Oakland County Highpoint Trip Report

Pine Knob (1,286+ ft) and Mt Holly (1,244+ ft)

Date: November 10, 2006
Author: Bob Schwab

Investigative Trip Report

Andy Hatzos reported in July that a recent resurvey by the county claimed that Pine Knob was the county highpoint at 1286+ feet. Similarly, a second ski hill, Mount Holly, was listed at 1244+ feet. Since both of these elevations exceed the four 1230+ foot contours listed in Andy Martinís County High Points book, it seemed that curious high pointers would want to know: Is this true, does the county have a new highpoint, or is this bogus?

I set out on Friday armed with three E-trex Vista GPS units. One was WAAS-enabled, one was not, and the third one was to be left in the car -- to check for changes in barometric readings while I was out hiking up and down these two ski hills.

Mount Holly (1,244+ ft)

First I arrived at Mount Holly, a family ski hill located between Pontiac and Flint, just east of I-75 (Exit 101). Even before I got to the entrance, I could see that the south side of the hill was much steeper than one would expect of any natural land form in glaciated southern Michigan. I received permission from a lady at the ticket office to hike to the top and then carefully set my GPS units in the parking lot, based on the elevation lines on my topo map. Just for extra measure, I also reset my Suunto wrist watch, although it only reports elevation in 10 foot increments.

I hiked up the hill to where my latitude/longitude readings said the top of the hill was supposed to be (per my topo map, roughly at 1170 feet). There is sort of a flattened area there where one lift stops but the hill continued to the south and rises roughly another 70+ vertical feet. When I arrived at the top, there were two lift stations and a radio tower perched on a small flat area. The contours on my topo map did not at all match what I was seeing, not only on the top but also as I looked off the south side of the hill. According to my topo, the south side was supposed to be a fairly gentle drop-off but I found the south side to be incredibly steep and abuts an extremely large gravel operation. There are lots of juvenile spruce trees planted on the southern and western slopes to help stabilize the soil. I surmised that the ski operators had hauled tons of gravel up and added height by building on the gentile southern slopes of the original hill to its new height. All skiing goes off to the east and north only. My readings were 1261 and 1263 on my two GPS units and the Suunto said 1270 feet! My lat/long reading indicated I was just northwest of the "P" in "Pits" near a small contour that shows on the topo map and I was right next to the radio tower at the top! When I got back down to the car, both units read about 20 feet higher than when I had left, and this was confirmed by the third unit on my dash, which had also risen by 24 feet while I was gone. Thus, my experiment seemed to indicate that the top is somewhere in the vicinity of 1,244+ feet high.

I returned to the ticket office hoping that someone might verify whether the area had truly been raised - but the lady there didnít know (sheís only worked there two years) and the manager was not available. She did tell me that the same company owns both Mount Holly and Pine Knob and this started me thinking that probably Pine Knob had also been altered.

Pine Knob (1,286+ ft)

I headed down I-75 to Exit 89 and went north on Sashabaw Road to the light at the entrance to the Pine Knob ski area. This is also some kind of big concert/event center but the ski area is operated separately and is behind (east of) the concert buildings and large parking lots. From the parking lot, I could tell that this hill was not natural. The western edge of the hill is very steep and heavily eroded, very uncharacteristic for Michigan.

When I arrived at the office, I met Rob, the manager, who gave me all the answers I was looking for. Yes, he told me the hill has been raised three times since the 1970's, the last big change was in 1992. He said they had earthmovers going from April to November that year and they barely got the job done before the season began. He said originally the mansion (see the building on a 1200-foot bump just to the southeast of the ski hill) was the highest spot but by the 1970's they had raised their ski hill to be higher (I think this is what our current topo map shows). He then displayed the new Oakland County topo map with its 2 foot increments that Andy Hatzos mentioned and proceeded to show me where and how they had built it up to where it is today. He also gave me a color aerial view map of the ski area which helps to pinpoint where everything is today.

I got permission to hike to the top and my GPS units confirmed that the top is indeed in the 1286-88 foot range, just as the map indicates. Furthermore, as you look off the top toward the roof of mansion below, it is a lot farther down than the 20+ foot difference shown on the topo map. Rob told me that on a clear day, you can easily see the buildings in downtown Detroit. If you ski, this place makes all itís own snow, is fully lit for nighttime skiing/snowboarding, and claims to have over a 250 foot drop -- a big deal in southern Michigan!

Conclusion

The mystery is solved. Pine Knob is indeed close to 1,286 feet in elevation and we should probably stop badmouthing the map makers in Oakland County. Similarly, Mount Holly, at roughly 1,244+ feet, is also higher than the natural 1,230+ foot contours in the county but, since both have been artificially raised, a purist will continue to visit the four 1,230+ foot contours identified in Andy Martinís book.