Summit hikes offer up that big reward—a hard-won objective and a new perspective on everything you hiked up to get there. While there are plenty of wondrous mountaintops on the planet, for this list we chose our favorite peaks based on both the walk up and the larger history of the place. Beyond the thrill of making it to the top, each of these summit hikes offers a deeper connection to the surrounding landscape and people. —Doug Schnitzspahn
Photograph by Pall Jokull Petursson
Height: 4,882 feet/1,488 meters
Best For: Volcanologists, devils
Hekla is Iceland's second most active volcano. With eruptions recorded far back into prehistory, it last blew its top in February 2000—but that doesn't mean hikers can't scale the famed stratovolcano. You may want to do it soon, however, since Hekla rarely lays dormant for long, and reports of magma buildups have some scientists claiming that an eruption is due. When this peak does erupt it gives very little time to escape: There was a mere half hour warning before the 2000 event. But it's worth it for the opportunity to stand atop the long ridge that makes up one of Earth's most temperamental spots, the view stretching out across a landscape built from much of the tephra that spewed from the steaming hot spots surrounding you.
The Hike: The trail to the top crosses snowfields, and it's a fairly easy three- to four-hour hike (though it may be wise to carry glacier gear or even skis). It's so easy, in fact, that some choose to snowmobile up it in winter. Hekla lies just 44 miles from Reykjavík, and outfitters like Icelandic Mountain Guides pick up hikers at their hotels for a day trip to the top (and keep tabs on seismic activity so you're not there when the peak blows up).
At the Top: There's a certain allure to hiking on the Gate to Hell, which is exactly what medieval churchmen claimed Hekla to be after its first recorded eruption in 1104. That's understandable, since the volcano spews an inferno of tephra bombs, ash, and lava when it bursts.
Mount Katahdin, Maine
Photograph by Scott Perry
Height: 5,270 feet/1,606 meters
Best For: Transcendentalists, poets, rolling stones
The highest point in the state of Maine is also the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, so hikers won't have this mountain all to themselves. That's no reason to stay away, however. Lording over the center of the state's deep inland forests, Katahdin may be the most inspiring peak in all of eastern North America. Part of that aura comes from the great transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who famously scaled it in 1846 in order to come face-to-face with the raw soul of nature. He found that on top, writing later: "This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night." But it's also a present-day thrill to see grizzled AT thru-hikers coming to the end of their 2,200-mile quest here (as well as a few hardy souls just starting the trek from the north). And the view from the top has changed little since Thoreau's time.
The Hike: The most popular route to the summit follows the Hunt Trail—a 10.4-mile round-trip with a stiff 4,188 feet of elevation gain—on the first leg of the Appalachian Trail. The last two miles of the hike require scrambling on boulders above tree line, so be wary of afternoon thunderstorms.
At the Top: Thoreau wasn't the only literary soul to be inspired by these eastern wilds. Legend holds that there's a rock on the heights of Katahdin engraved with these lines from the 1912 Robert Service poem "Rhymes of a Rolling Stone":
Here's a hail to each flaming dawn
Here's a cheer to the night that's gone
May I go a-roamin' on
Until the day I die.
Photograph by Caj Källmalm
Height: 5,892 feet/1,796 meters
Best For: Those who want to connect to Sami people, foxes
Sweden's highest peak south of the Arctic Circle, Helagsfjället, also simply called Helags, stands out above the surrounding peaks of the Scandinavian Mountains right on the Norway border. It's an easy summit to reach and popular in summer (there's even a comfy mountain station on the peak where hikers can relax or even take part in a yoga retreat), but once you get up and out on its green slopes, where reindeer browse and the occasional native arctic fox stalks prey, the natural magic of the place takes hold.
The surrounding region of Jämtland Härjedalen is also home to a significant population of Scandinavia's native Sami people, some of whom own "summer homes" on the slopes of Helags. These aren't what you might think: A visit to the Härjedalens Fjällmuseum in nearby Funäsdalen shows how the seasonal shelters were once tended by young girls left alone all season to watch over reindeer. Head to the museum post-hike and you just might get a taste of the reindeer meat that's so essential to the culture of the Sami—the only people allowed to raise them in Sweden.
