July 14, 2024
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 considerable time and effort, so if you’re going to do it, you’d better pick a good one.

Here to help is a nifty visualization of California mountains with the absolute best views at the top. Made by Kai Xu of San Mateo, the viz shows “on top of the world” mountains in the state – those that when you stand athwart the peak, there’s nothing on the earth that rises above.

“There’s a particular allure to mountains that are the highest in their surrounding areas,” Xu says via email. “Being in the Bay Area, often do we find ourselves gazing at Mount Diablo’s towering presence. Hobbyists (engaged in) peakbagging and highpointing have long been interested in summiting the highest mountains of their respective counties – the so-called county high points. But I wanted to create a new definition of ‘local high point’ that’s based purely on physical geography, rather than on political boundaries.”

What exactly qualifies as a “on top of the world” mountain? Xu, a Yale senior who’s fascinated by the science of topography, has created a clear definition. (It relies partly on a dataset from the former Google Earth engineering director, Andrew Kirmse.)

“To find out whether a mountain is on top of the world, I use a model of Earth’s shape known as a digital elevation model,” he explains. “I then scan everything within a large radius of the mountain, checking if any land rises above the mountain’s horizon. If even a tiny sliver of land rises above the horizon, a mountain is disqualified from on-top-of-the-world status. Out of over 3,000 mountains in California that were measured, only 20 passed this vibe check.”

Snow covers the higher elevation of Mount Diablo at sunset seen from San Ramon, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

There are two top-of-the-world mountains in the Bay Area: Mount Diablo (elevation 3,849 feet) and Copernicus Peak (4,360 feet).

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“I’ve stood atop Mount Diablo, and although it’s not the tallest mountain, its views are incredibly expansive,” Xu says. “From there, you can see even higher mountains like Mount Hamilton, Lassen Peak and the Sierra Nevada. But due to Earth’s curvature, even these higher mountains will be below your horizontal eye-level – you’ll be looking slightly downward toward them.”

Apologies to San Francisco and the North Bay, but even with its incredible views, Mount Tamalpais is not “on top of the world.”

“If you stood atop Mount Tam and looked toward the summit of Mount Diablo, you’ll be looking 0.1 degrees above your horizontal eye level. So Mount Tam is almost on top of the world, but just barely misses the cut.”

The visualization is one of many mountain-related projects that Xu’s made, being something of a mountain obsessive. Those interested in such matters might want to check out his “California Cities by Impressiveness of Mountain Backdrop,” which shows how the Bay Area has kind-of lame mountain views compared to urban areas in Southern California.

Snow blankets Mount Shasta and the Avalanche Gulch route to its summit on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Mount Shasta Avalanche Center)