“Ay, every inch a king.”
I spent the middle weekend of September in Utah, attempting to summit the highest point; Kings Peak. This was not our normal High Peak Adventure. This was backpacking. This was high altitude. This was cold weather with a good chance of rain. This was Bear Country.
Not being a “backpacker” I had a lot of gear dilemmas. After literally a week of making a list, buying, packing, unpacking, repacking, unpacking and repacking again, I was finally ready to go. My pack weighed in at just under 40 lbs all loaded. And because I used my largest day pack, by sleeping bag was ungainly strapped to the base, making my load bottom heavy. But I was ready.
We chose to fly in on a Wednesday night, giving us the opportunity to drop by an outdoor gear store on our way to the trailhead on Thursday morning. That way we could pick up fuel canisters (and other items airlines prohibit). But our first sign of disaster struck straight away. Kerry’s luggage did not arrive with her. And she had checked just about everything. She was worried. How could you not be! But we brainstormed came up with scenarios that would still allow us to hike. The earliest the bag could show up was 8:30 am the next morning. The latest was… never. We did a backwards timeline and figured we could get started a lot later than planned, giving the bag until 1 pm to show up and still start the hike on Thursday. Or we could start on Friday morning, and attempt the hike in 2 days rather than 3.
Finally, we hopped into the rental car and headed to the first night’s hotel. And upon arriving, they could not find one of our reservations. Fortunately that problem was quickly solved (with the aid of our confirmation number) and we were able to get to sleep by 1:00 am.
6:30 am came bright and early the next morning, and the good news was the bag would arrive at 8:30 am. We found a very healthy breakfast on our way to the airport to pick up the bag. Then we headed to the outdoor gear store and were on our way, on time. We were on the road by 10:15 am, and made the trail head parking by 12:45 pm. We needed a bit more packing time at the trailhead than we normally would due to the lost baggage, but we were on the trail at 1:30 pm. We registered at the kiosk and started hiking in the sunny but chilly weather.
Shortly after registering, you pass through these funny gates that don’t really keep anything out – horses go around, just as motor vehicles could, I guess it is just to remind you that MV’s shouldn’t. The area to the north is full of off road vehicles and RV campers and hunters.
The first two hours are on a well maintained gently upward sloping trail that follows the stream. There are Aspens growing within all the pines, but the pines are heavily damaged and dead due to a pest infestation.
We passed the turn off to Alligator Lake in about one hour. That put our speed at little slower than 3 mph – pretty good considering we were all feeling like the poor sea level creatures we are. It’s been about 2 years since I have challenged my lungs with a little altitude and I sure could feel my lungs screaming at me. Note to self: Go spend some time at a high altitude before you make a big hike in high altitude. The start of this hike was 9,440 ft. We were headed to Dollar Lake at about 10,785 ft.
At 4:10 pm we came to the fork in the trail marked by the one and only clearly marked sign we ever passed. This split was at the 5.5 mi mark in the hike.
We then passed over the foot bridge, which looks easier than it is. Or maybe I was just a little anxious crossing this with 40 pounds on my back.
Not long after the foot bridge, the most amazing views came into sight
At 5:30 pm we rolled into Dollar Lake. We filled up water in a nearby stream. Note: all water in this area is plentiful, but needs to be filtered and/or treated prior to consumption. We each had a different system to filter water. Jason’s and Kerry’s both had “dirty” containers of 4-6 liters that you hung and then filtered. I had only brought “squeeze” bags – much smaller and easier to carry, but also required that I fill up much more often. We opted for a sheltered camp site, hoping that the trees would block the wind.
We spent a good hour filling up water, setting up the tents, spreading out, chatting and exploring. We didn’t get to dinner until about 7:30 pm when it was already getting dark. Warm food was welcome, and full bellies started to make us very sleepy.
And here it is, the part about camping that I hate. It’s 35 F outside and I am cold. It’s dark and I have to squat behind a bush to relieve myself. I have all my cold gear clothes on, a headlamp strapped to my forehead and I am paranoid that I will stumble into a bear. I am freezing in my sleeping bag and never get out of my jacket and hat. I sleep in fits and starts. I am not a good backpacker. I would love to find a cozy hotel up here in the woods.
