Appropriately named, Kings Peak rules over its surrounding mountains, but barely holds the title as "Utah's highest peak."
As one of 10 summits that exceed the 13,000 foot mark in the High Uinta Wilderness area, King tops out at 13,528 feet. The Uintas hold the unique title as the only east-west running mountain range in the continental west. In 1984, Congress set aside 460,000 acres that surround the majestic summit as a wilderness area.
Two friends and I stood on the flat rock that is Kings Peak, enjoying the extensive view of towering fortresses encircling glacier-eroded valleys. We were also watching a white curtain of snow rush our way. Even on the most splendid days, the weather is unpredictable here. Though our hike began on a sparkling sunny July morning, by the time we approached the summit, a storm had boiled up, bringing rain, snow, and lightning.
Standing high on a barren, rocky peak is not the ideal place to be during a lightning storm. We scrambled down the mountain for safety, but when the boulders around us became statically charged, we thought it best to huddle in a depression until the electric show passed.
A trip to the peak takes three days and covers twenty-six miles of trail and four thousand vertical feet. The first day's hike begins in a coniferous forest, mostly lodge pole pine, at the Henrys Fork Trailhead on the north side of the range (9,800 feet). It follows the Henrys Fork River for over five miles, entirely in the pines. The only awe inspiring views of this section occur when the path rises above the river, providing over-looks of wild flower dotted meadows. The trail is wide and well packed, with occasional sections of exposed rock. This section of the route is moderate, with only a few short, steep parts.
Finally, the path exits the forest into a sagebrush covered flat, surrounded on three sides by steeply carved ridges. This is the first opportunity to see Kings Peak, a pyramid-shaped point between two peaks at the south end of the valley.
About two and a half miles up the valley (seven miles from the start) is Dollar Lake, the first of many camp sites (elev. 10,800 feet). Beautiful campsites lie along the east side on a slight knoll above the water. Camping here, away from the water, is not only a good backcountry practice, but it reduces the chance of being too close to the many nonnative species that inhabit this area -- boy scouts and sheep. Both are noisy and can quickly compromise the wilderness spirit.
The trail to Dollar lake splits from the main route in a clump of trees near the six and a half mile mark. Another mile up the trail is a right-hand turn to Henrys Fork Lake and additional tent sites. This is a more popular destination and can get a little crowded.
Before taking off on day two, the ample streams and lakes in the area can be used for recharging water suppliers. But treat the water! With the grazing herbivores, giardia is extremely likely. Also, there is no water available on the hike to the peak, so take plenty.
The second day's hike is from four to six miles and quite strenuous. The track climbs steeply and switchbacks across well traveled talus to Gunsight Pass (elev. 11,900 feet). The first of many breathtaking views of the wilderness is exposed at the pass.
The course drops from Gunsight Pass into Painter Basin, around an unnamed peak and climbs back up to Anderson Pass, losing, then regaining several hundred feet. A poorly marked shortcut can save the two-mile trip into and out of the basin. This course, only recommended for hikers with advanced skills or very few brains, heads southeast from Gunsight Pass along an exposed rock face. Some cairns occasionally point the way, but they are unreliable. Eventually, the plateau is reached by careful scrambling over the rock ledge. No special climbing gear or technique is required.
Now the hike becomes an ankle tiring, leg straining, hop back to the main trail and on to Anderson Pass. The west face of the King is exposed from here. As if sliced by a knife, this towering back half is a sheer, sculptured 1,500 foot wall.
Here, at the base of the King, begins the final 800 foot, half mile climb (ouch!) to the top. What begins as a hardly distinguishable track soon becomes another poorly marked, cairn-cluttered way along the mountain's spine. Awkward scrambling becomes the method of choice over the jumbled boulder field.
Finally, after five hours of jumping, balancing, and clawing the way to the top, the hiker is presented with unlimited views of the High Uinta Wilderness. Miles of twisting mazes with glacier-carved valleys and castellated summits are seen in all directions. The sensory nirvana is only marred by one thought: the hike back down.
Elevation change: 9,800 feet to 13,528
Difficulty: Moderate to camp, strenuous to peak
Hiking time: Three days (5 hours in, 5 hours to the peak, 4 hours out)
Best time of the year: Mid-July to mid-September
Maps: Trails Illustrated High Uinta Wilderness (800/962-1643), Wasatch Cache and Ashley National Forest - Uinta Mountains. All maps can be purchased at most outdoor stores in the Salt Lake City area, including REI (801/486-2100) and Kirkham's Outdoor Products (801/486-4161).
Getting there: The Henrys Fork Trailhead is reached from the north, out of Wyoming. Take Interstate 80 to the Mountain View exit (32 miles east of Evanston). Follow Wyoming route 412 south to Mountain View, then route 414 south 22 miles to Lonetree. In Lonetree, turn southwest onto a well maintained gravel road. Follow the signs to the Henrys Fork Trailhead (approximately 16 miles) on FR-077. The whole drive takes about three hours from Salt Lake City or Ogden. The hike begins on trail 117. Consult local authorities for specific directions and road conditions.
Caveats: Sudden storms with violent lightening can brew up at any time (as noted in the story), so be prepared. Snow is possible all months of the year, though least likely in August. The evenings are very cool throughout the hiking season. Wild flowers begin their show in late July and are quite spectacular.
Special note: Use caution if starting campfires in the backcountry. As of this writing, The National Forest Service has not banned camping fires, but a dry summer has created an extremely high fire danger. Check with the Forest Service office for any restrictions. Kings Peak is in a federally designated wilderness area. The use of mechanical transportation is prohibited. Llamas and goats are allowed.
Contact: Wasatch Cache National Forest, Mountain View Ranger District, (307) 782-6555.