Debi and I needed a break from school and all of the things that tend to take over your life when you’re at home. When Memorial Day came around and we had a three-day weekend we decided it would be the perfect opportunity for that break. I had pretty much visited every other state high point that was within a day’s round trip driving distance from Cincinnati other than Kentucky’s, so we decided to visit Black Mountain.
I actually began the planning a bit earlier than most on this one because I knew that you have to fill out a waiver in order to visit the highpoint. The highpoint is owned by a coal company and they request that you fill out a waiver to visit it. You can find the waiver here. Either way, it just takes a couple of minutes to download the waiver, fill it out, and send it in. I actually printed two copies to take one with me in case someone actually stopped me on the mountain but didn’t need it.
We left Cincinnati at around 8:00 am. The drive was pleasant and not many people were on the road. I listened to a book on CD while Debi worked on our laptop. The time passed pretty quickly and we were driving through very rural Kentucky before we knew it. We had pretty good directions and drove directly to the highpoint (see my directions below). There are a lot of roads around that area, so make sure you have good directions.
We did actually see some other people on the summit. There were some people parked at the FAA radar tower who I don’t think were there to visit the highpoint but were working at the tower. There was also an SUV parked just below the summit at the entrance gate. The people in that SUV were also there working, but they were working on one of the towers right on the summit. A second SUV pulled in while we were getting our shoes on (can’t drive five hours with shoes on!) with some people in it who were actually headed there for the highpoint.
Once we got our shoes on and our camera ready, we walked the very short distance from the FAA tower (it seemed like the best place to park our Honda Civic) to the summit. The summit is pretty nearly covered with antennae towers. I didn’t actually count them because there were so many, but there are a lot – between 10 and 15. They were buzzing with activity. Some of them had support buildings and one even had a danger sign on it citing high levels of radio frequency; that was a little unnerving.
But I wasn’t really too worried about being harmed by the radio waves because we had no intention of being on the highpoint for long. When we got to the actual highpoint (underneath the tower), there were two men working on one of the nearby towers and a couple with their dog that was visiting the highpoint. One of the workers introduced himself. He was from Tennessee and was very congenial. We didn’t talk for long; I think he had work to do. We also talked with the other couple. They had each done a number of other highpoints. The man (I didn’t catch their names but found out they were from near D.C.) had done most of the more difficult highpoints (Rainer, Mt. Hood, etc.) and now they were doing some of the easier ones. They took our picture for us, preventing us from having to set up the tripod, and then they left.
I can’t really blame them because there really isn’t much to see on the summit other than towers and antennas; it really is pretty ugly. There isn’t even much of a view because the summit is pretty flat with rather tall trees surrounding it. We spent a few minutes walking around and snapping pictures just to get a good feel for it. Without all of the towers, it might be a nice place for a picnic seeing as how the highpoint is in a nice little meadow with wildflowers, but it just isn’t the place you’ll want to sit and take in nature’s beauty. The USGS marker is near the southeast corner of the tower cemented into a slab of cement. Directly beneath the tower is a mess; there are slabs of concrete and most of the space is taken up by what appears to be a rather haphazard fire pit. It didn’t make for a very picturesque vista. We didn’t bother climbing the tower, which is supposed to be off limits anyway, said goodbye to the workers, and headed back down the trail.
We did see some pretty butterflies and some of the surrounding area is probably pretty nice, but we didn’t make much of an effort to see it. We headed back the way we came, stopped at Taco Bell on the way home, and made it back by around 6:30. Overall, not a particularly beautiful highpoint, but another one down (or should it be up for highpoints?).
Couple other things to mention. Coming from the Kentucky side, after leaving Lynch, the road headed toward the summit (160) winds a lot with some very sharp curves. It also seems to take forever to get from Lynch to the summit entrance road but you get some sense of how close you are by looking at the surrounding terrain and seeing how high you are relative to it. It’s about 11 miles from when you first get on 160 to the summit. There also aren’t many places to eat or many services very close to the summit, so be sure to have sufficient gas and something to snack on (perhaps there are some non-vegetarian places, but we tend to completely overlook them).
Ryan Cragun, Debi Cragun, Scott Morgan, Steve Morgan, Brent Robbins, & Rosemary Morgan Honorable Mention : Suzy Robbins & Gary Morgan
As is probably the case for most highpointers, I had no idea when I was actually going to be able to visit Hawaii to do Mauna Kea. I figured I would do the lower 48 well before I had the opportunity to do Hawaii or Alaska. But, as it turns out, my wife’s parents, Gary and Rosemary Morgan, decided to take everyone on a family trip to Hawaii and we just happened to be going to the Big Island, which is where Mauna Kea is located. So, much to my joy and surprise I was able to visit Mauna Kea much earlier (and much less expensively – thank you, thank you, thank you Gary and Rosemary) than I ever thought possible.