Although we are up fairly early the next morning, we somehow don’t start on the trail until 8:30 am. That was not smart. I recommend that you start this trail as early as you can. We started at a good pace toward Gunsight Pass which is pictured below, the low swale on the left. At the top of the pass, we will need to make the choice to descend into the basin or take the short cut.
At about 10:30 we make the top of Gunsight Pass. The following picture is looking back at the trail, which was mostly up, with a few switchbacks. All 3 of us are breathing heavy and drinking a lot of water. The day is clear and at least there won’t be rain or snow this morning, but there is snow on the ground making the pass slushy, muddy and slippery in places.
As we reach the top we have an incredible view of Painter Basin. The trail will descend into this basin about 600 ft and we will have to climb out of it and over Anderson pass. Or, if we can find the short cut to the west, we can boulder hop on the talus rock, which will be slow. That will take us to the mid point of Anderson Pass, and we won’t have to re-gain the lost elevation. Unfortunately, we cannot find the short cut trail. We looked and looked through all the rocks for cairns and trails, but we just couldn’t find anything that looked like a trail. We descended into the basin. It is a longer route. We ended up taking the basin route on the way out also, and when we got back to Gunsight pass, a fellow hiker was coming off the shortcut – so we finally found the trail, too late.
After 2 more hours of hiking, we find ourselves picking a course up Anderson Pass. This is really just a large sloped hill, and although there is a trail marked with cairns, they are few and far apart. The snow has all but hidden the actual trail and we find ourselves following a set of boot prints, or guessing where to step without post-holing into the snow.
Finally, at 1:00 pm, we are at the top of Anderson Pass. The Snow is deeper, the clouds are rolling in and we are tired. We look up and realize that the first peak we see is a false summit. The actual peak is behind the first peak in this picture. We sit down and have some lunch. Hikers coming down say it is another hour to the high point from here. We have been on the trail almost 5 hours. We are all tired. The snow is deeper than we anticipated. If we go to the peak, we will not make it back to camp until 6:30 pm on a best case basis. We take some pictures, and finally make the awful decision to turn around without making the actual summit.
As it is, we make it back to camp at 5:30 pm, get our water ready and have dinner and wonder about making a second attempt sometime in the future. The night is cold again, but I am exhausted and sleep better. This could have something to do with Altitude also – we hiked high and slept low, and I’m much better acclimatized now.
The next morning we pack up and head out at 9:20 am. The morning was cold enough to put an ice sheen on river rocks. Us girls even managed to slip during a stream crossing and learn that getting up with a heavy pack on is not a lot of fun. We maintain a good clip on the way back and are at the car by 1:00 pm. We piled into the car and cruised to Mountain View, where we stopped at the Badlands Saloon for a beer and a burger. I would recommend it even if you had not been hiking all day!
So ends our adventure, with only one more disaster – someone had clipped our rental car in the parking lot giving us a nice ding to report when we turned in the car. UGH. Maybe I won’t be back to try Utah’s highest peak again.
Kings Peak is Ranked 7th of the State HP’s, at 13,528 ft above sea level. The peak’s location is in the NE corner of the state, in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest (The Uinta Mountains), UT. The trail head is accessed from the north via Wyoming, about a 3 hour drive from SLC Airport. Henry’s Fork trail head sits at 9,440 ft for a total elevation gain of 5,310 ft (most of it at the end). The round trip distance is 28-32 miles, dependent on your route. It took us 4 hours to hike to our Dollar Lake base camp. The next day we spent 4 hr 30 min getting to Anderson pass, spent a half hour at the pass and and 4 hrs to hike back to Dollar Lake. On the third day it took us 3 hr 40 min to return to the car. Total round trip hiking time was 16 hr 10 min, but we did not summit. There are no amenities along the trail or at the summit. Bring a water filtration system for clean water, a hat, sunblock, clothing for a sudden change in weather, lunch and extra food. I highly suggest wearing long pants and hiking boots rather than shorts and athletic shoes. The trail is good from the trail head to Gunsight pass, where the trail becomes hard to find in some places, look for rock cairns. There is very little red tape, no passes or parking permits required, and you can camp just about anywhere, however you cannot have a campfire within 1/4 mile of the lake. Bears are in the area, and food caution is necessary – cook and hang food well away from your campsite.