Going to Extremes
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
I don't remember when it started, but at some point, I decided to add another set of goals to my collection of travel experiences -- geographical extremities. Specifically, I mean the westernmost point (of something), the easternmost point, etc. The idea that you could stand on land that could reach no further in a particular cardinal direction -- that the rest of the country (or the continent) stood behind you -- was intriguing.
Some of these places were a lot more difficult to reach than others, as you might imagine. The easiest one for me was the westernmost point of land in the contiguous United States -- Cape Alava, Washington. It was just a four-hour car-ride/ferry combo away from my home in Seattle, plus a 3.3 mile hike from the end of the gravel road to reach the actual wedge of land the juts the furthest west into the Pacific Ocean. Slowly over the years, I picked up additional geographical superlatives, and I'm still working on my list.
Here are the ones I can claim to have visited thus far:
Cape Alava, Washington (westernmost point of land in the lower 48 states)
Key West, Florida (southernmost point of land in the lower 48 states)
West Quoddy Head, Maine (easternmost point of land in the United States)
Cape Spear, Newfoundland (easternmost point of land in North America)
Ka Lae, Hawaii (southernmost point of land in the United States)
Rugby, North Dakota (geographical center of North America)
Barrow, Alaska (northernmost point of land in the United States)
Smith Center, Kansas (geographical center of the lower 48 states)
Nome, Alaska (special mention: the westernmost travel I have made thus far in the United States)
Each of these places is so unique and so memorable. I wanted to share a little about those experiences and a few photos to round out the story.
Cape Alava, Washington - 124° 44′ 11.8″ W
Located within the lush Olympic National Park on the western edge of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, Cape Alava can only be reached by foot. The closest car approach is at Lake Ozette. To get there, you would take SR 112 northwest from US 101 (just west of Port Angeles), and then turn left onto Hoko Ozette Road. It is a rather twisting and winding drive of about 17 miles, most of it paved, heading westward toward the coast. When you reach the end of the road at Lake Ozette, there is a campground, parking lot and signage with information. From there, you head west on foot into the dense rainforest. About a quarter mile into the hike, the trail forks. This is the beginning of the Cape Alava Loop trail, which is about 9.6 miles in length. Stay to the right (the signage should point the way to Cape Alava). Soon enough, the trail changes from well-manicured forest floor to a cedar-plank path that lifts you off the sometimes soggy ground and provides you a wonderfully melodic sound-track with each footfall. The U.S. Park Service began construction of the cedar-plank trail in the 1970s as a means of providing a mud-free passage to the coast. It wasn’t until the 1980s when it was completed in the form we see today. The boardwalk continues the entire length of the way and ends at a dramatic cliffside, just before you descend to the beach.
Most of the path traverses dense rainforest vegetation. It is a quintessential western Washington outdoors experience with the ever-present moss and salal, massive ferns, and towering red cedars, Sitka spruce and western hemlock. About two-thirds of the way along the trail, the thick forest gives way to the bright and airy Ahlstrom's Prairie, a marshy clearing in the rainforest. Years ago, you could see the remains of Lars Ahlstrom's home on the western edge of the prairie. Mr. Ahlstrom homesteaded here until 1911. There isn't much evidence of his prior residence today, but there is a nice trailside sitting area where the house once stood.
The contours of the trail, the rising and falling of the path, are extremely gentle, level in most places, making for a pleasant, non-strenuous hike. Waiting for you at the end is one of the most breathtaking vistas along the rugged Washington coastline. When you descend the final bluff to the beach, you'll see a rocky island, or haystack, just barely separated from the coast. At low tide, the beach is wide and pock-marked with tidal pools. As you stand at the bottom of the trail, and touch the Pacific Ocean, you are standing at the westernmost point of land in the lower 48 states. Some people erroneously consider Cape Flattery some 15 miles north (just west of Neah Bay) to be the westernmost point. It certainly is the northwesternmost point, but looking at a map will disprove the misconception that it sticks out furthest west.
From Cape Alava, if you hike further north along the beach, you may encounter a long-abandoned archeological dig where remnants of an old Makah settlement once existed, buried more than 300 years ago in a mudslide. If you hike further south toward Sand Point, look closely at the exposed rocks along the shoreline -- you may see ancient petroglyphs.
I have made this hike about seven or eight times over the years, and it continues to be one of my favorite places to visit.
