On the summit

Mount Sunflower, 4,039 ft

Date climbed: August 30, 2009, 5:12pm MST

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

11:25pm 8/28/09 to 4:25pm 8/31/09
6 states: Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming
4 state high points: Mt Elbert (CO), Black Mesa (OK), Mt Sunflower (KS), Panorama Point (NE)
1342 miles / 30 hrs of driving
63 hrs on the ground
ZERO down time

Author: Matthew Gilbertson

I think Eric and I have discovered the upper limit to the amount of adventure you can pack into a single weekend. We wanted to expand our repertoire of state high points to fill in some gaps out west. Mt Elbert (CO), Black Mesa (OK), Mt Sunflower (KS), Panorama Point (NE) all have the convenience of being relatively close to a major airport–Denver.

Eric: “Hmm… I think I sense another adventure coming up”
Matthew: “Wow, is all that even possible in a three-day weekend?”
Eric: “We’ll make it possible.”
Matthew: “Sounds like a plan to me…”

With a quick direct flight into Denver on Friday night, we hit the ground running at 11pm and the clock immediately began ticking. We first wanted to tackle Mt Elbert which, at 14,433ft, is the highest mountain in Colorado and the second highest peak in the lower 48 behind CA’s Mt Whitney. We signed up for a rental car and cruised west on I-70 until we got tired. With the help of some GPS ninja skills we located some National Forest near the metropolis of Silver Plume around 1am and drove about 90 seconds south before we found a place to camp. I don’t think you could find a campsite that fast in Massachusetts.


We packed up the black Dodge Caliber in the morning and zoomed down to Leadville, elevation ~10,000 ft. We followed Summit Post’s directions for the Northeast Ridge trailhead of Elbert. The little car handled well on the rough gravel road. The Elbert parking lot was already packed by 9:30am. Most people who were going to climb that day had already started, in order to avoid the pop-up thunderstorms that populate the high peaks in the afternoons. We quickly got moving from the trailhead at 10,000 ft.

The trail was well behaved, with moderate grades the whole way. The nice thing about trails out west is that they’re graded for horses (unlike many trails out east) so they never get too steep. We huffed and puffed in the thinner and thinner air and reached the top in 2 hrs 18 minutes. Wow, that was a lot easier than we thought. I think we’ve taken longer to hike up Mt Washington than Mt Elbert. There are a lot of similarities between hiking up Mt Washington and Mt Elbert: in both, total ascent is about 4500ft over 8.5 miles round-trip; treeline is about half-way up the hike; and it’s always cold at the top. The only difference is that Mt Elbert has about 50% less oxygen at the top!

We have a few traditions for the top of state high points: we’ve got to collect some rocks, we need a picture of Eric juggling 5 objects, we need a picture of me jumping, and a picture of both of us with our arms raised. We dutifully carried on these traditions on the summit of Mt Elbert.

After an energizing 45 minute rest at the top we began our descent. For some reason our metabolism was on fire. We hopped down the talus and jumped over the boulders. It’s sometimes easier on your knees to descend quickly rather than slowly because your energy gets dissipated into your muscles like your quads and calves instead of into your joints.

But when we looked to the south at the Southeast Ridge trail we saw the best way to descend: by mountain bike. One hard-core dude had ridden/carried his bike to the summit and was now cruising down in style. Eric and I made mental note that we had to do that some day.

We touched the car at 1:42pm, for a round trip time of 4hrs 12 minutes (including resting at the top). Most of the other cars hadn’t been moved since we started. But climbing the highest point in Colorado wasn’t the end of our adventure, it was just the beginning.


After resting to eat lunch for 15 minutes, Eric quickly assumed command of the Caliber and we headed south on US highway 24 towards Buena Vista, where we picked up some groceries. We drove through the spectacular Arkansas River Canyon before we burst out of the mountains and onto the High Plains in Pueblo, CO. Driving into Pueblo felt a little like driving to the ocean; the farther east we got the more the mountains opened up and the Great Plains began to stretch before us to the horizon, as flat as a giant majestic pancake. We were about to experience an entirely different topography.

We turned south on I-25 and began our drive towards the middle of nowhere. We turned off near the giant city of Trinidad, about 15 miles from the NM border. As we drove east a spectacular lightning display illuminated the horizon. It was one lightning flash every three seconds and the sky grew ominously darker. Pink streaks of light streaked across the horizon like a giant spider web. With flat terrain and not a tree in sight we drove in awe at the storms around us. Fortunately they were probably ten miles away, so the most action we experienced was just a little rain.

As we cruised down US-160 towards Kim, CO we were relying dangerously heavily on Google Maps’ directions. It pointed us to a shortcut on gravel roads to the Black Mesa area. We took it. It was already well after dark at this point. But the deeper we got onto roads like “County Road 20.6” and “County Road 16.5” the less trust we had in Google’s directions. We drove by a few remote ranches and finally reached a sign that said DEAD END. We were already about ten miles deep down these tiny gravel roads so we didn’t want to give up. According to the GPS it should not be a dead end, just an intricate maze of roads with no clear exit. We could gamble and keep going south on random roads, or we could drive back to the nearest main road and take it instead, adding 2 hours. We couldn’t afford any more setbacks, so we turned around in frustration and headed back towards Branson, the surest way to get us where we needed to go. Google Maps had failed us.

