This post is how I accidentally almost hiked the Henry’s Fork Trail to King’s Peak in a day, but also how I kinda didn’t.
After a somewhat impromptu trip to Salt Lake City for an Outdoor Retailers conference (which was pretty cool, by the way — so much delicious gear), I decided to take a hike on Sunday before heading back to San Diego on Sunday. Never having hiked in Utah outside of the major parks at the southern end of the state, I asked around and was told that Mount Timpanogos was a nice day hike. At 11,749′, it’s the second highest peak in the Wasatch Range, is easily reached from SLC and can be done in a few hours. Perfect.
So, of course, I had to do something else. I’m going to blame insomnia repeatedly in this story for my behavior and decisions, so a little about insomnia. Insomnia sucks. There you go. After two nights of brutal sleep deprivation, I was brain-dead and overwhelmed by the conference and the many opportunities it presented, so I decided to find out what the Utah State high point is. Turns out, as everyone and the Google knows, it’s Kings Peak — which is not an easy day hike, is nowhere near SLC, and requires far more time than I had. Which meant I was back to climbing Timpanogos. Very rational, and the bonus was very little driving — and maybe even full night’s sleep.
Getting to the Henry’s Fork Trailhead
It may then seem surprising that when I pulled out of the airport rental car garage on Saturday evening, I turned east on the I-80 and headed toward Wyoming. Yes, Wyoming. Turns out that if you want to climb Kings Peak, which apparently some primitive reptilian part of my brain was determined to do (the other part was drooling), you have to do a long drive northeast into Wyoming and then hook south back into Utah. One quick stop at REI to pick up — no, not a map, that would have been genius — a few snacks, some tights (don’t ask) and spare batteries for my headlamp, and I was heading up the grade to Park City and parts beyond.
Fort Bridger & “Sleep”
The nearest town to the trailhead with lodging of any kind appeared to be Fort Bridger, though by the time I got into the area I was without phone reception so I’m only guessing. I ended up at the Wagon Wheel Motel, which offered nice enough accommodations for prices roughly equal to a Motel 6. The overall impression of the hotel, like the town, was of a place of good and hard working people on hard times.
My plan, such as it had developed in my mind while driving bleerily eastward, was to try Kings Peak under one condition — that I could get some sleep. So I was in bed by pm and planning to rise at 3am to get a 4am start on the climb. This meant an hour or so in the dark, but it was cooler and quieter that way, and would give me ample time to do the 32 mile hike and get back to SLC at a reasonable hour.
But no sleep was to be had. I tossed and turned and realized I wasn’t going to sleep at all, so that killed it. I turned on the light, watched the end of the Olympics (something about some guy named Phelps), and decided I’d just try to sleep in and head back to Mount Timpanogos. It was just no fun doing a really long hike after 3 days with almost no sleep.
I dozed off and on until about 8am, maybe 2-3 hours of total sleep, and crawled out of bed. Eck. Aside from its impact on the hike, this sleep problem was killing me.
Perhaps due to my addled state, I decided to head down the Henry’s Fork Trailhead (the trail to Kings Peak) and just amble around the lower part of the trail and maybe up to Bear Lake — something light and relatively easy. That way, I wouldn’t have to drive all the way back to SLC before getting some exercise, and maybe I’d at least see the peak in the distance.
Getting to Henry’s Fork
When people told me this was a popular hike, I had expectations of relatively quick access to the trailhead. But Henry’s Fork is only accessible via a series of well-maintained but increasingly rocky roads south of Fort Bridger via Mountain View. The drive from Bridger at or below the 35mph speed limit takes about an hour.
The Wrong Trailhead (9:20am)
I parked just past what appeared to be a nice, large lot dedicated to horse trailers in a smaller, bumpier side lot that seemed like an afterthought. Then I grabbed the pack I’d assembled when I was thinking of doing Kings Peak and headed back to the uppity horse parking lot, signed into the trail registry, and was on the trail by 9:20am. Let the delirious amble begin!
The Right Trailhead
After a short distance, maybe a quarter mile, I came across a junction with another trail that was marked as being for hikers only — no horses — and realized I must have parked at the wrong lot and started at the wrong trailhead. Let the delirious amble restart!
