Pacific Northwest, USA

Learning to Climb Mountains in America's PNW: 6 Recommended Summits


, by Charlie Boscoe

Mount Hood towering over lavender fields in the foreground. Photo: cbartell42, Shutterstock

Transitioning from hiking to mountaineering is tricky because there comes a point at which you have to make the leap from mere walking to something a little more serious. There isn't really a huge amount of middle ground here - you're either hiking... or you're not! We've got an article suggesting how to make this transition, but today we're focusing on specific peaks which will challenge but not overwhelm would-be American mountaineers. The six mountains we'll describe all lie in the Pacific Northwest, so if you're keen to get your mountaineering career underway, getting to Portland or Seattle is a good start! The peaks aren't listed in any particular order, so pick them off in an order that suits you.

Mount Rainier - Disappointment Cleaver

First up, we have the Queen of the Cascades - Mount Rainier. Climbing Rainier is a rite of passage for American climbers, and no matter how many times you tackle it, it's still a looooong way! The summit view could surely never get old, though - on a clear day, you can see vast expanses of the Cascade Range, including other prominent peaks like Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Baker. You'll also have a bird's-eye view of the dense forests, alpine meadows, glaciers, and rivers that make up the region's diverse ecosystem.

Mountaineers making their way up Rainier at sunrise. Photo: Kevin Kopf, Shutterstock

However, reaching the summit of Mount Rainier is a challenging feat and requires technical climbing skills and equipment. Most visitors opt to hike to lower elevations and vantage points around the mountain, such as the popular Paradise area, which still offers stunning views of the peak and its surroundings. Consider joining them if you're not absolutely sure that you're competent enough to make a summit attempt. Alternatively, consider hiring a mountain guide to lead and teach you on your journey up the mountain.

Remember that weather conditions can change rapidly at higher elevations, so it's essential to be prepared for varying temperatures, strong winds, and potentially limited visibility. 

Twin Sisters Traverse

Staying in Washington, the Twin Sisters Traverse is an exceptional route that involves some easy 4th class rock climbing, short rappels, and glacier travel. If you can do those three things, you really can kick on to bigger and tougher objectives!

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The route is close to Mount Baker so count on incredible views - in addition to the panoramic views of Mount Baker itself, you'll be able to see the rugged North Cascades, expansive forests, and potentially even Mount Shuksan in the distance. As if that wasn't enough, you can see the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and parts of the North Cascades. The view to the west extends out over the coastal region and can be especially impressive during clear weather.

Mount Jefferson

Heading south and over the Oregon border, Mount Jefferson is one of the most prominent and visible peaks in the PNW, making it a highly sought-after objective. It's one of the tougher Oregon volcanos to climb, but that just makes it all the sweeter when you do reach the top! 

Mount Jefferson dominating its surroundings. Photo: Michal Balada, Shutterstock

Being such a prominent mountain, the vista from the top is as varied as it is spectacular. It includes a sweeping panorama of the Cascade Range, with other famous peaks visible in the distance. On clear days, you can spot nearby peaks like Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, and the Three Sisters. To the east of Mount Jefferson, you might glimpse Oregon's high desert region, which uniquely contrasts the lush forests and alpine environments found on the mountain's western side.

Broken Top 

A non-glaciated peak, Broken Top is a great first technical mountain to try, mainly because the technicalities are concentrated into about 10 feet! There is plenty of easy scrambling and then one brief tough section, which beginner-intermediate climbers might want a rope and rack for. Once on top, you'll get a close-up view of Broken Top's two glaciers and the Three Sisters stretching away to the north. 

Middle Sister

And speaking of the Three Sisters: Middle Sister is the smallest of the three siblings, but it's the most technical and requires a good head for heights and basic glacier travel skills. 

Horses grazing beneath the majestic Three Sisters. Photo: Real Window Creative, Shutterstock

As well as being a popular mountaineering objective, Middle Sister (and its two taller Sisters) are interesting from a geological and historical perspective. The Three Sisters are stratovolcanoes, which are characterized by their steep-sided, conical shapes built up by layers of volcanic ash, lava, and other materials. They are part of the larger Cascade Volcanic Arc, a chain of volcanoes that stretches from northern California to southern British Columbia. The volcanic activity in this region is associated with the subduction of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate beneath the North American plate. The peaks of the Three Sisters were formed through a combination of volcanic eruptions and glacial activity over millions of years, and each one has its own unique history of volcanic activity and glacial shaping. 

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In addition to that natural history, the Three Sisters have significant cultural importance to Native American tribes in the region, including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Klamath Tribes. These mountains are considered sacred and are part of traditional stories and spiritual practices. 

Mount Hood

We're saving one of the best 'til last! Oregon's highest mountain is fascinating and appealing for several reasons; not least is the fact that it's considered "potentially active" and is ranked by scientists as the most likely of Oregon's volcanos to climb it while you can!

Mount Hood reflecting in Lost Lake at sunrise. Photo: Michal Balada, Shutterstock

The most popular route up the mountain is the one described here: the wonderfully-named "Pearly Gates." The route passes unique features such as Crater Rock, the Hogsback, and the famous Pearly Gates themselves. We don't want to give too much away, so go and discover them for yourself!

Having ticked six great PNW peaks, you're really ready for a bigger challenge... and here it is!

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