Thanks to the confluence of geological realities and political partitioning, some states got the raw end of the deal in the mountain department, no question. The high points of more than a few states are little more than hills—and sometimes more like gentle swells on the landscape that are tough to pick out on the skyline.
Does this mean hikers in places like Rhode Island or Florida or Iowa must head elsewhere for vertically interesting terrain? Absolutely not. The flatter and subtler swaths of our national landscape hide tracts of plenty-rugged topography—even if it isn’t of the jagged-mountain or colossal-canyon variety.
Rather than a perfunctory profile of state high points, we thought we’d spotlight some of the stoniest, most dissected, or otherwise rough tracts of a number of “non-mountain” states: some of them relatively decent-proportioned ranges even if not quite the Colorado Rockies, others heavily carved uplands that may show a fairly level horizon line but come clawed open by ravines or canyons, making for arduous hiking. All of them are worth seeking out for the quad workouts they deliver—and for the unique vistas and ecosystems they contain.
Rhode Island is not only a tiny state: It’s also a mighty gentle one topography-wise, its bygone mountains long ago worn down by erosive forces. But the rocky New England uplands of its western reach encompass some robust hikes, among the foremost of which is the trail through the Audubon Society sanctuary of Long Pond Woods. Impressive boulders and outcrops mark the huff-and-puff route, which culminates in a fantastic ledge-top prospect of lake-sized Long Pond—among Rhode Island’s grandest vistas.
The forests at Long Pond Woods also impress with good-sized hardwoods and hemlocks and jungly thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel, which put on quite the floral show during late-spring blooms. The adjacent Ell Pond Preserve—a Nature Conservancy property that includes venerable hemlocks constituting among Rhode Island’s few remaining old-growth stands—offers additional rugged hiking.
Despite extensive glacial smoothing and a high point (Tims Hill) that tops out below 2,000 feet, the Badger State boasts its share of demanding topography, including the southwestern blufflands of the Driftless Area and the scattered craggy buttes of its central sand plains. Arguably the two areas where it most approaches mountainous are the Penokee Range in north-central Wisconsin (and adjoining Michigan) and the Baraboo Hills in the south-central part of the state.
One of the eight great iron ranges of Lake Superior, the Penokees span two parallel ridges of resistant rock stretching between Lake Namakagon in Bayfield County in the west and Lake Gogebic in the Upper Peninsula to the east. (In Michigan, the Penokees are called the Gogebic Range.) Rivers have cut a series of water gaps across the crest of the Penokees, and whitewater foams through the range’s gorges. At Copper Falls State Park—the signature outdoor destination in the Penokees—you can marvel at the surging Copper and Brownstone falls and the Bad River’s narrows at Devil’s Gate, from the Doughboy’s Trail (which overlaps with the North Country National Scenic Trail).
Soak up fine vistas of the Penokee Range from the 65-foot-tall observation tower in Copper Falls State Park as well as from Corrigan’s Bluff lookout off State Highway 122, which makes a north-south traverse of both Penokee divides. (The lookout is close to the Whitecap Mountains Ski Resort, which benefits from the Penokees’ position on the western fringe of the Lake Superior Snowbelt.)
Far to the south, the Baraboo Hills, composed of 1.6-billion-year-old quartzite, also form a bold double range looming from subdued farm-and-woods countryside between Madison and the Wisconsin Dells. Devil’s Lake State Park, where 500-foot cliffs overlook moraine-dammed waters, creates perhaps Wisconsin’s most postcard-perfect scene, but there are other remarkable landscapes here, too—including the heavy-canopied, botanically rich Parfrey’s Glen, one of numerous rock ravines cutting the Baraboo Range.
The Hawkeye State is often dismissed by those out-of-the-know as all pancake-flat corn and soybean monoculture. And although most of Iowa doesn’t boast much in the way of relief, its northeastern sector has gritty terrain very much belying that flatland standard. This is part of the Driftless Area (aka “Paleozoic Plateau”) shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin, a ridge-and-coulee landscape that escaped at least the last few rounds of Pleistocene glaciation (and thus its smoothing-over topographic impacts) and which culminates in proud bluffs along the Upper Mississippi River.
Some of the most striking country delights paddlers on the Upper Iowa River, especially that partly cliff-hemmed reach between Kendallville and Decorah. Soaring limestone walls and palisades along this meandering stream—one of the great flows of the Midwest—can definitely inspire some momentary confusion as to whether you are indeed still in Iowa.
