Beyond the glamour of Hollywood and its gleaming coastline, California is renowned for its staggering geographical diversity. With a vast landmass of 163,696 square miles, it ranks as the third-largest state in the US. It’s so vast that if it were an independent country, it would rank within the top 60 largest countries in the world. So it’s no surprise that this huge US state boasts a number of massive mountains, some of which rank among the tallest in America itself.
What’s more, both the highest and lowest points in the 48 conterminous states are in the state of California. The lowest is Death Valley, but what’s the highest point in California? That’s what we’re here to discover. That’s right, we’re getting to the bottom of the highest mountains in California.
The Sierra Nevada
Stretching for over 400 miles along California’s eastern border, the Sierra Nevada mountain range is home to some of the country’s most impressive natural features, from the largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe, to the world’s largest tree by volume, General Sherman. Formed from subterranean granite created over a hundred million years ago then pushed to the surface by uplift, the Sierra Nevada is now home to not just California’s highest peaks, but some of the highest summits in the country.
At around 14,505 feet high, Mount Whitney, also known as Tumanguya, is the tallest mountain in California and in the contiguous United States. Part of the Sierra Nevada, it sits on the boundary between the counties of Inyo and Tulare and on the edges of Sequoia National Park to the west and Inyo National Forest to the east. The summit of Mount Whitney is distinctive for its flat, tabular shape, especially when compared to the jagged ones around it.
Just six miles north of Mount Whitney, in Inyo National Forest’s John Muir Wilderness, stands the second tallest mountain in California. With its summit reaching approximately 14,379 feet, Mount Williamson is a vast and complex granite behemoth teeming with crags and spires. It’s also part of the California Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area.
White Mountain Peak
White Mountain Peak, rising to around 14,252 feet, is the third highest point in California and the first of the highest mountains in California outside the Sierra Nevada. It forms part of the White Mountains or Inyo-White Mountains, one of North America’s highest and biggest desert mountain ranges. It’s home to what are said to be the oldest living trees on earth as well as around a thousand plant species and a variety of fauna, bighorn sheep among them.
We’re heading back to the Sierra Nevada, and indeed to its centre, for the fourth of California’s highest peaks, North Palisade. At 14,248 feet, it’s the highest of a vertiginous and jagged group known as the Palisades, several of which are fourteeners. On the northeastern side of the mountain group overlooking a lake is Palisade Glacier.
Not only is Mount Shasta the fifth biggest mountain in California, but it’s also among the most culturally significant. This imposing 14,163-foot stratovolcano is equally important as a landform. It’s the second-highest peak in the Cascades Range after Washington’s Mount Rainier and is a potentially active volcano.
Clouding the Height Issue
So far, we’ve listed the highest mountains in California by elevation. In other words, the mountains with the greatest height above sea level. The list looks a bit different when measuring topographic prominence, or the mountains’ heights compared with their surroundings. By this measure, Mount Williamson, the second tallest mountain in California, doesn’t even make the top fifty with its 1,676-foot prominence. Mount Shasta, with a prominence of 9,772 feet takes second place. Meanwhile, two newcomers, San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain, come third and fourth respectively.
What’s more, unless a peak is sufficiently prominent, it doesn’t qualify as an independent mountain but rather a subpeak of another. It would therefore not appear on the list of highest elevations. A good example is Starlight Peak. At an elevation of 14,200 feet, it’s higher than Mount Shasta. However, it’s not designated as a peak in its own right, but a subpeak of North Palisade.
California's Highest Peaks
As we’ve seen, California is a treasure trove of natural wonders on a grand scale. It has the world’s most voluminous tree, the US’s largest lake and more biodiversity than you could shake an oversized stick at. Indeed, California’s ecological richness is unparalleled in the US, boasting over 40,000 species of plants and animals as well as nearly a quarter of all plant types native to North America. As for the highest mountains in California, they clearly reflect the state itself, being blockbusters in their own right.