State high points are special to my husband, Mike Vining, and me. Why, you might ask? Well, for starters, we met on top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. Second, we were engaged on Mount Rainier, the highest point in Washington state. And third, we got married on top of Mauna Kea, which you may have already guessed, is the highest point in Hawaii.
Since becoming a couple in 1998, we’ve stood together at the highest point in 45 states. Mike and I travel about half of each year and we “collect” many places, including national parks and zoos. We amass state high points because they are one of the very best motives for travel. You see, attaining the highpoint is only part of the experience—the journey getting there is what matters most.
The quest to visit the highest point leads us to interesting areas we might not otherwise visit. Take Kansas for instance. At 4,039 feet, Mount Sunflower, the state’s highest point, is in the western boondocks, near the Colorado border. En route to or from here, you can visit the Monument Rocks Natural Area, also known as the Chalk Pyramids. Here you will find pinnacles, chalk spires, and fossils of cretaceous marine animals, and you might see pronghorn, western meadowlarks and more.
Some state high points are easily reached. You can drive to 14 and reach 16 others with a short walk. Amazingly, 21 are wheelchair accessible. Other high points require a hike or overnight backpack trip. Pull out an atlas and you’ll quickly find that there are no easy walks to the top in the western half of the country. Reaching the summit in the West requires everything from a long hike to climbing a mountain with ropes and ice axes. (Mike twice climbed Alaska’s Mount McKinley, aka Denali, which soars to 20,320 feet.)
Among the summits that are easy to reach, the westernmost is Panorama Point in Nebraska. Located in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, this vantage point at an elevation of 5,424 feet offers see-forever views of plains, plains and more plains. While in Nebraska be sure to visit Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park and Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area near North Platte. It’s a wonderful place to camp along the Platte River and learn more about Buffalo Bill.
Though it involves a short hike, another favorite highpoint is North Dakota’s White Butte. At 3,506 feet, it’s an easy two-mile round-trip to the top and back. Though we didn’t see one, the place is known for its rattlesnakes, so be sure to use a walking stick or pole. Sunrise or sunset is a great time to be on the summit because the views are fantastic. Though you can’t see it from the top, one of the best things about this state high point is that you are close enough to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We spent several days in the area camping, hiking and enjoying the badlands, prairies and wildlife.
On the opposite side of the country you’ll find Britton Hill in the Florida Panhandle. At 345 feet, it is the lowest of all the state high points. All you need to do is drive to the top, hop out, and you are there. At the summit, you will find a kiosk with a logbook and information on Britton Hill and on the Highpointers Club, an organization for people who make a hobby of traveling to state high points. There are also nature trails at the summit.
Although it is easy to get to the top of Florida, people go to great efforts to document their arrival there, according to Craig Noland, a past membership officer for the Highpointers Club. Craig says, “The funny thing about this high point (from membership pictures sent to me) is the photos that folks take. Really, I honestly believe that folks visiting the lowest point of the 50 states spend more time figuring out their ‘hero’ photo shots than they would on top of McKinley. On the Great One (Denali) you get there, take your picture and hopefully you make it down in one piece. At Britton Hill, you drag out all of your climbing gear, in temperatures between 40 and 100 degrees, and have a photo taken with the sign.”
While visiting Britton Hill, be sure to spend time at the Air Force Armament Museum near Niceville, where you will find campgrounds and lodging. The museum is home to more than 25 different aircraft. Another fun thing to do is to visit Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore. One of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard, the fort was begun in 1829 and completed in 1834.
Blue Ridge Country
More than just the highest point in North Carolina, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Rising more than a mile high, at 6,684 feet, the summit is in the Black Mountains and 1,946-acre Mount Mitchell State Park. It is easily accessible. An interpretive center near the summit parking lot offers interesting information about the park’s history, and during your visit you’ll learn about the local forests, wildlife and geology. Visit this high point and you’ll have a chance to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway.
My stepdaughter, Terri Vining, and her family visited Mount Mitchell a few years ago. My grandson’s name is Mitchell so visiting the peak “was an important activity for all of us,” says Terri, who lives in Lakeview, Michigan. “We love to explore nature, but especially mountains.” Terri reminded me that while the highlight was being on top of the peak, the low point was children getting carsick on the way down. Her advice: “Go slow…there’s joy in the journey.”
Head to Tennessee’s highest point and you’ll be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the nation. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is an easy one-mile round-trip walk to the summit and back. Although Clingmans Dome is open year-round, the road leading to it is closed from December through March. A paved, but steep, path leads to the observation tower, where there are 360-degree views of the Smokies and beyond. Before or after being on top of Tennessee, be sure to spend time hiking and camping in the national park.
There are options for reaching the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. You can take a hike rated as strenuous, drive to the top, or sit back and relax aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway. At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is known as the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather,” based on its combination of extreme cold, high winds, icy conditions and low visibility.
An auto road that opened in 1861 leads nearly eight miles to the top. If you drive up, remember, you are driving at “America’s Oldest Manmade Tourist Attraction.” Closed in winter, Mount Washington Auto Road was originally called Mount Washington Carriage Road. Think about it—in 1861 horse-drawn wagons were making the same trip up the 11.6 percent average gradient that cars do today.
The cog railway, which is the world’s first mountain-climbing train and the only cog railway east of the Rockies, takes passengers to the top in about an hour. An hour is spent at the summit, allowing time for high-point photos, and then it’s another hour back to the train station. If you’d rather hike, be prepared to travel eight to 10 miles round trip and climb about 4,000 feet.
Massachusetts and New Jersey offer giant monuments on their not-so-lofty summits. Located in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, Mount Greylock is 3,491 feet in elevation and is within a wilderness park acquired by the commonwealth in 1898. As you drive to the top (roads are open seasonally), watch for hikers as they make their way up and over the top via the Appalachian Trail. The granite tower on top of the peak is quite impressive and is dedicated to the men and women of Massachusetts who died serving our country.
The name, High Point, New Jersey, says it all. At 1,803 feet, it is the highest point in the Garden State. You enter High Point State Park and drive to a monument that resembles the Washington Monument. It was built to honor all war veterans. At the top of the 220-foot structure, visitors enjoy awesome views of forests and farmland.
Become a highpointer and you will discover that it is a wonderful way to explore America.
Donna Ikenberry is a travel writer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
GOING TO THE TOP:
Here are three books to guide you to state high points: Highpoint Adventures by Charlie and Diane Winger, Highpoints of the United States by Don Holmes, and Fifty State Summits by Paul Zumwalt.
The Highpointers Club is for people who share a common interest in traveling to each state high point. The late Jakk Longacre started the club in the 1980s, and his motto, “Keep Klimbin,” is legendary. The club, with more than 2,700 members, says its purpose is to promote climbing to the highest point in each of the 50 states and to “aid in preservation and conservation of the high points and their environs.” Membership is $20 a year. The organization has a newsletter and an annual convention that was held last year in Maine and this year will be at Clingmans Dome in Tennessee.
You don’t have to climb all the state high points to be a highpointer. At last count, 241 people had summited all 50 states, but many more (449) had reached the top of the 48 contiguous states. For information on the Highpointers Club, visit highpointers.org.