State highpoint fever

It’s been great to be on the road again, and I drove around the zone between the American West and the Midwest. I did a bit of hiking in the process, visiting three state highpoints on the way. Nothing death-defying or dangerous, but fun places for the curious. Here we go, first stop, South Dakota.

September 25, Harney Peak: It’s in the Black Hills, and is advertised as the highest mountain between the Rockies and the Alps, topping out at 7242 feet (2207 m). A bunch of trails lead to the top from all directions, although I hiked it from the heavily-traveled trail from Sylvan Lake. It’s accessed by a very fun drive on the super-twisty Needles Highway, and most of the climbing is done in the car. As far as highpoints go, this is a relatively easy one, not too long, not too steep, well-maintained, and leads to a nicely constructed fire lookout completed in 1939 by the CCC. Geologically, the Black Hills are full of these rock pinnacles and phallic needles sticking out of dark evergreen forests, interspersed with grasslands and hidden valleys.

Harney Peak and the fire lookout

Summit view

September 26, White Butte: This is North Dakota’s highpoint at 3506 ft (1069 m), and lies on private property, so you need to call ahead, and deposit some $$$ in the mailbox at the parking lot. Getting there takes time, this is North Dakota after all, which is kind of out of the way from anywhere, and is sparsely populated. It’s about 10 miles driving from the tiny one-blink town of Amidon (population 20), down a series of gravel roads. Finally, there’s a mailbox with an arrow marking the way (down the road, and then up the hill), and it’s a straightforward, easy trail, 2 miles or so one-way, with a sampling of the diverse landscape of this part of the state. Yes, the state is not just wheat fields, buffalo, and oil. The main hazard on this trail is yes, rattlesnakes, including a fellow who would not be disturbed from his suntan.

Unhappy rattlesnake, interrupted his suntan

View from White Butte, with fall colors

Abandoned house

October 2, Mt. Elbert: It’s a hill, albeit a big rounded one at high elevation, sitting with a bunch of similar hills in the Sawatch Range. The Sawatch forms a 14000 foot barrier to the west of the Arkansas River Valley between Leadville and Salida, Colorado. There are two main trails to the top, none of them easy. After all, the top of the mountain is at 14440 feet (4401 m), and the northeast trailhead is at 10040 feet, climbing to the summit in 4.5 miles. The first part is actually relatively flat, and after turning right at the sign, the real climbing begins. It’s a trail all the way to the top, but the combination of altitude and several false summits turns it into an epic hike / flogging. I’ve had better views, it’s more or less a pile of rocks, but then again, how often can you get to this elevation? I don’t really have the desire to do it again, though. As for the day I hiked it, there was snow on the trail, it was icy in places, but the top itself was snow-free and relatively warm (around 8-10 C).

That’s NOT the summit of Mt. Elbert.

Ptarmigans, brilliantly camouflaged and getting their winter colors

Going down was worse, the snow really slowed the descent, requiring a few detours, and it was murder on the knees. A better way to get up and down is by mountain bike, as a German fellow I met at the top was doing.

NOT a recommended way of hiking a mountain.

Summit of Elbert, finally!

And all those mountains to the northwest, can anyone identify any of them?

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