This was supposed to be our summer to summit Kilimanjaro, until the pandemic forced my wife and I to recalibrate our ambitions closer to home, and sent us back to an old hobby: collecting state high points.
That is, visiting the highest point of natural altitude in every state. There is a national club for it, the Highpointers. Yes, some club members have documented that they have done all 50. (We’re still rookies, having completed 13.)
There are a few extremely challenging and/or dangerous climbs among the state highpoints that call for an abundance of technical know-how, but most highpoints are accessible to determined hikers in decent shape. This summer, I knocked off a couple of localish ones that I had neglected and have now completed all of the highpoints within a reasonable drive of Massachusetts.
Here they are ranked by height. Stats are from the guidebook Highpoint Adventures, by Charlie and Diane Winger.
1. Mt. Washington, New Hampshire
National rank by height: 18th of 50
Location: Presidential Range of the White Mountains
The king of the northeast, known for big wind and bad weather. Strenuous no matter how you climb it. The Huntington Ravine Trail offers some of the hardest scrambling in the Whites.
Downside: There’s a road to the peak. Train tracks, too. This is a personal bias, but if I could undo man’s crimes against nature, I’d start with tourist roads up mountains.
2. Mt. Marcy, New York
National rank by height: 21st
Location: Short drive outside Lake Placid, the town still milking its post-Olympics tourist bounce.
We climbed Marcy for the first time this July. The trailheads are distant from the mountain so it’s a long hike however you do it. The busy Van Hoevenberg Trail is about 14.8 miles roundtrip and a typical northeastern mud and boulders trail. Not hand-on-the-ground steep, but a consistent uphill, long enough to become a tough grind. Sublime Adirondack summit views, and the snack bar at the base is better than it has any right to be.
Downside: For those who like sweeping vistas, very little reward before the peak.
3. Mt. Katahdin, Maine
National rank by height: 22nd
Location: Baxter State Park, near Millinocket. From Boston, take I-95 and just keep going until it feels like forever. (Review Maine’s COVID travel restrictions first.)
Katahdin promises a long, exhausting day hike or overnight, with relentlessly tough trails, steep scrambling and one particularly demanding route over a thin ridge with eyepopping exposure. Nothing focuses the mind like being one careless step from eternity. Great views are probably not much different than they were 100 years ago, or 500.
4. Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
National rank by height: 26th
Location: Near Stowe
There are several ways up this mountain, including along a section of The Long Trail that is nearly all rock. It’s a gentler hike than those up the mountains higher on this list.
5. Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts
National rank by height: 31st
The state highpoint is a fun day trip to the Berkshires, to a mountain that inspired the overwrought prose of Henry David Thoreau, who overnighted on the summit: “All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds, answering in the varied swell of its surface to the terrestrial world it veiled.” Yes, it was foggy that day.
Downside: Again, there’s a road up it.
6. South shoulder of Mt. Frissell, Connecticut
National rank by height: 36th
Location: Far southwestern corner of Massachusetts. A job for GPS. When the road turns to dirt, you’re close.
We did this one on a recent Sunday. It’s a rugged little hike, short but steep with sections of scrambling.
It is rather sad for Connecticut, but the mountain’s peak is in Massachusetts. The Connecticut state highpoint is where the invisible state border crosses Mt. Frissell’s southern slope. The spot is marked with a stubby metal rod, like a pushpin in a life-sized map. There’s a trail register there inside a metal ammo can. The person who signed it before me wrote, “Our first highpoint together! 49 more to go!” And they drew a heart.
7. Jerimoth Hill, Rhode Island
National rank by height: 46
Location: Foster, Rhode Island
You do this one because you want to check off a state highpoint, not because you’re looking for a climb. The Rhode Island highpoint is a brief stroll down a dirt road to a large gray rock, looking like a partially submerged whale calf. This highpoint had more mystique years ago when access was guarded by an abutter who didn’t like trespassers.