1. Mount Apo
ELEVATION: 2,956 meters (9,698 feet) above sea level (ASL)
LOCATION: Cotabato, Davao City, Davao del Sur
Of all the mountains that are found anywhere in the Philippines, none stands taller than Apo, a massive, mighty, and majestic stratovolcano straddling the borders of the provinces of Cotabato and Davao del Sur, and the City of Davao, in the southerly island of Mindanao. Although the mountain is not known to have had historical eruptions, it is still classed as a potentially active volcano.
Mount Apo, whose name in the local tongue translates to ‘revered elder’, bears the epithet Grandfather of Philippine Mountains, a fitting homage to its venerable and awe-inspiring form and figure. And awe-inspiring indeed is the mountain, for Apo holds preeminence over all the other Philippine peaks – at an impressive elevation of 2,956 m (9,698 ft) ASL (though some sources put this at 2,954 m or 9,692 ft ASL), it is indisputably the tallest point in Mindanao and the highest mountain in the Philippines.
Needless to say, as a result of its imposing height, Apo is famed as one of the most sought-after climbing destinations in the Philippines, a popular draw especially – but not exclusively – for seasoned mountaineers. Several trails lead to the mountain’s flattish summit and the three peaks that crown it, of which the highest is the southwest peak, known to some as Davao Volcano. From the mountaintop, almost the whole of the island of Mindanao, and many of its ridges and ranges, and its surrounding seas, are laid bare before the eye, a sweeping and sublime vision unobtainable elsewhere in the country.
But Apo’s popularity is not attributable solely to its lofty height and its distinction as the highest mountain in the Philippines. Apo also boasts a rich and varied array of spectacular sceneries that render an ascent of the mountain even more worthwhile. Indeed, in addition to its formidable elevation, Apo is also renowned for its diverse assemblage of marvelous physical landscapes and natural features. From its slopes to its summit are found luxuriant rainforests; mossy swamps; verdant grasslands; rocky terrains; remarkable volcanic formations such craters, fumaroles, and solfataras; as well as four impressive lakes.
The four lakes of Mount Apo are especially noteworthy. At the foot of the mountain lies Lake Agco, a most unusual lake of boiling mud and sulfur fed by waters from both hot and cold springs. About halfway to its summit is Lake Venado, an enchantingly beautiful lake filled crystalline waters, upon whose glass-like surface is perfectly mirrored the upper half of the mountain. The Spanish explorers who ascended Mount Apo in the late 19th century, and who on their way to the summit beheld Lake Venado, thought that the lake seemed shaped akin to a deer, and so they gave the lake its fitting name (venado is the Spanish word for ‘deer’). But owing to its startling clarity, Venado is known as Lake Linaw (local term for ‘clear’) among the locals. It is the second highest lake in the country (next only to Lake Tabeo of Mount Tabayoc in the Cordilleras), and mountaineers routinely set up camp around its shores before either resuming the assault to the summit, or descending back to the base camp. The two other lakes of Mount Apo, Lake Macadac and Lake Jordan, are pools of icy water in the mountain’s grassland summit.
Apart from its lakes, Apo’s numerous rivers, streams, brooks, and creeks deserve equal attention. The mountain serves as a vast and vital watershed from where issue forth the headwaters of multiple river systems that drain Mindanao, such as the Marble River, which joins the larger Kabacan River, which in turn flows into the even larger Pulangi River, a major tributary of the Mindanao River or the Rio Grande de Mindanao, the second largest river system in the Philippines.
Apo’s wealth of stunning landscapes and spectacular sceneries is complemented by its exceptionally rich biodiversity. The mountain hosts terrestrial ecosystems primarily dominated by forests, ranging from the lowland evergreen forest that grows upon the nether slopes of the mountain, the lower montane forest on higher elevations, to the upper montane forest (otherwise known as mossy forest or cloud forest) that mantle the loftiest levels, stopping just short of the very summit. The mountain also supports grassland ecosystems and freshwater ecosystems, among others.
Apo is widely regarded as the center of endemism in Mindanao, host to one of the highest land-based biological diversity in terms of flora and fauna per unit area. Over 272 bird species populate the mountain and its surround; of these, 111 species are endemic, among them the critically endangered Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the largest of the extant eagles in the world by length and wing surface, and one of the rarest and most powerful birds across the planet. About 118 butterfly species have also been recorded in the area, along with a multitude of amphibian, reptile, and mammal species, as well as an estimated 800 vascular plant species.
