Backpacking Stansbury Island

Hiking and Backpacking on Stansbury IslandAh, Stansbury Island. A somewhat controversial place that, admittedly, gets some hate. Rocky, remote and barren. A haven for gnats and mosquitos in the summer. Popular with target shooters, and difficult to navigate due to the amount of private land.

But there is another side of it, too, if you’re willing to put in some effort to get off the beaten track and find it. Which is exactly what we set off to do on an exploratory backpacking trip of Stansbury Island.

There are lots of details about the hiking trails and mountain biking trails on the island (Girl on a Hike has a great description of the drive and the initial hike to the ridge, which we more or less followed). There are limited places to car camp on the island. But above the private property that pretty much rings the island at the shoreline, the bulk is BLM land, and backpacking is fair game.

Prior to setting out, we couldn’t find much info or any trip reports about backpacking Stansbury Island. Hiking reports generally agreed that there was no water, which is probably part of the reason for the lack of popularity. But our maps showed a couple of springs trickling down some of the canyons. We were hopeful that, with the wet spring and recent rains we’d had, a little exploring would lead us to running water.

Still, we packed in nearly 10 liters between the two of us, with the plan to stay through Sunday morning if we could find water and to hike out Saturday if we couldn’t.

We drove across the gravel road into the Island (it’s more of a peninsula, with a reliably navigable dirt road in) and left our car at the BLM parking/camping area on the south end.

After making our way up the initial steep hill, we hit the Bonneville shoreline. The ancient lake, which made the Great Salt Lake look like a dried up little puddle, left a series of benches throughout Utah’s mountains, marking the levels of its shoreline at various times.

It was easy, pleasant hiking along the ancient shoreline. Just below the ridge to Castle Rock, we left the shoreline and took a calf-burner of a route straight up the hill to the ridge. Once on the ridge, we rested and considered our options. Castle Rock still looked pretty distant, and with only a couple hours of daylight left, we decided against going for the summit. We were looking east at a steep drop of nearly 1,000’ down to mellow rolling grassland-like hills that stretched to the open salt flats of the shore. A few groves of small trees grew around one of the washes out on the grasslands, maybe a half a mile north of where we were. We decided that would be a likely camping spot for the night, as well as the most likely place to find water. Our map showed a small spring running out of that canyon right through those trees.

The hike up from the west side had been mellow, but the east side was much more rugged and craggy. We continued traversing north above a few gullies that clearly cliffed out until we found one that looked passable all the way down to the rolling hills. The island is remote, and the terrain is rough even on the established route to Castle Rock. On this side of the ridge, there were no trails or even known routes that we were aware of, so we picked our way slowly and carefully.

As we got lower, the ground was damp and muddy, with a rich and tantalizing smell of wet soil in the air. Apart from one stagnant and bright orange puddle in a rock, though, the water search was a bust.

We were nearly down to the shore now, making our way through the grassy plains. It’s a weird juxtaposition here, with this large flat grassland speckled with trees, against a backdrop of the Carribbean-blue of the Great Salt Lake, and craggy desert mountains on the other side. A straight shot across the lake, we could see Salt Lake City, a tiny cluster of buildings dwarfed by the snow-capped mountain behind.

Backpacking campsite on Stansbury Island's east sideUnfortunately, we couldn’t find any impacted campsites on this side of the island. After checking our maps to make sure we were still on BLM land, we chose the most open spot we could find where we’d have the least impact to set up our tent and fell quickly asleep.

The next morning, soft sun, a cacophony of bird song, the occasional breeze rustling through the grasses, and an incredible complete lack of insects greeted us.

It’s a rare experience to find somewhere less than half a day out from the city—and within sight of it—that feels like complete and utter wilderness. And for a barren “desert” island, Stansbury felt remarkably alive that morning. I imagine that once summer hits it dries up and earns its desert reputation, but in spring the island is lush with wildflowers and birds.

After breaking down camp, we debated our options. There was no doubt that we’d have to leave this side of the island today—the only way we could have stayed was if we’d found a fresh water source. Down to only 2 liters each, we’d never make it a full day and night with enough water for the long hike back over the ridge on Sunday.

We set our sights for an impacted campsite on the Bonneville shoreline we’d passed early in our hike on Friday. The site was barely a mile from the car. We decided that I’d set up camp while Dan hiked back to the car and brought back another 5 liters of water.

On the way in, we’d hiked almost as far north as Castle Rock, searching for water in each canyon the shoreline cut across, then looped back to the south after coming over the ridge the day before. Rather than retracing our steps northward, we decided to make our way up the much mellower hill directly in front of us, which would cross the ridge fairly close to where we’d seen the campsite.

The trek up to the ridge was quick, especially with a significant amount of water weight gone from our packs. We enjoyed a few more panoramic views to the east, looking across the lake to the marina, the Oquirrhs, and Salt Lake City barely visible in the distance, before dropping down to the shoreline on the other side of the ridge.

