Its name is often translated from Aleut as “great land,” and Alaska more than lives up to it. The largest US state by area, it’s also the most geologically active region in North America, home to 3,000 rivers, over three million lakes and 40 active volcanoes. Mountains form an integral part of this varied landscape. Mountain ranges are found throughout Alaska, with some of the most prominent being the Brooks, Alaska, and Aleutian ranges. And the highest mountains in Alaska are also the top ten highest mountains in North America, as well as 17 of the top 20.
In this article, we explore these vast peaks, starting with the biggest one of all.
The highest mountain in Alaska, and indeed the entire continent, is Denali. A granite behemoth lifted from the earth’s crust, it soars 20,310 feet above sea level. In a global context, this doesn’t even earn it a rank within the top 100 of the world’s highest mountains. But by a slightly different standard, it bests Everest as the world’s tallest mountain on land. When measured from base to summit rather than from sea level, Denali comes in at 18,000 feet, over a mile taller than Everest’s 12,000 feet.
Found around 130 miles northwest of the city of Anchorage, it’s the highest peak in the Alaska Range, itself part of the North American Cordillera. Its formation was the result of tectonic activity some 60 million years in the making and still going. In fact, Denali still grows at a rate of 0.06 inches a year. Conditions on Denali are notoriously extreme, with temperatures known to drop to minus 70 degrees centigrade, and winds to reach 150 miles per hour. Often said to exist within eternal winter, it’s permanently encased in snow in its home of Denali National Park.
The pinnacle of the tallest mountains in Alaska has had many names over the course of history, including a stint as Mount Mckinley. Indigenous groups from different places around the mountain had their own unique names for it in different Athabaskan languages. Denali derives from the Koyukon language and is said to mean either “Big Mountain” or “Home of the Sun.”
Mount Saint Elias
Located far south along the Alaska-Yukon border, Mount Saint Elias rises roughly 18,008 feet. This ranks it second among the highest mountains in Alaska. And that’s not all. Despite being the namesake of its range, it’s not the highest of the Saint Elias Mountains, but second to Mount Logan, which is located across the border in Canada. Formed by tectonic forces over some 200 million years, this is the highest coastal mountain range on the planet. The indigenous Tlingit name for the mountain, Was’eitushaa, means “mountain at the head of Icy Bay,” Was’ei being the Tlingit name for Icy Bay.
Just 14 miles from Denali, within the same national park, is the third of Alaska’s highest mountains. Rising to 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker is part of the Alaska Range. Whilst its English name is after a 19th century US senator, it bore several indigenous names, the best known of which translated as “Denali’s Wife.”
In the heart of the UNESCO-listed Wrangell–Saint Elias National Park, Mount Bona ranks fourth in the list of the tallest mountains in Alaska with an elevation of approximately 16,421 feet. What’s more, despite being blanketed by snow and ice, it’s also the highest volcano in the US. Along with its twin, Mount Churchill, Bona is a composite or stratovolcano. Part of the Saint Elias Mountains, its location at their junction with the Wrangell range means it is sometimes listed among them instead.
And, speaking of the Wrangell Mountains, their highest peak is Mount Blackburn or “K’ats’i Tl’aadi” in the Ahtna language. This 16,390-foot volcano, the second highest in the US after Bona, is also the fifth highest mountain in Alaska. Sitting at the head of the Kennicott Glacier, it is its main source of ice.
The Biggest Mountains of Alaska
From their unique environments to their cultural significance, geological beginnings to their grand scale, there’s no doubt that Alaska’s highest mountains are extraordinary. Not only do they top numerous lists in the US, North America, even the world but many of them are even protected in a UNESCO World Heritage site.