Kings Peak, Utah

Sitting at 13,527 feet, Kings Peak is the highest point in Utah.  If you’re wanting to tackle this like a usual person would, it takes three days to complete.  One day for the hike in, one for the summit, and one for the hike out.  But for all you trail runners out there, there are people out there who take this on in one day and actually succeed.  I like running as much as the next person, but this absolutely floored me.  Looks like you’ve found your next challenge!

The Trail

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Am I really doing this?

The most popular approach to Kings Peak is along the Henrys Fork Trail.  This is also the shortest approach.  You’re looking at a round-trip distance of 32 miles.  Keep in mind this also includes the summit, you’re not going to be doing a 16 mile hike in on the first day.

Day one is “Let’s wander around a bit until we find a good place to camp” day.  I had the fortune of running into the friendly and energetic forest service employees on my way in and asked about the best places to camp.  I already had a couple of sites planned out by the greater lakes in the area:  *Dollar Lake, and Henrys Fork Lake.  They informed me that Dollar Lake is the better of the two in terms of camp sites, but they also could have just been trying to contain people to one area.  That being said, Dollar Lake is farther in giving you less miles to tackle on summit day (believe me, you’re going to love yourself for it).  Dollar Lake is about 7 miles from the trailhead.  The beginning of the trail starts off with a lot of up and down-hill, and mellows out a bit mid-way.  Maybe 3/4ths along the way it opens up into a large (and absolutely beautiful) basin.

*I was informed by both signs at the trailhead and by the forest service workers that they do not want people having fires within a quarter mile of the lakes.  Keep this in mind if you plan on going.  Your tents also must not be visible from the trail.

First view of the basin
First view of the basin

I opted to camp by Dollar Lake of course.  The lake is not visible from the trail, but they placed warning signs about not having fires near the lake along the trail.  At the second sign, I made a left up a large hill and went into the treeline.  This seemed to be a popular area, however most people stay out in the open grass near the top of the hill for what I felt was a fear of bears.  Head into the treeline a bit more, you won’t regret it.  I was still near other people, but I was the farthest away from them and snagged a campsite that could have held around 10 tents.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Water Situation

Henrys Fork has plenty of water, but the trick is finding it.  You have a couple options:  Drink from the lake, or find a nice stream to get your water.  I tend to prefer streams.  I don’t know if this is mental or a real thing, but I feel like running water tends to taste a bit better.  It definitely looks cleaner as well.  The catch to this is it requires a bit more work to grab.  From my camp site near dollar lake, I had to head down to the trail and walk maybe 10 minutes to find a stream that intersected with the path.  As usual, I felt the trek was worth it.  It made for a very nice post-hike hike as well.  Near Dollar Lake I counted two such streams, but the further one had a better flow.  Note that this may change, I don’t know if they were seasonal streams.  However, if you head west from Dollar Lake, you’ll run into one of many mini-ponds and creeks that feed into Henrys Fork Lake.  These are closer, but I observed a bit of wildlife down there grabbing a drink and a quick bath and didn’t want to disturb the area just to save a bit of time.

Summit Day

The trek to Kings Peak is a beautiful one.  I’ve been up high enough to see the entire mountain range leading up to Rainier, and that didn’t hold a candle to the precambrian beauty of the high Uintas in Utah.  In order to reach the peak, you must cross the remainder of Henrys Fork Basin, up and down Gunsight Pass, trek along the mountains of Painters Basin, and up Anderson Pass.  Two mountain passes, one basin.  Most people leave early, I heard boots stomping around even before sunrise.  Due to a long night, I opted to sleep in a bit.  I left my base-camp at 8:30 AM, and got back at around 6:45 PM (that’s 10 hours), I feel like 8:00 AM is the latest you should leave.  I regret not waking up earlier for many reasons, which we’ll get to later.

The road to Gunsight Pass.
The road to Gunsight Pass.

The hike along the remainder of the first basin is a nice one.  You get your first taste of uphill for the day at a nice and even pace, so it serves as a great warmup for Gunsight Pass later down the line.

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Gunsight Pass

Gunsight pass is a teaser for Kings Peak.  You’re doing a lot of rock walking up to the top.  The trail sometimes disappears on you, but as long as you’re going up and over the rock-field, you’re going the right way.  This winded me a little bit coming from sea level, but it wasn’t too arduous.

Painters Basin from the top of Gunsight Pass
Painters Basin from the top of Gunsight Pass

Once you reach the top of Gunsight Pass, you’re rewarded with an extraordinary view of Painters Basin.  From there, the trail winds down into the basin where you follow along the mountains to your next destination.  Make note of water sources along the way and filter if necessary.  The streams are closer to Gunsight Pass than they are Anderson Pass, and you’ll need the extra liquid depending on how much water you brought.  I brought 2.5 liters and ran out when I got to Kings Peak, you don’t want to be in that situation.  The hike along Painters Basin is an amazing one and is definitely one of my favorite points of the trek.

