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This Climbing Hobby Isn't Just for Mountaineers

Highpointers are part climber, part organization lovers. But all of them have one goal: To climb to the highest point in every state, country, or other region.

As part of their sport, Alex and Sage Herr have scrambled up the rock face of Chicken Out Ridge and conquered the summit of Mt. Borah in Idaho. They’ve braved ghost towns and rattlesnake country to reach White Butte in North Dakota. And they’ve trotted across a street in New Castle County, Delaware.

Alex is 13, Sage is 10, and along with their mom, Trish, the girls are highpointers. Highpointing is the quest to reach the highest natural points in a state, a country, or the world. The Herr family is hardly alone. There’s an association of like-minded spirits, The Highpointers Club , who seek out the highpoints in all 50 states. Nothing manmade, like a tower or a landfill, counts.

The Herr girls climb Chicken Out Ridge on Mt. Borah in Idaho

Highpointing combines a passion for nature and adventure with a certain fondness for structure and lists. The sport offers an unexpected framework for discovering new places, particularly because some remote highpoints are not in standard tourist areas. For Trish Herr, whose family has finished 45 points, “It’s a great excuse to travel. Going across the country and seeing how the land changes, seeing different birds and animals, meeting people and hearing different accents—it’s wonderful stuff.”

And addictive, too. John Mitchler completed his first state highpoint, Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in 1982. It took him 21 years to collect ‘em all. He’s also ascended the highest point of 54 U.S. national parks (there are 59, so just 5 more to go), plus all 21 highpoints in the British Isles.

“I always thought it was about the summit, reaching the summit and checking it off the list,” says Mitchler, a geologist. “But I enjoy the orienteering aspect of it more. Figuring out where the point is at, how to get there, and what it's going to involve gives me the most joy.” For variety, he's started on the lowest points of the 50 states, a comparatively rarer pursuit.

The very name “highpointing” summons images of majestic peaks and vistas. Think Denali in Alaska, which requires a marathon expedition of two to three weeks before you can stand on its pinnacle at 20,310 feet. But highpointing also includes Delaware’s highest point, a blip of 448 feet in the middle of Ebright Road. Lower still is the 345-foot “rise” of Britton Hill in Florida, with a marker noting this is—no joke—the highest point in the state.

Highpointers must master serious mountaineering skills for some landmarks, such as Mt. Rainer in Washington. But about two dozen points, including North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell, demand far less footwork. Drive up and you’re there, or park the car and cross a ramp by foot or wheelchair to the right spot. One team of die-hards set a record by snagging eight state highpoints plus the one for Washington, D.C., in a single day. That particular road trip through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia lasted more than 22 hours.

Still, the good news for the less physically adept, says filmmaker Gary Scurka, is “you don’t have to be a super athlete to be a highpointer.” He happened upon highpointing without knowing others were doing it. When he was 16, he wrote a bucket list which included climbing the highest point in every state. He’s at 34 so far and, along the way, “fell in love with the idea of exploration and pushing yourself.”

That love is tangible in “American Highpoints,” Scurka’s documentary about highpointing. It follows his teenage daughter Mackenzie as she attempts to summit 13,804-foot Gannett Peak in Wyoming, one of the most difficult climbs in the Lower 48. Scurka had previously tackled other highpoints with his daughter. But he injured his knee before this trip, so she made the trek of roughly 50 miles roundtrip with a group that included guides, porters, llamas, and two women hoping to be the first mom-daughter team to climb every highpoint in the Lower 48. Scruka plans to submit the film to festivals this spring.

Ready for your own highpointing adventure, whether cinematic or not? It’s easy to search for highpoints online. But if you’d prefer a more organized approach—and we bet you do, you highpointer, you—there are guidebooks to highpoints in the U.S., Central America, and Europe to help you climb, hike or roll to the top.

>>Next: 8 U.S. National Parks  You Need to See in Your Lifetime