The navigation term Height of Land is a phrase you’ll often encounter when reading hiking trip reports, trail descriptions, or guidebooks. But it’s very difficult to get a clear definition of what it means unless you ask someone who knows.
Height of land is used to mean a local high point on a trail, road, or along a ridge where you stop going up and start going down. It’s basically used to describe a high-point that’s not a summit.
For example, take a look at the topographic map above. The Cedar Brook Trail is marked in red and climbs gradually from both the north and the south until it reaches a local high-point at 3,000 feet, circled in blue. This is a local height-of-land.
Height-of-land is a useful navigation term because you can use it as a landmark when describing a location to someone else as in “the trailhead is at the height-of-land on the Jefferson Notch road.”
Historically, there’s some evidence that height-of-land was used as a boundary to circumscribe the territory of Indian tribes or nations. The term is also used to describe the boundary between watersheds, although that meaning is not necessarily accurate or relevant when talking about hiking trails or roadways.
Just a pass or a saddle?
It depends. The example here is neither a pass nor a saddle although a trail going through a pass or saddle probably passes over a height of land.
Think about it this way. A pass or saddle is a feature that describes a much larger geographic area that includes two ridges or peaks and some sort of valley. Height of land is a much more local description that only depends on contours: the point where you stop going up and start going down, along a trail or if bushwhacking, a bearing.
Let me try a different counter example.
Imagine you are standing on a vast open plain, miles from any mountain or ridge. In the middle of the plain is a 50ft hill. A trail runs through the plain and over the hill. The hill is called the height-of-land. It’s not a saddle, and not a mountain pass.