Anderson Pass
Anderson Pass

Anderson Pass may appear to be more forgiving than Gunsight, but in my opinion it was harder.  You’re not climbing over boulders as much in the beginning, but it’s a longer hike up to the top.  You are however rewarded with beautiful scenery along the way.  Savor the rockless trail while you can, because things get worse before they get better.  Take note of the clear blue skies, we’re going to get to that deception in a little bit.

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Great place for a rest

Before things do get worse, you hit a beautiful field with boulders sticking out every-which-way.  I opted to sit down and do some stretches here for a while before I hit the worst part of the trail.  If you brought snacks or a lunch with you, this would be the place to eat.  I however didn’t bring anything to eat.  I’d advise against following my lead unless you’re a super-hiker.  I survived, but regretted the decision.

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Things are definitely worse.

This is a more accurate representation of what Anderson Pass is like.  You’re still not boulder-crawling like you are in Gunsight, but you’re still dealing with all this.  If I wasn’t tired before, I definitely was here.  You’re at a higher elevation here as well, so if you’re sensitive to that like I am, you’re in for some fun.  Once again, you are rewarded with a beautiful view at the end of it, so savor the moment.  As much as I’d like to come off as a tough-as-nails hiker, I have to be honest and admit that my pace was about that of a snail at this point.

The Peak

What have I done
What have I done.  Make note of the fact that you can’t see the top in this picture, more on that later.

I made a mistake when I took on this adventure: I completely underestimated what Kings Peak would be like.  I’d seen pictures, videos, talked to people who have reached the summit, and yet I thought “Well I’ve climbed mountains in Washington, what’s the big deal?”.

Kings Peak is less of a mountain and more like a pile of boulders.  You get roughly four spots where it resembles anything like a mountain where there’s a flat area of solid rock, but the rest of the way is just littered with shaky rocks.  Some of these shaky rocks were bigger than I was.  Watch your step.

Good luck my friend.
Good luck my friend.

If that doesn’t bother you, false summits will.  There were three times where I thought I was on the last leg to have my hopes shattered by more uphill.  Don’t be afraid to sit down for a moment and let that sink in and take a breather.  You’ve got a long way up.

Obscenities were yelled at the mountain followed by a healthy amount of fist-shaking.
Obscenities were yelled at the mountain followed by a healthy amount of fist-shaking.  Still nowhere near the top.

You’re still looking at the clouds, right?  Good.  Let’s talk about that now before we continue up the mountain.

Mountain ranges are fickle.  You’ll have great weather one moment, and the next you’re in the middle of end-of-the-world-teir storms.  On my way up, things didn’t quite escalate that much, but I did get a weird snow/hail storm come down on me at one point.  Towards the top, things got a little worse.

I’m not trying to exaggerate things here (yet), it was just a little storm.  What concerned me was the one of many downdrafts going on around me.  But I had it in my mind that I had to reach the top, so I pressed on.  Remember the previous video?  The clouds didn’t seem to threatening.  Maybe 20 minutes before this video, there were only two big clouds in the sky that seemed to just morph over the entire mountain range and release its fury on the poor mountain climbers.  This too passed, only for a moment.  We’ll get to the worst of it later.

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The actual top!

After a long while of internal screaming and mountain-hating, you’ll see this beautiful thing: The summit.  The spooky scramble you have to the top is barely in your head as summit-fever sets in.  The scramble definitely was a little intense for me as someone who doesn’t have much scrambling experience, as well as someone who had their hike-in pack on.  But it’s a short one, and you’re up to the top in no time.  Check out those clouds for me again please.

View from the top. It's a great one.
View from the top. It’s a great one.
View from the top. It's a great one.
“Oh shit..”

I got to stay up at the summit for all of five minutes.  Enough to steal some pictures and a video, then got down.  At this point in the day, the only people on the mountain were myself and a couple with their little Jack Russel Terrier strapped to their back.  Everyone else had either finished the summit, or got down early because of the impending storm.  They were the smart ones.

I have no photographic evidence of this (for obvious reasons), but on my way down things went from spooky to “Get me the hell off this mountain now”.  I was just coming off the summit when I heard the first boom of thunder.  At that point I did the typical stop to make sure everything around you is real and actually happening, then my pace went from a casual climb-down to all but sprinting off the mountain.  Here’s a short quiz:

What’s more likely to kill you?
A: Lightning at 13,500 feet

B: Falling off a 13,500 foot mountain

In my haste, I didn’t check the stability of the rocks I was stepping on.  Again, most of these are as big or bigger than I am, so the illusion of stability is very real.  But in actuality, some of them are more sensitive than loose dirt.  On one occasion, a boulder I stepped on tipped outward away from the mountain and almost threw me off the side.  My pack weight came in handy here as I was able to lean into that rather than off the side of the mountain, and I was able to correct a very horrifying moment.  At another point, a large rock tipped inward towards the mountain and almost crushed my ankle into a foot-sized gap.