At most, what I hoped to do was a loop around Bear Lake, which I guestimated to be something around 20 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of less than 2,000 feet from the Henrys Fork Trailhead at 9,427′. Even exhausted, I figured that was doable in less than 7 hours, but to be sure I tried to pace out at around 3mph. At first, this was a little tough; I was definitely not feeling well.
Hiking to King’s Peak
Henrys Fork Trail to the First Junction (5.5 miles)
The Henrys Fork Trail (a.k.a. Trail 117) started into the trees a bit dusty and dry, and probably in the 70s, which for me is pretty warm. It rises gradually with minor undulations alongside Henrys Fork river itself, weaving in and out of the trees past several meadows and clearings, until reaching the junction with the Henrys Fork Basin Trail (116) at about 5.5 miles. I can’t say I felt great, but it was easy to keep the pace and the scenery was increasingly beautiful.
At the junction, you emerge from the green tunnel of trees to get your first real views up the Henrys Fork Basin and the mountains to the south. It’s the kind of change in aspect that makes you want to go further, to see more, to get just a little bit higher. And I was right on pace, so I crossed over the Henrys Fork to the new trail (the old one traces along the west side of the stream), and headed into the basin.
This is really gorgeous country. As you head up the flank of the lower valley, the mountains and ridgelines on all three sides gradually reveal themselves. The greens become more intense and richly mixed, with marshy meadow grass and dark evergreens. It’s very much like any good presentation, gradually showing more and more until you start having those regular “ahh” moments. So that’s why I came. Beautiful.
The Second Trail Junction (8.3 miles)
It’s about 2.8 miles from the first junction to the second. The HF Basin Trail sweeps west from the first junction, turns south around Bear Lake, wraps around the south end of Henrys Fork Lake and then rejoins the HF Trail. My initial “plan” that morning had been to try this as a lollipop; heading up to this second junction on the HF Trail and then back on the on the HF Basin Trail.
And this still seemed like the right thing to do. Tiredness was coming in strange, delirious waves and lightheadedness. The urge to lie down in the grass and nap was increasingly hard to resists, and I may only have succeeded because it took only seconds for massive ants to begin foraging on my person for snacks whenever I took a break on an inviting rock along the trail.
But as I approached the second junction, I had clear views of Kings Peak to the southwest and Gunsight Pass directly ahead. The Pass was just a few miles further on, and looked like it offered great views off the Basin, so when I panted up to the trail junction, I looked west toward the lakes, but barely hesitated. I was slowing a bit below the 3mph pace, but I could still easily make the pass.
On the way, I couldn’t help but notice the rock chute that runs down the break in the ridgeline to the west, leading up to Kings Peak. It was hard to tell the composition of rocks in the chute, but the darker brown color generally means exposed dirt or scree, and that meant it might be “skiable” — which could turn a few miles and a thousand feet of descent into a 20 minute slide. Dangerous, of course, especially since I had no idea what the real conditions were, and it could just as easily be an endless course of ankle-busting softball sized rocks, but intriguing. If I ever got up that way, it would good to peer over the edge and evaluate the chute as an alternate way down.
Gunsight Pass (1pm, 10.4 miles)
The pass is generally described as looking like a gunsight, obviously, but the thing that really brings that affect home is a pyramid of rock in the middle of the saddle. The rocks like a giant cairn, appears to be manmade, so I can’t help but wonder if it weren’t added later to put an exclamation point on these descriptions. No idea if that’s true or not. The great thing about the pass is that you have sudden and great views of the Painter Basin ahead, and the HF Basin behind. Truly a beautiful vantage point.
Here I met a father and his four kids, all trundling along the trail in shorts and Tees. I said hello and they responded politely before starting to traverse along the slopes leading to Anderson Pass and Kings Peak. I watched them go for a bit, unsure what my next move was or should be. I felt better than I thought I would, and I still had plenty of time if I skipped the Bear Lake loop on the way back, so thought it would be fun to see if I could get to Anderson Pass, just below the main ridgeline up to Kings, and check out that rock chute for future reference.
Anderson Pass (2:50pm, 15 miles)
There were two possible ways to Anderson — the traverse the family was taking, or the longer trail that descended 400 feet or so into Painter Basin before turning back up the saddle to approach Anderson Pass from the South.