We cruised through the CO/NM border late and needed to find a campsite before we got any more exhausted. We had climbed the highest point in Colorado and somehow also driven for about 11 hours so far this day. I consulted the GPS while Eric drove. We were looking for small side roads that we could pull off on and camp next to without anyone minding. But the few side roads off of NM-456 all ended up being driveways toward people’s ranches. By 12:30 am we finally found a suitable campsite (N36 58.436 W103 16.711) under a big tree next to the prickly pear cacti. A few nearby cows mooed in confusion throughout the night.

The morning light revealed the beauty around us. Rugged red and white mesas dotted the open rangeland around us, on top of each mesa were sprinkled small cactus bushes, sunflowers, and cattle. It reminded us of parmesan cheese sprinkled on top of a mound of spaghetti. From the map we noticed one such feature called “Wedding Cake Butte.” Maybe that just meant we were hungry.

“I think we’re getting closer to the middle of nowhere,” I told Eric, because there wasn’t another car or a house in sight, just us, the mesas and the endless red gravel road in front of us. We finally made it to Kenton, the westernmost “town” in Oklahoma, with a population of about 50. We asked someone on the street for gas because we were getting low. “Gas, ha! You’ll have to go 35 miles east to Boise City for that!” In that case, gas could wait; first we needed to climb Black Mesa.

We followed the signs to the trailhead and started walking around 10am. The trail to the top was about 4.2 miles, not much shorter than Mt Elbert! The path wove through the rangeland, dodging all kinds of cacti and other mesas. Black Mesa itself is wide and flat at the top, so it almost appears that you’re back on the plains once you get to the top. We looked around for the official high point on the mesa, but didn’t see any variation in the topography greater than 6 inches. The surveryors must have been pretty skilled to find an actual highest point on this mesa, it all looked pretty much the same to us. The USGS quad we had printed out from online <a href = “http://tinyurl.com/a6pz9c”>(http://tinyurl.com/a6pz9c)</a> indicated a slight rise a litte farther to our west, so we kept going.

A gigantic granite obelisk marked the true “summit” of Black Mesa, 4,973 ft. It must have been helicoptered in because there aren’t really any roads to the top. Eric climbed on top of the monument for a better vantage point. His view didn’t change much. We met some guys on top who had mountain biked much of the way up. Man, we were jealous. After engaging in our requisite high point traditions, we hiked back to the car. We had just climbed to the top of Oklahoma. Kansas and Nebraska were next.


Mount Sunflower summit sign

We needed some gas so we headed down into Boise City (‘Boise’ is pronounced as a single syllable around there). The mesas quickly disppeared and now it was flat land as far as the eye could see. There weren’t any crops, just open rangeland for cattle. But it was slim pickings for the poor cattle, there wasn’t much growing besides sagebrush and some little bushes. I think I read around there that you need 40 acres per cow.

I said to Eric “I think we’re getting tantalizingly close to the middle of nowhere.”
Eric: “I think the ‘Middle of Nowhere’ is one of those places you can get closer and closer to, but can never actually reach.”
Me: “Just like the end of a rainbow!”

Parked near the summit

Indeed, there wasn’t much to see besides the endless dotted yellow line stretching as straight as an arrow in front of us and open land to the sides. I’ve heard that if you were to shrink the Earth down in size that it would be smoother than poolball. Judging from the terrain in eastern Colorado, I can believe that.

After passing uneventfully though Springfield, Lamar, and finally Cheyenne Wells, 5 hours later we were sure that we were on the verge of the Middle of Nowhere. That meant it was time to look for Mount Sunflower. We followed Summit Post’s directions for Kansas’s highest point and took a small gravel road north. After weaving around on gravel roads through beautiful fields of bright yellow sunflowers we reached the

Eric juggling 5 rocks on the summit

summit around 5:15pm. A master welder had fashioned the great steel monument at the top which read “Mount Sunflower – 4039ft – Highest Point in Kansas.” The welder had cleverly coiled a thick chain around to form the inside of the sunflower. It turns out that a nearby rancher and his family own the summit and are nice enough to let tourists like us visit.

The view at the top was impressive. Fields stretched to the horizon with the occasional farmhouse and grove of trees surrounding it. Mount Sunflower is located on the westernmost edge of Kansas. Imagine that Kansas is a

Matthew on the summit

piece of paper. Now angle that piece of paper down to the east, and slightly up to the west. That’s why you get the highest point on the western border.


After the traditional high point festivities, we departed the roof of Kansas around 5:25pm. We had about 11 more hours of driving in order to hit Nebraska’s Panorama Point and drive back to Denver before our flight left around 7:15pm the next day. The farther we went this evening then the more buffer time we had the next day.

We turned back into Colorado and rejoined our old friend US-385. We continued north and reached Julesburg, CO, on the NE border, a few hours after the 7:15 sunset. Then we picked up I-80 west. From the GPS there didn’t look to be too much public land in soutwestern Nebraska, so we knew we’d have a tough time finding a good place to stealth camp. There weren’t really any woods around for us to hide in. So we decided to go for the gold and drive all the way to Panorama Point itself for a good night’s sleep.