Aside from its staggering natural and ecological significance, Mount Apo is also an important cultural and spiritual site. In the shadow of the mountain lie the ancestral lands and settlements of numerous indigenous communities, chief of whom are the Manobo and Kalagan peoples, who revere Apo as sacred and hallowed ground. Indeed, the name of the mountain is a contraction of Apo Sandawa, the original name given to it by its indigenous inhabitants. Apo Sandawa is the name of the spirit of the mountain, who is worshipped as an ancestor spirit of the native tribes.
Mount Apo, together with its slightly lower neighbor Mount Talomo (2,707 m or 8,881 ft ASL), form the Apo-Talomo Mountain Range, a component range that serves as the southern terminus of the encompassing Pantaron Mountain Range (although some accounts declare the Apo-Talomo Range as an entirely separate range). Sometimes known as the Central Cordillera of Mindanao, the Pantaron Range is the extensive and continuous chain of mountains running through the interior of Mindanao, which accounts for about 12 percent of the island’s total land area, and which hosts the island’s largest contiguous forest block.
Mount Apo and its surrounding landscape are administered and protected as the Mount Apo Natural Park, which has also been declared as an ASEAN Heritage Park.
2. Mount Dulang-Dulang
ELEVATION: 2,938 m (9,639 ft) ASL
The next highest mountain in the Philippines is also found in the southern island of Mindanao, and almost within sight of Apo. Mount Dulang-Dulang, an enormous, forest-clad mountain with an elevation of 2,838 m (9,639 ft) ASL (though by some accounts 2,941 m or 9,649 ft ASL), stands as the second highest peak in Mindanao and the second highest mountain anywhere in the country.
Mount Dulang-Dulang is encompassed within the Kitanglad Mountain Range, of which it is the highest point and peak. The Kitanglad Range is an immense array of lofty mountains laid out along a west-east axis and lording over the northern central plains and plateaus of the province of Bukidnon in northern Mindanao. Immediately south of the range is the slightly lower Kalatungan Mountain Range, while to the east marches the length of the Pantaron Mountain Range.
Dulang-Dulang, like all the peaks of the Kitanglad Range, is heavily forested, and within the deep and vast forests borne upon its back numerous wildlife species find refuge, including squirrels, shrews, flying lemurs, bats, monkeys, wild boars, and deer. Sightings of Philippine eagles in or around the mountain have also been reported. Dulang-Dulang, and indeed the entire Kitanglad Mountain Range, serve as the catchment area from where the headwaters of a number of major river systems rise, and these include the Maagnao River and Alanib River, which are tributaries of the Pulangi River, which itself is but a tributary of the veritable torrent that is the Mindanao River or the Rio Grande de Mindanao. The range provides water for domestic, agricultural, industrial, and commercial use in Bukidnon and the nearby provinces.
Mount Dulang-Dulang, although only lately introduced to the mountaineering community at large, is slowly emerging as one of the more popular hiking destinations in the Philippines, owing first to its towering height and prestige as the second highest mountain in the country; and second to the richness and enchanting beauty of its forests. Indeed, to many of the mountaineers who have been to Dulang-Dulang, or D2, as they have fondly nicknamed it, the ancient and wondrous forests of the mountain are the cardinal draw and the chief highlight of the climb.
Although Dulang-Dulang hosts a variety of environments, including pine groves and grasslands, its old, mossy forests, which seem to have been little-touched and preserved as they were since Mother Nature wrought them in the deeps of time, have garnered the most attention and recognition, with many likening them to the faerie forests often portrayed in fantasy tales. Primeval trees of immeasurable age, whose gnarled and serpentine barks are clothed in the living green of moss, form a marvelous webwork and lattice of curving, curling, and coiling boughs and branches, all mantled with long, trailing ‘beards’ of lichen. And through this mystical tapestry, woven in equal parts of wood and wonder, light passes in soft, fitful glows, further adding to the enchantment of the forest.
