Did you know that there’s more than one type of mountain out there?
Yep, that’s right – there are dozens of different types of mountains in the world, each of which has its own unique set of characteristics. In fact, if you’ve spent enough time outside, you’ve almost certainly encountered quite a few different types of mountains without even knowing it!
Learning more about the different mountain types is a great way to engage with the natural beauty of the Earth as you’re hiking and enjoying yourself outside.
So, to get you started, we’ve created this list of the mountain types for you to check out. Let’s get to it!
The Main Types of Mountains Classified By Geomorphology
There are many different ways to classify mountain types, and one of those ways is by its “geomorphology.”
Now, geomorphology might sound like a very complicated word. But, it’s just a fancy term for the study of the Earth’s landforms and how they relate to various geological structures and processes, such as the movement of tectonic plates, erosion, or weathering.
Many are characterized based on how they formed, so here are the main types of mountains you might encounter in the great outdoors.
Fold mountains are one of the most common mountain types on Earth. They form when the Earth’s tectonic plates push against each other, causing the edges of the plate to break, compress, collide, and warp until they build up into mountains.
This process of fold mountain building is called an orogeny, or a “mountain building event.” Countless orogenies have happened over the billions of years of the Earth’s existence, creating many of the major mountain ranges that we know and love.
Some examples of fold mountains include the Himalaya and the European Alps. However, while we often think of fold mountains as towering, jagged peaks, older fold mountain chains, like the Appalachian Mountains in the United States and Canada, are simply the well-eroded remains of an ancient fold mountain system.
Like fold mountains, fault-block mountains form as the result of the movement of tectonic plates. But, this time, instead of colliding plates, we have tectonic plates that slide past each other.
A fault block is a large section of the Earth’s crust that’s separated from neighboring blocks by faults. Fault block mountains form as the crust gets stretched out (often as a result of rifting), which creates something known as “horst and graben” topography.
Simply put, horst and graben topography is just alternating areas of high crustal blocks and low crustal blocks, or in other words, valleys and ridges. This type of mountain chain is common all over the western United States, particularly in the Basin and Range Province.
One of the best known examples of horst and graben topography is Death Valley, which is essentially a massive graben, or valley, surrounded by rugged ridges.
While fold and fault block mountains form through the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, dome mountains are something else entirely.
Dome Mountains actually form as magma rises up from the mantle – the part of the Earth between the crust and the core. As this magma rises, it pushes up on the overlying rock layers, creating a dome shape as it cools.
This might sound similar to a type of volcano, but, as we’ll see in a bit, there are some important differences between a dome mountain and a volcano – namely, that dome mountains aren’t likely to erupt anytime soon because they don’t have an active magma chamber.
Another thing to note about dome mountains is that they’re normally surrounded by otherwise flat terrain. This is because they form through a localized upwelling of magma that only affects a relatively small area, unlike the much more widespread processes that create fold mountains.
There are many well-known dome mountains in the world, such as the Black Hills in South Dakota and the Henry Mountains in Utah.
The term “upwarped mountains” refers to any mountains that formed as the crust bends or “warps” upward.
An upwarped mountain can form in a variety of different ways. One of these ways includes the upwelling of magma under the earth’s surface, such as during the creation of dome mountains. Indeed, dome mountains are considered to be a type of upwarped mountains.
However, there are other geologic processes that can form upwarped mountains, including fault block mountains, but there’s some dispute among geologists about whether this is the most appropriate use of this term.
That being said, there are many examples of upwarped mountains on Earth, including the Adirondacks in Upstate New York and in various places around the Colorado Plateau.
Plateau Mountains/Erosion Mountains
Some landforms that we consider to be mountain ranges, such as the Cumberland Mountains and the Catskill Mountains in the eastern United States, are actually the result of a well-eroded plateau.
This type of mountain, which can be called a plateau mountain, an erosion mountain, or, in some instances, a dissected plateau, occurs when a large area of the Earth’s crust is uplifted, causing rivers and streams to flow faster than they did before. As these rivers continue to flow, they carve away at the landscape, eroding the plateau into a mountain-like topography.
Although this takes quite a bit of time, there are some truly stunning plateau mountain formations out there, including the New River Gorge in West Virginia, which has a prominence of over 1,100 feet (335m).