Key West, Florida - 24° 32′ 38 N
One of the easiest geographical extremes to reach, Key West sits at the southern terminus of US 1 which runs the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. (It's northern terminus is Fort Kent, Maine.) I have now been to Key West three times, once by car via the Overseas Highway from Ft. Lauderdale, the other times by air from Miami or Tampa. My first visit to Key West was in December 1990 when I flew there with a friend and stayed at a house on Stump Lane owned by the friend of a co-worker. The one thing I remember most vividly about her house was that you showered outside in the backyard with the occasional gecko skittering up and down the shower walls. In later years, I opted to stay at hotels or resorts.
The town of Key West is something of a unicorn among southern U.S. cities. It doesn't look like anything else on the mainland. It is warm and tropical all year round, even in the dead of winter. It is a place where you can go to escape life, to feel as if you've left the United States altogether, to revel in hedonistic pleasures, and be part of an artsy, bohemian culture. There is a laid-back, laissez-faire attitude about the place that makes you just want to find a comfortable spot, read a book and drink piña coladas. The locals refer to Key West as the Conch Republic, a reference to a mostly symbolic attempt in the 1980s to declare independence from the United States over a road blockade. The city occupies just a few square miles of land so it is very walkable. It's the perfect place to explore the old residential streets on foot to see the conch houses and banyan trees, the stately, historic weatherboard houses, or even sample some of the best hidden restaurants in town. The commercial center of Key West runs north-south along Duval Street, and at night in Mallory Square at the north end of the strip, you can catch spectacular sunsets. While you’re there, have a slice of delicious key lime pie, eat a few conch fritters and visit Hemingway House. There is plenty to see and do while you're tooling around.
But if you're seeking out that southernmost experience, go all the way to the end of Whitehead Street where it meets South Street. You'll find the enormous marker that declares you are standing at continental America's southernmost point (though technically, Whitehead Spit about a third of a mile to the west, is a little more southerly).
Cape Spear, Newfoundland - 52° 37' 10" W
In the summer of 1990, I bought a CanRail Pass and traveled the length of Canada from Vancouver to Halifax. Once in Halifax, I wasn't satisfied with just turning around and heading back west. I wanted to continue eastward to see Newfoundland. I paid for a plane ticket to St. John's, set my watch ahead by 30 minutes, and spent a couple of days there in July when the weather was glorious. (St. John's is another story perhaps for another post.) Having come this far, I really wanted to stand at the eastern edge of the North American continent, so I rented a car and drove the seven or eight miles south from St. John's to Cape Spear, got out of the car and snapped the photo you see below. It was my closest approach to Europe while the entirety of the North American continent stood at my back.
West Quoddy Head, Maine - 66° 56′ 59.2″ W
On the same cross-Canada trip, I rented a car while staying in Saint John, New Brunswick, and boarded the ferry system where I traveled as far as Campobello Island. I then drove over the bridge into Lubec, Maine, crossing into the United States. From Lubec, I drove the three or four miles south to West Quoddy Head, hiked past the red-and-white striped lighthouse, and stood at the easternmost extrusion of American soil.
Ka Lae, Hawaii - 18° 54′ 39″ N
Ka Lae (also known as South Point) was one of the most interesting of the geographical extremities I visited. To get there, you have to fly to the Big Island and rent a car. In February 1993, I flew into Hilo and drove south along SR 11 to the small village of Naalehu. Just a mile or two west of there is the start of South Point Road. It is a narrow but paved lane that leads further south toward Ka Lae. The rental car companies will warn you not to drive this road. It was too important for me not to see, so I did it anyway. The road goes on for about 12 miles before it terminates at a heiau (a sacred place of worship), a parking area, some signage, and the southernmost point in the United States. If you decide to go, please do be extremely respectful of the heiau and the area in general. Standing there at this extreme southern point of land, you can't help but feel a natural reverence for your surroundings and a sense of awe at what you're witnessing. The waters are extremely rough there, so please don't go for a swim. If you hike a mile or so eastward, you will encounter a rare olivine beach that makes the sand appear green.
The southern ocean view from Ka Lae:
Rugby, North Dakota - 48° 10′ N and 100° 10′ W,
Standing in the geographic center of something qualifies, for me, as a bit of travel curiosity (even though it technically isn't an "extremity"), and so I started cataloguing those visits along with my other geographical superlatives. My first was in August 1992 when I visited the geographical center of North America on a driving trip from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's demarcated by a large stone cairn just off US 2 in Rugby, North Dakota, but the actual geographical center is some 10 miles southwest of town in the middle of a small lake.