After running around the car a little bit and eating some chocolate, we were wide awake enough to make the drive to Pine Bluffs, where we turned onto some back roads. We used a combination of directions from Summit Post, Google Maps, and the GPS to get us to “The Point.” I guess back in the good old days people just needed a good map. We didn’t want to take any chances.

The final pitch up to le sommait massif was a rugged gravel road on which the Caliber, under Eric’s control, handled nicely. We reached the roof of the great state of Nebraska around 10:30pm MST and pitched our tent in triumph on the summit. Victory! A few distant lights from farmhouses shone in the darkness around us. A long line of mysterious blinking red lights stretched for miles to our south. We wondered what they could be. We would have to await the light of dawn to fully admire the view from Panorama Point, elevation 5,424ft.

It was a little windy so we drove the car around near the tent, angling it in such a way as to shelter it from the southwest gusts. That’s probably the first time we’ve ever used a car to shelter a tent. It was a surprisingly chilly night for late August, but we slept in comfort knowing that we had just conquered three state high points and driven across the state of Colorado all in one day, touching six states in the process.

We awoke in the morning to the sound of another car door slamming. “What’s going on?” I blurted out as I woke up. It turns out that another high pointer had just come and was already leaving the summit. We could only guess what type of mission that person was on.

As I was taking a few pictures, Eric said, “Hmm, that’s strange…my watch says it’s Tuesday September 1st.” Me: “Wait a minute…ummm…my watch says the same thing. Uh oh.” For a couple of seconds, we panicked. Our flight left on Monday Sep 30th. I froze in disbelief. Had we really forgetten about a day and missed our flight? Or had we slept through a day like Rip Van Winkle? But wait a minute, I thought to myself, I had just spoken to Amanda yesterday, and she starts class this morning. So it can’t be Tuesday already. Then we finally figured it out: when we set our clocks back after we arrived in Denver on Friday, we had set them to 11pm but they had already ticked through midnight by that point, so they were a day ahead. Whew, we breathed a sigh of relief.

It was a peaceful morning on the summit. Low clouds drifted through the endless rolling fields of golden grass. A ~10 mile long line of towering wind turbines spun quietly in the distance. The morning clouds drifted in between them. Cows mooed harmoniously in their nearby pastures.

We were a long ways from Boston. On our adventures I often like take a moment to think to myself how removed I am from the stresses of school. As a farmer out here on the High Plains, your worries are much more connected to nature. You think about tending to livestock, when to plant, when to harvest, and what the weather will bring. You don’t encounter the stresses of problem sets, tests, or projects. It’s a totally different lifestyle out here, and I’m sure it’s even more demanding than being a student. It’d be a tough life being a farmer on the Great Plains.

Alas, for us it was now time to switch back into the “it’s time to get back to Boston” mode. We packed up and departed down the lonely gravel road, with each rotation of the tires bringing us closer to MIT once again.

We cruised through Cheyenne, WY and turned south on I-25 into Colorado. At this point, it was just 10:30am and we only had a few more hours of driving to get back to Denver. Our flight didn’t leave until 7:15pm. So we decided to pack one more little adventure into the trip by driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. We had driven through the park as a family years ago and wanted to visit once again.

We headed through an awesome canyon on the way to Estes Park, and finally entered into the Park through the Fall River Gate. The gentle Nebraska hills we had woken up to in the morning had been replaced by towering Colorado 14’ers spotted with snow. We wove our way in the car up to 12,000ft. It felt like cheating. All we had to do is step on the gas pedal and we accomplished in 30 minutes of driving what it would have taken 4 hours to hike. We opened our water bottles and heard the high pressure air inside escape. The suncreen bottle nearly exploded in the lower-pressure air. We went for a quick hike and headed back down.

We took about zero time to acclimate, so Eric got a little altitude sickness. It would be up to me to finish the drive. As we got closer to Denver the traffic heated up. I began to miss driving down the straight, open roads of Eastern Colorado with not another car in sight.

We returned the car and checked in at the airport. We had the vague idea that there was an earlier flight to BOS, but didn’t know the time or gate. We hustled nevertheless for some good exercise to see if we could get standby. As it turned out we arrived at the gate about 10 minutes before the previous flight was supposed to leave. The gate agent said: “There are two seats left, would you like them?” “DEFINITELY,” we answered. Then she reluctantly opened the door to the jetbridge for us and let us on. Wow, talk about convenient timing! We landed in BOS at a comfortable 10:15pm instead of 12:50am.

We were amazed at how well the trip worked out. We hit every destination and got the bonus of seeing Rocky Mountain National Park without a moment to spare. We had climbed the highest point in four states and had driven 1300 miles across six states all in one long weekend. It wasn’t necessarily a relaxing weekend, but it was fulfilling. We set a goal and then we accomplished it. Now it’s time to start planning our next adventure.

This brings our remaining state high point count to 15 for Eric and 17 for me.

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