You’ll also find plenty of up-and-down terrain along the Iowa Driftless Area’s Mississippi frontage, not least in Pikes Peak State Park, which protects the namesake headland looming roughly 500 feet above the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers—one of the greatest heights along North America’s greatest river. The park’s grand riverscape views are its signature feature, but it also supports miles of hiking trails through rough-and-tumble ravines.
As they did in Wisconsin and Iowa, glaciers heaped much of Illinois under rolling moraines and plains of till, but where the ice failed to bulldoze some sharper-edged country persists. A case in point: the scarped, slotted, sinkholed Shawnee Hills of the far south, part of the Interior Low Plateaus Province of the Lower 48. The Hills—which fall within the Shawnee National Forest, the largest unified swath of public lands in Illinois and home to several federal wilderness areas—include the celebrated sandstone pillars and mushroom knobs of the Garden of the Gods and the caves and defiles of the Rim Rock Recreation Area, some of the state’s most impressive geological exposures.
And then there’s the Little Grand Canyon to the west near Murphysboro, close to where the Shawnee Hills grade into the Ozarks (which reach far southwestern Illinois in the form of the Salem Plateau). This large box canyon opening to the floodplain of the Big Muddy River harbors lush hardwood forest and a number of waterfalls.
Some misguided souls hold the notion that Kansas is tabletop flat. While it’s true the state lacks soaring elevations and manifests largely as a level plain or rolling upland (such as the grassy—and awesome—Flint Hills), it does have its share of more rumpled-up country. The rusty mesas and gulches of the Red Hills near the Oklahoma border serve up ethereal rangeland scenery, though recreational opportunities are limited given the prevalence of private land; the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism recommends a scenic Red Hills drive, and you can do a bit of hiking at Clark State Fishing Lake in the canyon of Bluff Creek.
The Ozark Plateau reaches into far southeastern Kansas, exposing its oldest rocks in the form of 345-million-year-old limestones. A good place to sample the cavern-ridden Kansas Ozarks landscape is Schermerhorn Park, which includes the large Schermerhorn Cave.
Tantalizing Great Plains landforms, meanwhile, await in the multiple belts of the Smoky Hills in north-central Kansas, including the chalk badlands of Castle Rock and the Monument Rocks and the Dakota Sandstone formations of Kanapolis State Park, Mushroom Rock State Park, and Rock City.
Among Florida’s surplus of superlatives (longest coastline in the Lower 48, most lightning strikes in the country, most-visited amusement park in the world, just to name a few) is the lowest state high point in the United States: that dizzying promontory (ahem) known as Britton Hill, a whopping 345 feet above sea level. (Don’t forget the oxygen mask, OK?)
But along a roughly 35-mile-long stretch of the Apalachicola River’s east banks on the Florida Panhandle, seepage has corroded a network of ravines into piney sandhills. These “steephead ravines”—so-called because their heads are impressively deep-cut, giving them almost a box-canyon profile—constitute some of the Sunshine State’s sharpest contours, not to mention some of the most biologically significant ecosystems in North America. An incredible diversity of plant life calls these shady-hearted steepheads home, including numerous species more widespread in the Appalachians to the north, such as pyramid magnolia and mountain laurel, and a number of endemics, among them two rare conifers: the gopherwood (or torreya) and the Florida yew.
Two outstanding spots offer hiking among the Apalachicola’s steepheads: the Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve—the 3.75-mile Garden of Eden Trail, which drops from high pinewoods into the verdant breaks and includes a view of Alum Bluff rising 135 feet above the river, the most extensive strata face in Florida—and Torreya State Park north of that.
Think of the lay of the land in Louisiana, and images of sluggish bayous, sprawling saltmarshes, and piney flatwoods probably come to mind. Much of the state is indeed very flat and low-lying, but you can find more broken country in places, including along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River floodplain between St. Francisville on the south and the Mississippi border. Here the Tunica Hills rise in a mess of ridges and ravines from the alluvial bottomlands, marking the southern extent of the “loess blufflands” that shadow Old Man River on the east from the mouth of the Ohio River south to here.
You can get the sort of up-and-down hiking workout that’s rare in Louisiana—and admire the Hills’ diverse mixed-hardwood forests, home to quite a few plants not found elsewhere in the state—on the trails of the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area.
Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.