The Hike: It's a quick jaunt up along the ridge to the top of the peak from the Helagsfjället Mountain Station, which requires a 7.5-mile hike to reach, but it's also possible to take longer routes—camping along the way—to the top.
At the Top: The cirque on Helagsfjället holds the remnants of the southernmost glacier in Sweden. When conditions are right, you can take some ski laps down to the huts of the mountain station in the shadow of the peak.
Desolation Peak, Washington
Photograph by Randall J Hodges
Height: 6,102 feet/1,860 meters
Best For: Latter-day Beats
In 1956, Beat icon Jack Kerouac spent two months alone as a fire lookout at the top of Desolation Peak, contemplating the void of impermanence and the joy of being alive while he scanned the surrounding mountains and forests of the Cascades for plumes of smoke. From his 1960 essay "Alone on a Mountaintop": "Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill—mad raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you grayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words."
Beyond that legacy, the mountaintop certainly provides one of the best views in the Cascades: The snowcapped peaks of North Cascades National Park rise high on the horizon, with the twin fangs of Hozomeen Mountain jutting up right in front of the lookout and the waters of Lake Ross sitting far below. With 93 percent of the park designated as protected wilderness, this is one of the most remote spots in the lower 48 states.
The Hike: It takes more than a hike to reach this outpost—you'll have to paddle or hire a water taxi (reservations needed) to take you across Lake Ross to reach the trailhead. Once on the trail, it's a 4.8-mile huff to the top through forests and big, open meadows, gaining 4,400 feet of elevation along the way.
At the Top: Kerouac's little pagoda still stands at the summit of Desolation Peak. At times it's locked up, but often an employee is here scanning the horizon. Lucky applicants can still find a job up here doing the same work as Kerouac once did, albeit with a bit more company thanks to it having become a Beat pilgrimage site.
Heng Shan Bei, China
Photograph by Karl Johaentges
Height: 6,617 feet/2,017 meters
Best For: Pilgrims, Taoists, Buddhists
The northernmost of China's five Taoist sacred mountains and nine sacred Buddhist peaks, Heng Shan, or "permanent mountain," is also the least developed. That doesn't mean you won't find crowds: There's a cable car to the Hengzong Si—the main temple on the mountain—and a new temple at the base area, making the peak a major tourist attraction in Shanxi Province. (The biggest tourist draw is the famed Xuankong Si, or "hanging temple," a 1,600-year-old Buddhist shrine built on the sheer rock face of the next peak south of Heng Shan.)
This isn't exactly a wilderness trip; instead it's a chance to take part in an actual pilgrimage to a summit first visited, according to legend, by the mythical emperor Shun more than 4,000 years ago. Crowds coming to take part in that tradition fill the stairs and trails that lead to the Hengzong temple, but the actual summit, farther above, is a quieter, more suitable place for contemplation of one of the world's great sacred sites. For a taste of the pilgrimage, sip from the sweet and bitter wells—adjacent springs with very different tastes—on the way down.
The Hike: It's about a 40-minute walk from the base area to the Hengzong temple. From here, it's another half hour, with far fewer crowds, to reach the 6,617-foot Tianfeng summit, the highest point on Heng Shan.
At the Top: From the Tianfeng summit, you can get a sense of another reason the mountain was so important to Chinese emperors throughout the centuries. It's an important strategic site that guarded the plains beyond, and throughout history it has been both part of the empire and conquered by invaders.
Mount Temple, Alberta, Canada
Photograph by Marko Stavric
Height: 11,627 feet/3,544 meters
Best For: Film buffs, scramblers
A pyramid of sheer rock and ice towering above Banff National Park, Mount Temple is one postcard-perfect peak. While it is a walk up, this hike does require a bit of dicey scrambling at times, as well as dangerous snowfield crossings (an avalanche swept a group of Boy Scouts to their deaths here in the 1950s). If you have sufficient snow-climbing experience to ascend the terrain safely, the dangers are well worth the panorama of the park and Lake Louise from the top.
