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As you probably know, Kings
Peak is the highest point in Utah, and as you might imagine,
this hike is a very popular one. According to Forest Service
estimates the Henrys Fork Basin receives about 5,000 visitors
annually. Many come for the express purpose of climbing Utahs
highest mountain, but many more come just to enjoy the abundant
scenic beauty of the area and perhaps do a little fishing in
the basins half dozen lakes. Late summer is the most popular
time to visit Henrys Fork, but some visitors also enjoy cross
country skiing in the basin in the winter months. Henrys Fork
Trailhead is one of the few trailheads on the north slope of
the High Uintas that is accessible all year round.
Although the climb to the top of Kings
Peak is very strenuous it is not technically difficult, and about
the only requisite for the trip is good physical condition. Furthermore,
the view from the top is extraordinary. Even if it were not the
highest point in the state, the assent of Kings Peak would still
be one of Utahs best hikes.
Henrys Fork is the closest trailhead
to Kings Peak; hence it is the most popular place to begin the
hike. But many variations of this hike are also possible. If
you spend an hour on the summit in mid-August you will probably
meet other climbers who have walked up from every direction.
Many hikers approach Kings Peak from the south slope along Yellowstone
Creek or the Uinta River. Others come from Hoop Lake or Spirit
Lake on the eastern side of the Uintas. And a surprising number
of people begin their hike at Mirror Lake, 40 miles to the west.
Looking down from the top with a good pair of binoculars you
can usually see hikers far below inching their way east or west
along the Highline Trail towards Anderson Pass, just north of
From the trailhead parking area the trail
follows along the west side of Henrys Fork, climbing ever so
gently at a grade you will hardly notice. The creek, usually
about 20 feet below the trail, is pristine, and the forest is
densely wooded with lodgepole pine. It is a very pleasant walk.
The first major point of interest along
the way is Alligator Lake, located at the end of a short spur
trail about an hour and ten minutes from the trailhead. Watch
for a large pile of rocks on the south side of a wooden boardwalk
that crosses a small drainage. At that point you will see the
trail to Alligator Lake branching off to the right of the main
trail. The Lake is 0.4 mile up the drainage at the end of the
spur. Alligator is a surprising large lake, about 600 yards long
by 150 yards wide. There are a number of fine campsites on the
lakes south shore, and it is a good place to spend the
night if you are getting off to a late start.
5.5 miles from the trailhead the trail
breaks out of the trees on the northern end of a large meadow.
There is a major trail junction here between the Henrys Fork
Trail, which runs south along Henrys Fork, and the North Slope
Trail, which crosses it in an east-west direction. The junction
is called Elkhorn Crossing.
At Elkhorn Crossing you have a choice
of two trails: you can either proceed south on the Henrys Fork
Trail or you can turn right and follow the North Slope Trail
for a short distance to the West Side Loop Trail. The two routes
converge again just below Gunsight Pass; hence you can get to
Kings Peak by following either trail. For the sake of diversity
I suggest you take the West Side Loop Trail on your way up the
peak and use the Henrys Fork Trail for your return trip. If you
choose to do this, then turn right at Elkhorn Crossing and proceed
west on the North Slope Trail (Forest Service Trail #105).
About half an hour after leaving Elkhorn
Crossing you will arrive at the West Side Loop Trail junction.
Turn south here and proceed towards Bear Lake and Henrys Fork
Lake. There are several signs in this area indicating that you
are now on the Highline Trail, but these signs are in error.
The real Highline Trail (Forest Service Trail #25) is still many
miles to the south. You wont reach it until you have crossed
the Uinta divide at Gunsight Pass.
Five minutes after leaving the junction
between the North Slope Trail and the West Side Loop Trail you
should see the calm waters of Bear Lake flickering through the
trees on the left. There is no trail to the lake, but it is only
100 yards off the trail. There are many good campsites around
Bear Lake and it is a fine place to stop for the day. You can
also visit Sawmill Lake, a slightly smaller lake 200 yards farther
down the drainage from the east end of Bear Lake.
Between Bear Lake and the bottom of Gunsight
Pass you will pass by several more picturesque lakes, the largest
of which is Henrys Fork Lake. 0.3 miles after leaving Henrys
Fork Lake the trail passes by a tiny cabin that has been used
for many years as a sheep herders bivouac. Henrys Fork
Basin is heavily grazed during the summer months and you will
almost certainly see sheep while you are there. Many hikers are
offended by the sights and sounds of domestic animals in this
high wilderness valley. They do contaminate the water sources
and destroy the wildflowers, but for me the sounds of their bells
and their baa-a-a-as drifting through the alpine valley seem
to add a certain tranquility to the pastoral scene.
Finally, 3.8 miles from Bear Lake, the
West Side Loop Trail crosses Henrys Fork Basin to end at Henrys
Fork Trail. The elevation at this point is 11,000 feet, just
above timber line, and there are few trees. A mile southeast
you can see Gunsight Pass, a deep notch in the Uinta Crest where
the trail crosses to the South Slope. And south, above the basin
you can see Anderson Pass and Kings Peak. Your route to the summit
will be along the ridge south of Anderson Pass.
