For Highpointers, nothing but a hike to the summit will do.
© Beth Gauper
The high point of Illinois has a view but doesn't feel very high.
The expedition began on a beautiful morning in October. I got in the car, drove a few miles over the Wisconsin border and
followed country roads to a gate, where a gravel lane led to a farmhouse.
I parked, walked up an oak-lined path and, just like that, was atop the highest point in Illinois.
Charles Mound, at 1,235 feet above sea level, certainly was a nice place to be on a fall day. Near the U.S. Geological Survey benchmark, its thoughtful owners had placed two lawn chairs, facing a golden, hazy countryside dotted with silos.
There were better views nearby, however, along the Mississippi River Valley. Still, over the previous two weeks, this particular spot had drawn visitors from Texas, California, Washington, Colorado and many other states, 36 of whom had signed the register that sat in an old milk box.
“My oxygen tanks ran out halfway up, but we made it,’’ wrote a Daniel McDevitt, for whom Charles Mound was
the 49th of the 50 state summits.
For some, it was a first — “It’s official, I have highpointed!’’ wrote Heather Behnke of Minneapolis — and for others, just one stop on a whirlwind tour — “8th high point in 2 weeks,’’ noted Alan Applegate of Cleveland.
For these Highpointers, members of a national club that had just 32 members in 1987, a year after it was founded, and now numbers in the thousands, nothing but the exact summit will do.
When the late surveyor Paul Zumwalt, author of the 1988 book “Fifty State Summits,’’ found that the high point of Missouri actually was 400 feet away from the old one, it caused consternation among hard-core Highpointers.
“Frances Carter was the first woman to do all 50, and when she got my book, she went back and did Missouri again,’’ Zumwalt told me in 2000.
Zumwalt, whose book inspired many hikers to become Highpointers, oversaw several such switches in the Midwest, such as the official designation of Timm’s Hill over Rib Mountain in Wisconsin and a 300-foot shift in the Charles Mound site.
Luckily for the owners, the old site, which had the better view, wasn’t the real high point, and they later built a house there.
High points provide bragging rights, but not always a view. Missouri’s, on Taum Sauk Mountain, is just a small clearing in the woods, not far from a parking lot. I was there one spring, glanced at it briefly, and continued along the trail to 132-foot Mina Sauk Falls.
© Beth Gauper
In north-central Wisconsin, Timm's Hill is the state's high point.
That hike, over three miles of loose Ozark rock, did offer a challenge, as well as a view of the highest waterfall in Missouri and a legend that improves on the familiar leaping-Indian-maiden theme.
In this one, a bolt of lightening splits open the cliff, bringing forth a gusher that washes away the blood of Mina and her Osage lover, who was tossed by her Sauk relatives onto spear-studded ledges.
As on Taum Sauk, Midwest high points often lead hikers to other, better sights. At Charles Mound, the real treat came after I left the high point and drove 12 miles to the tourist town of Galena along the Stagecoach Trail.
Following a ridgeline, it provided lovely fall views of ravines filled with bronze and russet oaks, contrasting with faded yellow cornfields in the distance.
At Timm’s Hill in Wisconsin, where the Highpointers held their convention in 2007, there was a bona-fide view from an observation tower.
But, for me, the real discovery came at the foot of the hill, where the scenic, 10-mile Timm’s Hill National Trail connects with 20 kilometers of trails around Rib Lake and the Ice Age Trail National Scenic Trail.
From the top of Eagle Mountain in Minnesota, there’s a magnificent view of the North Fork of the Cascade River and Eagle, Whale and Zoo lakes. The trail itself also is scenic, like most along the North Shore.
In the register at the summit, Russ from Powder Springs, Ga., had written, “I moved to Atlanta six years ago, and hiking up here and seeing places like this make me want to move back to this great state!’’
In this region, the most spectacular high point is 7,242-foot Harney Peak, in South Dakota’s Black Hills. I climbed it from Cathedral Spires, a stand of billion-year-old granite, eventually joining hikers from two other trailheads.
At the top, from a 1939 CCC fire tower, I could see a pollen "storm’’ rising from waves of ponderosa pines, and how the shadows from clouds make the hills look black, as well as such landmarks as Mount Rushmore and Devil's Tower.
The Harney Peak trail, while long — I had to give my water to a suffering 6-year-old, and a granola bar to a
lightheaded man — is not particularly dangerous, though some high points are, especially Mount McKinley in Alaska and
Mount Rainier in Washington.
For years, however, the most dangerous was 812-foot Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island, where the owner used to run off Highpointers with a shotgun.
© Beth Gauper
From the top of Minnesota's Eagle Mountain, hikers have a view of lakes and rivers.
Collecting high points, it seems, can get pretty interesting. I’ve seen five of them now, however, and feel no great
urge to see more; I even passed within a few miles of Iowa’s high point near Okoboji and didn’t have the heart to
bother the poor farmer whose cattle trough marks it.
When I can see the finest panorama in the region from Lansing, Iowa, on the Mississippi, why make a trek to a farmyard at the opposite end of the state?
But many people, Paul Zumwalt told me, just have to do it.
“Now they’re setting records,’’ he said. “They want to do it in the least amount of time, and one guy is doing them on bicycle — when he can’t ride to the top, he puts his bike on his shoulder and carries it up. It’s sort of an addiction.’’
Trip Tips: Upper Midwest high points
Illinois: The high point is on private property and open only by permission on the first Saturdays and Sundays of
June, July, August and September.
To reach Charles Mound, take Stagecoach Trail (County Road 3) east of Galena to Elizabeth-Scales Mound Road (County Road 4) and go north through the village of Scales Mound and east and north on Charles Mound Road for 1.3 miles.
Park on the road and leave pets in the car. It's a mile and a half.
Minnesota: The trailhead of 2,301-foot Eagle Mountain can be reached from Grand Marais by taking County Road 7 to
Forest Road 48, then 158 to its junction with 153.
It's a little simpler to take the Caribou Trail, or County Road 4, from Lutsen to Forest Road 153; from there, it's about four miles east to the trailhead. Fill out a registration form and put it in the box before hiking.
© Beth Gauper
Hikers enjoy the view from Harney Peak in the Black Hills.
Allow three to four hours for the hike itself and, in summer, bring plenty of insect repellent.
For more, see Hiking the North Shore.
Wisconsin: The 1,951-foot Timm’s Hill is in north-central Wisconsin, six miles east of Ogema (past Ladysmith, north of Wausau) off Wisconsin 86. It’s in Timm’s Hill County Park, just off County Road C.
For more, see Trek to Timm's Hill.
South Dakota: Harney Peak isn’t an easy climb — Gen. George Custer didn't make it when he tried in 1874 — but people of all ages do it. Bring food and water. Distance from trailheads in Custer State Park is six and seven miles round-trip on two moderate trails and 11 miles on a more strenuous trail.
The park's Tatanka guide is handy; ask for it at 605-255-4515. For the South Dakota Vacation Guide, call 800-732-5682.
Missouri: Taum Sauk Mountain is six miles southwest of Ironton, off Missouri 21, in the southeast part of the state. The 1,772-foot summit is just off the parking lot. The area is a hiking and canoeing mecca.
For more, see On the rocks in the Ozarks.
More information: The Highpointers website is packed with tips and information.
Last updated on September 13, 2012
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