The Canadian Rockies' unique majesty stems from its particular geological history: While much of the range farther south is composed of uplifted metamorphic rock, the peaks here formed when limestone, shale, and other sedimentary rocks from the primordial inland sea that covered much of North America were thrust to the surface, creating a fantasy land of sharp, striated summits. In the park, glaciers and ice fields crown the range, but they're shrinking fast, with some, like the popular Athabasca Glacier, in danger of disappearing completely during this century. The best time to hike? As a diversion during the early November Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which documents the best of climbing and the preservation of the world's wild places.
The Hike: Though Temple isn't an easy hike, it doesn't require technical climbing skills or equipment to reach the summit (though an ice ax and crampons are a good idea). It's a full day, covering ten miles round-trip and a whopping 5,443 feet of elevation gain. Some exposed scrambling is required, and when many people are on the route, rockfall is a danger. If you're interested in climbing rather than scrambling, there are several technical routes on the peak as well.
At the Top: This is grizzly bear country. Climbers need to be aware of the bears on the hike up, but if they're lucky they may also catch a glimpse of them—from a safe distance away on the peak—traveling in the cirques and bowls down below.
Ras Dashen, Ethiopia
Photograph by Andrew Bain
Height: 14,928 feet/4,550 meters
Best For: Off-the-path African adventurers, committed trekkers
Ethiopia's highest peak overlooks the high wilds of Simien Mountains National Park, where species found nowhere else in the world—including the walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf, and gelada baboon—find food and shelter in the steep gorges of these highlands. Hiking to the high summit itself is fairly easy, requiring nothing more than following a path to the top via a short scramble. But the trek to reach the base of Ras Dashen, also called Ras Dejen, is more involved and includes a hike up and over 13,779-foot Bwahit Pass, a clamber back down into the Mesheha Valley, and a climb up another 5,700 feet to the top of the Horn of Africa.
This trip is not just about peaks and wildlife: People have been living here for more than 2,000 years, and hikers headed for the summit will pass through the village of Chiro Leba and through barley fields in the Mesheha Valley. And while the summit itself may not be the most impressive mountaintop you'll ever stand on, it looks over one of the most unique ecosystems on the African continent.
The Hike: Most hikers reach the summit as part of a longer five- to nine-day trek through the park. It's a 28-mile round-trip to reach the summit—which actually lies outside the park boundary—from the usual starting point at Chennek Camp, which itself requires a multiday, 27-mile hike to reach from the park office at Debark. It's best to hire a guide, such as Habesha Adventures. Registering with the park is required.
At the Top: Bring extra layers for the summit (and even nights at camp). The park is colder than armchair travelers might think when considering Africa. The local shepherd children on the mountain slopes also appreciate gifts of warm clothing from hikers.
Photograph by Paul Kiernan
Height: 17,160 feet/5,230 meters
Best For: Aspiring mountaineers
Mexico's third highest mountain may be a dormant volcano, but it doesn't have the classic cone shape of other famed igneous peaks. Instead, its long, snowcapped ridge has been compared to a sleeping woman, thus the Aztec name Iztaccihuatl, or "white woman," and the Spanish nickname La Mujer Dormita, or "the sleeping woman." Myth has it that the mountain is the body of a dead princess mourned by the gods, and its peaks are named for parts of her body, from La Cabellera, her hair, to Los Pies, her feet (the highest summit lies atop El Pecho, her breast). On the way up, hikers pass through the largest remaining coniferous forest in central Mexico; by the time they reach the top, they're in a high-alpine ecosystem, which is sadly losing what remains of its glaciers. Best of all, despite the altitude, this is a climb that almost anyone can pull off.
The Hike: The standard route runs up La Arista del Sol (Ridge of the Sun) from the La Joya trailhead in Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park. It's a fairly easy hike that requires some quick scrambling and walking on snowfields near the summit, but most people need at least a few days to acclimatize to the high altitude. All climbers must register with the park, and it's a good idea to hire a guide.
At the Top: From this high, snowy wilderness, hikers can gaze to the south at the cone of 17,802-foot Popocatépetl—Mexico's most active volcano—and to the northwest at the smog, sprawl, and bustle of Mexico City and its 21 million inhabitants.