This isn’t intended as expert advice (do not take it as such), frankly I think getting hit by lightning that high up and falling off the side of the mountain are about equal.  I opted to slow down and play it safe on my way down.  In any event, it took me maybe two hours (probably more honestly) to get to the top, and one to get down.  If you find yourself in this situation, it may be tempting to go straight down the face of the mountain.  Do not do this.  When I was 3/4ths of the way up, a couple decided to get off the mountain due to the weather.  I caught up to them on the trail as they were finishing their decent off the mountain.  Decrease your elevation so you’re not on top of the ridge, but absolutely follow the ridge.  It’s a much faster descent.

When you get off the mountain, you still have to climb back down Anderson Pass and along very open areas in Painters Basin.  The point I’m making is:  The rest of the trail is stunning.  Kings Peak was rewarding, but it was absolutely not worth the danger I put myself in to reach the top.  If you feel like the weather might turn bad, do not push on under any circumstances.  Go back when the weather is better, stay an extra day, etc.  But take it from someone who just lived it, you do not want to be up that high in an electrical storm.  Despite the fact that I laughed like a mad man once the storm ended, it was the most horrifying moment of my life.  Listen to your gut if it’s telling you a storm is on the way, it’s probably right.  Just don’t listen to that optimist in your head telling you “It’s only 10 minutes away, go for it!”.

The Way Back

Here’s where I interject more about my personal experience more than trail data.  As I noted before, I had run out of water before I hit Kings Peak.  I didn’t bring snacks, and I’m not used to being up at that high of an elevation.  Once I hopped off the mountain, that started to take a toll on me.  I started to feel nauseous, then that turned into full-blown disorientation.  I felt a little better after grabbing water from a creek, but it got worse before it got better.  I’m a guy who likes to stop and pick the Huckleberries every so often, so rest wasn’t an issue here.  The issue was I was gone for 10 hours that day without food and didn’t bring enough water with me.  My throat was so dry that I couldn’t even swallow saliva to wet my throat.  I was seeing double by the time I hit Gunsight pass.

Prepare for the impending Sheepocalypse.
Prepare for the impending Sheepocalypse.

Fortunately for me, I made sure to leave plenty of filtered and unfiltered water back at my camp.  I barely had the energy to cook dinner, let alone hike out ten minutes to go filter more.  Do yourself a favor and leave plenty of water back at camp for yourself, you’re going to love it.  I had maybe three liters waiting for me, a portion of that was for cooking with, one liter for guzzling, and the rest was for water during the night.  You don’t want to come down Utah’s biggest mountain and have to go out for water.  Even if you’re in better shape than I am.

The Verdict

It may have sounded like I was complaining a lot at some points here, but the reality is I loved every moment of it.  Even the thunderstorm in hindsight.  But one thing I noticed a lack of was personal accounts on the mountain that weren’t jaded with nostalgia, so I had no clue what I was getting in to.  Henry’s Fork is one of the most beautiful trails I’ve had the pleasure of being on.  While it tends to be a little crowded, the people are (as always) very nice.  I met a lot of great people out there, and the common goal of reaching the top really drives you together.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

  • The trail runs for 32 miles.
  • Great areas for your base camp at Dollar Lake.
  • Many opportunities for water near the camping area.
  • Check the weather forecast before you leave!
  • Check the skies as you hike, weather around here can be unpredictable and can go from decent to bad in a very short timespan.
  • Bring plenty of water on summit day.  Bring too much even.  And absolutely bring your water filter with you.  If you do none of these, keep a little water in your bottle and look for snow.  If there is snow accessible to you (probably won’t be in the later season), mix a little in with your water and shake it until you have water.  Repeat the process as necessary.
  • Bring something to snack on along the way to the summit, you’re going to need the calories.
Trail overview. Do not use for navigation.
Trail overview. Do not use for navigation.

This has been the greatest hike of my life, and I’d absolutely go back again.  If you’re interested in a good camp site, shoot me an email and I’ll give you the coordinates to mine.  It’s especially great for large groups.

It’s been quite a read, but it was quite a hike.  I have loads of details I could spew here, but I’m going to end it here to keep it short and sweet.  If you have any further questions, leave them in the comments section.  And again, if you want to know where I camped, I’m happy to share coordinates with you.  Keep in mind that they were saved via GPS and may not be as accurate as you’d like.

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