The Kings-Emmons Ridge is the highest continuous ridge in Utah and one of the highest in the United States. For a backpacker, the recommended time to complete a ridge run, car to car is 4-6 days.
It was on my mind for over two years. Start at Henrys Fork Trailhead on the North Slope of the Uintas, hike to Kings Peak, Utah’s high point; hike the whole ridge from Kings to Emmons, hit South Emmons and then Owl, and exit some place on the south slope of the Uintas. The hike would be in the 30 mile range with over 8000′ of elevation gain, 5000′ of which would be above 12500′. I would climb eight 13000 footers and one 12000 footer. I was planning to do it in a day.
I for sure had my doubts, and was hoping for 20 hours car to car. I figured 6 hours to get to the top of Kings, 7 to get to Emmons, and then another 7 to get out. I wouldn’t have the overhead a base camp would entail. I’m also well acquainted with the horrible collapsing snow conditions of spring time in the Uintas where you posthole to your knees while wearing snowshoes and was content to wait for the snow to be gone, hopefully by mid July when there would still be a fair amount of daylight.
I thought of the hike as having three distinct sections, Henrys Fork TH to Kings, Kings to Emmons, and Emmons out. The first section is very easy (relatively speaking of course) and I was quite familiar with it, having climbed Kings 8 times previously. The middle section was an unknown, and the last section was a big problem.
The Middle Section
I wanted to do this hike in 2009 but had a lingering injury caused by too much of the aforementioned postholing, and didn’t think I’d make it too far but when I saw a day a predicted 0% chance of precip, I thought I’d have a go. Things didn’t go well and I knew I’d be turning around before I got to Kings because my leg was already hurting. Nevertheless, I did the first 4 peaks (Kings, S Kings, Painter, and Trail Rider), climbing 3 new and hard to get, 13000 footers for me, and then descended to Painter Basin and hiked out, back to Gunsight Pass and the Henrys Fork Trail Head.
After this experience I had no desire to do the whole ridge in one go the rest of that summer. However I did have a strong desire to climb every 13000 footer in Utah so I made another trip from the Swift Creek TH on the south slope to climb Roberts and North Emmons in the middle of the ridge. On previous trips I had already climbed Emmons, S Emmons, and Owl on the south end of the ridge.
Now I knew exactly what the middle section would be like, seven miles of boulder hopping. I had hoped for some easy walking tundra in the more gentle sections, but that high up, there was almost none to be found. There were very few places where any dirt could be seen between the rocks. In the flatter sections, the boulders were usually obviously stable and you didn’t have to be so careful, but in the steeper sections there were many times when the boulders shifted underfoot and it was hard to go very fast, but surely, I could average 1 mile an hour over 7 miles from Kings to Emmons.
The Big Problem
There is no easy way to get to Mount Emmons. I scouted out three different routes from the south slope and didn’t like any of them. The first and fastest was a completely off trail route from the Swifts Creek TH. It was a tough route, much harder than climbing Kings Peak, and involved a significant bushwhack that I didn’t want to tackle at the end of a long day. The second was via the Swift Creek Trail and the Buffalo Creek drainage. Even though this route employed 4.5 miles of trail out of 10 (one way) it still involved a significant bushwhack and a very difficult stream crossing. Again, not the best way to end a long day. The third was via the Uinta River Trail and was by far the most straightforward. A well defined trail takes you all the way to tree line and then you just head for the summit. The main problem with this route is that it did not go over South Emmons and Owl and I wanted to include those peaks too. The second problem is that there were many blowdowns across the trail. However, I did it very late in the season (November 9) and it is possible that the blowdowns are cleared on a yearly basis.
Blowdowns were everywhere and when I would happen across a scrap of trail it wasn’t worth following. In addition there were numerous boulders between the trees, not fun at all. But miracles do happen and on the way down I went a slightly different way that looked more clear of trees and stumbled upon a half decent trail which I was able to follow to the start, and I knew I had found my route down. The trail wasn’t very distinct and I knew I had to be out before dark or I wouldn’t be able to follow it. In addition, there was more elevation gain than I had originally anticipated because now I would go over both Lost and Flat Top Benchmarks.
As the crow flies, the two trailheads are only 22.75 miles apart- not too bad of a car shuttle right? Well, by car the trailheads are about 200 miles away from each other by way of Vernal at the eastern end of the Range. The distance from our house in Salt Lake City to either TH is only about 150 miles.
The plan was for me to start at Henrys Fork TH, wear a Spot Satellite Messenger (SSM), and have my husband pick me up at the end of the Dry Gulch Road. The SSM would automatically send my husband a message every 10 minutes relaying my location. This way, he’d know if I decided to turn around, and if I hadn’t, my approximate arrival time. I could also send text messages that he could check, so if I encountered unexpected difficulty and wound up at an unplanned trailhead, hopefully he’d be able to figure this out and I wouldn’t be stranded.
I had no way of knowing for sure if the messages were showing up. However after using the SSM for over a year we were confident in its reliability however there is always some small doubt. The start at, Henrys Fork, is really busy but the end at Dry Gulch on most days sees no one. It would be an absolute disaster if I arrived there in the dark, cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted and no one to meet me.
