Kings Peak • Highpoint: State of Utah
• Highpoint: Duchesne County
• Range Highpoint: Uintah Mountains
• Most Prominent Mountain in Utah

Date Climbed
August 9-11, 1998

13,528 feet

30 miles round trip

9 hours
(Summit day only)

4,400 feet

Typical mountain weather:
clear, rain, hail, nice

6,348 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

Kings Peak dead center

Kings Peak from near Dollar Lake

The rocky summit gets near

The ominous dark clouds build
behind me at the summit

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Kings Peak is the superlative mountain of Utah: it is the highpoint of the state, of Duchesne County and of the Uintah Mountains, as well as the state's most prominent mountain. It is located in the north part of the state, just south of the Wyoming boundary, set far back from the roads. A hike to Kings Peak requires a minimum of 15 miles, with the Henry's Fork Trailhead being the shortest and most popular route. The peak is not technical, just remote. I was intending to climb this peak solo, eager to test my skills in the backcountry for 30 miles. On the downside, I had to carry a heavier pack than usual, and I planned for all possible weather situations.

The drive to the trailhead took me two days and 950 miles. From Phoenix I overnighted with my parents in Henderson, Nevada, then made the final push the next day to the trailhead, working my way into Wyoming then down back into Utah, arriving at the Henry's Fork trailhead in the dusk. I slept in my bivy sack beside my car, open to the elements. It drizzled during the night but I stayed dry. I awoke very early on the 9th and got my stuff in order, and put it all on my back.

Since I was traveling alone, my pack weighed about 50 pounds. Fortunately, the trail is mostly level, with a gradual incline and an overall gain of about 1,800 feet in 8 miles to where I eventually set up camp. The trail first parallels Henry's Fork Creek before cutting away for a few miles as it meanders through the woods. A few open meadows allowed me my first views of Kings, a beautiful symmetrical pyramid of a peak, still about a dozen miles in the distance. The trail in time began to parallel Henry's Fork Creek once again. Bearing left at the only obvious junction I encountered to that point, I crossed the creek on three logs lashed together, about a 15 foot span and about 5 miles in from the trailhead. The creek was moving swiftly and the deep-cut banks meant that if I fell in, I was going for quite a ride. I didn't fall in.

Now on the eastern side of Henry's Fork, I started to gain some elevation and encounter more open space than before. The meadows were bigger and the few trees remaining were neither as big nor as densely placed as before. I encountered a rather large marsh which I had to cross. It was at this point I came across a large group of people hiking out, evidently all from the same family, including a woman holding a very small infant, of all things. I chatted briefly with a few of them. After leaving them, I hiked another two miles before finding a good place to set up camp, roughly south of Dollar Lake. I found a little hill with a flat top shielded by large rocks and stunted firs in which I erected my tent.

It was only around noon when I arrived. I had some lunch and assessed the view. Kings stood over me now, much larger and tremendously beautiful, about 4 air miles away. Other large 13ers dotted the skyline, including Gilbert Peak just above me. I was in a large cirque, surrounded on three sides by high cliffs. An afternoon thunderstorm confined me to my tent for a while, and mosquitoes kept me in most of the evening.

I awoke early on the 10th to start my summit attempt. When I popped out of my tent at 3 a.m., the wilderness was aglow in near-full moonlight, but all of the high peaks were socked in with clouds and the weather didnít look so great. I crawled back into my sleeping bag, awaking again at 5 a.m.. This time, all was clear and I decided to get moving while the going looked good. After some breakfast, I hit the trail at 6 a.m.. I immediately gained 700 feet in going up Gunsight Pass, then lost it all going down the other side into Painter Basin. After about 1.5 miles of hiking a very gradual decline, during which the trail grew fainter and sometimes non-existent, I came to a junction marked by a small sign indicating the correct way to Anderson Pass and Kings Peak. Although the trail was hard to see in places, rock cairns set up along the way helped me follow the correct path.

After crossing a small stream, I began a moderate incline towards the pass. The trail was obvious at this point. The trail began to level and I could see the pass itself about a mile ahead, with the big rock pile known as Kings Peak to its left. This area was quite marshy and I had to step on small boulders most of the way to avoid getting my feet wet. I decided to cut left about a half-mile before the actual pass (and the usual route), and begin climbing up the rock pile directly to the summit. At this time it was about 9 a.m. and I was about 6 miles from my campsite. The skies were clear but I hiked quickly in order to avoid the storms that were sure to appear.