We followed the shoreline, tracing faint game trails where the bench was cut by canyons, and were into the campsite by about 10:30am.

Heading back to the car to get more water felt like cheating, but it had always been our backup plan if we wanted to spend a second night out and couldn’t find water. Dan set out with all of our empty water bottles, while I stayed at the site to set up camp.

Despite the rolling hills and canyons, we had radio contact the whole way, and I was surprised when barely 45 minutes after he left, Dan radioed back that he was already at the car chugging water, and was about to head back up.

Campsite on Stansbury IslandIt wasn’t the most pleasant camping spot. Strong, gusty winds blew up-canyon and the bugs immediately took advantage of any respite. I’ve always thought head nets were silly, but I wished I’d had one that day—even deet didn’t seem to deter these gnats and mosquitos.

Behind where we set up camp, the rock opened up into a small cave. It only went back a few dozen feet, but was still a fun find to explore.

Storm on Stansbury IslandWhen Dan got back, we got a small fire going to drive off the bugs when thunder boomed across the lake. We retreated to the tent to play some cards and read while we waited out the storms.

Harvesting rainwater on Stansbury IslandI set up every pot, cup, and pan we had under the front awning of our tent to catch the dripping rain, and by the time the storm was over we’d captured a precious half liter to supplement our dwindling water supply.

The storm broke just long enough for us to cook up a pack of mac and cheese, then another bout of rain sent us back to the tent.

For all the unpleasantness of the wind and bugs, and the abrupt intensity with which the thunderstorm swept in, the view of the silvery, stormy light playing across the water was just incredible. One of those moments where the harshness of the desert gives way to a beauty so unexpected and startling in its contrast to the arid emptiness that it stops you in your tracks and sticks with you for years.

The next morning, we packed up quickly, as our bug spray was almost gone. We were back to the car barely an hour and a half after we woke up.

Overall, backpacking Stansbury Island gave us a chance to see a totally different side of this island, rich with beauty and solitude. If you’re looking for a unique adventure away from the crowds, it’s worth investing the time to check it out. There are a handful of places to camp along the Bonneville bench/old shoreline, including where we camped for our second night, which make for a fairly mellow and straightforward trip. Exploring beyond that is well worth it, but much of the terrain is rocky, uneven, and difficult to access. Backpacking Stansbury Island safely requires some route finding and good judgement. Bring water, maps, bug spray (bug nets are even better!), and an SOS device.

Summiting Kings Peak – Utah’s Highest Point

At 13,528′, Kings Peak is Utah’s highest point, and has been high on my list for…well, pretty much since I moved out west. For some reason, it always seemed unattainable, since it is fairly remote and a pretty ambitious climb.

I’ve been in go-get-em mode lately, trying to push myself to set and achieve more ambitious goals, so when Dan took Friday off, giving us a rare full two day weekend, we decided to go for it.

Trailhead to Dollar Lake

With only two full days, the only route that made sense was Henry’s Fork. Even though it’s the shortest and most popular route, it’s still a whopping 28 miles round trip.

I skipped out of work early Thursday, and we set off on the 3 hour drive to the trailhead. Although the Uintas are fully in Utah, we had to swing around up into Wyoming to drop into the range from the north to reach Henry’s Fork Trailhead. We started hiking around dusk, from a mostly empty parking lot, and booked it through 7 miles of easy, fairly flat trail.

Our goal for the night was Dollar Lake, the most popular camping area and the typical “base camp” for summiting Kings Peak. From there, we’d have a grueling 14 miles round trip hike to the summit, following the standard route over Gunsight Pass, dropping into Painters Basin, climbing back up to Anderson Pass, and finally scrambling up the ridgeline to Kings Peak Summit.

I was enjoying my lightweight pack – having gotten into ultralight backpacking after our failed attempt to summit Warbonnet Peak in the Sawtooths. Two days worth of gear and food in a 30L daypack felt pretty awesome, though it definitely took some tetris-skills to pack.

Even at night, the trail was incredibly easy to follow. It only took us about an hour to reach Alligator Lake, near the halfway mark to Dollar Lake, though in the dark we couldn’t see any signs and only knew we were there by tracking our route on my phone.

Crossing the prominent wooden bridge (this was taken on the way back, since it was dark on the hike in)

Another hour or so later, we crossed a cool wooden bridge and found ourselves starting to gradually gain elevation. Finally, we reached Dollar Lake. Like Alligator Lake, we only knew we were there based on our mileage and tracking our route on my phone. I imagine in the daytime it would have been more clear, if nothing else from the obvious impact of campers.

We veered off of the trail and started making our way through the forest looking for a decent place to camp. After realizing we were being stalked by a mountain lion, our priorities shifted from finding the perfect campsite to just finding anywhere remotely flat that was away from the mountain lion. We set up at a less-than-ideal, fairly slopey campsite, skipped dinner for the perceived safety of staying in the tent, and settled in for a restless night. Both of us were spooked enough to sleep with a knife nearby, just in case our enormous bright yellow tent didn’t deter the mountain lion.