Volcanoes are some of the best-known mountains on Earth, simply because they’re often quite dramatic.
What exactly is a volcano, you might ask?
According to NASA, a volcano is any opening on the Earth’s surface (or any other planet, for that matter) that allows warm material – usually magma and gasses – to escape from the interior of the planet. The escape of this warm material is called an eruption, and it can be very violent, causing rocks, debris, and molten lava to shoot up into the sky.
Volcanoes are created as a result of a wide variety of geological processes and they can take many shapes and forms. In fact, there are many different kinds of volcanoes, which we’ll discuss in just a bit.
Stratovolcano (Composite Volcano)
If you were asked to picture a volcano in your mind, you’d almost certainly think of a stratovolcano.
Over 60% of the world’s volcanoes are believed to be stratovolcanoes, which have steep sides, high summits, and can cause some pretty exciting eruptions. These volcanoes are mostly made of andesites and dacites, which are much more viscous types of lava than the basalt lavas found in shield volcanoes.
While stratovolcanoes don’t necessarily produce the most violent eruptions (that honor is often reserved for caldera complexes), they can cause an immense amount of destruction as they often send solid rock fragments, noxious gases, and lots of ash shooting into the sky. Historically notable stratovolcano eruptions include Krakatoa in 1883 and Vesuvius in 79 CE.
One of the biggest dangers of a stratovolcano eruption is the pyroclastic flow that can ensue. Pyroclastic flows are very fast moving streams of lava and other volcanic debris that can be up to 1300ºF (700ºC) in temperature and flow faster than 50mph (80 km/h).
Despite their dangers, stratovolcanoes are some of the most beautiful volcanoes on Earth, including Cotopaxi, Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, and Pico de Orizaba.
Shield volcanoes are essentially very large volcanoes with sloping sides and a broad summit. Indeed, these aptly-named volcanoes do look sort of like a shield when viewed from far away.
They are some of the largest volcanoes found on Earth and they are almost entirely composed of basalt, which is a type of igneous rock that forms from some of the most common types of lava.
Most shield volcanoes aren’t very explosive, though, so they won’t create the type of eruption that you may have simulated with a paper mache volcano as a kid. Instead, they tend to ooze lava, which then cools on the surface of the volcano, allowing it to grow larger and larger over the millenia.
There are quite a few notable shield volcanoes out there, including Mauna Loa on Hawaii and Fernandina in the Galápagos.
No discussion of volcanoes would be complete without mentioning supervolcanoes. Although you’d be hard pressed to argue that these volcanoes look like a mountain, they are the largest volcanoes on Earth as they can span hundreds of miles.
However, despite their name, supervolcanoes don’t jut out of the ground and reach towering heights. Instead, they are actually massive magma chambers that underlie wide regions of the Earth.
Perhaps the best known supervolcano is the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which actually fuels the thousands of geysers, hotsprings, and other geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park.
While there’s a lot of concern that supervolcanoes like Yellowstone could catastrophically erupt, there’s little indication that it’s going to happen anytime soon, according to geologists at Columbia University.
Fairly recognizable, cinder cones are a type of volcano that’s composed mostly of loose sediments. Most cinder cones are made of both basaltic and andesitic rock, though they have relatively little, if any lava.
Additionally, cinder cones tend to be quite small as they are rarely more than 1 mile (1.6km) wide and more than 1,000 feet (304m) high. That being said, they tend to be quite steep and they almost always have a small crater at their summit.
Oftentimes, a cinder cone forms on the side of a larger volcano, like a stratovolcano, but sometimes, they can grow rapidly out of an otherwise flat landscape.
Perhaps the most notable cinder cone is Mexico’s Parícutin, which actually started growing out of nowhere in the middle of a farm field back in 1943. Over approximately 9 years of development, the cinder cone grew up to a height of about 1,200 feet (365m), spewing ash and gas all over the surrounding area.
Lava domes, as the name suggests, are domes of lava that form around a central volcanic vent. They are also called volcanic domes and they can be found in highly volcanic locales around the world.
Although lava domes aren’t the most dramatic and explosive of volcanic mountain types, they are quite cool. They form as magma erupts and then piles around a single cent, creating a large dome-like structure. However, they generally don’t have enough pressure build up at their core to create a violent eruption.
