Hills and mountains are both landforms that rise up and above the surrounding terrain. Even with leaders in geography, there is no universally accepted definition for what determines if a landform is a hill or a mountain, so difference between hill and mountain is often left up in the air to some extent.
Mountains vs. Hills
Hills are known for having a distinct summit, often times in areas that possess a dip or scarp topography. Hills typically refer to particular sections of flat terrain that don’t have a large summit and while the distinction between a mountain and a hill is subjective and largely unclear, a hill is considered by most to be smaller and not as tall as a mountain. With no clear-cut standards to differentiate between the two of these, the generally accepted notion is that mountains also are snow-capped and often part of colder climates.
This is not always the standard, of course. There are some mountainous areas – like the Pocono Mountains located in Pennsylvania – that are smaller than more classic mountains such as the Rocky Mountains in the United States. Even when geography leaders at the United States Geological Survey are questioned about the differences, they do not have hard and fast rules of what constitutes a mountain or a hill. Instead, the organization is customarily using wide categories for the majority of land features, including hills, mountains, rivers, and lakes.
Defining Mountain Heights
According to the United States Geological Survey, mountains were defined as land masses scaling more than 1,000 feet up until the 1920s. This definition between a mountain and a hill was accepted until the 1970s, when there were then attempts to classify mountains as hills by placing rocks atop former land masses, made even more infamous by a scene in a movie in the 90s that covered the controversy.
What Constitutes a Hill?
The generally accepted standard of a hill is a land mass that has a lower elevation compared to a mountain and has more of a rounded shape instead of a distinct peak. Commonly accepted hill characteristics include:
- a natural land mass formed by erosion or faulting
- a land mass that rises gradually above its immediate surroundings
- a height of less than 2,000 feet
- a rounded top and no defined peak
- typically an unnamed land mass
- easy to access and climb
There are some hills that may have been mountains in the past but through the process of erosion across thousands of years, they have decreased in mass and height. Conversely, there are some mountains that were created through shifts of landmasses and tectonic plates. Examples include the Himalayan mountains in Asia.
What Constitutes a Mountains
Mountains, in general, are considered taller than a hill, although there is no official height that has been assigned to this land mass. Mountains are usually quite obvious in local topography, and some examples of popular mountains include Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Mount Washington. Some generally accepted mountain characteristics include:
- a natural landscape caused by the earth faulting
- a steep elevation in landscape that is abrupt compared to nearby surroundings
- a height of at least 2,000 feet
- a steep peak or defined summit
- often a mountain has been named
- are difficult to climb
There are exceptions, of course, as there are some hills that are considered mountains, and vice versa. For example, in South Dakota, the Black Hills could be classified as mountains as they have a elevation over 2,000 feet. Black Elk Peak, an area of the Black Hills, has an elevation of over 7,000 feet, but the area received their name initially from the indigenous Lakota Indians, who referred to the mountains as Black Hills and the name has remained intact.
The earth has an interesting and varied geography that has piqued the interest of humans all over the world, proving that there are sometimes no set guidelines when it comes to naming landscapes . Hills and mountains are integral to topography no matter what definition they fall under and even with no hard and fast rules, they both can be classified through the comparison of climate, heights, and the ecosystem surrounding them and a lot more.