Every state has that one place that rises above the rest. Highpointing is the pursuit of those highpoints and these 5 close-to-home summits just might get you hooked on setting your sights even higher.
Highpointing is the hiking and climbing to the highest point in each state. Every year the Highpointers Club updates the number of annual completers of all 50 highpoints as well as completers of the lower 48 highpoints. Some people are really into it, and for reasons that only a highpointer can fully appreciate. Are you one, maybe?
I am, having soloed all 11 highpoints over 10,000 feet elevation in the Lower 48, which was the goal I set for myself nearly two decades earlier. I took my final step to the summit of California’s Mt. Whitney as the sun broke the eastern horizon, an amazing, satisfying flourish to end my goal. Will I go for all 50? The toughest are behind me, excluding Denali, so the prospect is a lot easier to consider.
Highpointing takes time, travel, cash and luck. To break down the pursuit into a manageable goal, these five highpoints are within reach of anybody who lives near the Colorado Plateau. This group of highpoints can either launch an ambitious highpointing career or simply present you with a great way to see your home region from above.
The Fab Five
The five most accessible highpoints in our region are Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, King’s Peak in Utah, Gannett Peak in Wyoming and Mount Elbert in Colorado. Three are moderate to strenuous day hikes, and two are a three-day (or more!) backpack trip for the average hiker. And all five offer unparalleled scenery and the satisfaction that no one in the state is higher than you when you step to the summit. Standard climbing routes are offered here, including the routes I took.
Highpointing does not turn into an obsession for everybody, but this fabulous fivesome of highpoints will serve as a good taste of the high-falutin’ hobby.
Let’s get going!
HUMPHREYS PEAK, ARIZONA (12,633’):
In a state known for its cowboys, deserts and record-breaking high temperatures, it’s hard to wrap the mind around snow, but the San Francisco Peaks has it for a good part of the year. Arizona’s state highpoint, Humphreys Peak, the 12th tallest highpoint in the United States, can hold a grip on snow well into the summer.
Humphreys Peak is one of four main summits of the San Francisco Peaks, the tattered rim of an ancient volcano once said to stand taller than 15,000 feet. Several million years ago, a huge eruption akin to the blast that knocked 1,000 feet off Mt. St. Helens uncapped San Francisco Mountain, taking it closer to what we see today. Humphreys stands adjacent to Arizona’s second highest point, the 12,365-foot Agassiz Peak.
Climbing Humphreys Peak is the easiest ascent of these five summits. The Humphreys Trail is the standard approach, a 4.8-mile trail that starts at the north end of the parking area at the Arizona Snowbowl. It heads under the Hart Prairie ski lift toward the aspen and pines where it winds up the southern slope toward the Humphreys-Agassiz saddle. Trail-finding is obvious until it reaches the 11,750-foot saddle where the trail turns north to follow the ridge to the summit.
Three false summits will raise and lower your spirits along the ridgeline trail before you reach the true summit. June to September will see the most hikers. Be prepared for midday storms, which are the norm in the San Francisco Peaks. Plan for a 4- to 6-hour day and 3,200 feet of elevation gain. Once on top, with clear views you can see the mesas that mark the Verde Valley and Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert and even to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Getting There Head north out of Flagstaff on Humphreys Avenue/Arizona 181 for about 7 miles to the Snowbowl Ski Area, turn at the signed turnoff to the Snowbowl Ski Area. This 7.4-mile drive will take you to the Humphreys Trail parking area where you will find the trailhead on the north side.
Camping A number of fee-based Forest Service campgrounds are located in the Flagstaff Ranger District, which extends from the south of the San Francisco Peaks to the north.
Gear Sturdy trail-hiking shoes and a daypack equipped for a 6-hour day.
Last-Minute Needs Babbit’s Backcountry Outfitters in downtown Flag has gear, guidebooks, maps and advice aplenty, including proximity to other gear shops.
Eats Flagstaff Brewing Company has your seat to dinner and fine brews, of which the Bubbaganouj IPA is a perennial favorite.
WHEELER PEAK, NEW MEXICO (13,161’)
Wheeler Peak holds the top spot in the Sangre De Cristo range, a string of peaks stretching 250 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Salida, Colorado. The southern end of the range also marks the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. Wheeler Peak, the eighth tallest highpoint in the United States, is in the 19,150-acre Wheeler Peak Wilderness, an alpine respite that rises out of the high desert.
There are two main routes to the summit, the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail (also called Wheeler Peak Trail) and the Williams Lake Trail. The Bull-of-the-Woods Trail is 16 miles round trip on a well-marked Class 1 trail, a route that turned me back on my first attempt due to deep snow in May.