The trek to the summit of Dulang-Dulang is long and laborious, but the stunning and unforgettable sceneries along the way make the ascent all the more worthwhile. Besides, those who manage to survive the gauntlet and stay the course, and eventually reach the top are further rewarded with a most splendid view of the rest of the forested peaks of the Kitanglad Range, the neighboring heights of the Kalatungan Range, as well as a rare glimpse of venerable Apo in the distant horizon.
Dulang-Dulang is part of the lineal lands of the Talaandig peoples, whose historic domain is largely centered about the mountains of the Kitanglad Range (as are the ancestral lands of the Higaonon and Bukidnon peoples). They hold Dulang-Dulang as sacred ground, and any ascent of the mountain requires first their consent and blessing. They guard the passages to the mountain, guide all climbing expeditions, and enjoin all mountaineers to abide by the tribal rituals fulfilled before, during, and after the climb.
Mount Dulang-Dulang and the entirety of the Kitanglad Range are administered and protected as the Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park, which has also been declared as an ASEAN Heritage Park.
3. Mount Pulag
ELEVATION: 2,922 m (9,587 ft) ASL
LOCATION: Benguet, Ifugao, Nueva Vizcaya
While the highest and the second highest mountains in the Philippines are situated in Mindanao, on the southern reaches of the archipelagic country, the third highest mountain is found on the opposite end, in the large island of Luzon to the north. Standing astride the borders of the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya is Mount Pulag, a colossal volcano of imposing form and figure, but designated as dormant and with no record of past eruptions. At a grand altitude of 2,922 m (9,587 ft) ASL (or 2,928 m or 9,606 ft ASL, according to some sources), Pulag is the uncontested tallest peak of Luzon and the third highest mountain in the Philippines.
Mount Pulag is also the highest point and peak of the encompassing Cordillera Central, more commonly known as the Cordilleras, the gigantic mountain range dominating the whole western half of Northern Luzon. The Cordilleras is the largest of all the mountain ranges in the Philippines, occupying all or parts of twelve provinces, which together account for around a sixth of the entire land area of Luzon. The Cordilleras is also the highest mountain range anywhere in the country.
Pulag ranks among the most popular mountains in the Philippines, and among the most sought-after climbing destinations, due in part to its status as the highest peak in Luzon and as the third highest in the country. But Pulag also possesses a number of remarkable features and attributes that bestow upon the mountain a distinctive identity and render it unique from the rest of the peaks and pinnacles elsewhere in the Philippines, or at least those beyond the Cordilleras; and that make the mountain a certified draw among mountaineers.
One such feature is the mountain’s cold climate, which is a stark contrast to the sweltering heat of the Philippine lowlands. Because of its lofty elevation, the climate on Pulag is temperate. Rainfall is particularly abundant throughout the year, and frost is common. Temperatures at the mountain summit often plunge below 0 °C (32 °F) at night especially during the wintry months of December to February, making it the coldest place anywhere in the Philippines.
Apart from its frosty climate, Pulag is home to a wealth of natural (and manmade) spectacles and sceneries. In its shadow are hills and valleys upon whose sides are carved verdant rice terraces, green vegetable farms, and the bucolic villages of the indigenous Igorot peoples. Along the mountain’s rocky heels and upwards to its nether slopes grow pine forests and lower montane forests, while upon the steeper and loftier levels are mossy forests teeming with oaks, rhododendrons, ferns, lichens, and moss, all veiled almost always in mist and fog. Meanwhile, the peak of the mountain is a vast and rolling landscape covered with cogon grass and dwarf bamboos, wide open to the very heavens.
At the summit, during the darkest hours of late night to early dawn, the full starry splendor of the Milky Way is unfurled upon the black sky, glittering brightly and clearly visible to all eager eyes. And around sunrise or sunset, a ‘sea’ of clouds forms, floating in a vast and seemingly endless white, cottony expanse all around the mountaintop.
The lure of Pulag is undeniable, and every year thousands upon thousands of mountaineers heed its call, taking to its pine-clad trails and braving the wet weather and biting cold for the rare opportunity to behold the starry night sky from its grassy summit, and the ‘sea’ of clouds that has long thrilled, delighted, and enchanted so many a visitor. Pulag is highly accessible, hence its appeal to seasoned mountaineers and novices alike. Currently, four trails lead to the mountaintop, each more difficult to trek than the last, but each with its own set of charms and attractions that render it worth choosing over the rest.