One of the most iconic lava domes is actually located within another volcano, namely, the Mount St. Helens crater. This lava dome started to form after the mountain’s 1980 eruption and continued growing in size until about 1986. There are also quite a few lava domes found in the Andes, most notably the Chillahuita lava dome.
Oh, and there’s also a funky type of lava dome known as a pancake dome found on the planet Venus. These domes usually form in clusters and can be up to 100 times larger than the domes we find on Earth, though they form in a somewhat similar way.
A tuya is a nifty type of volcano that actually forms underneath a glacier. These subglacial volcanoes are found in places such as British Columbia and Iceland, and they often have flat tops and steep sides.
The formation of tuyas is somewhat complex as it goes through a series of phases while still under the surface of an ice sheet. Eventually, the heat of the volcano starts to melt the surrounding ice which helps to further develop the distinctive flat-topped shape of a tuya.
One of the most famous tuyas is Herðubreið, a volcano within Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland. It’s a fairly popular hiking destination, thanks to its proximity to Herðubreiðarlindir, which contains a campground and a number of well-maintained trails.
As this lava hardens, it creates a “plug” that can actually result in the build up of a substantial amount of pressure. Sometimes, this leads to quite a very explosive eruption. But, if the plug doesn’t erupt, millions of years of erosion can eventually remove the softer surrounding rock, leaving behind a distinctive landform that’s shaped sort of like a lopsided cone.
One of the best examples of a volcanic plug is called North Berwick Law, which is located to the south of the town of North Berwick in East Lothian, Scotland, just a short train ride from Edinburgh.
The Law is composed of a type of reddish igneous rock known as phonolitic trachyte. As a result of years of glacial erosion, North Berwick Law also demonstrates an interesting geological formation called a “crag and tail” that’s found across Scotland.
Guyots and Seamounts
Our last type of volcanic mountain is a guyot. Guyots are underwater volcanoes that form all over the world, building up in height until they reach the surface of the ocean. Eventually, they are eroded away to their underwater heights.
Many guyots have ancient coral reefs at their summits, which is an indication that they were once tall enough to reach the surface of the ocean.
On the other hand, guyots that never reached the surface of the ocean are called seamounts. Some seamounts can be more than 10,000 feet (3,048m) tall and they can either be isolated or included as part of a submarine mountain system. There are hundreds of seamounts around the world, though some of the best-known include the New England Seamount, the Meiji Seamount, and the Detroit Seamount.
Guyots and seamounts are incredibly important for marine biodiversity. They create an ideal habitat for a wide range of different marine plants and animals, some of which can only be found around these underwater mountains.
Mountains Classified By Structure
Instead of being classified by their geomorphology, or how they’re formed, some mountains are classified by their physical appearance or structure. These mountain types are quite diverse, though they include some of the world’s most iconic mountains and geologic formations.
A traprock mountain is essentially any mountain, ridge, or similar geologic feature that’s composed mostly of something known as “trap rock.”
Trap rock is essentially any darkly colored igneous rock, such as basalt. These mountains often appear reddish in color due to the weathering that occurs to these darkly colored igneous rocks over time.
Traprock mountains are found all over the world and they can take the shape of ridges, cliffs, buttes, and canyons, among others. Some of the most notable traprock areas include the Paraná Traps in Brazil, the Metacomet Ridge in Connecticut, the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington, and the volcanic island of Surtsey in Iceland.
Mesas are a type of isolated flat-topped mountain that’s wider than it is tall. There are many different names for mesas, including tables or plateaus.
For the most part, mesas are found in areas with layers of sedimentary rock. Over millennia, water erodes away at the landscape, removing the more erosion-prone layers and leaving behind the more durable layers. This durable layer at the top of a mesa is called the cap rock, which helps to protect the softer rock underneath from erosion.
Mesas are common in desert landscapes, such as the southwestern United States, where they jut up dramatically from the otherwise low-lying desert below.
Some mesas are actually cuestas, which is a type of mesa that slopes in one direction. One of the best known cuestas is Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado.
Buttes are very similar to mesas, but they are taller than they are wide. This differentiates them from mesas, which are wider than they are tall.
Like mesas, buttes form through tens of thousands, if not millions of years of erosion in areas with many layers of sedimentary rock. Over the millenia, the durable caprock at the top of the butte withstood this erosion, protecting the softer rock below.