Getting There From Taos, drive four miles north on New Mexico Highway 522 and turn right (east) on New Mexico Highway 150 (NM 150). Drive for 15 miles passing through the small town of Arroyo Seco and eventually reaching the Taos Ski Valley ski area.
The climbing season is May through November depending on conditions. The Williams Lake Trail is approximately 7 miles round trip and on a steep Class 2 trail, the route I took to success. The trail breaks upward near Williams Lake, with the final push on 1,000 feet of loose rock and scree.
Stay left at the fork, heading up the Twining Road until you reach a hikers’ parking lot near The Bavarian and The Phoenix Grill. The Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead is located at the parking lot and the Williams Lake trailhead is accessed by following signs to the Bavarian Grille. Look for the “Williams Lake Trail” sign.
Camping Several Forest Service campgrounds are available on NM 150 as you approach Taos Ski Valley. The SnowMansion Adventure Lodge in Arroyo Seco offers cabins, camping and dorm beds.
Gear Sturdy trail-hiking shoes and a day pack equipped for up to an 8-hour day.
Last-Minute Needs Taos Mountain Outfitters has climbing and camping gear with a staff who gives reliable beta.
Eats Eske’s Brew Pub in Taos has been around for more than 25 years and remains a go-to for good brews, burgers and music.
KINGS PEAK, UTAH (13,528’):
The High Uintas Wilderness area in Utah is home to Kings Peak, the highpoint of the High Uintas and the seventh tallest state highpoint. The mountain range is the second most prominent east-west range in the United States, second only to the Brooks Range in Alaska. The main route to Kings Peak is 29 miles round trip, and is usually done as a three-day backpack starting from Henry’s Fork Campground at the north side of the range. The hike trends south on Henry’s Fork Trail, which takes a gradual ascent toward the mountain.
A common approach is to hike into Dollar Lake and kick back for the afternoon before hitting Kings the next day. On day two – summit day – climbers hit the Highline Trail for Gunsight and Anderson passes, breaking off for the summit, and returning on it to camp. Day three is reserved for the hike out. Others push closer to Gunsight Pass before setting up camp, which sets the stage for an earlier summit the next day and, for the hurried lot, the possibility of hiking out the same day.
When I was there for my July attempt, a cow moose visited the parking lot, the meadows were lush and the forest packed with mushrooms. Three days of blue skies conspired to highlight this trip.
After ascending to Gunsight Pass on summit day, you can opt for a side trail hugging the slope to the right. The side trail is obvious and leads to a boulder field before connecting again to the Highline Trail approaching Anderson’s Pass. The final push to the summit is a Class 2 scramble heading south off the trail, rewarded with a spectacular view. July to September is the big backpacking season, with July and August the busiest.
Getting There Henry’s Fork Campground is roughly 40 miles from Mountain View, Wyoming, and a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City. From Mountain View, take Wyoming 410 approximately 7 miles toward Robertson until you reach a sharp right turn in the road. A dirt road, Uinta County Road 283, will go straight ahead where the paved road turns right. Take 283, which becomes Forest Road 072 for 12.4 miles until you reach an intersection with Forest Road 017 (FS017). Turn left here and follow FS017 toward Henry’s Fork Campground. FS017 will end after 7 miles and will become Forest Road 077. This road will take you the rest of the way (about 4 miles) to the Henry’s Fork Campground and the Henry’s Fork Trailhead.
Camping Henry’s Fork Campground. The Country Cabins Inn in Mountain View has cabins and an on-site Chinese restaurant.
Gear Sturdy trail-hiking boots and a backpack equipped for a 3-day trip.
Last-Minute Needs Most minor needs can be met at Benedict’s Market or Shopko in Mountain View.
Eats Chinese, Mexican and American are available in Mountain View. Wet your whistle at The Badlands Saloon, which also has a bowling alley.
GANNETT PEAK, WYOMING (13,804’)
The highest peak in Wyoming is not the immensely popular Grand Teton. It’s Gannett Peak, located deep within in the Wind River Range. At nearly 35 feet higher than Grand Teton, Gannett is the fifth highest state highpoint and the most isolated peak in Wyoming.
It is also said to be one of the most difficult highpoints to summit, and I second that. It shares the “most difficult” consideration with Alaska’s Denali, Washington’s Mount Rainier and Montana’s Granite Peak. Having climbed both Rainier and Granite, I rank Gannett as a top contender in the difficulty department. Why? I chose the standard approach from the west on the Pole Creek Trail, which is about 10 miles shorter than the standard approach from the east. However, the route to the summit is punctuated with a demanding climb of a mountain pass, Bonney Pass (aka Dinwoody Pass), that must be surmounted twice on summit day. Climbing the pass adds 1,200-feet elevation gain each way. Despite the additional effort the pass creates, the route is spectacular and satisfying.