But aside from its undisputed significance in tourism, Pulag is a veritable natural and ecological treasure. It supports a staggeringly large diversity of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic to the mountain. Indeed, Pulag is recognized as one of the most biodiverse locations in the Philippines, and such recognition speaks volumes, for the Philippines is already one of the 18 megadiverse countries in the world. Pulag and its immediate surround are home to some 528 documented plant species, including the dwarf bamboo (Yushania niitakayamensis) and several rare orchid species; as well as a multitude of animal species, among which are the Philippine deer (Rusa marianna); Philippine warty pig (Sus philippensis); giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus); Luzon pygmy fruit bat (Otopteropus cartilagonodus); Koch’s pitta (Erythropitta kochi); a subspecies of the red crossbill, Loxia curvirostra luzonensis; and several endemic species of the squirrel-like cloud rats, namely the Northern Luzon giant cloud rat (Phloeomys pallidus), Luzon bushy-tailed cloud rat (Crateromys schadenbergi), and the greater dwarf cloud rat (Carpomys melanurus).
Much like Apo and Dulang-Dulang, and indeed like many of the mountains in the Philippines, Pulag is venerated as holy ground by the indigenous tribes who dwell within its shadow, chief of whom are the Ibaloi, Kankanaey, Ifugao, and Kalanguya peoples. According to the Ibalois in particular, the mountain is the abode of the guardian spirits known as tinmongaos, hence its other name Playground of the Gods. They also believe that Pulag is the final resting place of the souls of the departed, and so they mummify their dead and house them in caverns in the mountain.
Mount Pulag forms the focal point of the Mount Pulag National Park, which, among other critical functions, serves as an extremely important water-catchment area for the headwaters of many of the rivers that supply the water, irrigation, and hydro-electric needs of the provinces of the Cordilleras and many adjoining ones.
4. Mount Kitanglad
ELEVATION: 2,899 m (9,511 ft) ASL
The next highest mountain in the Philippines is also found in Mindanao, and is in fact a sister peak of Dulang-Dulang. Mount Kitanglad, a massive dormant volcano, rises immediately north of Dulang-Dulang. With an elevation of 2,899 m (9,511 ft) ASL, Kitanglad ranks as the third highest peak in Mindanao and the fourth overall highest mountain in the Philippines.
Mount Kitanglad, which lends its name to the entire Kitanglad Mountain Range, is also the second highest point of the entire row of mountains. Like Dulang-Dulang, and indeed the rest of the cloud-capped peaks of the range, Kitanglad is a densely forested mountain (though forest cover is concentrated mostly on the higher slopes). In fact, the whole Kitanglad Range hosts one of the Philippines’ last remaining rainforests, and within its lush, green depths there endures a rich ecosystem of many diverse species, over 600 of which are rare and endemic. This wealth of wildlife includes more than 300 species of flora used by the indigenous people for herbal medicine, as well as the Rafflesia schadenbergiana, the second largest flower of the genus Rafflesia, and likely the second largest flower in the world. Remarkable animals of the range include the Philippine eagle, Philippine serpent eagle (Spilornis holospilus), Philippine sparrowhawk (Accipiter virgatus), brahminy kite (Haliastur indus), Mindanao pygmy fruit bat (Alionycteris paucidentata), Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta), Kitanglad shrew-mouse (Crunomys suncoides), Mindanao mountain rat (Limnomys sibuanus), and the gray-bellied mountain rat (Limnomys bryophilus).
Kitanglad is part of the ancestral domains of the Talaandig, Higaonon, and Bukidnon tribes, who have long peopled the mountain and its parent range and served as the local guardians and gatekeepers. Kitanglad figures prominently in their lore – they believe that their ancestors’ spirits dwell in the mountain. Moreover, the name of the mountain comes from their myth. According to one of their legends, in ages now beyond the reach of memory, a Great Flood submerged the entire province of Bukidnon, leaving only a portion of the peak of Kitanglad no larger than the size of a stalk of tanglad (lemon grass) visible (kita in the local tongue) above the water. And thus was the name of the mountain – and the entire range – derived.