At this point, my tiredness definitely got the better of me. The only guidance I had on the route, and the only map given that I’d never been able to cache anything on my phone, was a few pages I’d torn out of a guidebook on Utah hiking. That, plus a quick scan the day before of some trip stories on Summit Post, should have told me that the “shortcut” described in those posts was the rocky traverse the family was taking — which the guidebook specifically advises against as dangerous and eventually fruitless.
It just never occurred to me that the path the family was taking might get you all the way around the ridgeline to Anderson Pass without having to drop into the basin and add miles to the hike. I’m not sure if this really mattered in the end, but it took me almost a mile to realize that I’d missed the opportunity to even consider it, and then it started to rain. So, I was wet, tired, and felt a bit stupid. Not a great moment.
Fortunately, the rain soon passed and after more high-sugar snacks, I was on my way back up to the pass. As I climbed, I could see the family traversing over the rocky flank to my right, but I soon passed the logical junction point and realized I was at least an half-hour ahead of them, so the longer trail was perhaps not that bad a decision. To my left, the flank of Kings Peak rose up in a big gray hump of chunky gray rock, not that far really, but well beyond what I thought my energy level and time would allow.
I was definitely tired now, and breathing harder than I would have liked. By the time I slogged up the last dusty, rocky switchbacks to the Pass, I was pooped. Done. Time to take a load off, eat a lot, and get ready for the trip back. All in all, it had a been a good trip out; I hadn’t bonked or had any non-sleep-related energy issues, my stomach felt fine (unlike on some recent trips) and the food I’d brought along seemed to be doing the trick in general. I didn’t think I’d drunk enough water, only about 1.75 liters the whole way up, but I wasn’t that thirsty either.
From the pass, you get to see en entirely new and also very beautiful valley or basin to the west, filled with tiny lakes and streams. A few hikers came up to the pass as I waited, talking of beautiful camping in relative seclusion. And compared to almost any major, easily accessible hike in the Sierras, there really were not many people there.
Below me to the east, the family made its way across the rocky saddle, and I thought I’d wait and ask them about the traverse before heading down.
As I ate and tried to gauge the best entrance to the rocky chute, a young Ranger made his way down the ridgeline from Kings Peak behind me. When he reached the trail, I asked him how the peak was, and he said he hadn’t quite gotten there — very close, apparently, but he was concerned about possible thunder and lightening from the clouds passing quickly overhead, so he’d turned around early.
Then he pointed out the peak off to the southwest and I gaped, more than a little surprised. The ridgeline I sat under arced up and around to the south, ending at a summit seemingly miles of rocky climbing and traversing away. There was no way I could ever make that, not the way I felt or with the time I had, and it was a relief to know there was no chance. Now I could descend with complete peace of mind.
There were several funny things about this moment, and not necessarily funny in a good way. First, although the ranger was young and clearly inexperienced, he was absolutely certain of himself and so it never occurred to me to doubt anything he said. Second, even though the book described the peak as being only about 900 feet above my current position and around a mile away, those figures never got in the way of accepting what he told me; I just figured my sense of distance and proportion was as messed up as my perception in general. Third, I knew there was a South Kings Peak, and I figured it was just hidden behind the arc of ridgeline behind Kings Peak.
We talked for a while, I shared some of my food, and he went down to meet the family coming up the switchbacks — presumably to tell them about the danger of thunder and lightening. A few minutes later, the two boys joined me, looking tired but generally happy, and then the father, teenager daughter and the youngest son, who was only seven. We talked for a little — very little, actually — and then the father beckoned his dutiful brood onward, apparently un-thwarted by what the ranger had said.
What the Heck (3:50pm, Around 16 miles)
Watching them go up, I realized that they would have some pretty cool views from the ridgeline, so I hid my pack and trekking poles and started up after them — figuring I’d turn around in an half-hour or so unless I was making fantastic progress. Starting up just after 3pm, I soon passed the family and was feeling pretty good; breathing hard but with renewed energy from my break. I scrambled and climbed and traversed and on I went for a good 40 minutes, occasionally heading up to the ridgeline to take in some stunning views.
