Climbing Kings Peak, Utah

Climbing Kings Peak, Utah

Kings Peak, Utah

13,534 feet, 30 miles

July 17, 2016

Wes & Mary Chapman

Entering the wilderness

Mary Chapman, coming into the wilderness

Kings Peak, Utah, is the highest point in Utah, and the last of the major mountains on my quest to climb all of the state highpoints. Kings Peak is in the back country of the Uinta Wilderness, and is a very long walk (10 miles) just to get to the base. To my surprise and delight, my youngest daughter, Mary, agreed to come along on this 2-day adventure into the back country, making for some very enjoyable companionship on a very long walk.

relief Map of Uitas

Uinta Mountains – East/West trending

First View Driving in

First view of Uinta Mountains

geology of uintas

Structural Geology of Uinta Mountains

We did the most popular route, starting from the Henry’s Fork Trailhead (9,000 feet elevation) on the eponymous river. This is a long walk up to a log bridge over the Elkhorn Stream at 5 miles, passing the Dollar Lake camp for lost Scouts at mile 7, Henry Lake at mile 8, and then over Gunsight pass at mile 10, and 12,000 feet elevation. We descended into Painters Basin to spend the night and prepare for the climb the next day.

On the walk in, we were nearly swept away by a Tsunami of Boy Scouts of all shapes and sizes, and most of them either lost or looking for someone who was. It turns out that climbing Kings Peak is a rite of passage for Utah Scouts, and they were out in force. We met a charming young Forest Service employee (from Nashville) who clued us in as to the migratory paths of Utah Scouts, and the terrible situation of standing deadwood in the lodge pole pines from beetles and rust infections – over 90% of the trees were standing dead – and ready to burn. This is going to be a big problem when a fire gets out-of-control.

Boy Scout Cowboys

Boy Scout cowboys, and lots of dead pines on the Henry Fork

(dead, grey trees in background)

Gunsight Pass

Gunsight Pass


Kings Peak above Anderson Pass

The talus slope below the Pass is a rock glacier

There are no visible glaciers left on Kings Peak, but the streams show the classic turbidity due to rock flour (ground up rock) from active glaciers. This is due to “rock glaciers” that are embedded in the talus slopes coming off the peaks. The glacial ice is integrated in the talus pile, and actually moves quite a bit in these rock glaciers, producing a disproportionate amount of rock flour.

Breaking Camp

Breaking Camp in Painters Basin

Boulder Field by the river

Rolling meadows below Dollar Lake

Balanced Rock

Balanced rock above our camp


Kings Peak is name for Clarence King, the first director of the US Geological Survey, a Yale man, and one of the greatest geologists that the US ever produced. He was also quite a character, and for the last 13 years of his life passed himself off as an African-American (despite blue eyes) and lived in a common-law marriage in NYC with Ada Copeland, a former slave and nurse maid. While in New York, he posed as James Todd, a Pullman porter, and while in the field or Washington, as Clarence King, famous scientist and Director or the USGS. The marriage produced 4 children, and he finally revealed his duplicitous life to Ada in a letter, written on his deathbed from Arizona. King may have been the factual inspiration for the high jinx of Rachael Dolezal, of recent NAACP fame.

Clarence King

Clarence King

Kings Peak is part of the Uinta Mountains, the only major east/west trending mountain chain in the US. Kings Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in the US (19th), and its 6,348 feet of prominence (a measure of relative height) exposes 750 million years of geology. The Uinta mountains formed by erosion of a large anticline, which was formed in the Laramide orogeny (mountain building episode), beginning about 65 million years ago. These mountains, like Mt. Washington in NH, are nunataks – peaks that were never covered by the glaciers that filled the valleys below them. Consequently, they are covered by fields of boulders (called felsenmeer), loosened by the annual ice and snow – and climbing is tricky and slow.

Rock Field

Felsenmeer slopes of Kings Peak

The rocks are primarily sedimentary and metamorphic sediments, but include a liberal dose of meta-volcanics. The bedding remains nearly horizontal – and is absolutely gorgeous. Some of the metamorphic activity is caused by late-stage hydrothermal bleaching, and produces “zebra rocks” very similar to rocks near the summit of Denali – which enjoy equally complex geological origins.

Zebra Rock

Zebra rock below Gunsight Pass

Horizontal Strata

Horizontal Rock Strata

Day 2 dawned with a bit of weather, and we decided to get up and start climbing before we got wet or snowy. We opted for the direct scramble out of Gunsight pass, across the plateau to Anderson Pass, and the short climb up to the summit. At the Pass we bumped into a bunch of local cowboys who had ridden their horses all to way to Anderson Pass – clearly the best way to get there. The climb has a series of false summits, which are a bit of a tease, but we stayed on the left flank of the ridge, and were at the summit in less than an hour.

False Summits

False summit on Kings Peak


Group selfie on the top


Summit sign and shoes

Mary on the summit

Mary completing her first western highpoint

South Kings Peak

South Kings Peak

The walk out was fast and uneventful – other than bumping into a young female mountain goat. The migratory patterns of the Boy Scouts take them out on Friday, so we were unmolested or entertained by the stream of young boys who were already back in Henry’s Fork. We emerged tired, dehydrated and ravenous – ready for the best that McDonald’s had to offer on our way back to Park City, and a very pleasant night and next-day, downhill mountain bike ride at Deer Valley with our friends the Mitchells.

Mary and Bray

Mary & Bray mountain biking


Bray & Wes biking in alpine meadows on Deer Valley


Young female mountain goat in Gunsight Pass

Kings Peak is the last of the major summits on my list of the state summits, and it has been a terrific adventure to date. I’ve got a few left – mostly unremarkable drive-ups along the 100 Meridian. The 100th Meridian is a notorious dry line in the US, and I’m hoping that Martha and I can do a car trip in the near future to close out the list, and see the edge of the great Dustbowl, from north to south.

This summer has been a bit of a wake-up call in terms of physical conditioning – I’m about 10 lbs. above maximum fighting weight, and this is after Ride the Rockies and a couple of western highpoints – the southern cooking that I love so much is taking a toll! I think that it may be time to focus on the 40, 6,000+ ft. mountains in the Southern Appalachians – it is some beautiful country, and will get me out of range of the kitchen.

First view of Kings Peak

Adios, from Kings Peak

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

7 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 20, 2016

    Beautiful Wes. Impressed most with your ability to encourage your 20+ beautiful Mary to share your adventure. Now back home to fried green tomatoes and hush puppies!


  2. Avatar
    July 20, 2016

    Nice work Wes and Mary! Congrats Wes, the end is in sight for you. Sounds like you already have a new list in mind to keep yourself busy. 🙂


  3. Avatar
    July 20, 2016

    Fun report, Wes. Looking forward to seeing at some point in the not too distant future.


  4. Avatar
    July 20, 2016

    Thanks Wes.
    Well done as usual.
    I recentllly made it all the way to the mailbox -nonstop.


  5. Avatar
    July 21, 2016


    Thanks for another great story of your adventures, and so good to see Mary.



  6. Avatar
    July 21, 2016

    Love that your inner geology geek lives on!


  7. Avatar
    July 22, 2016

    Wes .. Love reading about all your adventures .. Between you and Martha , I have great traveling trips ! Keep me on the list .. Congrats to Mary , a great grandaughter !! Love you all