Point Barrow, Alaska - 71° 23′ 20″ N
This was one of the more challenging geographic points to visit, and certainly, one of the most expensive. First you have to purchase a steep roundtrip ticket to Barrow, Alaska, but then you have to contend with the astronomical prices of food and lodging when you get there. I made the trip with a friend of mine from Los Angeles who was, at the time, on a similar quest to visit all the counties. Having a travel companion allowed us to split the hotel expense down the middle and make it a little more affordable. We flew from Seattle to Anchorage in June 1998 and from there, hopped on a jet headed north to Barrow. We had a brief stopover in Fairbanks. What was memorable about the flight up to Barrow was that passengers boarded the plane from the rear of the fuselage, instead of the front. The front was walled off from us and used for transporting cargo.
We arrived in Barrow a week or so before the summer solstice, but we were so far above the Arctic Circle that the sun never set the entire time we were there. The ground was still frozen and the air temperature was a chilly 33°F. It appeared that the sea ice was already breaking up and moving away from land at that point. We had dinner at the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world, and when I placed a call home, there was an audible delay in the transmission of our voices, as if the signals were bouncing off satellites and traveling thousands upon thousands of miles. Barrow is an interesting place to be and to see as a tourist, but I might save that as a good topic for a future post.
The town of Barrow itself, however, is not at the northernmost point of the United States. Point Barrow, the actual top of the country, is about a 25-mile drive outside of town. There are no real roads out there, but for a fee, you can hire someone to drive you out there in a Humvee. In 1998, the cost was $60, and we gladly paid it for the opportunity to stand at the very northernmost point of land in the United States. The driver explained to us that on about 80% of the trips he's made out to the point, he has seen polar bear. This got us both even more excited about the trip further north. As it turned out, we landed in the 20% bucket of times where no polar bear was to be seen. We did, however, see polar bear tracks and large pieces of whale blubber on the beach where the polar bear apparently did feast.
The northernmost point is actually a part of an enormous sandy spit that juts north and east from Barrow into the Arctic Ocean. The point itself is not identified by any sign or marker, or at least, it wasn't in 1998. The guide we hired knew exactly where it was. He took us right up to the spot, Point Barrow, where the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas come together. Here's a photo of me clutching the northernmost handful of American soil:
Nome, Alaska - 165° 52' 35" W
Nome isn't a geographical extremity. I wanted to include this story because it was the jumping off point for me and my attempt to drive as far west in the United States as possible.
The Nome-Teller Road leads west out of Nome on a well-graded gravel surface. As the miles go by, the surface quality of the road deteriorates to the point where you are dodging pools of standing water as wide as the road itself, deep muddy ruts, and gargantuan potholes. On the same trip my friend and I made to Barrow, we flew into Nome, rented a Ford F150, and headed west along the 77-mile-long Nome-Teller Road. We drove as far as we could, but as the road got increasingly more difficult to pass, we decided to turn around. After all, it was a rental, and we (a) didn't want to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and (b) end up damaging the vehicle. The road itself does continue all the way to the small village of Teller, Alaska, which stands a mere 55 miles from Russia. We made it about 20 miles west of Nome before having to turn around. This photo represents the furthest west I have been to date in the United States:
Smith Center, Kansas - 39° 50′ N and 98° 35′ W
Just 20 miles northeast of Smith Center, Kansas (and about 2.5 miles north of Lebanon, KS) stands a small marker inside of a small park, declaring the precise location of the geographical center of the lower 48 states. This one was easy to get to and kind of an afterthought for me and my travel companion (and stepmother), Lola. We were returning westward on our first cross-country road trip together in 2013 and passing through Kansas when we saw a sign pointing us in the direction of the marker. Naturally, we had to take a look -- and a few photos.
And the Journey Continues ...
There are certainly more geographical firsts to collect in the future. I would love to visit the Northwest Angle of Minnesota one day to claim the northernmost point of the lower 48 states, and I'd love to travel as far west along the Aleutian Island chain as possible as a civilian. Both of these goals give me something to look forward. The road never really ends. There are always new horizons to discover and journeys to plan. If you have a story of a visit to a geographical extremity, or maybe you collect highest and lowest points of land instead, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!