Soon I was traversing behind the last high point on the ridgeline before it descended into a saddle and then rose back up to the peak where the Ranger had pointed. And I was tired, quite soddenly and definitely tired. I could go on a bit, but no way was I going to make the summit, so time to call it
Return from King’s Peak
I turned around and headed back without really a second thought. It just seemed like the right thing to do. After one slip where I cam very close to eating a rock, I quickly caught up to the family as they headed down (apparently also calling it a day). I was back at Anderson Pass in 25 minutes or so (at around 4:15pm).
The Rock Chute (5pm at the Bottom, Around 17.5 miles)
Without stopping, I grabbed my pack and poles and headed off to check out the chute. I was actually kind of excited. From the valley, the chute didn’t appear anywhere near as steep as a few of the chute sections I’d done in the Sierras with my friend Andrew a month or so earlier, so my hopes of a rapid descent were high. I was actually more concerned that the family would follow me than anything else, so I hoofed it in the hopes they wouldn’t be able to clearly see where I was going — which was silly given that they had an unimpaired view of the entire saddle from he ridgeline.
After scrambling across rocks and grassy patches that seemed vaguely Scottish and Highlandery, I found a rock wall built as wind protection for a camping spot right on the edge of the chute and a set of small “trails” heading into the chute itself. That was all I needed; it didn’t look like scree, more like largish loose rock and dirt, but that was good enough if it saved me miles of hiking back down.
The first third of the chute was a steepish descent down loose rock and patchy dirt “trail.” The middle third was the fun part, some relatively easy dirt skiing and sliding, which was both dangerous and fun despite being really hard on the legs and ankles. The last third is actually the hard part, with large, loose boulders and variable grass and dirt patches when my legs were already a bit shaky. In about 25 minutes, I was at the bottom and walking into the HF Basin. By my later calculations, and despite some weaving in and out of marshes, I saved around four miles (and 400 feet of additional climbing required to get back out of Painter Basin). Nice.
Henry’s Lake Basin
Near the bottom of the chute, I turned northeast to find water and soon came across a small stream. I still had nearly three-quarters of a liter of water, which I drank quickly before filling up my bladder for the hike back. A quick change of socks and I was heading back into the basin, pleasantly surprised that the blister on my right heal hadn’t turned into some sort of festering zombie wound. Love these shoes.
The Henrys Fork Basin is beautiful. Between the quietly burbling streams, waterfalls, lakes, glades of whispering trees and the panoramic mountain views, it’s hard to complain. Well, the burbling streams and marshes are occasionally a bit tricky to cross, but that’s hardly their fault.
Soon, I crossed over the Basin Trail as it headed back toward the HF Trail, but I saw a side trail that seemed to parallel the main trail and stay lower in the basin. I followed this path, occasionally clear while sometimes fading into grassy meadows, until it eventually joined up with the main trail. Couldn’t have asked for a better way down the valley.
The rest of the hike down turned into a bit of a death march. I wasn’t that tired — in fact, overall, I felt great, but there’s something about the last seven miles or so of any long hike that just feels a bit redundant. It’s almost more emotionally tiring than physical. So you run here there to break things up on steeper patches, you sing a little, you talk to yourself (That’s you, not me of course. I’m not crazy), you clack your trekking poles together and call out, “hey bear” because your forgot your bear bell, you think about pizza and root beer, and then you’ve only got 6.9 miles to go.
So, you’ve probably been wondering about the tights. I had tried wearing some as faux compression leggings on a long hike to Whitney much earlier (the hike of scree skiing fame), and my legs were pretty much the only thing that failed me on that hike. So I thought I’d try some compression on this hike as well, but being cheap, I figured it was better to fork out $40 for tights that are slightly too small than compression pants that cost $150 or more.
Now don’t get too excited; I wore these under my trekking pants. But as the day got warmer and the descent longer, I zipped off the lower legs of my pants to reveal my sexy, black-clad calves. I’m not sure how to describe this half-pants, half-tights, no-style look, but I imagine it rivals Lederhosen for fashion awesomeness. A heavyset group of guys passing me on the trail gave me a funny, silent look and their kids in their cool motocross shirts kinda snickered, so I know what they were thinking; I was just another lefty Eurohiker peddling subversive socialist prancing pants as part of a plot to metrosexualize the crap out of the local squirrel population. But my legs felt great.
The End (8:25pm, About 28 Miles?)