We have two cars in our family, a nice reliable all wheel drive Subaru Legacy and a piece of crap 15 year old Saturn. The Dry Gulch Road has many seriously rough spots so we needed to save the Subaru for that which meant I had to drive the piece of crap Saturn to Henrys Fork. My husband gave me very careful instructions about how to cycle the AC on and off to get the fan going to prevent overheating. I was worried. I envisioned being one of those poor people you see on the side of the road with the hood up and steam pouring from their car. But, by carefully looking at the temperature gauge and cycling the AC as needed about every 4 minutes, I arrived at Henrys Fork with the car intact.
The other bad thing about driving the Saturn is that it has no mp3 or CD player and its tape deck has long been defunct.
Note that on a USGS topo map, the Dry Gulch Road is marked in the same style as the 50 mph superhighway A-1 prime dirt road to Henrys Fork, the best dirt road I have ever driven on. It couldn’t be any further from the truth however, Dry Gulch is steep and higher clearance is necessary.
There are a lot of mosquitoes on the north slope of the Uintas. (The last sentence should be in all caps.) Last year when I did the first 4 peaks on the Kings-Emmons Ridge, I slept in the car the night before. At the trailhead I had cracked the windows slightly thinking “there’s no way the mosquitoes will get through cracks so small”. I went to the bathroom and when I came back the inside of the car was swarming with them. I killed as many as I could but every time I dozed off, was awakened by their annoying buzz. Finally it got cold enough so I could open the windows all the way so they could find their way out without more coming in.
This time I thought I was prepared for the mosquitoes which were swarming all around the car. I wouldn’t open the windows until it cooled off, and I would open the door, jump in, and close the door quickly before any got in. It didn’t work. A ton got in anyway and I had another miserable night.
This year I was smart and brought a tent. I planned to get up at 11PM and start hiking at exactly midnight. At 5PM I tried to nap and after not too much success finally got some real sleep at 9:30PM for 1.5 hours.
The Big Day
I got up at 11PM, ate a bowl of cold cereal with milk, and walked to the TH to sign in. It was a few minutes before midnight so being overly obsessive I sat down on the picnic table at the start and waited. At exactly midnight according to my GPS I took off and became an eating machine. Every time food crossed my mind I would shove something else in. I ate a banana, 3 cold scrambled eggs, some cheese, a granola bar, and then I started on the bag of cookies and would have eaten them all except I dropped a few in some horse poop. I ate as much as I could because I knew that later in the day at higher elevations I wouldn’t feel like it.
I made it to the turn off for Alligator Lake in 48 minutes and Elkhorn crossing at 1:50. Things were going great. Then I had a really big problem as I couldn’t find the bridge over Henrys Fork in the pitch black. I had a waypoint set right in the middle of it but it wasn’t there. I looked down stream, I looked up stream. I went back to the sign pointing to the bridge wondering if I had gone down the wrong trail. I made sure my headlamp was on the brightest mode and I scanned up and down the stream. I just couldn’t believe it was actually gone, washed away in the spring runoff without a trace. I looked again and found two crummy logs over the stream that looked very wet and slippery so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled. They are sitting just inches above the current water level so they are sure to go next spring too. If it hadn’t been dark, the crossing probably would have been more obvious, but it cost me 14 minutes of floundering to get across.
Next up was the muddy morass. Anyone who has climbed Kings via Henrys Fork in June or early July knows exactly what I’m talking about. If you stick to the trail you’ll be ankle deep in thick oozy mud. If it’s daylight you can look ahead and pick the best way across. But at night with no moon at all, I just did the best I could and decided I’d rather fight my way through willow brush than have wet feet the rest of the day.
I had started out the day with one full 20 oz water bottle and now it was time to fill up at the stream at the base of Kings. I guzzled as much as I could and then pumped 20 oz + 32 oz. I had wondered what it would be like pumping water in the dark when the temperature was in the 30’s. I was right, I was uncomfortably cold and my hands were freezing. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up and by this time the faintest glow was to the east. I was hoping my 52 oz of water would last me until I reached a small lake on the other side of Flat Top, almost 15 miles away. It seemed a bit skimpy, but I reasoned that if I was running low I could always add some snow to it.
Now was the steep ascent up the side of Kings. In order to make it there by 6am, I had to climb 1000′ in 45 min to an elevation of 13528′. As I was approaching the top, I watched the sunrise. It was beautiful. I had never seen the sun rise from so high up. I made it there just before 6, took a few pictures of South Kings and kept going. There was no time to sit on the summit and enjoy the view.
Hundreds of people climb Kings Peak every year since it’s Utah’s high point. A few of these go on to climb South Kings, but almost no one ventures any further down the ridge.
After S Kings comes 13387 foot Painter Peak with a small bump, 13306′, along the way. Between 13306 and Painter Peak is a fun section where it is flat on top with steep sides punctuated with 10′ deep fissures. Most of these are easily stepped across but some required taking a deep breath and jumping. Most of the way, however, was boulders and more boulders.