Oftentimes, buttes were once part of a mesa or plateau which has since weathered away. Eventually, many buttes give way to the erosive forces that created them, becoming smaller and smaller until they turn into tall, pointy spires.
Buttes, like mesas, are often found in desert landscapes. In fact, some of the best-known buttes in the world are found in Monument Valley (Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii) on the Navajo Nation along the border of Arizona and Utah.
Monument Valley is considered a sacred place to the Navajo Nation and it is one of the most photographed places in the United States. In years past, Monument Valley and its buttes have served as the backdrop for many popular movies, including Forest Gump.
Hogbacks are a type of geological feature comprised of a long, yet narrow ridge with a number of hills along its crest. This type of mountain chain forms as layers of sedimentary rocks are uplifted and then tilted so that a softer layer of rock sits on top of a harder layer.
As the softer layer erodes away, it leaves behind the harder layer of rock, creating a large escarpment, known as a hogback. Of course, geological structures are constantly changing, so continued erosion of the hogback makes it taller and more prominent over the course of millions of years.
Hogbacks are found all over the world, though some of the best-known examples include Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado, the Grand Hogback in Colorado, and the Hog’s Back in Surrey, England.
Karst landscapes are any landscapes that form as limestone bedrock (or marble and gypsum bedrock) dissolves. Limestone is particularly soluble, so it often forms caves, sinkholes, springs, and other underground features as rain water percolates through the bedrock and weathers it away.
Tower karsts are a particular type of formation that can happen within a karst landscape. Sometimes, when a large amount of limestone weathers away, it leaves behind just a small, residual collection of limestone towers, known as a tower karst.
These mountains also look like pinnacles and can be found in limestone landscapes around the world. You can find tower karsts in many tropical or subtropical landscapes, particularly around Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Miscellaneous Mountain Types
Finally, we have a handful of different mountain types that don’t quite fit in any other category. Whether they’re defined by their vegetation, shape, or their rarity, here are some great mountain types that you might encounter on your travels.
A fell is a type of mountain found in parts of northern Europe, including the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The word “fell” has a unique etymology and it is believed to come from an Old Norse word meaning “mountain or hill,” which was later incorporated into the Scots language.
You’ll hear lots of folks arguing what the difference is between a mountain, hill, and a fell, and the reality is that this is more of a cultural name than a technical one.
You’ll rarely, if ever, find a mountain outside the UK or Scandinavia, be called a fell. However, there are places in the UK, such as the Lake District where nearly all high points are referred to as fells. In these locations, fell running, or off-trail hill running is a particularly popular pastime.
A knoll or a kuppe is a type of low-lying hill with a rounded top. Knolls are found all over the world and they are usually somewhat isolated from other hills, giving them a bit of prominence over the landscape below.
Kuppes, which are sometimes considered to be a separate type of knoll, is a term reserved for hills that have a rounded summit. These types of knolls also don’t have a tor or rocky outcropping at their summit, giving them a fairly uniform shape.
Inselbergs are a type of isolated mountain or hill formation that results from long-term erosion. Also known as monadnocks, flyggeberg, or bornhardts, inselbergs are usually round in shape and they rise up from relatively flat landscapes, which gives them exceptional prominence.
Most inselbergs are made from granite or other hard igneous rocks that can resist the forces of erosion that wear away at their softer sedimentary surroundings. One of the most famous inselbergs in the world is Uluru in central Australia, which is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara people.
Inselbergs are also known as bornhardts, which was the last name of the German geologist, William Bornhardt, who named them. In fact, the famous Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is considered to be a bornhardt.
Mounds are technically any area of heaped soil, debris, or gravel, which looks like a large lump or hill in the landscape.
The term “mound” is generally more of an archaeological one, as many mounds are actually artificial, human-built structures. Burial mounds were commonly built by peoples around the world both in prehistoric and more modern cultures. One of the most famous modern mounds is the Kościuszko Mound in Poland.
A nunatak is a type of isolated mountain peak that sticks up through a glacier or ice sheet. With nunataks, just the summit of the mountain pokes through the ice, which can be thousands of feet deep.
You can find nunataks in icy landscapes all over the world, including on the Harding Icefield in Alaska, in Greenland, and in the Transantarctic mountains in Antarctica.
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