Since I was not in charge of planning the trip to Hawaii, it took a bit of coordination between Rosemary and myself to work out all of the details. And, sadly, here I must admit that I was a bit ignorant about Mauna Kea – likely because I saw it as not being a possible hike for many, many years. Anyway, as we were finding out information about Mauna Kea, I learned, though I had probably heard this at some time in the past, that Mauna Kea is also the home to 11 of the best observatories in the world. And, most people visit Mauna Kea just to visit the observatories and never make the climb over to the highpoint – which is understandable if you don’t like the cold.
As it turns out, and me being a poor graduate student I was ecstatic about this, there is a free tour of the observatories (I say free, but I’ll explain the expenses shortly) on Saturdays and Sundays. So, being as frugal as possible, we decided we would visit the summit of Mauna Kea on Saturday. Okay, this is where I explain how it isn’t exactly free. First, you obviously have to pay your airfare and room and board (wow, big bucks $$$$). Then, you have to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle. Now, I should stipulate here that you don’t actually have to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle unless you are going to take the guided tour. Listen close, this gets kind of complicated. The road to the visitors center and eventually to the summit is made up of about 4 segments. The first is Highway 200 or Saddle Mountain Road. This road is paved, but not very well. What it looks like they did is paved a one-lane road fairly well then added about three or four feet on each side of it to turn it into a two-lane road. Well, they didn’t really do much to add the three or four feet on each side of it other than throw the asphalt onto the ground and then stamp it with their feet – it is rough, real rough, but drivable. So, you could take just about any car you want on this road. From Highway 200 you break off (near mile marker 28) onto the road that will take you to Mauna Kea. The first section of this road, about 5 or 6 miles, is really pretty nice and takes you up to the visitor’s center. Just past the visitor’s center, the road becomes pretty steep at places and is unpaved for about 8 miles (they told us at the visitor’s center that they have left it unpaved to prevent unwanted visitor’s). It is this stretch of road that gets pretty bad and is also why they demand that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle if you take the guided tour. About 5 miles from the summit and observatories, the unpaved road turns into one of the nicest stretches of two-lane road in the world. It is very nicely paved with rock barriers on both sides, which get lots of use. However, it is still pretty steep all the way to the top.
So, as for renting a four-wheel drive vehicle, we saw several cars driving around the summit. When I say cars, I mean, Toyota Corollas and such. They made it up there, but they probably didn’t enjoy themselves very much and though I’m not positively sure about this, I don’t think any rental companies other than Harper’s actually allow their vehicles to go to the summit. (To be completely honest, when we went to Harper’s to pick up our Isuzu Troopers – we rented two of them – the guy that did the rental vehicle evaluation with us told us that we could have taken our van to the summit and that we really didn’t need to get four-wheel drive vehicles.) So, you can avoid paying for a four-wheel drive vehicle if you just don’t tell the rental company where you are taking it, but, and this is pretty important, if you decide to go on the guided tour, you have to have a four-wheel drive vehicle. They actually will come check your vehicle to make sure that it is four-wheel drive.
So, to recap expenses, you can drive to the summit without doing the tour and not pay for a four-wheel drive vehicle. But, if you decide to do the tour (which I would recommend – it is free), you’ll have to get the four-wheel drive vehicle. Now, as for the tour. As you’ll notice on the site I linked to above, the tour starts at around 1:00 pm and it starts at the visitor’s center which is at about 9,300 feet. At that altitude, you’re above the clouds. The tour starts with a narrated video (the narrator was Johnny Carson, an amateur astronomer) that lasts about an hour. They want you to stay at the visitor’s center for about an hour to acclimate to the high altitude. They also have several other restrictions for the tour: you have to be over 16, you cannot have gone scuba diving within the previous 24 hours (we actually went about 26-28 hours before we climbed the summit and we were fine), you can’t be pregnant, and you shouldn’t have a bad heart or any of the other types of health ailments that typically prevent people from doing strenuous stuff. Anyway, the video is a history of the observatories on Mauna Kea and the visitor’s center is surprisingly small (see pictures below). Inside, they are themed toward the astronomy side though they do have one thing related to the highpoint – a nifty replica of the USGS marker. I had never seen these before, but they are pretty sweet. Apparently, the person making them is online and you can order one for most every state: https://www.mountainclimb.com/. So, you watch the video then hop in your cars and line up caravan style. It is at this point that the tour guide comes to each car in the caravan and checks to see if you meet the above-mentioned requirements. After that, you follow the guide up to the observatories.
