From vast peaks that take days to climb to bizarrely shaped bluffs that love the camera, great mountains have little trouble making us stop and stare. Few things compare to the sense of awe you’ll feel when you’ve reached the summit of a giant.
Here, we’ve picked the most beautiful mountains around the world and shared some top tips for visiting them:
1. Matterhorn, Switzerland/Italy
This Alpine peak spans the border between Switzerland and Italy. At 4,478 metres it’s smaller than the famed Mont Blanc (4,810 metres), but its striking pyramidal shape – not to mention its spot overlooking the cosy Swiss ski town of Zermatt – makes it the poster child for the Alps.
Matterhorn was first scaled in 1865, with Brit Edward Whymper credited as the initial person to reach the summit. His triumph was bitter sweet, though, since four climbers in Whymper’s seven-strong team plunged to their deaths during their descent.
Today, upwards of 2,000 hardy folks ascend the peak each year. If you’re determined to be one of them, the Hörnli ridge route is the most popular and is best attempted in summer. Don’t underestimate the challenge, listen to your guide and make sure you’re kitted out, crampons and all. Otherwise, take a funicular ride from Zermatt to Rothorn for jaw-dropping views without the climb.
2. Denali, USA
Mammoth Denali is the highest peak in all of North America. Craggy and snow-covered, it soars to more than 6,190 metres above sea level, rising from the stark valleys of Alaska’s Denali National Park. The mountain was once known as Mt McKinley, but after many decades of controversy, in 2016, the peak was officially dubbed Denali, a name long used by native peoples.
The peak can be seen from the Denali Park Road, which spools out for some 92 miles. Though temperatures are bracing, you’ll likely get the best views of the mountain in winter, when the cloud cover is less. During summer you can drive the first fifteen miles of the road, which is studded with stop-offs offering postcard-worthy views of the mountain from around mile nine. Look out for grizzly bears too!
To get closer still, hop on to one of the tour or transit buses operated within the park. The Kantishna Experience Tour bus swings by Reflection Pond, a vast body of water in which Denali is perfectly mirrored.
Only experienced climbers should attempt to scale dizzying Denali. If that’s you, the West Buttress route is the most popular way to ascend.
3. Kirkjufell, Iceland
The strangely conical Kirkjufell, or “church mountain”, is often touted as Iceland’s most photographed sight. It’s not hard to see why. The yellow-green bluff looms over West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, with pretty waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss and several sandy beaches in its wake. Such is its drama that the mountain even made a cameo in series seven of cult TV show Games of Thrones.
Park up in the little seaside town of Grundarfjörður and follow the hour-and-a-half hiking trail to Kirkjufell’s summit. The route is steep and the terrain challenging, so best travel with a guide unless you’re a seasoned climber.
If you don’t have a head for heights, there’s a trail that loops around the mountain too. Time your trip for autumn or winter for a chance to catch the northern lights dancing over the mountain top.
4. Table Mountain, South Africa
One of the world’s most famous pinnacles, Table Mountain watches over the South African city of Cape Town from 1,085 metres at its highest point. As the name suggests, it’s known for its distinctive flat top and also for its diverse wildlife. Keep an eye out for endemic African species such as dassies: cute-as-a-button, furry mammals that look a little like plump meerkats.
You may not know that Table Mountain is among the planet’s oldest peaks too. It’s more than 200 million years old and the first recorded ascent was back in the early 16th century by a Portuguese explorer named António de Saldanha.
Today a cable car can take around 800 people to Table Mountain’s summit every hour in just five minutes. To save time on the day, book tickets in advance – that way you’ll have more time to enjoy panoramas of Cape Town from the top.
If you’d prefer to take the long way, follow the zigzagging Platteklip Gorge hiking trail, which should take between 2–3 hours depending on your fitness level. Summertime (November–February), when conditions are dry and sunny, is the best time to visit.
5. Vinicunca, Peru
Peru’s pink and yellow-streaked Vinicunca or “Rainbow Mountain” seems to belong on another planet. But it’s part of the Peruvian Andes, right here on Earth. The mountain, whose colours are caused by mineral deposits, is around a three-to-four-hour drive southeast of Cusco, a beautiful city filled with Spanish Colonial buildings.
Vinicunca’s summit is reached by the challenging, six-day Ausangate trek. Parts of the trek will be more than 4,800 metres above sea level and the altitude can be a real challenge – drink plenty of water, take regular breaks and carry paracetamol with you.
It’s worth it, though, for the otherworldly views and the route’s relative quietness when compared with the tourist-choked Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Trail conditions are at their best and driest through Peru’s winter months: April–November.
6. Mount Fuji, Japan
Mount Fuji is the largest peak in Japan. It tops out at a whopping 3,775 metres, and is at its best when finished with a generous hood of snow. It has great cultural significance too. The mountain has long been considered sacred, attracting centuries’ worth of pilgrims of Buddhist, Shinto and other faiths.
Fuji is elusive, though, disappearing behind the clouds every chance it gets. But persevere and you’ll be rewarded.
Your instinct will probably be to get as close as possible to the legendary mountain, but it’s actually best viewed from afar. Weather permitting you can even see it from some of the Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers – Bunkyo Civic Center’s free observation deck has one of the best views.
