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Road trip: 3 state high points in a day August 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, peakbagging.
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View from summit tower, Spruce Knob, WV, 4,861'

The day after visiting Gettysburg, I climbed the state high points of three states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Well, “climbed” is a bit of an exaggeration. PA and WV were both drive-ups. MD was the challenge of the three—a mighty climb of 700 vertical feet.

You can see from the map below how it is possible to reach those three high points in a day.

State high points. Click for zoom.

As seems to be the case in many states, all three are located near state boundaries. This is partly explained by the circumstance that statelines often run along divides, but it is hard to understand fully. At least none of the high points I visited suffers the indignity that belongs to Mt. Frizzell of Connecticut, whose high point is a spot on the flank of a mountain whose summit is in another state (Massachusetts).

I’m not a serious highpointer. I haven’t done any of them for years, and I’m sure I will never finish. McKinley is too hard for me, and Granite and Gannett (MT and WY) might be too. At the other extreme, some of the high points might simply be too boring to bother with. However, I have at least done the two highest of the continental 48—Whitney and Elbert (CA and CO). At the end of my trip, I had completed 20, so you see I have a long ways to go!

It just seemed like a fun way to put together a road trip—that and the Civil War battlefields.

I started my day in Frostburg, Maryland, in the far west part of the state, with the goal of first climbing Mt. Davis in PA. You may wonder why I didn’t stay in PA and simply go due west from Gettysburg. It’s because the highways of PA have a distinct grain to them, going southwest to northeast in conformance with the shapes of the long mountain ridges. It simply isn’t possible to drive a straight east-west line.

Mt. Davis turned out to be the hardest one of the three to find my way to. While I was staying at the Econolodge in Northampton, MA, visiting my sister, I had printed out several web pages with maps from the computer in the motel lobby. However, the motel’s color printer seemingly rendered everything in a pale, barely visible blue, making the maps nearly useless. Well, I still had directions in writing. I could approach Davis from Salisbury, Meyersdale, or Somerset. Surely one of those would work!

Salisbury was closest to Frostburg. Here the map was really needed for navigating back roads. I decided that if I saw any signs pointing to Davis or Forbes State Forest, I would turn off the highway and hope for further signs. But no signs. On to Meyersdale. Here I had an article from a Pittsburgh newspaper that said, “Go to Meyersdale and follow the signs to the west.” Went through Meyersdale onto the only road that led west. No signs. The road climbed promisingly for a while, turned to gravel, then dropped way down. I came out on a paved road that led who knows where. Back the way I came and on to Somerset, which I had visited years before to interview a producer of low-vol bituminous coal—but I digress.

Things started out promisingly. The directions gave precise mileages: state route 281 for 18 miles, Fort Hill Road 3.5 miles, etc., etc. After completing several segments I drew a blank. Nothing met the description. I turned off onto an obscure dirt road that looked like it might go the right way, had to back my way out. I was truly cursing at this point. I drove on and suddenly spotted a woman outside a farmhouse who was trying to capture three beautiful calico kittens—apparently escapees from the house. The kittens were flowing between her hands, expertly evading capture. I selfishly interrupted her in her task and asked for directions. She gave them to me. Very simple, but bearing no resemblance to my written ones.

I had thought of doing a short hike up to the tower, but the weather made me  decide just to drive up to it.

Summit tower, Mt. Davis, PA, 3,213'

As I approached the tower, I crossed paths with two guys in their 20s. We exchanged the predictable comments about “Great day for a view,” and they went off another way.

View from the tower

There was a diorama on the observation deck that showed contours very neatly but had little in the way of labels to identify points—a bit inscrutable.

The neatly crafted but inscrutable diorama

On to bag my next point. On the way down from Davis, I saw the two guys walking beside the road and offered them a ride, but they politely declined.

Backbone Mountain is located on the very stub end of MD, right on the border with WV. My directions were good this time, which was fortunate, because it would be hard to find the obscure pullout on the shoulder of US 219 without mileages exact to the decimal point. My only problem with Backbone Mountain was that I kept thinking “Brokeback” instead of “Backbone.”

