King's Peak Summit: the Granddaddy of Utah
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
King's Peak is appropriately named as it is the highest point in Utah.
Elevation Gain: 4,108
Distance: 28+ miles
Stay with your partner if possible or bring radios (no cell coverage)
Don’t underestimate how long summit hikes take at high altitude
Hiking over 30 miles in a few days will lead to blisters- consider sock liners
Always bring more water than expected
Bring a battery charger
My buddy from Washington, D.C., Andrew O’Neil, and I backpacked to the Red Castle Lake region last year and it was such a stunning area that we decided to hike the next drainage over, Henry’s Fork, and summit the King of the Uintas this year.
We started our hike on Sunday August 18th which is an ideal time of year to go because there is a low probability of rain/snow, the temps are still warm and the mosquitoes have dried out. Since we arrived at the trail head in the late afternoon, our goal was to hike about 6 miles the first day which would allow plenty of time to set up camp. The first 5 mile of the hike are relatively flat as the trail parallels the river through a nice canopy of trees. Just past the 5 mile point, you will arrive at the Elkhorn Crossing and if you can continue south (straight) on the HF trail - it will lead you to Dollar Lake which is the most direct route. If you take a right (west) on the North Slope Trail (some people call it the West Loop Trail) it will add a little over a mile to get to Gunsight Pass. We elected to take the North Slope Trail because there are several more remote lakes along this trail like Bear, Sawmill, Grass, Island, and Henry’s Fork. Once you turn off the HF trail and onto the North Slope trail- the grade starts getting steeper. The North Slope trail is only about a mile long before it terminates into the Henry Fork Basin trail and just around the corner from this junction is the picturesque Bear Lake. This lake had everything we need to call home for the next three nights with ample wood supply, protection from the wind, immediate access to the trail and crystal clear water which Andrew and I would use as our daily shower.
After a hearty breakfast, Andrew and I got on the trail around 10 AM and we were treated to a blue bird day with perfect hiking temps in the 70s. The HF Basin trail meandered for about 4 miles with little elevation gain as we passed many small lakes and an old wooden cabin.
We reconnected with the HF trail about a mile above Dollar Lake and 2 miles north of Gunsight Pass. At this junction, the trail started to tilt up and the final mile up to Gunsight Pass was even steeper and rockier but not technical. By the time we got to Gunsight Pass, we had hiked about 6 miles and the altitude was getting to Andrew as he just arrived from sea level less than 24 hours before.
At Gunsight Pass you have a choice to take the longer but easier route which drops you down about 500 feet to Upper Painter Basin which is 4.6 miles or take the shorter, steeper route up the shoulder of Gunsight Peak which is only 2 miles. Given that the steepest part was yet to come and another 9 miles round trip from Gunsight if we took the longer route, Andrew decided that it would be prudent not to continue on given his headache and other affects from the altitude. As such, I elected to take the shorter, steeper route up towards Gunsight Peak and it was DEFINITELY the right call. Don’t listen to other reviews- if you are capable of summiting King’s then you can absolutely manage this section and shave off almost 5 miles round trip.
Once you cross over the shoulder of Gunsight Peak (don’t make the mistake of going to the top of Gunsight Peak as another hiker that I passed did), King’s Peak comes into sight along with Anderson Pass.
The approach up Anderson Pass had a few patches of snow but it was very manageable. Once on the bench of Anderson Pass, you head south along the King’s Peak ridge for about a mile of scrambling and 900 feet of elevation gain. Don’t let the scramble intimidate you as the rocks are big, stable boulders as opposed to loose shale that you find at the summit of Nebo. But be forewarned, like most summits there are several false peaks so don’t get your hopes up until you actually reach the top which is indicated by a small sign and a U.S. Dept of Agriculture golden stake indicating the highest peak in Utah.
South King’s Peak
South King’s Peak was recognized as the tallest peak in Utah until 1966 before satellite measurements were used so I decided to check off the now 2nd highest peak in Utah while I was in the neighborhood. The hike to the south summit required a short hike down north King and then back up the south peak of King’s. This took about an extra hour to go down and then scramble back up but the hard part lay ahead.
From the summit of south King’s, the most direct route home was to descend the east side and cut across a meadow heading towards Gunsight Peak as opposed to going north and reclaiming the north King's peak. The meadow below the south peak was a gentle green field but there was a descent beyond that and from my perspective, I couldn’t ascertain how steep it was but based on the knowledge that I had gain of the region while hiking 20+ miles, I assumed it was navigable so I went for it. The grassy meadow below the south summit was a welcome respite from the last few hours of scrambling over rocks and in the distance I saw a nannie and a kid mountain goat (my phone had died so no pics). As I got closer to them, they slowly moved up the hill but if you haven’t seen a mountain goat before- they are a beautiful specimen with incredible strength. I think the reason that I like them so much is because they look like a bigger version of my white goberian dog, Butter.
As I exit the meadow, the drop down to Painter Basin starts to come into view and to my dismay the drop is a very, very steep chute covered in snow and there is no other way to avoid cross this snow field unless I want to turn around and hike back up towards north King which is not very enticing. If I had skis, this 40-45 degree chute wouldn’t be a problem but with hiking shoes and no gloves- this crossing was going to be a major challenge. The snow covered chute ran about 1,000 feet and was about 50 feet wide so my only solution was to cross it very slowly. I sat on my butt and kicked my left heel into the snow and once I got a heel hold, I would kick in my right heel meanwhile using my bare hands behind me to grip the snow. Once my right heel was secured, I would slowly lift my left heel up and move it over about 5 inches and kick it into the snow again. As I conducted this process over and over again as I inched my way across the snow field, I tried not to envision what would happen if I slipped down this snow field tumbling 1,000 feet with nobody in sight or within several miles as I was now off the main path. My footing did give way twice but I was quickly able to regain traction with my hands or my other foot but those moments were sheer terror. After about 20 minutes of sliding across this snow patch, I was on solid ground yet again and heading home. I had been hiking for about 6-7 hours now and approaching 20 miles with 4k+ feet of vertical gain so I was getting pretty fatigued but it was comforting to know that it was downhill from here. As I passed through the collection of small lakes after Gunsight Pass, I came across a moose that was standing in one of the lakes about knee deep and about 100 yards away. The moose and I exchanged looks and we came to a mutual agreement that neither party would encroach on the other. With the sun setting, this picture would have won the "shot on an iPhone award" if my iPhone hadn't died.
There are so many lakes that look alike along the North Slope trail that I approached one thinking it was our base camp. To my dismay, it was the wrong lake so I continued to the next one and I was welcomed home by Andrew with a roaring fire.