Next is Trail Rider Peak (13247′). This stretch was easier because there was some actual dirt for a stretch and the rocks were flatter. I reached the top of Trail Rider at 9AM, right on schedule. This was where I turned around last year. There was no way I was doing that this year. In preparation I had carefully studied a map and noted every single possible place I could bail off of the ridge and had a ton of waypoints loaded into my GPS. None of these bail options would be used.
Next came peak number 5 13287′ Roberts Peak. This section was the toughest as it was the steepest and the boulders were the shiftiest. Once I made it over this peak things would get easier. I was pressed for time and did not have the luxury of taking breaks on any of the summits. Any breaks I took were only when I needed to pause to refresh my energy for the ascents. I would get to a summit, go over the top down to the next saddle and go part way up the next peak until I needed to stop and then I’d sit down for a while and force myself to eat. The views were just as good half way up a peak as they were from the very top. Sometimes the views were even better than on top because some of the summits are flat.
After Roberts comes an easy one, North Emmons. Descending Roberts was a bit slow, but it’s a very gradual uphill to North Emmons, 558 feet spread over a mile. No matter how fit you are, there is a limit to how fast you can travel in such terrain.
Finally it was time for Emmons. This was what I had been dreading all day, a sustained uphill of 853 feet to 13440 after already putting in 6500 vertical feet and 17.8 miles. But, it wasn’t as steep as elsewhere and there was a very welcome snow patch in the middle. It was so much easier picking my feet up a few inches and shuffling them forward than to pick them up a foot to step up and over a rock. I made it to Emmons a few minutes before 1pm, 13 hours after starting out. Emmons is very flat on top and has a small summit cairn and a crumbling benchmark disk just S of the cairn. The forecast had called for a 0% chance of thunderstorms and to the north there was not even a single cloud. To the south there were just two tiny ones on the horizon. This is a very rare sight indeed in the Uintas.
From Emmons, I was hoping to average 2 miles an hour over the remaining 12 miles and be out by 7pm, but I knew that was optimistic. As the day wore on I was hoping for 8pm and finally I just wanted to be out by dark.
It was boulder after boulder after boulder. I went down Emmons and up South Emmons, down South Emmons and up Owl. Even though the grade was much gentler now it was still hard to go very fast. I went part way down Owl and then I was into new territory. I veered east along the ridge headed for Lost Benchmark. It was only 149′ up to the top, but it felt like 1000. I could have easily skirted both Lost and Flat Top, but what would be the fun in that? None of the other peaks are convenient to skirt.
I wondered if I could possibly be in trouble time wise. Even though there were many splashes of green now between the rocks, it was still rocky and not the easy going tundra I had hoped for. But finally, after 17.5 hours I was there, on top of the last peak of the day. I was very, very happy.
Almost All Downhill
I reached Flat Top at 5:30PM and now it was all downhill (almost) and I thought it would go fast, but had forgotten about the boulders to descend on the south side. Finally the rocks ended abruptly and I hit a nice grassy slope. It was time to look for water. My 20 oz bottle had lasted all the way from the base of Kings to Emmons. It had warmed considerably past Emmons so the remaining 32 oz was almost gone over a shorter distance. I never had to add any snow to it. The first small gully I tried was dry but the second was flowing nicely. It’s a good thing, because if the small streams were no longer flowing I had planned to fill up at the small lake nearby.
But when I got to the lake it was a dry meadow. I couldn’t believe it. I thought “Where’s the lake?! Am I that bad at navigation?” Then I saw a tell tale dead tree from my previous visit. What was amazing was that the ground was completely dry, not muddy or soggy at all, and the vegetation that had been underwater looked in great shape.
I found the trail easily and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The trail is not shown on any map and starts out as a series of cairns through an open area and gradually becomes more distinct as it approaches the trailhead. I was glad I had done it before as it was much easier to follow now, but I still lost it in a few places but quickly found it with the help of my old GPS track.
The south slope of the Uintas is considerably drier than the north slope and hence far fewer mosquitoes. Even though it was evening when they are most voracious, the only place I noticed any at all was around Lily Pad Lakes and then it was maybe 1 every 5 seconds instead of 10 every 1 second.
A quarter mile away from the trailhead I encountered the biggest elk I had ever seen with a gigantic rack. It crashed through the brush and I wondered how it could thread the trees so quickly with those huge antlers sticking out. Shortly, I heard a “woof” from my husband who was heading up the trail to meet me, worried I had been trampled as the elk had run right in front of him, obviously spooked. We got back to the car a few minutes before 9 for a total of just under 21 hours. Whew! We left immediately so we could get over the rough road while it was still light. I took my boots off as we drove. Oh did that feel nice. I had a huge blister on the sole of one of my feet but other than that just felt very, very tired. I had not seen a single person the entire day, except for a few headlamps in the distance near Gunsight Pass near Kings and my husband at the very end.
At the beginning I said that the recommended time for a backpacker, car to car was 4-6 days. I don’t think that is unreasonably long. It is much more difficult to keep one’s balance over boulders carrying a heavy load, not to mention it’s a lot harder to go uphill. And, 4-6 days will give you plenty of time to rest and enjoy the scenery.