Hiking to the high points - The Explorer: El Sol

Hiking to the high points

Or driving, in the case of Nebraska; three state high points a 48-hour, 1,500-mile adventure

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Posted: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:36 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Ranging in level of difficulty from easy to strenuous / technical, all 50 of the United States have designated high points. The goal of a relatively small number of hikers, truly inspired individuals, is to stand at the highest elevation of every state.

Joining my nephew Todd in pursuit of the highest point in three upper Midwest states over a 48-hour period, the adventure begins with a noon departure from Denver, Colo. To properly position ourselves for climbs in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, a nine-hour, 550-mile journey to Bowman, N.D., was the first order of business. Enhancing the activity would be visits to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and a tri-state marker. An attempt to stand at the geographical center of the United States would prove futile.

Following a unique and entertaining late night dinner at the "Has Beens" bar in Bowman and six hours of sleep, early morning found us headed an hour north to the private land trailhead leading to 3,506-foot White Butte, the chalky, bentonite clay North Dakota high point. An extra two miles were quickly added to the trail, as snow, slush and mud flowed over a dirt road leading the final mile to the trailhead. A $10 gratuity deposited in an old mailbox gains entry to the private land. Through an earlier phone call, authorization for our climb was granted. Gaining just over 400 feet in elevation, with most coming in the final quarter-mile, the survey marker is reached in slightly over an hour.

Honey-colored fields, highlighted with deep drifts of snow, surround White Butte, a climber's beautiful panoramic reward. A strong cold wind encourages a quick log book entry, a few photos and a return to the trailhead. Onward, to South Dakota.

Having earlier seen a map point designating the center of the U.S., an extra activity is planned. The conterminous (enclosed within one common boundary) center of the country is located in Kansas. Failing to locate the point while driving north, online research determined the exact latitude and longitude as well as precise directions. Both maps we carried showed different locations, neither of which was correct. Possessing this current information, confidence is high for finding the actual site.

Departing US Highway 85 onto Old US Highway 85, a small sign indicates the desired point is 7.8 miles north on a well-maintained dirt road. Spring temperatures are rising and snow is rapidly melting. Four miles in Old US Highway 85 and the Indian River becomes one, denying further travel. Next on the agenda: Mount Rushmore.

Tuesday in mid-April is undeniably the time to visit this outstanding monument in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. With only one of 12 booths open to collect the $10 fee, and unlimited parking in all six parking areas, the experience is shared with just a few others. Walking the Grande Promenade, passing through tall granite pillars flying flags of all states and plaques describing the sculptors' method of construction, an expansive viewing area is reached.

Under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, work began in 1927 and was completed 14 years later, not long after Borglum's death. This was a truly remarkable achievement, given the equipment and knowledge regarding gigantic sculpting at the time. Standing 60 feet tall, busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln hold viewers in wonder. A boulder-strewn slope of rubble lies below, testament to the massive amount of material removed. A truly daunting accomplishment.

Thirty minutes after departing Mount Rushmore, the entrance road to Sylvan Lake State Park is reached, more entry fees are paid, and the trailhead to South Dakota's 7,242-foot Harney Peak is underfoot.

The peak is named in honor of General William S. Harney, a military commander for the Black Hills area in the 1850s. Among his accomplishments were leading Civil War troops in Missouri, and negotiating treaties with Plains Indians. Upon his death in 1889, the Sioux changed his name to "man-who-always-kept-his-word."

Mud, snow and ice will again be our trail companions throughout the six-mile round trip adventure. Gaining 1,550 feet in elevation and passing through a heavily forested environment, the trail is a dramatic change from the open country of the morning climb.

A mile and half from the summit, the incline steepens and the snow deepens. Conquering the final yards over icy steel and cobblestone steps, a three-story abandoned fire lookout tower, constructed of stone, stands boldly at the summit of the 15th-ranked state high point.

A magnificent 360-degree panoramic view over a Black Hills National Forest landscape is more than adequate compensation for the effort. Exposed atop massive boulders, high winds with light rain falling from dark clouds encourage a quick departure. Seventy-five minutes later, this challenging experience is concluded.

One more activity, 12 miles away, will be enjoyed before bedding down in Torrington, Wyo. Crazy Horse Memorial mountain stands partially completed, a task begun in 1948, and leaving one to wonder if it ever will be completed. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982, was asked by Native Americans to construct this memorial, honoring the Lakota warrior. Arriving at the entrance after 6:30 p.m., and asked to pay $20, a quick viewing is enjoyed as a U-turn is made. After a long, exhausting day, a three-hour nighttime drive to southeastern Wyoming will set up activity for the next day.

Another early departure leads to an 8 a.m. arrival in Pine Bluffs, Wyo., on the Nebraska border. Traveling swiftly through another small town, one of dozens passed traveling rural highways, the road leading toward 5,424-foot Panorama Point, highest point in Nebraska, climbs swiftly onto the town's namesake. A few miles further along winding dirt roads through a patchwork of fields, we arrive at the entrance gate. After paying one last fee, the final, rutted mile ends at the stone marker.

Little effort is required to add this one to the completed list. Simply parking next to the pillar meets the requirement. Nearby a huge black desk holds the log book, with a lone entry from the previous day.

One mile away, six via the county roads, the final goal is met. Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska intersect at this point. Standing atop the pillar erected to mark a rare meeting of three states, the high point marker just visited can still be seen.

With an afternoon flight to Seattle out of DIA scheduled, the stay is brief. Heading west on I-80 and south on I-25 gains a noon arrival at the Denver airport. A definitely enjoyable, action packed adventure: 48 hours; 1,500 miles; three state high points (now 23 for nephew Todd and six for me), Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, a tri-state marker and a failed attempt to stand at the center of the US. A truly memorable experience.

For more information, the official web site of the Highpointers Club is www.highpointers.org, or read Highpoint Adventures by Charlie and Diane Winger.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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