Owing primarily to its lofty elevation and its renown as the fourth highest mountain in the Philippines, as well as to its forests and impressive floral and faunal wildlife, notably its rich bird biodiversity, Mount Kitanglad is one of the major mountaineering and birdwatching draws in the Philippines. Though scaling the mountain is neither an easy nor a brief affair, at the very least the summit is fairly accessible. For Kitanglad functions as a communications center, with multiple communications towers and bunkhouses peppering its peak, and sections of the trails leading to the summit have been well-established to ease the passage of the people who work there.
From the summit of Kitanglad, neighboring Dulang-Dulang can be beheld, as well as the entirety of the mountainous expanse of the surrounding Kitanglad Range, and even glimpses of the Kalatungan Range to the south and the Piapayungan Range that lies beyond. Some mountaineers further up the ante – and the adrenaline and adventure – by climbing Kitanglad and traversing through to the nearby peak of Dulang-Dulang, or vice versa. The Bukidnon peoples oversee all entries to Kitanglad, and akin to the practices of the Talaandig of Dulang-Dulang, they also require mountaineers to abide by their local customs and rituals.
Mount Kitanglad and the entire Kitanglad Mountain Range are a protected area known as the Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park. It has also been designated as an ASEAN Heritage Park.
5. Mount Piapayungan
ELEVATION: 2,890 m (9,482 ft) ASL
LOCATION: Lanao del Sur
On the southern end of the province of Lanao del Sur, far to the southwest of the pinnacles of the Kitanglad Range, beyond the peaks of the Kalatungan Range, there stands a forbidding row of towering mountains overlooking the vastness of Lake Lanao. This veritable mountain-array, enshrouded in mystery as much as it is in thick and impenetrable forests, is known as the Piapayungan Mountain Range, but some refer to it as the Sleeping Lady, for when viewed from afar, the silhouette of the range apparently resembles – albeit vaguely – the body of a woman reclining in rest.
Secluded, little-charted, and little-frequented, not much is known about the Piapayungan Range, and so little can be said here. But what is known is that the range is surmounted by several high peaks, most of which have unverified altitudes. But the loftiest of these is Mount Piapayungan: rising to an elevation of 2,890 m (9,842 ft) ASL, it is the fourth highest mountain in Mindanao and the fifth highest across the Philippines.
There is a manifest dearth of information concerning Mount Piapayungan; its wildly forested slopes remain vastly unexplored and untrodden. Only a handful of mountaineers have tried to ascend the mountain, and fewer still have actually made it to the summit, not so much because of the mountain’s inherent risk and dangers, as because of the precariousness and instability of its location. For Piapayungan and the entire range that bears its name are situated in a region afflicted by war and violence that have lasted for many decades now. Indeed, the dark and unmapped heights of the range are rumored to be a fastness of rebels, hence the mountaineers’ reluctance to set foot within the vicinity, hence why the deep secrets of the mountains are yet to be revealed to the outside world.
6. Mount Kalatungan
ELEVATION: 2,860 m (9,383 ft) ASL
Immediately south of Dulang-Dulang, Kitanglad, and the rows and ranks of mountains that make up the Kitanglad Range, and separated only by a short stretch of upland is the slightly smaller and less lofty cluster of closely-serried peaks known as the Kalatungan Mountain Range.
The principal peak of the Kalatungan Range, after which the entire chain of mountains is named, is Mount Kalatungan, a towering stratovolcano with no known historical eruptions but classified as a potentially active volcano. At a dramatic elevation of 2,860 m (9,383 ft) ASL (some sources indicate 2,880 m or 9,449 ft ASL), Mount Kalatungan is the highest peak of the Kalatungan Range, the fifth highest point in Mindanao, and the sixth highest mountain in the Philippines.
Mount Kalatungan has two peaks. The first, the loftier, is considered as the official summit of the mountain, while the other peak is the slightly shorter Mount Wiji (2,819 or 9,249 ft ASL), which to some is known as Mount Lumpanag and to others Mount Makaupao. This latter peak, however, is apparently not counted as a separate mountain owing to its very close proximity to the first and higher peak.