Once up there, our guide took us to see the Keck observatory first. They do allow you to go inside and actually see the lenses that make up the Keck. Pretty cool. Then he took us to an older observatory, the University of Hawaii’s 88-inch telescope. They also let us inside that one and we got to go into the telescope room and the control room (they were using Dell computers if anyone cares, and, they had the soundtrack to Strange Brew in there to entertain them – pretty weird people these astronomers). The tour guide we had, Jonn Altonn, was well-informed and did a good job. The tour lasted until about 4:30. At that point, you can stay up by the observatories and watch the sunset or do the actual summit hike. We decided to do both.
Now, as for the actual hike… I don’t think I got a very good picture showing the whole distance from the road by the observatories to the summit, but it can’t be more than a 1/4 of a mile. However, the distance is not what makes this hike a bit strenuous. It is the combination of being at close to 14,000 feet (13,796 to be exact) along with close to 30-degree temperatures and a 30-40 mph wind that drops the temperature even lower. Of the 20-25 people who were in our tour, we were the only one’s who actually climbed to the summit (see the members of our summit party above). We knew beforehand that it was going to be cold, so we had brought jackets and warm clothes, but it was still very, very cold. I think my wife, Debi, was the most well-prepared – she had on a short-sleeved shirt, two long sleeved shirts, a cloth jacket, a thick rain jacket, and two pairs of pants. She forgot gloves, however, so I’m sure her hands were a bit cold, but she said she was fairly warm during the hike. My advice, dress very, very warm. You probably don’t need to bring arctic weather gear all the way to Hawaii just for this hike, but you should layer up a bunch of the clothes that you did bring so you stay warm. Also, our guide did mention that Mauna Kea experiences a remarkable winter. He said this year was pretty mild with the largest storm dumping only 4 feet. There were only traces of snow when we went up there, but some years it can dump up to 15 feet in a single storm. You may want to check the weather before you come to Hawaii. I don’t really know, but I’m guessing that the seasons follow those of North America and that winter in Hawaii is from November through March. If I’m wrong, someone please let me know. So, you may want to time your vacation to miss the snow on top, or you likely won’t be able to visit the summit.
As for our actual hike, it was bitter cold and the wind was quite strong. We all made it okay, though I think Debi did stumble once. And, just to let you know what is possible with this summit, Debi’s mother, who was 62 at the time, made the hike. On the summit, which is regarded as a sacred place by native Hawaiians, there was something like an altar (I’m sure there is an official name for it, but I don’t remember what it is). You aren’t supposed to touch the offerings, which we didn’t, but we did use the altar for shelter from the wind. Though I am not religious myself, I try to respect other religions and religious beliefs, so I hope I didn’t do something wrong by using the altar as a windbreak. Also, from the summit, you can see a lot of lava cones (there is probably a technical name for these also, which I don’t know or remember), but that is what they look like. They are cones with big craters in them. You can see a bunch of them and the highest point is actually part of one, it is a lip on the north side of a crater. I should also point out that the landscape of Mauna Kea is kind of how I envision Mars looking. It is desolate. From the end of the dirt road portion on there is no noticeable vegetation and I believe just some sort of fly that lives on the summit; there are probably some micro-organisms as well, but it is pretty desolate.
After the hike, we got back in our cars and positioned ourselves to watch the sunset. It was very pretty, but the clouds didn’t cooperate to make it remarkably beautiful. After the sunset, we went back down to the visitor’s center and looked through the telescopes they had set up for stargazing. They have free stargazing from 6-10 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (I think, check their website). They also had hot chocolate and coffee and we picked up some souvenirs. Having experienced plenty for one day, we didn’t stay too long. The drive back to Kailua-Kona took about 1 1/2 hours (where we stopped for Taco Bell food before heading back to our condo – yum).
Most of us had headaches either on the summit or on the way down, which is pretty common and one member of our party, Suzy, was actually feeling pretty sick. But, the headaches and nausea are easily remedied with a good nights’ rest at sea level. Overall, the view and the observatories (along with just being in Hawaii) make this summit well worth it.
Trip Report Spruce Knob was the first of three highpoints that we planned to visit this day. Debi and I left Cincinnati at 3:45 am and arrived at the parking area around 11:00 or so. There were a few other cars in the area, but not many. Having grown up in Utah, we did find it a little funny that West Virginia is called ‘The Mountain State’. The drive to the parking area was very scenic, but be aware that the last 7 to 8 miles are on pretty rough dirt roads.
There was a woman getting out of her car when we got to the parking area. She had her dog with her. We walked to the tower with her and found out that she is also a highpointer. Spruce Knob was her second highpoint. She is from Cleveland, a fellow Ohioan. She plans to visit one highpoint per year. She started last year with Pennsylvania’s Mount Davis. She also said she is afraid of heights. She was very nice. I can’t help but think that being afraid of heights may make her goal a bit difficult, but perhaps that is why she is doing it. Well, I wish her the best.