I really have no idea how far I hiked. The roundtrip to the peak on the trail is 32 miles. I figured I was a bit short of the peak, but my car was parked in the long place, and then there was that whole rock chute thing. So, 28-29 miles seems about right. Someday I’ll have to actually use the GPS function on my phone.
Back to Salt Lake City
It took about three hours to go from the wilderness to the airport Motel 6 in Salt Lake City, and even tired as I was, this was a bit of a shock. I don’t’ recommend it. I do recommend the meatball sub I had at Subway in Evanston — a sentence I never thought I’d write, but damn. That was good.
After another night without sleeping — go figure — I staggered into the airport and headed back to San Diego. During the layover in Phoenix, sipping coffee in the hopes of a few moments of clarity, I suddenly realized something was wrong. I had never seen South Kings Peak on either side of the ridgeline up to Kings Peak. And looking at my pictures of the trip, there was just no way that peak the Ranger had pointed out was only a mile away. Suddenly anxious, I fired up my laptop, brought up Google Maps, changed to terrain view and scrolled around the Kings Peak area.
Holy Crappola. The peak the Ranger had pointed to, the one I would never have gotten to, was South Kings Peak — which was another mile from Kings Peak itself. The high point that I was traversing under when I packed it in was Kings Peak. I had been within five or ten minutes of the summit, no more than that. Unbelievable. Blarg.
This irked me more than a little, but as I think about it, I think how lucky it is that I was tired and I didn’t hoof it all the way to the wrong peak and back. That would have been worse. This was merely annoying. Really, really annoying. But also kinda funny. When I do climb Kings, I’ll have to see if I can estimate how close I came, accidentally, while not trying to get there.
This section is meant to punish those who’ve been kind enough to read this far. Kidding. Well, mostly. On several previous long hikes I’ve run into energy crashes from eating too little or stomach upsets from eating too poorly. I was determined on this trip to eat constantly, to eat more complex carbs, to avoid the usual Clif Bars (nothing against them, but they’ve got something against me), and eat more goo-like, digestible foods that provided quick and constant energy boosts.
And it worked. After much trial and error, and on a stomach already irritated by sleeplessness, I managed the entire hike without any energy or stomach issues. So for my records, here’s what I ate and what I didn’t (but carried along anyway, ’cause that’s fun):
Food Eaten (Nutrition)
In no particular order, I ate 2 Justin’s peanut butter packs; 2 Justin’s almond butter packs; 1 chocolate Clif Energy shot; 1 Clif Kit’s Organic cashew bar; 3 string cheese sticks; half of a small box of tomato basil Wheat Thins; a handful of cashews; a lemon waffle Honey Stinger; 2 Honey Stinger fruit smoothie chews; 1 package of Clif Shot Bloks; most of a pack of dried mango slices; electrolyte mix in my water; and half a lemon in my water (for acid reduction).
I loved the organic cashew bar, and the only things I didn’t care for was the Shot Bloks and the energy shot, the former because it was too sweet and a bit chewy, the latter because it tastes like hazelnuts and zombie sweat. I’d definitely bring both again. More seriously, there was nothing in the mix I wouldn’t bring again. I’d probably pack more almond butter packs, more mango, more of the lemon waffles (yum), and more of the Kit’s bars. I’d also like to find a better tasting energy shot, because the caffeine was nice.
Food Not Eaten (Ballast)
What I didn’t eat but carried along was most of the bag of cashews; an entire bag of dried bing cherries (yuck); half a bag of mini Nutter Butter cookies; 3 regular Clif Bars; 2 Builder Clif Bars; 2 panda licorice sticks, 2 more Shot Bloks; 2 small dark chocolate bars; 1 large dark chocolate bar; 1 pack of blackberry jam; and 3 sample packs of Sport Beans. Mostly, I just tried to avoid anything that seemed too sweet or too dry. At no point did I crave anything on this list.
Drink more. Seriously.
I have this dream where I do a hike when I’m fully awake, know where I’m going, generally feel awesome pounding out the miles. Plus there’s a girl involved somehow. That may be a bit of a stretch. Short of that, this was a fantastic trek; not nearly as hard as you might be led to believe by some of the guidebooks, and deserving of all the praise for its natural beauty. Go. Today. And bring your tights.