Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Pattison State Park in Douglas County © Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Pattison State Park in Douglas County features nine miles of hiking trails that include vistas to see Wisconsin's highest waterfalls.
© Wisconsin Department of Tourism

August 2014

A quirky excuse to roam Wisconsin

Highpointing has all of the highs and none of the lows.

Jim Mortwedt

Highpoints, points of high elevation, are prominent in history. Perhaps more in the ancient past than present day, and maybe that's why they interest those who fancy themselves a different drummer, including everyone's favorite different drummer, Henry David Thoreau.

The transcendentalist scaled more than a dozen peaks in his short life, including the formidable Mount Washington, highpoint of New England and fraught with winter danger.

Closer to home, some claim the highpoint on the entire run of the Mississippi River is Eagle Bluff near Fountain City, Wis. Yes, you can highpoint the entire Mississippi River Valley in Badgerland. I contend that any overlook on the great river is worth your while.

In Wisconsin, I've scaled most of the highpoints of our 72 counties, and every time I get up on top of one, it's an odd feeling. I ask myself, "Why am I here?"

That question has been asked by people who frequent high places across time and culture.

It would be a stretch to say that I scale these highpoints. Some maybe, but not all. The highpoint of Crawford County county highpoints are mainly what I seek is a good example why. To reach this point in the pretty little crossroads of Rising Sun, an unincorporated community in the town of Utica, about all you have to do is get out of your car and there it is, well sort of. Highpoints are often unmarked and this is a source of frustration to those who must have closure.

Rising Sun, on State Highway 27, illustrates another appeal of the hobby or sport of highpointing. It, like many state highpoints, figures prominently in the state's history.

For example, Rising Sun is on the old Blackhawk Trail and Blue Mound is near the old Military Ridge Trail, each famed paths in Wisconsin history. Blue Mound is also the highpoint of two counties, Dane and Iowa.

When you travel the state to highpoints, as I have for 15 years, there are revelations. Highpoints were once more prominent, in part, because the early surveyors often triangulated from them. When you do find an exact point, there will often be a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker sunk in concrete.

For me, part of the attraction is simple; highpointing takes you to places you would not otherwise go. Commit to locating a highpoint and you are likely in for a surprise.

Some highpoints are pretty pedestrian, while at the same time dangerous to the pedestrian. The highpoint in Hales Corners lies near a bridge over multiple lanes of daunting Milwaukee County traffic. Just to the north, the highpoint of Washington County, Holy Hill, is a good deal more uplifting. It's a Catholic shrine, with a spire to boot. Go say a prayer or take a hike. You're welcome either way.

In ancient Judea, highpoints were sometimes associated with pagan ritual. Even the Mount of Olives, so familiar to Christians, was a pagan hangout long before Jesus put it on the map.

When my brother-in-law and I went on our first highpointing expedition in search of the highpoint of Vilas County, we discovered that you have to have a lot of tolerance for ambiguity. We had no means to verify if we had found the highpoint. We drove up a gravel road and found a path that seemed to end for no other reason than it looked higher than any other point around! I know this is not the way say, Lewis and Clark would have done it. Then again, it wasn't Thomas Jefferson who sent me on these wild goose chases. Keep in mind this first expedition was before the days of the smartphone and map apps, and even before the days of widespread GPS.

Highpointing has a way of drawing you in and we rationalized that day that in all likelihood we certainly had found the Vilas County highpoint even if we had no proof. If it was easy, it wouldn't be as much fun, right? Well that's not true either. Plenty of Wisconsin highpoints are easy to find. Rising Sun is one example. Rib Mountain at the top of Marathon County is another. Timm's Hill, which is the highest of Wisconsin highpoints in Price County, is another. They were all fun to locate. Easy is not always bad. Challenging can be overrated.

Highpointing is an unusual pastime and each bagged highpoint is different.

Take Observatory Hill, the boyhood highpoint geographically speaking of Wisconsin genius John Muir. It is a highpoint well worth climbing. Climb it today and the outcroppings on top, with their striations, will tell you of Wisconsin's Pleistocene past when mile-high glaciers flattened all but the most resistant topography in what is now Marquette County. Why Muir's father chose the land nearby to farm probably says more about harking from Scotland, than his agricultural acumen. Muir cared plenty about high places and arguably did more to preserve them in the United States than anyone.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," he said. He wrote a book about California's mountains and once attributed his love for peaks to his boyhood near Observatory Hill, south of Montello.

Another Wisconsin highpoint of interest is Mount Whittlesey. I've tried twice to find the unambiguous highpoint there without satisfaction. But no matter. What I did find there one fire-hot July day was the largest flock of turkey vultures I'd ever seen. They circle the mount like something right out of a Western movie. They're scavengers looking for carrion.

Mount Whittlesey, located just outside of Mellen, I believe is named after the man (Charles Whittlesey) who first surveyed much of Wisconsin's north from 1847 to 1851 for the federal government. His life included duty in the Blackhawk War. Later, as a colonel in the Civil War, he fought at Shiloh. So you learn from highpointing Mount Whittlesey, and a modest amount of relevant research, that the country was much smaller in many ways back then. I wondered if Whittlesey met Lincoln, for instance, another soldier in the Blackhawk War. Well, he did! When Lincoln was elected president, Whittlesey was part of his escort to Washington, D. C. They knew each other! So whatever else it is, highpointing is also a portal to history.

Increase Lapham is more proof of that. Lapham Peak, 25 miles west of Milwaukee, was once at the receiving end of signals from Pike's Peak near Denver, Colo.

Those signals conveyed weather information for the maritime Great Lakes. Lapham was instrumental. He led one of those stunning lives that are no longer possible since technologies have required specialization. He built canals, warned of the disaster from clear cutting the white pine in Wisconsin and became known as the father of the National Weather Service. Today, picnics and cross-country skiing are found on Lapham Peak's modest slopes, but clearly there was a time when it had serious purpose as a highpoint.

You can highpoint a hill and get something from it. South Dakota has Harney Peak, highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. Minnesota's Eagle Mountain was first surveyed by Ulysses Grant II, son of the president. The highpoint of the Upper Peninsula is Mount Arvon. I've been to all of them. It's part hiking, part map reading, part historical research and part something else that might be no more than fun.

And it's a little odd, which you might like if you get drawn in. To find a list of Wisconsin highpoints visit Wisconsin State Cartographer's Office webpage and search "High Points."

Jim Mortwedt lives in the city of Marine on St. Croix, Minn.