The 5 Best (or worst) Hill Climbs in America

December 18, 2013

When you take on a hill climb (or moutain climb), it's not always the steepest ones that are the worst. Sometimes it's the length, or the the false sense of hope you get thinking you're nearly at the top before the rest of the climb is revealed. Sometimes it's the wind, the rain, the cold and the conditions. Climbing is a fight against your mind. It's a bribe with yourself, promising your body that if it just pushes a bit more it will get to enjoy the ease (or white knuckle grip of the) descent. Below are our picks for the toughest climbs in America (and before you undertake them, make sure you know How To Eat (and drink) for them).

1. Mt Washington

This beast is known as one of the toughest climbs in the world. It is also the place that once recorded the strongest wind gust on the planet.  At nearly 12km long it has an average gradient of 11.8%. That means at least half the climb is more that 11.8%, duh, but really, just take a moment to process how steep that is. Ouch. On top of that, only 2/3s of the road is paved, apparently 1/3 of the pavement washed away because the road is so steep, the rain is so hard and the temperatures are so cold. Here are some other stats for you to process, before you decide to sign up for the annual charge up Mt. Washington:
  • Highest wind recorded 231 mph (372 kph) 12 April 1934
  • Lowest Temperature -47 F (-43.9 C) January 1934
  • Highest Temperature +72 F (22 C) August 1975
  • Avg. Annual Temperature 26.5 F (-3.1 C)
  • Avg. Annual Wind Speed 35.3 mph (56.8 kph)
  • Avg. Annual Snowfall 256 inches (6.5 meters)
  • Greatest Snowfall Season 566.4 inches (14.38 meters) 1968-69

2. Onion Valley, The Sierras California

Known as possibly the most difficult climb in California, this beast battles more than steep grades. It also has the added bonus feature of high altitude. The road begins deceitfully "easy." So enjoy it. It will be the last bit of respite you will have for a while. To put it in perspective, Onion Valley is steeper and longer than both the Tour de France's Tourmalet and the Galibier. The last 3.5 miles are set high above any altitude the human body enjoys and roll upwards at a wicked 8.5% grade. The stats:
  • Total Elevation Gain: 5169 ft
  • Start: 3,994 feet.
  • Finish: 9,163 feet
  • Length: 12.5 miles
  • Average Grade: 7.8%
  • Steepest Mile: 9.2%
  • Steepest 3 Miles: 8.5%

3. Whiteface Mountain, Upstate New York

This climb is eerily identical in every characteristic to Alp d'Huez. Gasp. It may seem short, but it's punchy from the get go. A mere three miles in and you'll be creaking up a 10% grade for 3 gut-wrenching miles. Luckily for you, as you near the top the grade eases and you come to a clearing. On crisp days a view over Vermont and Canada emerges. At the top you can even take a lift (or hike) up to the real summit of Whiteface Mountain. A little fact: Whiteface Mountain is so steep, that it's known best for the race down it's slopes. These races clock some of the fastest descent times in North America. The stats:
  • Total Elevation: 3,566 feet
  • Start: 1,040 feet
  • Finish: 4,606 feet
  • Length: 7.9 miles

4 & 5. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Want to climb up some active Volcanos?  Then it's time to take on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. These volcanos top out at nearly 11,200 and 13,500 feet respectively.  Mauna Kea is also the tallest mountain on earth --  its base begins 17,000 feet deep under the sea (yes someone attempted beginning the climb underwater, on a bike). On Mauna Kea when you hit 9,000 feet of altitude the road pitches up to 17% for just under a mile. Ugh! Then,  you still have 3500 feet of climbing to do. On Manua Loa you will climb for about 3 miles on totally on paved roads. Then it's chipped pavement,  gravel, piles of lava rocks (oh yeah, you might want to attempt this on a mountain bike). After just 3.6 miles  you leave the nice pavement behind. Then when you have just under 2000 feet of climbing left you'll complete it  an average grade of 10.6%. But don't worry,  the toughest mile is only 13.5%, and it will have you praying for a volcanic eruption. Enjoy these two beasts, because since you're out on the island, you're going to want to save some of yourself to climb the measly Haleakala which offers a mere 10,700 feet. The stats: Manua Loa
  • Total Elevation Gain from Hilo: 11, 118 feet
  • Average Grade: 5%
  • Toughest Mile: 13.5%
Manua Kea
  • Total Elevation Gain from Spencer Park: 13,471 feet
  • Average Grade: 4.9%
  • Toughest mile: 17% at 9000 feet
  • The tallest mountain on earth (yep, it's not everest).
  Getting to the top of any climb is a feat. As Rudyard Kipling said, you will be a man, my son. A battered, whimpering broken man.