Kalatungan and its parent range are noted for being almost always swathed with cloud cover all year long. But when this white and gray mantle lifts for a moment, a green one is revealed – this time, of verdurous forests that clothe the slopes and sides of the mountains. Indeed, the mountains of the Kalatungan Range are among the very few areas left in Bukidnon that still host old-growth forests. Above and underneath this forest canopy, plant and animal life flourishes in remarkable wealth, wildness, and wonder, boasting such species as the iconic Philippine eagle and the splendid Philippine hawk-eagle (Nisaetus philippensis).
The floral biodiversity of the mountain range is particularly incredible: a participatory inventory of plants revealed the presence of 342 species, many of which are endangered, endemic, and economically and socially important to the locals. In the forests of the mountains, the dominant tree species include the Philippine dillenia or katmon (Dillenia philippinensis), white lauan (Shorea contorta), Philippine red mahogany or red lauan (Shorea negrosensis), bagtikan (Parashorea malaanonan), and the bikal-baboi (Schizotachyum dielsianum); while the highly threatened almaciga or dayungon (Agathis philippinensis) is also present.
Cliffs, caves, and rock formations dot the rugged and wooded breadth of the Kalatungan Range, while a lake, a tract of wetland, and a multitude of rivers, streams, and falls are generously distributed throughout its green, rain-washed expanse. The mountain range is a principal source of water for the inhabitants of Bukidnon and several neighboring provinces, for it hosts the headwaters of some of the tributaries of Mindanao’s major rivers, such as the Muleta River and Manupali River, which drain into the Pulangi River, which in turn empties into the Mindanao River or the Rio Grande de Mindanao.
Kalatungan also lies within the lands of the Talaandig peoples (though the Manobo also claim portions of the range as their ancestral domain). The forest is their hunting and foraging ground, a source of food, medicine, and other needs. And as with the mountains of the Kitanglad Range, the Talaandig revere Kalatungan as a sacred mountain and use it as a burial ground.
The origin of the mountain’s name is also attributed to their folklore. The legend of how Mount Kitanglad received its name is also told among the tribes dwelling at the heels of Kalatungan, albeit rather differently. For their version avers that when the Great Flood swept through Bukidnon and submerged the entire province, it was not only the peak of Kitanglad that remained visible above the water. A portion of the peak of Kalatungan stood above the deluge, too, and upon it there survived numerous praying mantis eggs, which in the local language are known as kalatungan. And thus was the name of the mountain, and the range, conceived.
The trails carved along the slopes of the mountain pass through fields, forests, and landscapes of wild and spectacular natural beauty, while the summit yields a most grand and panoramic view of the jagged, green peaks of the Kitanglad Range to the north, the secluded ridges of the Piapayungan Range to the south, and in the distant east, the austere grandeur of the Apo-Talomo Range encompassed within the longer Pantaron Range. But Kalatungan is regarded as a difficult climb, hence its lesser popularity. Still, the mountaineers who seek to gain its summit are urged by the Talaandig to follow their tribal customs and rituals.
Mount Kalatungan and the rest of the range are declared as a protected area under the Mount Kalatungan Range Natural Park.
7. Mount Tabayoc
ELEVATION: 2,842 m (9,324 ft) ASL
The Cordilleras is not only the largest mountain range in the Philippines; it is also the highest. The range is crowned by numerous tall peaks, many of which measure more than 2,000 m (6,562 ft) ASL in elevation, and several of these dominate the list of the highest mountains in Luzon, and even in the entire Philippines. One of such remarkably lofty peaks is Pulag. Another is Tabayoc.
Mount Tabayoc of the province of Benguet is a mighty mountain that rises to the northwest of Pulag, relatively within reach of the marginally taller peak. At a formidable height of 2,842 m (9,324 ft) ASL, Tabayoc is easily the second highest point of the Cordilleras, the second highest pinnacle in Luzon, and the seventh highest peak in the Philippines.
Although less lofty and less well-known than its sister peak Pulag, Tabayoc is still a popular mountaineering destination on its own. Apart from its towering altitude and its fame as one of the highest peaks not just in Luzon, but in the Philippines – which to many are reasons enough to warrant an ascent of the mountain – Tabayoc also boasts scenic natural wonders that rival those of Pulag, and that attract and allure many a hiker from far and wide.