Next the trail climbs slowly up the east
side of Henrys Fork Basin until it reaches the top of Gunsight
Pass. If it is late in the day you might want to establish a
camp on the northern side of Gunsight Pass rather than continuing
into Painter Basin. There is a flat grassy area beside a small
pond just below the northern side of the pass. The elevation
here is 11,460 feet, about 430 feet below the top of the pass.
If time permits, however, I suggest you continue another 2.0
miles across the pass and into Painter Basin where you will find
a better place to camp.
About 0.6 mile below the south side of
Gunsight Pass you will see a less distinct trail veering off
to the right along the foot of the cliffs. The main trail continues
southeast across Painter Basin for 1.0 mile before doubling back
to the west, so you can save a lot of time by taking the less
distinct shortcut south through the basin below the bottom of
the cliffs. This shortcut trail eventually fades and disappears,
but that isnt a problem. Just continue due south in the
grassy meadow along the base of the talus slope. About 0.7 mile
after leaving the main trail you will see a fresh water spring
flowing out of the rocks at the edge of the meadow. This area
is an excellent place to stop and make camp for the night.
Painter Basin is only 2.9 miles from
the top of Kings Peak, but you still have a 2,120-foot elevation
gain to deal with as well as some off-trail scrambling. There
is no trail for the last 0.8 mile. Also, remember you cant
walk as fast at the high altitude. Leave your packs at your camp
and get an early start so you will have plenty of time for a
leisurely lunch at the top.
From the spring continue walking south
along the western side of Painter Basin, across a small drainage,
until you reach a place where there is grass growing on the rocky
slopes above you and there appears to be an easy way up. Turn
west here and start working your way up the southern side of
the small drainage. After about 0.3 mile you should run into
the Highline Trail. From there it is only 1.6 miles farther to
the top of Anderson Pass.
At Anderson Pass you must leave the trail
and start picking your way up the ridge to the top of the peak.
There are cliffs on the west side of the ridge, but the slopes
are more gradual on the east. You will see occasional cairns,
but they really dont do much good. It is pretty obvious
where you are going, and there is really no easy way. It is just
a matter of making your way slowly upward over the jumble of
jagged boulders, and if you are persistent the goal will be reached
in about an hour.
One of the most astonishing features
of the view from Kings Peak is the vastness of the panorama.
Other than a few tread-like trails in the basins below there
are virtually no signs of human activity. The nearest road is
ten miles away and the nearest town is twice that distance. Another
striking feature is the number of lakes that can be seen. More
than a dozen large lakes in Garfield, Henrys Fork, Atwood, and
Painter Basins are visible. But probably the most notable characteristic
is the amount of land that is above timberline (about 11,000
ft.) and devoid of trees. In fact the Uintas have more square
miles of land in the Arctic-Alpine Tundra Life Zone than any
other mountain range, outside Alaska, in the United States.
The descent from Kings Peak back to Anderson
Pass is even more tricky than the assent, so be careful. There
are many loose rocks, and I cant think of a worse place
to break a leg. Once you reach the pass, however, it is a very
pleasant walk back to Painter Basin. Some people spend a second
night at the Painter Basin campsite, but if you want to complete
the trip in the allotted four days you should pack your belongings
and walk down to Dollar Lake for the third night.
Dollar Lake is probably the most beautiful
of all the lakes in Henrys Fork Basin. Unfortunately it is heavily
used by campers, and many other hiking books encourage you to
camp elsewhere. But if you can find a site it really is an exquisite
place to spend the night. The lake is surrounded by a grove of
tall Engelmann spruce, and there is a marvelous afternoon view
of Kings Peak from its southern shore.
The lake is not visible from the trail
and there is no established trail leading to it; consequently
it is easy to miss. When you reach the trail junction below Gunsight
Pass where the West Side Loop Trail departs, make a note of the
time and continue straight ahead on the Henrys Fork Trail. After
about 15 minutes you will leave the meadow and enter into a large
grove of spruce. Within ten minutes after entering the trees
you should see one or two small cairns on the right side of the
trail. Leave the trail at this point and walk due east for 200
yards and you will run into the lake. The main trail continues
north for another 300 yards before entering the meadow again.
If you come to the point where the trail leaves the trees it
means you have gone too far.
From Dollar Lake back to the trailhead
is only 7.4 miles and it is downhill all the way. There are no
more lakes to explore, but there is plenty of otherwise fine
scenery. The first 1.9 miles follow the east side of the meadow
to Elkhorn Crossing. This is prime moose habitat and you probably
have at least a fifty-fifty chance of seeing one if you are observant.
At Elkhorn Crossing the trail crosses to the west side of Henrys
Fork. Look for the footbridge about 100 yards downstream from
the point where the main trail fords the creek. Once you are
back on the west side of Henrys Fork you can simply retrace your
original footsteps back to the trailhead.