What is it about mountains that seems to speak to some deep part of our soul? What is it that drives us to hike, climb, bike, struggle and toil our way to reach the summits and viewpoints of these rugged and wild places? Perhaps George Leigh Mallory, one of the most famous early mountaineers and a man who would meet his end on Mt. Everest, said it best when he said:
The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, "What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?" and my answer must at once be, "It is no use."... What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.
If you're looking to experience the joy of which Mallory speaks, here are five of the most legendary mountain ranges in the world, each with a unique story, history, culture and undeniable magnificence. Whether you travel with Backroads and benefit from decades of experience discovering the best of these world-renowned regions, or pursue your own individual journey into the heart of the world's highest reaches, a visit to these mountain ranges should be on every adventurer's list.
1. The Pyrenees
Spain, France & Andorra
From the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees Mountain Range is a formidable natural border between France and Spain - the highest peak is over 11,100 feet tall! In fact, Spain and Portugal owe much of their African influence to this rugged geological separation from the rest of Europe that ultimately resulted in the development of some of the continent's most autonomous cultures. Cycle into the heart of Basque country and savor both a proud heritage that blends Spanish, French and local traditions along with a hearty glass of Rioja. Hike into the Catalan crags for a taste of historic architecture and fresh seafood. Whether by two wheels, two feet or a mix of both, you're sure to delight in the vibrant intersections of land and people in the Pyrenees.
2. The Alps
France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Monaco & Liechtenstein
Few mountain ranges touch as many countries as the Alps. They form parts of France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Monaco and Liechtenstein and are the source for many of Europe's famous rivers, including the Rhine and the Rhone. Want to pair wildflower meadows with decadent chocolate? Ride a cable car to your trailhead in the Swiss Alps. Take your cappuccino with a stunning mountain view? Strike out on a hike through the storied French and Italian Alps. Dream of cycling past cliffs and castles? Pedal Slovenia's Julian Alps. Care to get carried away? Hop aboard a river cruise down the Rhine, where dipping a toe into the river means touching water that was once Alpine snowmelt. You might even wonder if the variety of ways to experience the Alps are as impressive as the peaks themselves!
3. The Rockies
United States & Canada
Stretching 3,000 miles from Canada to New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Range sends summits soaring well over 13,000 feet, and provides the backdrop for some of North America's most impressive national parks, monuments and wilderness areas. This means the best (and sometimes only!) way to see parts of the Rockies is by bike or on foot. Some of the continent's last remaining glaciers are nestled high above adventure-loving towns like Banff, Jasper and Whitefish. The mountains that were sculpted by these massive rivers of ice eons ago are reflected in lakes from Lake Louise in Canada to Lake McDonald in Montana. Iconic routes such as Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park all the way to the Enchanted Circle route at the base of Mt. Wheeler in New Mexico provide physical challenges on par with the grandeur of these mountains. Wildlife abounds, especially in Wyoming's Yellowstone and Tetons area ,where the country's last remaining intact ecosystem—from grizzlies to wolves to bison to elk on down to birds, fish and insects—can be found.
4. The Andes
Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile & Argentina
The allure of the Andes lies in both the sheer spires of its towering peaks (which include the Western Hemisphere's highest point, Mt. Aconcagua at 22,831 feet) and the mythology nestled within them, from the ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu to the tiny Argentinean town of Chaltén in Patagonia. For over 5,500 miles, the Andean Mountains run nearly the entire length of South America, passing through seven countries and offering exploration on a monumental scale. You can follow an ancient culture's footsteps along the Inca Trail or those of modern mountaineers in Los Glaciares National Park and taste novelties like cuy while hiking in Ecuador or manjar while cycling through Chile. Whatever adventure you choose, the Andes will exceed your expectations and leave you wanting más.
5. The Himalayas
India, Pakistan, China, Bhutan & Nepal
Legendary. Spiritual. Unyielding. Home to Earth's tallest peak (Mt. Everest at 29,029 feet), the Himalayas will literally and figuratively take your breath away. Prayer flags dance in the wind as you hike or cycle past important religious sites, from the Taktsang Monastery (or Tiger's Nest) in Bhutan to mountain temples in Nepal. Nearly as vibrant as the ancient cultures that have called these peaks home for centuries is the modern mountaineering culture, pioneered by such legends as Edmund Hillary and George Mallory, that adds a fascinating layer of history and adventure to a modern journey in this mighty realm. The scents, sights, sounds and textures of the cultures found throughout the Himalayas are as alive as the landscape itself—and what better way to smell, taste, hear and feel it all than up close and in person by foot or bike.