26 Aug The Best Mountain Ranges of the United States
There’s a certain stigma associated with exploring the spaces where you grew up, or even your home country. It’s easy to think, “There’s nothing to do here… It’s so boring… I can’t wait to go explore <insert foreign destination here>.” The first chance I had to leave my home state and home country, I was off like a shot from a gun, leaving behind the rolling hills, scenic riverways, and national parks that have since called me back as an adult.
While it’s true that there’s a certain allure to being an “international” traveler and explorer, there are also plenty of things on your home turf to fill adventurous weekends or even weeks-long treks. Today, we’re going to spotlight some of the mountain ranges of the United States, starting with an area that I’ve been exploring firsthand these summer months alongside my wife, who is up on her first exploratory visit to the U.S.
The Ozark Mountains
Growing up in this region, I can say that while I took advantage of the surrounding parks and campgrounds for plenty of camping trips, float trips, hiking treks, and beyond, I never really appreciated what the Ozark Mountains had to offer until I came back as an adult. I left the area in the late ’90s when I was 17 years old and “traded up” for Colorado, and I didn’t make my way back here until 2017, some 20 years later.
While the Ozarks might not be the highest of the ranges in North America (either in actual height or in popularity as a destination), and they certainly have a bit of a backwoods/hillbilly reputation (some areas more deservedly so than others), there are few places in the U.S. where you can find such a densely packed combination of forests, rolling hills, caverns, campgrounds, and rivers, lakes, springs, creeks, waterfalls, and more.
From the Lake of the Ozarks to the entire Branson area, to the National Scenic Riverways, waterways cut through this entire mountain range, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a major park without one. Even the smaller parks, such as Busiek State Forest and the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, have their own, the Woods Fork and Springfield Lake waterways, respectively.
The Colorado Rockies
Vast. Let’s just stick with that one word to describe the Rocky Mountains. Stretching all the way from Canada down to New Mexico, the Rockies contain more than 3000 miles of crags, cliffs, peaks, valleys, canyons, forests, rivers, waterfalls, and lakes to choose from.
My own favorite part of the Rockies is within Colorado, where I was based from 1997 until 2007. Specifically, it’s the Front Range, which runs north/south from Casper, Wyoming, to Pueblo, Colorado.
Most people are familiar with places such as Aspen, Breckenridge and Pike’s Peak, but there’s so much more to this section of the Rockies. Taking my Jeep into the backcountry roads up the Poudre River/Buckhorn Canyon/Horsetooth Lake area or up by Red Feather Lakes and trying to get lost while camping for 3-4 day jaunts with my dog, was one of my favorite pastimes throughout my 20s, and you haven’t experienced the best of the Colorado Rockies until you’ve had the chance to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park, driven Trail Ridge Road, or spent a week in Estes Park.
The Appalachian & Great Smoky Mountain Ranges
The Appalachian Mountains are a package deal that include a whole lot more than just those two sections. You’ve also got the Adirondack Mountains (depending on if you’re a stickler for technicalities, in which case you’ll lump those in with the Laurentians of Canada), Blue Ridge Mountains, and Bald Mountains, and a whole lot of ridges and valleys in between.
While the Appalachians are without a doubt jam-packed with eye candy, my money’s on the Great Smoky Mountains, home to around 187,000 acres of old growth forest, the largest east of the Mississippi. The fog that perpetually hangs over the range makes for some of the most epic sunrise and sunset shots you’ve ever seen, and if you ever get a chance to go horseback riding on a misty morning through spruce trees (a family favorite with my clan; they try to take the horses down once a year for a week-long trip), take it!
Off the Beaten Path, one of the Adventure Collection’s founding members, has an amazing Smoky Mountain tour called Splendor in the Smokies. It’s a hiking adventure that takes travelers deep into the region to discover hewn-log cabins, family cemeteries, and moonshine caves, so bring your boots and stay thirsty!
The Alaska Range
Ready to get out of the moderate temperatures of the mainland and up into the frigid north where glaciers and snowpacks are par for the course? The Alaska Range is the one of the highest in the world and includes Mount Denali, the highest North American mountain, also home to the eponymous Denali National Park.
While it’s a relatively small and narrow band of mountains, it more than makes up for it with world-famous parks, of which Denali is just the tip of the — er — mountain. You’ve got the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve plus the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve on top of that.
While you’re up there, take a peek at the NOLS Alaska mountaineering course, on which you’ll explore the coastal Chugach Range, the interior Alaska Range, or the vast Wrangell-St. Elias Range. The course features plenty of glaciers, though some aspects are weather dependent.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains
Whether it’s exploring the history of the California Gold Rush, taking in Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Valley, or the three national parks, twenty wilderness areas, and two national monuments that make up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more adventure-travel-focused section of land so compactly focused.
I have fond memories of the Sierra Nevadas as a child when my parents used to take us on road trips to visit their families back in Oakland, San Diego, and the San Francisco regions. Crossing the mountains was always a highlight, especially the Ponderosa pine forests, which were so different from the oak forests where I grew up in Missouri.
Recently, our managing editor, Sabine, has been heading deep into the heart of the range as well, such as her trip to Yosemite Falls during the floods of 2017, and don’t forget that Backroads offers a variety of California bike tours that include time in the Sierra Nevadas. O.A.R.S. also has an adventure-packed series of rafting and hiking adventures in Yosemite to choose from as well!