From its heels to its high head, Tabayoc is indeed a spectacle to behold. At its base lie sprawled the idyllic villages of the indigenous Igorot folk, with kitchen gardens, vegetable farms, and terraced rice fields masterfully carved upon the slopes of the hilly terrain. But though these scenes of pastoral life in the Cordilleran highlands are notable on their own, the true sights at the lower parts of Tabayoc are its four magnificent lakes, each unique from the other, but all equally marvelous and beautiful.
The first and foremost of these lakes is Lake Tabeo, which is reckoned to be the highest lake anywhere in the Philippines. It is the first lake to greet the gaze of mountaineers upon their arrival at the foot of Tabayoc. Lake Tabeo is the one and only designated campsite for visitors; along its grassy banks, hikers and climbers can pitch their tents and deposit their belongings, and thence explore the lakes and villages at the base of Tabayoc before carrying out the assault to the summit.
But the most famous and apparently the most beautiful of the four lakes is Lake Ambulalakao (known to some as Lake Bulalacao). This pool of crystalline water, embosomed within a ring of leafy trees and wild verdure, is rumored to be the cleanest body of water in the Cordilleras. The two other lakes are Lake Letep-Ngapos, a wilder, more secluded, and, to some, more beautiful version of Ambulalakao, fenced on all sides by rank vegetation; and Lake Incolos, a lake whose watery expanse is overlain by a thin, soft, and spongy layer of earth and grass, which yields and releases water even at the slightest footfall.
Somewhere along the base of Tabayoc is also a hill fondly nicknamed as Junior Pulag, owing to the small patches of grassy ground at its brow being vaguely reminiscent of the vast and rolling grasslands that cover the summit of its far larger and loftier namesake.
But more remarkable than the four lakes are the thick, wild, and primeval mossy forests that wholly cover the slopes of Tabayoc all the way to its summit. These mossy forests, which are regarded as some of the most pristine and best preserved forests in Luzon, are rich in floral and faunal biodiversity, and play host to many rare and endemic species. And these forests are especially lovely. Indeed, to many visitors, these forests are the main draw, the highlight of the climb, with numerous mountaineers already affirming their wild, primeval, and exceptional beauty.
Through this wild and wondrous woods the trail to the summit wends its way, through and past trees of diverse and outlandish shapes and sizes that thrust great, gnarled roots across the path and splay twisted branches clad with moss, ferns, and lichen over the trail; and over the rugged forest floor thickly carpeted with rotting leaves, moss, and ferns. Because of the extremely wild nature and almost impenetrable constitution of the forest, this trail has been dubbed as the Monkey Trail, for it forces mountaineers to crawl through overarching roots and low-hanging branches, clamber over giant, moss-mantled rocks and boulders, cling to and swing from ropey vines and big branches – indeed to mimic the acrobatic movements of monkeys as they travel from tree to tree – all for the sake of getting through and to the mountaintop.
Unlike the summit of neighboring Pulag, which is wide open, grassy, and bereft of trees, the summit of Tabayoc is utterly and densely forested. To gain an unobstructed view of the surround, mountaineers must climb the trees that grow upon the peak and seek for an advantageous position above the canopy, or clamber onto the wooden observation deck that was built by the forest rangers. From this makeshift viewing deck raised above the roof of trees, Mount Pulag and all the lofty peaks of the Cordilleras may be descried.
Mount Tabayoc is well within the bounds of the Mount Pulag National Park, which means that the second highest mountain of Luzon shares in the same protection guaranteed by the law to the highest one. Owing to the close proximity between the two peaks, as well as with Mount Timbak, the third highest mountain in Luzon, many mountaineers opt to climb Pulag, Tabayoc, and Timbak (dubbed by mountaineers as the Luzon 123) in one major hiking expedition.
8. Mount Maagnaw
ELEVATION: 2,742 m (8,996 ft) ASL
The Kitanglad Mountain Range not only boasts the second and fourth highest mountains in the Philippines – it also holds the eighth highest. Thought not as lofty as Dulang-Dulang and Kitanglad, Mount Maagnaw, which stands westwards of its two sister peaks, is still a giant on its own. Soaring to an elevation of 2,742 m (8,996 ft) ASL, Maagnaw is held as the third tallest peak of the Kitanglad Range, the sixth highest point in Mindanao, and the eighth highest mountain in the Philippines.