Dolma Ri, Nepal
Photograph by Westend61
Height: 19,049 feet/5,806 meters
Best For: Aspiring Himalayan mountaineers; those who want to help Nepal rebuild
There's no such thing as an easy summit in the Himalaya, but Dolma Ri, also known as Pokalde Peak, is as close as you can get to a casual summit in Nepal. Rising above 5,800 meters, it's certainly an imposing summit, though not nearly as oxygen deprived as more famous peaks in the region, including Ama Dablam, Pumori, Makalu, and, of course, Mount Everest itself, which lies more than seven miles south. That means this is a summit that most people can safely attain without the cost and danger of taking on an 8,000-meter peak.
Despite the damage that the earthquakes of 2015 caused to the country of Nepal and high-mountain villages here, the people want and need hikers, climbers, and other tourists to return—plus, most of the trekking routes and tourism infrastructure were undamaged by the quakes. Since the economy here relies on tourism and climbing, coming to Nepal to trek and climb will help expedite the long task of rebuilding from the rubble.
The Hike: Acclimatization is the real key. Hikers should spend a few days getting used to altitude before they try the peak. Then it's a straightforward 2,130-vertical-foot hike and scramble to the top from base camp. But don't be overconfident: There are exposed sections, especially in the final push to the summit, and bad weather can always be deadly in the Himalaya. Hire local guides to help rebuild Nepal. As with other Himalayan peaks, the best time to go is before (March to May) or after (October to November) the monsoon season.
At the Top: Now that you have your feet and lungs underneath you on a summit at over 19,000 feet, you can start thinking about more difficult Himalayan endeavors. The nearby 20,305-foot Island and 21,247-foot Mera peaks offer similar—though slightly more difficult—walk-up challenges, while 20,075-foot Lobuche East is the hardest of what are referred to as the "trekkers' peaks," with a longer approach and some technical slabs to negotiate.
Mount Yari, Japan
Photograph by David Cherepuschak / Alamy
Height: 10,430 feet/3,180 meters
Best For: Pinnacle seekers; forest bathers
While most foreigners looking to stand atop an iconic mountain in Japan head to Mount Fuji (the most climbed mountain on the planet), Mount Yari (or Yarigatake), with its soaring spear point of a summit, attracts those more interested in a wilderness experience. That doesn't mean it isn't crowded—you may have to wait in line to clamber up the chains that help hikers ascend steep exposed sections. But a long approach and the sheer intimidation factor of the peak's pointy top mean that at least the crowds here have some affinity for wild places.
Dubbed "the Matterhorn of Japan," Yari lords over the Hida Mountains in the Northern Alps, one of the least inhabited spots on the crowded island of Honshu. Deep in Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, the peak attracts Japanese and adventurous gaijin looking to engage in a bit of shinrin-yoku (or "forest bathing," doing nothing but taking in the spirit of the woods far from sprawling cities) as well as stand atop the fifth highest summit in the country.
Below tree line, hikers pass stands of delicate Erman's birch and Japanese stone pine, and may even spot a black bear or the mythical-looking Japanese serow. At the summit itself, the view extends over the backbone of the volcanic island. Even if there are other hikers on top, you'll get a sense of Japan's undisturbed natural landscape that is so essential to the island's Shinto and Zen traditions.
The Hike: It's a 27-mile round-trip trek to the pinnacle of Yari's summit, so most hikers take two days to complete the trip. Those who want to shell out some cash stay at the Yarigatake Sanso, a mountain lodge with food and warm beds perched on the exposed ridge just below the summit, while those who want to rough it can simply pitch a tent here. No matter where you sleep, you will want to start for the top the next day as early as 3 a.m.—to beat both the weather and the crowds.
At the Top: The first person to climb Yarigatake was the monk Banryūin in July 1828, during the Tokugawa period when Japan was still off-limits to foreigners. The climbing monk carried statues of Buddha and two bodhisattvas to the summit, and later improved the path to the top. Metal chains were installed to make the climb easier and Banryūin's followers were encouraged to come to the top for enlightenment.