The hike from the trailhead to Dollar Lake only took us around 3 hours, not including the time spent looking for a campsite around Dollar Lake and trying not to get eaten.

Kings Peak Summit from Dollar Lake

We left camp around 9am, and made good time over the first few miles of trail up to Gunsight Pass. We stopped at a small lake just below the pass to refill our water, and then started up a steep talus field to the pass.

Just past Dollar Lake – still a long way to go!

From the start of the talus, all the way up to the summit, we saw and heard an abundance of American Pikas. We both have a little bit of an obsession with these adorable furballs, and we’ve never seen or heard more of them concentrated in one place than at Kings Peak. So we were slowed down quite a bit by stopping to search for them every time we heard their distinctive “Eeep.”

From the top of Gunsight Pass, there are supposedly trails that cut across the side of the basin instead of dropping into it. We didn’t really see these trails, and decided that, considering that the side of the basin we’d have to cross was steep, loose talus and looked pretty sketchy, it would be faster and easier to just follow the main trail down into the basin and back up the other side.

Looking down into Painters Basin from just below Gunsight Pass.

After Gunsight Pass, the trail became again easy and mellow as it dropped into and crossed the beautiful Painters Basin. We passed a couple of streams and a number of perfect places to camp, and wished that we’d had time last night to make our way in here. If we ever do Kings Peak again, we’ll push ourselves on the hike in to make it to Painters Basin, as it offered much more solitude and a much easier summit day than Dollar Lake.

Once we started back up the other side of Painters Basin, the trail became pretty unrelenting, ranging from sorta steep to are-you-kidding-me steep all the way up to Anderson Pass.

A steady uphill slog from Painters basin to Anderson Pass.

I predicted we’d make the pass at 1pm, and the summit at 2pm, and sure enough, we hit Anderson Pass at 1pm on the dot. We rested there for a moment, and then left my daypack hidden behind a rock so that we could trade off carrying a super light summit pack with just some layers, snacks, and water. There were storms floating all around us off in the distance, so we wanted to move as quickly as possible on the ridgeline.

The view over Anderson Pass.

Summit Post’s description of the route from Anderson Pass to the summit claims, “It’s actually pretty simple and only takes about an hour from Anderson Pass and there is a worn boot path most of the way.” Um. Maybe I missed something, or maybe that was written from the perspective of someone who is used to technical mountains with really challenging route finding, but I disagree with everything except that it takes about an hour. While we occasionally found ourselves on a clear boot-path, I’d say more than 2/3 of the time the only visible indication of where to go was a few cairns and plain old common sense.

View of the full ridgeline from Anderson Pass.

Just below one of the false summits.

I guess it was about as simple as scrambling and boulder-hopping can be, but with lots of loose rocks, steep talus, and false summits, I certainly wouldn’t call it “simple” for the average hiker. The summit ridge was by far the most challenging and strenuous part of the hike. I was also surprised to find that, if you keep to the top of the ridge, it actually gets a bit airy in a few places, as you find yourself skirting some pretty steep cliffs. Nothing really scary, but also not just a simple walk up a worn boot path.

Anyway, after two false summits and a full hour of scrambling, I was struggling and dragging. We finally topped out a few minutes after 2pm, in the midst of snow flurries and epic storms drifting all around us in the distance.

Finally at Kings Peak summit!

We booked it down off of the summit pretty quickly, as the last place we wanted to be was stuck on the ridge when a storm blew over us. Despite how exhausted we were, we still had a full 7 miles back to camp. It was pretty easy, with the exception of making our way back down the ridgeline and the hike back up over Gunsight Pass. In total, it took us around 9.5 hours from camp to camp.

We got back and somehow had the energy to pack up our tent and move it a quarter mile or so up to the top of the hill, out of what we’d come to think of as the “Haunted Forest” surrounding Dollar Lake.

Our new, mountain lion-free campsite.

Dan getting ready for some fishing after getting back from the summit.

From the tip of the hill, we had stunning views of the sun setting on the surrounding mountains, and could see, far in the distance, the peak we’d just summited. Hard to believe we’d been there just a few hours earlier. We scarfed down some couscous and ramen, and crashed pretty much as soon as it got dark.

That peak, way in the distance with the tip just barely in sunlight, is Kings Peak. Hard to believe we’d covered that much distance and elevation in one day.

After a much better night’s sleep, not sliding around on a slope or fearing we’d get eaten in the middle of the night, we woke up to a relaxed, beautiful morning at camp.

The hike out actually took us a little longer that it had on the way in, partly because we were beat and wen’t making good time, and partly because of the ridiculous number of people hiking in. It was Labor Day weekend, and we’d timed it just right, making our way out right as the crowds were making their way in. There had to have been at least 100 people hiking in as we were making our way down the trail! I really wouldn’t have wanted to be camped out there Saturday night!