Looking out carefully, I saw the orange blazes on a tree beside the highway, parked, and started my climb up the mountain which, much to the embarrassment of the mountainous state of PA, is higher than Davis. The way started as what my website described as a logging road but what I believe was an access road to old coal mining operations.

The start of the climb

It was pouring rain. Eventually I reached a boundary line and an old survey monument. The picture is poor, but I include it for reasons that will become evident momentarily.

Survey monument

For a moment I thought this might be the summit, but through the rain I spotted what looked like higher ground. So on I climbed for another five minutes until I came to what was obviously the top.

Summit of Backbone Mtn., MD, 3,360'

The neat little mailbox had its flag up to indicate there was something to remove inside. I peeked inside and saw a stack of certificates for climbing the mountain, issued by the government of Garrett Co., MD. Wonderful! But it was so wet I knew I couldn’t extract one without it instantly going soggy, so I didn’t take one.

I started back down and soon encountered the two young guys I’d seen in PA. “Are you a highpointer?” they asked. “What do you think?” I responded. We chatted for a moment about the highpointing quest, and I went on down. I actually jogged down, wanting to get out of the rain.

Just a few minutes later the two guys came back down as well. My heart sank. I knew they couldn’t possibly have made it to the summit and come back down so soon after me. I asked them, “So, did you get to the mailbox, the metal sign, and the rock cairn?”

They looked at each other. “No, we reached a survey monument and figured that was the summit.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, you didn’t make it to the top.”

To their great credit, they took the news in good spirits, and after chatting a moment with me, they headed back up in the rain. We were both trying for the three points, so they said, “Maybe we’ll see you on Spruce Knob!”

But I knew I wouldn’t see them, because my plan was to first try to get some info about Dolly Sods Wilderness as I passed it, and to visit Seneca Rocks, one of the most famous rock climbing areas in the east. On I went, did manage to find out something about Dolly Sods trails (more about this next post), and spotted Seneca Rocks rearing up beside the highway.

Seneca Rocks

I pulled in to the visitor’s center and found that I could take a trail that climbed 800′ to an observation deck. I headed up the path, anticipating a dramatic view over to the climbers doing their routes. I could hear the cries of “On belay!” as I went up.

But I was wrong. There were no views of climbers, just a view of the valley of the North Fork of the Potomac.

View from Seneca observation deck

Back down I went, satisfied at least that I’d managed to get in a total 1,500 vertical feet for the day.

On to Spruce Knob. This high point had better signage and a good paved road that climbed nearly 3,000′ to reach the summit ridge. (I believe the road is so good because many people use it to reach nearby Spruce Knob Lake.) As I drove, I kept glancing up at the ridgecrest, crowned by the very distinctive silhouettes of spruce, and I found it hard to believe the road was actually going to get me up there. But it did.

I can only say that this is a beautiful, beautiful place. There is something about the high elevation relative to very different surrounding topography that leads to an incredible variety of plant life. It is a “sky island” (a term I’ve heard applied mainly to isolated desert ranges in places like Arizona, but it seems quite appropriate here). And of course I was delighted to see my old friend, the red spruce, which I encounter mainly above 4,000 feet in the Smokies. I love its thick, bristly needles and its wind-sculpted shapes.

Here is a sampling of what I saw in a short space around the observation tower.

Thistle with a visitor

Enjoying the delights of the wild garden

I saw these odd talus fields, often with standing water below the stones

Lots of activity around this pink milkweed

Observation tower

Blue flowers---possibly Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium)

Lots of fluffy spruce

An intricate garden (wild pinks/Silene and wild quinine/Parthenium)

Many spruce were surrounded by these groundhugging offspring, flat to the ground but each one rooted

By this time, it was time to find a place to stay the night. I got a room at the Yokum’s complex in the village of Seneca Rocks. It was cheap and rustic, just what I wanted. A wonderful day.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

A magic place

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