Only 20 peaks in California qualify for “top of the world” views, according to this data visualization.
Hiking to the summit of a mountain can take a significant amount of time and effort, so if you’re going to do it, pick a good one.
Here’s a cool visualization of California mountains with the best views at the top to get you started. The visualization, created by Kai Xu of San Mateo, depicts “on top of the world” mountains in the state – those where, when standing at the peak, nothing on the planet rises above.
“There’s a particular allure to mountains that are the highest in their surrounding areas,” Xu writes in an email. “As residents of the Bay Area, we are frequently struck by Mount Diablo’s commanding presence. Peakbagging and highpointing enthusiasts have long been interested in summiting the highest mountains in their respective counties – the so-called county high points. However, I wanted to develop a new definition of ‘local high point’ that is based solely on physical geography rather than political boundaries.”
What exactly makes a mountain “on top of the world”? Xu, a Yale senior who is fascinated by topography, has developed a precise definition. (It is partly based on a dataset from Andrew Kirmse, the former Google Earth engineering director.)
“I use a model of Earth’s shape known as a digital elevation model to determine whether a mountain is on top of the world,” he explains. “I then scan everything within a large radius of the mountain, looking for land that rises above the horizon.” If even a speck of land rises above the horizon, a mountain is no longer on top of the world. Only 20 of the over 3,000 mountains measured in California passed this vibe test.”
In the Bay Area, there are two world-class mountains: Mount Diablo (3,849 feet) and Copernicus Peak (4,360 feet).
“I’ve stood atop Mount Diablo, and while it’s not the tallest mountain, the views are breathtaking,” Xu says. “You can see even higher mountains from there, such as Mount Hamilton, Lassen Peak, and the Sierra Nevada.” However, due to the curvature of the Earth, even these higher mountains will be below your horizontal eye-level – you’ll be looking downward toward them.”
With all due respect to San Francisco and the North Bay, Mount Tamalpais is not “on top of the world.”
“If you stood on Mount Tam and looked toward Mount Diablo’s summit, you’d be looking 0.1 degree above your horizontal eye level.” Mount Tam is almost at the top of the world, but just misses the cut.”
The visualization is one of many mountain-related projects created by Xu, who is a mountain enthusiast. Those interested in such things should read his “California Cities by Impressiveness of Mountain Backdrop,” which demonstrates how the Bay Area has mediocre mountain views when compared to urban areas in Southern California.