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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!