 10,064 feet and a sub-peak at 9,988 feet. The high attitude and easy access makes this a popular hike to train for other fourteeners, like Mt. Whitney.

Mount Baldy

San Gorgonio is a challenging 18.5 mile out and back hike that brings you to the highest peak in Southern California. San Gorgonio is the only mountain that can be seen from Mt. Whitney, 190 miles away. The San Gorgonio hike is a technical climb, so it’s recommended that you hike San Jacinto or Mount Baldy, first.

San Jacinto Peak

California Fourteeners

California has 15 mountains that extend beyond 14,000 feet, all – except for two – are located in the Sierra Nevada Range.

  1. Mount Whitney (14,494 ft./4,418 m.)
  2. Mount Williamson (14,370 ft./4,380 m.)
  3. White Mountain Peak (14,246 ft./4,342 m.)
  4. North Palisade (14,242 ft./4,341 m.)
  5. *Polemonium Peak (14,200 ft./4,328 m.)
  6. *Starlight Peak (14,200 ft./4,328 m.)
  7. Mount Shasta (14,162 ft./4,317 m.)
  8. Mount Sill (14,153 ft./4,314 m.)
  9. Mount Russell (14,086 ft./4,293 m.)
  10. Split Mountain (14,058 ft./4,285 m.)
  11. *Thunderbolt Peak (14,022 ft./4,267 m.)
  12. *Mount Muir (13,996 ft./4,271 m.)
  13. *Mount Langley (13,993 ft./4,275 m.)
  14. *Mount Tyndall (13,993 ft./4,273 m.)
  15. *Middle Palisade (13,990 ft./4,279 m.)

Major Cities and Resorts

Several areas in California are popular tourist destinations, but these are the top three:

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the second most populated city and metropolitan area in the United States. The city is located in a large basin surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and both the San Gabriel Mountains - home to Mt. San Antonio - and the Santa Monica Mountains. Los Angeles boasts over 75 miles of coastline and several accessible hiking trails.

In addition to being the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles is well known for its idyllic weather and Hollywood stardom. The city offers a variety of tourist attractions which include over 100 museums, Universal Studios, The Hollywood Walk of Fame, The Getty Center and Venice Beach.

Los Angeles

At the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, you’ll find the 1,600-foot-tall peak of Mount Hollywood, where you’ll see the famed Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory. Los Angeles is known to be a cultural mecca and has hosted the Summer Olympics, twice. It comes as no surprise that more than 47 million people visit the city, annually.

San Diego

120 miles south of Los Angeles, San Diego is California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the United States. With over 1.3 million residents, San Diego is known for its renowned Gaslamp District, Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and 600-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

San Diego is often considered the “birthplace of California” and offers over 70 miles of pristine beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The city has approximately 200 deep canyons and hills separating its various mesas, which create idealistic pockets of natural, open space.

San Diego

San Diego’s large city limits include many natural preserves, including Torrey Pines State Reserve - a 2,000-acre coastal state park located in the community of La Jolla. Interestingly, it also has one of the highest counts of animal and plant species that appear on the endangered species list in the United States.

Adventurers will appreciate a variety of hiking trails sprawled throughout San Diego County like the famed Potato Chip Rock on Woodsen Mountain, Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Corte Madera Mountain and Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park.

San Francisco

Located on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, San Francisco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California. The city offers breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay, a drowned river valley that was submerged during the melting of the last glacial ice sheet, and the famed Golden Gate Bridge (which is actually red).

San Francisco is best known to be a city where contemporary art and culture merge to form a hilly, uniquely featured city surrounded by mountains and coast. Noteworthy San Francisco attractions include Alcatraz, a rocky island in San Francisco Bay that once served as a federal prison, Pier 39, Golden Gate Park, Lombard Street, and a variety of contemporary museums.

San Francisco

Within the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, you'll find several iconic mountains including Mount Allison (2,602 ft.), Mount Boardman (3,586 ft.), Mission Peak (2,517 ft.), Mount Diablo (3,849 ft.), and the famous Mount Tamalpais Peak (2,571 ft.). Within city limits, the most notable San Francisco hills are Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, and Mount Sutro, all of which exceed 900 feet.

Ski Resorts in California

Despite having quite a southern character, the state is well compensated by an altitude difference of the terrain. California boasts numerous ski resorts for all tastes and skill levels. Most of the ski areas are clustered northeast of San Francisco around Lake Tahoe and northeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. Those and many other ski resorts are present in the PeakVisor app and provide real-time status information about open lifts and ski runs.

Mount Shasta Ski Park is the northernmost ski resort in California at the foot of iconic Mount Shasta.

The largest cluster of ski resorts in California surrounds Lake Tahoe close to the border with Nevada.

  • Heavenly mountain resort on the slopes of Monument Peak (3,065m / 10,056ft) boasts scenic views with iconic Lake Tahoe in the background. It is one of the most popular ski areas in the state (and even in the whole country)
  • Northstar California Resort in the majestic Martis Valley in North Lake Tahoe is owned by Vail Resorts from Colorado. Located on the slopes of Mount Pluto, it ensures unearthly joy of skiing, skateboarding and many other activities.
  • Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows are two ski resorts in adjacent valleys larger than any other ski area in the state. Together they make one of the largest ski areas in the country. Alpine Meadows Ski Resort occupies slopes of Ward Peak and Scott Peak. Squaw Valley hosted Winter Olympics in 1960 and occupies the slopes of Squaw Peak and KT-22.
  • Homewood Mountain Resort is a relatively small ski area west of Lake Tahoe. It sits on the slopes of Ellis Peak and boasts spectacular mountain scenery and an endless lake view.
  • Sugar Bowl is a family owned modern ski resort with some historic charm. It is conveniently located by Dwight D. Eisenhower Highway and occupies 4 peaks: Mount Lincoln, Mount Judah, Mount Disney, and Crow's Nest Peak.
  • Donner Ski Ranch is among the oldest and most iconic ski areas in the western USA. With one of the highest base elevations in the Sierra Nevada, it boasts an epic quality of snow.
  • Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Resort offers wide-open bowls, uncrowded slopes, gentle beginner terrain, and excellent grooming. Being smaller than other ski resorts allows Tahoe Donner to deliver that personal touch that the larger ski areas can’t always provide.
  • Soda Springs
  • Boreal
  • Sierra at Tahoe on the slopes of Huckleberry Mountain south of Lake Tahoe is the closest major ski resort to Sacramento and the bay area.

Farther south of Lake Tahoe there are several smaller resorts:

Moving further south close to Yosemite National Park one can find such gems of ski resorts as:

The southernmost Los Angeles cluster of ski resorts is comprised of:

  • Mount Baldy Resort on the slopes of the famed Mount San Antonio is perfectly reachable as it is conveniently located only 20 miles outside Los Angeles, which makes it the quickest ski get-away.
  • Mountain High is home to not one but three distinguished ski resorts. Even though they are only a mile apart, they offer stunning differences in both terrain and atmosphere.
  • Big Bear Mountain located in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angeles, contains two properties - Snow Summit and Bear Mountain – year-round destinations for scenic getaways and high-energy outdoor experiences.
  • Snow Valley has something for everyone during winter. There are the steeps of Slide Peak, long cruising intermediate trails, the region’s best beginner terrain, sledging area.

Finally, China Peak Ski Area is worth mentioning. It is situated on the slopes of Chinese Peak which was named after Yung Lee, a local Chinese shepherd.

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