The last mile or so (a little less) was straight up the pile of talus that is Kings Peakís summit. I did not follow the ridge, but scrambled up the north face about a half mile away from Anderson Pass. This route wasnít too bad in terms of exposure, but it was very tiring due to the elevation and moderate steepness, so I could only manage a few steps at a time before needing to catch my breath and study the route. Soon, I was near 13,200 feet, where the ridge levels off a bit, so I followed it for a while. I could see the little promontory that includes the summit off about two thousand feet away. I hiked carefully, traversing the huge slabs of rock, in some areas using my hands for balance. I finally arrived onto the summit just before 11 a.m. Success!

It is quite ironic that after a day and a half and 15 miles of hiking, I would only spend a few moments atop the summit. Above me was clear, but the storm clouds were starting to amass over the nearby peaks. They build fast, and I knew not to waste any time. I snapped a few lousy photographs, admired the view, then started down.

As I was hiking down, a few drops of rain hit the rocks, despite the sun and the blue directly above. After grabbing my pack that I'd stashed about 100 feet below the summit, I put on my parka and resumed the descent. Less than five minutes later, a huge bolt of lightning hit the peak. Either a lesser tendril of the bolt hit me, or a charge was induced in me by the electric field. Regardless, I felt a sizzle and a pop on the top of my head, like being conked with a rock. Literally and figuratively shocked, I immediately squatted into a little ball and assessed myself. No burns and no injuries fortunately. I stayed in this position for a moment before starting down again. It was a calculated gamble, but the storm itself was still disorganized and despite the lightning bolt, the immediate area was mostly sunny with a very light drizzle. But I was in danger. I knew that much.

I knew that if I could get lower down into the valleys, my probability of being hit by lightning would reduce. Not to zero, mind you, but far lesser than being exposed up top on the rocks. So I hustled, going as fast as I reasonably could under the conditions. The rocks were slick from the rain, and I surely did not want to stumble or break a leg. The descent off the talus pile took 20 minutes, and in that time, the weather had become a full-scale thunderstorm, with sheets of rain and hail. The clouds had dropped and the high peaks were shrouded in fog. In the high valleys now, I had about quarter-mile visibility. The cairns and the scant path helped me stay on the right path.

My parka was wonderful: it repelled the millions of little hail pellets that hit it, and I stayed dry and comfortable. The temperature wasn't too cold, maybe high 30s, and the storm seemed to not get worse. The lightning was confined to the highest peaks. I walked fast as the hail was collecting enough to shroud the terrain in white, possibly obscuring the trails. As long as I could see Gunsight Pass up ahead, I knew I was fine. I was back to the sign in Painter Basin within an hour, and I continued up to the pass, by which time the hail was about 6 inches deep in places.

At the pass, the storm simply ended. Literally, the demarcation between the storm and the calm was just a stretch of 50 to 100 feet. I breathed a huge sigh of relief to be back at the pass. After descending, I took off the parka and walked back to my tent, arriving around 3 p.m. I immediately changed into drier clothes and took a nap. The weather here was pretty good, spotty clouds was about it. But I could see the big storm clouds on the other side of the ridge, and Kings was hidden. It felt good to have summitted, even better to be back in the relative safety of my tent. A couple hours later after things settled down, I emerged and simply enjoyed the scenery, sitting in reverence to the mountains. The mosquitoes were not a problem.

The next day I awoke at 5 a.m., took down camp and hiked out the 8 miles to my car under clear blue skies. I was back to my car before 9 a.m., and in one long push, I drove all the way back to Henderson for a well-needed shower and rest. My cousins from New Jersey were in town for my brother's wedding in a few days, so we took tours of the casinos to kill the time.

Getting zapped by lightning was something I'd rather not have happened to me, and I was plenty scared afterwards. I can't say I was taking chances since it was so sunny all the way up. The storms build fast! To this day I have a visceral fear of lightning, and even the sight of puffy storm-type clouds while hiking is enough to concern me sometimes.

(c) 1998 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.