Like its sister peaks, Maagnaw is thickly wooded and forested, and serves as a veritable sanctuary to a riotous display of plant and animal wildlife. Its summit affords a sweeping view of the entire Kitanglad Range and all its pinnacles, as well as the ragged peaks of the Kalatungan Range to the south. Maagnaw, however, is considered by many as a difficult climb, to say the least, mostly on account of the long and steep trails to its crown. And because it is situated within the domain of the Talaandig, mountaineers must first gain the permission and blessing of the ethnic peoples and complete the requisite folk rituals before beginning the rigorous ascent and assault of the mountain.
Mount Maagnaw and the entire Kitanglad Mountain Range are managed and protected as the Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park. It has also been designated as an ASEAN Heritage Park.
9. Mount Timbak
ELEVATION: 2,717 m (8,914 ft) ASL
Curiously enough, Mount Timbak, the third highest peak of the Cordilleras and the third highest mountain in Luzon, is also found within close range of the giants Pulag and Tabayoc. At an admirable height of 2,717 m (8,914 ft) ASL, Timbak of Benguet, to others known as Singakalsa, claims the ninth spot on the list of the ten highest mountains in the Philippines.
Unlike Mounts Pulag and Tabayoc, which are heavily forested and managed as protected areas, Mount Timbak itself is largely bereft of pristine forests and is somewhat of a residential area and farmland. Considerable parts of the mountain are already built-up: a good number of the houses of the Igorots – and even a school – are studded across the mountain side, and the slopes have been terraced and planted with rice, vegetables, and root crops. A narrow concrete road winds its way along the steep face of the mountain, leading very close to the summit.
Owing chiefly to the presence of this concrete road, Timbak is very much accessible to mountaineers, with some declaring that the hike to the summit is no hike at all, but rather a walk. In fact, of the ten highest mountains in the Philippines, Mount Timbak is considered the easiest to climb and to conquer. Some visitors even abandon all pretense at hiking and simply drive up their vehicles through the concrete road and onto the parking grounds on the higher slopes. From there, the summit is only a few minutes away on foot. Still, those choosing to walk instead of racing through in vehicles will find that the road upwards is rather steep and nothing to scoff at.
At the summit of Timbak are numerous well-tended garden beds and plots planted mostly with vegetables and root crops, and the occasional ornamental flowers. There are also large crosses and religious statues erected in the area. From the top, Pulag, Tabayoc, and a number of the taller peaks of the Cordilleras can be espied, as well as segments of the Halsema Highway – the road to and through the heart of the Cordilleran uplands – as it weaves, winds, and wends its way along the precipitous and rugged landscape. The view of the sunrise at the mountaintop is especially magnificent, and sometimes, in the early morning hours, as luck would have it, a ‘sea’ of clouds not unlike that in Pulag floats around the peak of Timbak.
There is also a cave in the mountain that houses within an accretion of the mummified remains of the ancestors of the Igorots.
Owing to the close proximity of the third highest mountain in Luzon to the highest and second highest ones, many mountaineers opt to climb Pulag, Tabayoc, and Timbak (dubbed by mountaineers as the Luzon 123) in one major hiking expedition.
10. Mount Ragang
ELEVATION: 2,714 m (8,904 ft) ASL
LOCATION: Lanao del Sur
Mount Ragang is one of the several high peaks of the Piapayungan Range. Known as the Blue Mountain to local folk, Ragang is elevated at 2,714 m (8,904 ft) ASL, making it the seventh tallest peak of Mindanao and the tenth of the highest mountains in the Philippines.
Like its sister peak Piapayungan, and indeed all the other mountains that comprise the Piapayungan Range, very little is known about Mount Ragang. Few mountaineers have dared to walk beneath its forest canopy or trod along its hidden trails, and fewer still have stood upon its coveted summit and descried the surrounding lands. The mountain and its parent range are even now still veiled in secrecy and mystery. Set in a region beset by decades-long armed conflict, where peace is as evasive as a victorious conquest of the mountaintop; and rumored to be a stronghold of insurgents, Ragang, and all the peaks of the Piapayungan Range, remain an elusive dream to many mountaineers to this very day.