Climbing Gannett also requires a complement of mountaineering skills, including rope work for glacier travel. As a soloist, one of my most desperate moments arose from being ropeless on the must-cross glaciers.
The climb begins easy enough at the trailhead near Pinedale.
Getting There From Pinedale, head east on Highway 191 (East Pine Street) and make a left turn onto Fremont Lake Road. Continue on this road for approximately 3 miles where the road transitions to Skyline Drive/Forest Service Road 370740. Continue for approximately 9.7 miles and turn right onto FS-370740B and travel 1.5 miles to Elkhart Park and the Trails End Campground. The Elkhart-Pole Creek Trailhead is on the right just beyond the Visitors Center Interpretive Site. Drive time is around 25 minutes.
Hike 5.3 miles from the Pole Creek Trailhead and turn north on the Seneca Lake Trail. Continue on Seneca Lake Trail for 5 miles to the Indian Pass Trail/Highline Trail and bear right (east) where the Highline Trail splits west. Continue on Indian Pass Trail for 2.4 miles to the Titcomb Basin Trail, passing Island Lake and eventually arriving in Titcomb Basin. At the north end of Titcomb lakes establish your base camp.
With an early start, head toward Bonney Pass, formerly Dinwoody Pass, in the cirque at the east-hand (right) end of the Titcomb Basin. Climb to the pass, descend to and then cross the Dinwoody Glacier. Mount the ridge and cross over to climb Gooseneck Glacier. Over the glacier and past the bergschrunds (careful!), ascend onto Gooseneck Pinnacle ridge on its north. Follow the ridge, wending toward the summit.
Camping The Trails End Campground at the trailhead has primitive first-come, first-served camping.
Gear Sturdy trail-hiking boots and a backpack equipped for a 3- to 5-day trip. Crampons, ice axe and rope are recommended for glacier travel.
Last-Minute Needs The Great Outdoor Shop has gear (including rentals), books and maps, and savvy advice. Check out the photos of Titcomb Basin on its website. The basin is where you set up base camp if you approach Gannett from the west!
Eats The Wind River Brewing Company in Pinedale is the treat-yourself option for award-winning brews, satisfying burgers and live music.
MOUNT ELBERT, COLORADO (14,433’)
Mount Elbert is the third tallest highpoint as well as the tallest of the five highpoints in this countdown. The gentle giant serves relatively moderate terrain the entire distance to the summit. And although it gains 4,550 feet to the summit, it’s an effort similar to that of Wheeler and Humphreys.
The two most popular and easiest routes to the summit are the South Mount Elbert Trail (4.5 miles to the summit) and the North Mount Elbert Trail (6.2 miles). I opted for the North Mount Elbert Trail for its proximity to several campgrounds; the nearest just across the road from the trailhead. A straight-forward ascent, the route wends through stunning alpine terrain and, for me on my July climb, within feet of ptarmigan.
Be patient and expect the highs and lows of false-summit moments of a massive mountain. Arriving at the summit in shorts and during a whiteout, I missed what I expected as fantastic views of the Collegiates and Mt. Massive. Next time!
These trails to the summit are busiest in June to September, so get an early start and expect company.
Getting There North Mount Elbert Trailhead: From Leadville, drive 4 miles south on U.S. Highway 24 to Colorado Highway 300. Turn right onto County Road 300 and drive .8 miles. Then turn left onto Lake County Road 11. Drive south 1.5 miles and turn right at the signed intersection for Halfmoon Creek. Drive just over 5 miles, passing Halfmoon Creek Campground and the Elbert Creek Campground until reaching the signed North Mount Elbert Trailhead. The trailhead is also an access point for the Colorado/Continental Divide trail.
Camping Several Forest Service campgrounds offer a variety of camping options.
Gear Sturdy trail-hiking shoes and a day pack equipped for a 7-hour day.
Last-Minute Needs The Leadville Outdoors and Mountain Market can meet essential gear needs.
Eats Wild Bill’s on Harrison Avenue has the burgers and Periodic Brewing has the brews. Try the TrALE Warrior Pale Ale.
A Higher Goal (this one goes to 11)
All five close-to-home highpoints detailed above are at least 10,000 feet in elevation, which puts them firmly in the category of “state highpoints over 10,000 feet in the Lower 48.”
Here are the remaining six peaks in that 11-highpoint category. Have fun – I sure did!
● Mount Hood, Oregon (11,239’)
● Borah Peak, Idaho (12,662’)
● Granite Peak, Montana (12,799’)
● Boundary Peak, Nevada (13,140’)
● Mount Rainier, Washington (14,411’)
● Mount Whitney, California (14,498’)