The tower on the summit offers a scenic view of the surrounding area and the view is very nice. We snapped a few pictures and took one for the lady that we met. We spent a few minutes enjoying the view, but that was about it. We still had two highpoints to visit and had to drive back to Cincinnati that night, so off we went to Maryland’s Backbone Mountain.
Trip Report This was our third and last highpoint of the day. We left Cincinnati at 3:45 am and had visited two other highpoints already, Spruce Knob, WV and Backbone Mountain, MD. We ended up getting back to Cincinnati at around 11:00 pm.
This highpoint is one that you can drive right up to. Our directions from my computer where a little different than those in the guidebook, so we combined them to save time and got there just fine. It appears that there are several roads that will get you into the parking area. From the parking area, it is about 100 yards to the tower and the natural highpoint is about 50 feet from the base of the tower. The USGS marker is in the tallest rock in a group of rocks (see pictures below). There was one other car in the parking area when we arrived and one more came while we were there, but we never saw any of the people, only heard them a couple of times.
The view from the tower is pretty impressive. There is a small display on the top of the tower that explains why some of the surrounding hills look taller than the highpoint or the point where you are standing. The area is pretty nice. We spent about 30 minutes wandering through the highpoint area and snapping pictures.
We still had about 7 hours of driving to get back to Cincinnati. We listened to two books on CD while we were driving and Debi got a bunch of work done on my laptop. It was an enjoyable highpointing trip.
Panorama (Note: Not my panorama. Debi and I were preoccupied when we visited this highpoint and I ended up forgetting to shoot a panorama. So, here’s one I found on Youtube.)
This was our second highpoint of the day. We left Cincinnati at 3:45 am and visited Spruce Knob, WV just earlier. We planned on visiting Pennsylvania’s Mount Davis after this one. The trailhead (which is the beginning of an old logging road) is marked, but it helps to have pretty good directions. What actually helped me see it was an ‘Adopt-A-Highway’ sign on the side of the road that said something like Friends of the Maryland Highpoint – Backbone Mountain. I’m assuming there is a sign to the north on 219 that says the same thing, but the trailhead is right where the sign on the south end of the cleanup stretch stands. On the back of the sign (north side) someone has spray painted ‘MD’ and ‘HP’. I snapped some pictures of that. There is also a sign in the trees, but it is pretty small and difficult to make out. So, be sure to have good directions to follow and if you know where to look, you should be able to find it.
Our directions told us to park our car on the berm of the road. We decided to pull about 40 yards up the logging road so our car would be somewhat hidden from view and not right on the side of the road. It was out of the way of any potential traffic on the logging road, but safe from the traffic on 219. Our directions also told us to plan on about 1 to 1 1/2 hours to climb the mountain. The directions were very helpful (see ‘Highpoint Adventures’ by the Wingers). The trail is marked from the bottom with the letters ‘HP’ spray painted on trees every few hundred yards. The spray paint is a little old and difficult to make out at times because it is fading, but you just have to keep your eyes open. The hike is pretty much a constant incline going up at a decent angle. It levels out near the top, but from where it levels out it is only about 200 yards to the summit. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the level portion and another couple to make it to the highpoint marker. There is a view to the northeast of the summit looking toward Maryland. The rest of the summit is surrounded by trees.
We did pass one person on our way up. He was coming down. He was the only other person we saw on the mountain. There are some picnic tables at the top and a mailbox with a notebook/logbook in it. We signed the log and snapped a bunch of pictures. Though the hike isn’t long, it is pretty much a continuous incline, so we stopped for about 10 minutes on the top and enjoyed the view and the sense of accomplishment – another one down and another state conquered and enjoyed.
The descent took about 15 minutes. As I have in other trip reports where the terrain is rocky, I would recommend here that you wear good, sturdy boots. The trail isn’t that bad, but it is pretty rocky at points. Also, be prepared for a good 20 to 30 minutes of hard hiking. The going isn’t difficult, but it is a constant incline from the trailhead to the top. The view at the top isn’t amazing, but it is nice. You can see for quite far but you can also see two smoke belching towers in the distance. Not that smoke belching towers are a bad thing, but it isn’t like West Virginia where the only signs of humanity you can see are the roads you came in on. Anyway, from there we headed on to Pennsylvania’s Mount Davis. Total trip time was about 50 minutes.
(Side note: A little north of Backbone Mountain’s trailhead on 219 there is what is claimed to be the smallest church in the 48 states. We snapped some pictures of it. Kind of interesting to see if you have the time. It’s a Catholic church and there is a post office next to it as well, also supposed to be the smallest mailing office in the U.S.)