If you’re down for the hike, choose between one of the four trails that lace the mountain. The Yoshida trail is most popular choice and buses whisk you right from Tokyo to the trailhead.
7. Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand
New Zealand is renowned for its stunning scenery, and its highest mountain doesn’t disappoint. The vast bluff in the Southern Alps rises to more than 3,700 metres, reflecting in the glacial lakes at its feet.
The name Mount Cook was given to the peak by European settlers. But native peoples had always known it as Aoraki, after a young figure from Maori legend. Now it goes by both names.
Content yourself with hiking or biking one of the ten Alpine trails that leave from nearby Mount Cook Village, offering views of the mountain. Or, if you’ve got the experience, tackle a climb. Head here in summer (December–February), and book a local guide who knows the route. Caroline Hut is a popular spot in which to make your base and set out from.
If you’ve got some wiggle room in your budget, another incredible way to take in the peak is via a helicopter tour.
8. Mount Everest, Nepal/Tibet
No list of the world’s great peaks would be complete without Everest. The mother of all mountains, she rises to more than 8,848 metres, jutting out of the Himalayas, on the Nepal-Tibet border.
The mountain is named after lauded British surveyor Sir George Everest, though the peak already had two local titles: Chomolungma on the Tibetan side and Sagarmatha in Nepal. The first confirmed ascent to Everest’s summit was in 1953, by Nepali-Indian and British mountaineers Sherpa Tenzing and Edmund Hillary – though other climbers had already perished in previous attempts.
Climbing Everest is an extreme and costly undertaking, but still hundreds of adventurous souls brave it each year. Most set out from the little town Lukla in Nepal, having flown in from Kathmandu. From here the trek to the Everest Base Camp should take about 10 days.
If that all sounds a little too extreme, follow the shorter and slightly more accessible trek to Namche Bazaar, a breath-taking hillside village that offers fabulous views of Everest.
9. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa
Another bucket-list-topping peak is volcanic Kilimanjaro, which you’ll find in north-eastern Tanzania, right in the centre of its namesake national park. The “Roof of Africa” is a fitting nickname for the mountain, which is 5,895m at its highest point.
Kilimanjaro is actually a volcano made up of a trio of peaks. Though if you’re planning a trip, you’ll be glad to hear it’s dormant – the last eruption happened some 360,000 years ago.
If you dream of standing at Kilimanjaro’s summit, looking out over the clouds, plan your trip for January through to March, or June through to October. The other months of the year bring with them rain and snow.
Most trekkers set their sights on the Marangu Route: expect six days’ worth of hiking over the craggy terrain and rest up in mountain huts along the way. If you’re content with seeing the peak from a distance, the Tanzanian town of Moshi is a great vantage point.
10. Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, Australia
At 1,545 m, this is not the tallest mountain in Australia – but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with beauty. Overlooking sapphire Dove Lake, the ridged scarp of Cradle Mountain is quite a sight. It dominates Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, snow-freckled in winter, and rising from lush grass and forestland through summer.
Excavations of the area around the mountain have unearthed many native sites, but it was English surveyor Joseph Fossey who christened the peak “Cradle Mountain”, because of its curiously curved shape.
Now it’s one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions and is around an hour-and-a-half drive from the busy city of Devonport. There are hikes for all abilities throughout the national park. They all reward the walker with awesome views of Cradle Mountain, and also take in glacial lakes, dense woodland and the occasional waterfall along the way.
The 6-kilometre Dove Lake Circuit is a favourite. If you’ve got your sights set on the summit, the main trail leaves from Dove Lake and will take 6–8 hours to complete (that’s the whole round-trip). Be prepared to scramble over some tricky boulders on the way.
Views of the mountain are majestic in both winter and summer, but if you’re planning to make the ascent, best come in summer (November–April) when conditions are a little more predictable.
11. Mount Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), China
Mount Huangshan thoroughly deserves its nickname: “the loveliest mountain in China”. As if plucked straight from Avatar, the huge rock formations are made even more mysterious by a perpetual layer of mist.
It was given the name Yellow Mountain under the Tang Dynasty way back in 747. The otherworldly views have since inspired many Chinese artistic works, especially the shan shui style of painting, which focuses on landscapes
Still today visitors are in awe of Huangshan’s beauty. To see it for yourself, you’ll need to make your way into Huangshan City in China’s Anhui province (it’s easiest to fly or it’s around a 5-hour drive from Shanghai).
Once you’re here, it’s pretty easy to explore. Three cable cars travel to the mountain top and the many stone steps that wind throughout the peaks make trekking simple too (if not a little hard on the calf muscles).
You can hike Huangshan year-round but high season is from April through to October. Off season will be delightfully quiet, but be aware that some trails may be closed for maintenance.
12. Castle Mountain, Canada
Banff National Park has plenty of peaks, but Castle Mountain is the most unique. And it’s easy to see how it got its name. The mountain resembles a turreted fortress, perched ominously above the spruce and fir trees in the Canadian Rockies.
Head to Castle Junction, where the Banff-Windermere Highway and the Trans-Canada Highway meet in the park. Here you’ll get glorious views of the mountain, especially beautiful in the early morning light.
Then, the 6.4-kilometre Castle Mountain Lookout trail (trailhead near Castle Junction) will take you up to a scenic viewpoint on the peak where you can look out across the park. Tackle it in spring, summer or autumn to avoid slippery winter conditions.