The high point of Maryland

UP FRONT

June 08, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

It's probably safe to say that millions of people have visited Maryland's lowest geographic point to splash in the Atlantic Ocean.

It's also not much of a stretch to say that only a handful of folks have stood at the state's highest point.

Backbone Mountain, all 3,360 feet of it, is in Garrett County, tucked up tight to the West Virginia border, about as far from the teeming masses as is possible. The peak would probably be in the mountain-protection program, if the FBI ran such a thing.

Backbone ranks 32nd highest of the high points in the 50 states. The Highpointers Club, a national organization that keeps track of climbing records and offers hiking advice, ranks Backbone the 22nd most difficult summit to reach.

Unlike the two state high points closest to it (Pennsylvania's 3,213-foot Mount Davis and West Virginia's 4,863-foot Spruce Knob), Backbone is not a drive-up proposition. It requires you to get out of your car, lace up your walking shoes and invest a little sweat equity.

Yet hikers who like to "bag" as many state high points as possible have never raved about Backbone. For years, it was an unrewarding hike. Nearby parking was hard to find. The trail was badly marked, and the mountain's densely wooded summit offered few interesting views.

But much has changed now. Thanks to the work of a Silver Spring couple, Maryland's rooftop is worth a visit.

The trail is well-marked, wide and almost graded. While you can't call the parking arrangements easy, at least now you can figure out what they are. And the summit is a nice place to take a family and offers hikers a little souvenir to remember the occasion.

The transformation of molehill to mountain was the work of Eugene and Lillian Elliott.

In 1995, the pair went to find the top. Five hours of thrashing around in the brush yielded nothing.

A second attempt the same year ended the same way. The Elliotts then joined the Highpointers Club and went to the annual convention in Minnesota , where they ran into a couple from California who wanted to bag Backbone.

The Elliotts invited the Californians to find the summit with them during an East Coast visit later in the year. We went out with our hatchets and found it," Lillian Elliott says. The Elliotts adopted the mountain and in 1996 began a project that hasn't ended yet.

After clearing away brush and trees, they hauled a picnic table to the top and restored the official summit marker. They built a wooden stand nearby so that a solo hiker or the designated photographer for a group can trigger a camera's timer and run around to get in the picture.

But perhaps the nicest touches are the mailbox below the marker that contains a logbook for visitors to sign, and the certificates that signify a successful hike.

The logbook makes for pleasant reading while a hiker is cooling off and enjoying a snack and some water:

"Beautiful, sunny day. My fourth visit here, the first being in 1956 with my two brothers and Dad (who was the second known person to reach the highest point in all 48 states), C. Rowland Stebbins....I have been stuck at 48 high points since 1962. When will I get to Hawaii?" wrote 51-year-old Kenyon Rainier Stebbins.

And there's this note on April 1 from Bruce and Susan McWilliams: "Newlywed team from Arlington, Va. Fools for high points and fools for love!"

Other writers have noted the migratory birds in spring and fall, the butterflies, and how much they want to return to Backbone with family and friends.

The compliments tickle Eugene Elliott, who works for the Washington suburbs parks and planning commission, and Lillian, a legal assistant for a Rockville law firm.

"We've become so attached," says Lillian. "It's our second home. We've even bought 5 acres in a nearby development for a home."

The Elliotts would like to add another picnic table, and see better road signs at the foot of the mountain and improved parking.

All that will have to wait, however. The top of Backbone is privately owned, and Western Pocahontas Properties isn't selling.

The Elliotts say the private status of Backbone prevents Maryland and West Virginia officials from spending any money on improvements. But luckily, the owner hasn't blocked private citizens like the Elliotts from sprucing things up.

Highest honors

The mountain is known as Backbone, but the summit is officially called Hoye-Crest.

It picked up the second name in 1952, when locals and Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin decided to honor the founder of the Garrett County Historical Society.

Capt. Charles E. Hoye was born in 1876, went to school in Towson and served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He was an educator who spent most of his career in the Philippines and Los Angeles. After he retired, he moved to Garrett County, where he immersed himself in preserving local history.

He died in 1951 in a car crash in Los Angeles.

The Maryland Historical Society placed a huge aluminum sign at the summit during a dedication ceremony in September 1952.

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