I wanted to do this hike in 2009 but had a lingering overuse injury caused by too much spring time snow shoe postholing in the Uintas and didn't think I'd make it too far but when I saw a day with a 0% chance of precipitation predicted I thought I'd have a go. Things did not go well and I knew I'd be turning around even before I got to Kings because my leg was already hurting. Never the less, 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.
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 straight forward. A well defined trail takes you all the way to treeline 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.
I got up at 11PM, ate a bowl of cold cereal with milk, packed up 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 was a very sad puppy. But then I remembered reading in an SP forum the reports of two people who had recently summitted Kings and neither had mentioned anything about any unexpected stream fording so 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. Now if it hadn't been dark, the way across the stream 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 will be ankle deep in thick oozy mud. If it is 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'd hoped to get to Gunsight Pass in 4 hours and I thought I was still on track to do that. However, since it was dark I couldn't judge how far away I was and the terrain was way grassier than I thought it should have been and I was worried I was still in the marshy section. I was afraid to pull out my GPS and look. I encountered a steep rocky uphill and I knew I was almost there. At the top I looked back and saw some headlamps heading up and I hoped whoever it was would hurry up and pass me so I'd have someone to follow, but no such luck. I kept looking back as I cut across the base of West Gunsight, but I never saw the headlamps again. I headed directly to the base of Kings skipping Anderson Pass. This section was particularly hard for me to navigate in the dark without a distinct trail to follow. In the daylight it is easy.
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 sun rise. 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. Perhaps a little too compulsively, I just had to stand on the top of every little bump on the way over to S Kings. This compulsion would wear off as the day wore on. This section was a straight forward boulder hop on mostly stable rock.
Hundreds of people climb Kings Peak every year since it is 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. I was still pretty cold but kept telling myself "It will warm up soon."
After Painter Peak is Trail Rider Peak (13247'). This stretch was easier than what I had already done because there was some actual dirt for a stretch and the rocks were flatter. I reached the top of Trail Rider Peak 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. It was so windy that whenever I'd open my mouth my hair would blow in and I'd have to pull it back out. 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 is a very gradual uphill to North Emmons, 558 feet spread over a mile. Having done this section last year, I knew the footing was the best there was on the whole ridge, yet I could feel the hot spots forming on my feet. North Emmons is much more interesting when viewed from the south than the north because of its distinctive pinnacle which is more prominent from this direction because behind it is blue sky instead of its blending into Mount Emmons. But, when I look at this picture, I don't so much look at the pinnacle as I do at the uneven jagged rocks in the foreground which made up the footing for much of this trip. 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 up hill of 853 feet from 12587 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 then to pick them up a foot or so 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 for an afternoon in the Uintas and I'd be surprised if it happens again this summer.
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.
I had been on the stretch from Emmons to the far side of Owl 3 other times, but they had been earlier in the year and there had been a 10' swath of snow on the east edge of the ridge enabling me to skip most of the boulders, not so today. 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.
Flat Top Benchmark is aptly named. But, N Emmons, Emmons, S Emmons, Owl, and Lost Benchmark could also share that name as they are all flat on top. Flat Top is striking because there are several distinctive bands of white rock running across its base. All the other rock in this area has a red tint and this was the only white rock I had seen all day. But alas, white rock is no easier to walk on then red rock and it seemed like it took forever to get to the top. I wondered if I could possibly be in trouble timewise. 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.
I found the trail easily and breathed a huge sigh of relief. After the lake snafu I was a little worried. 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. It descends to the western most corner of Lily Pad Lakes and then climbs 200 feet over a ridge to a huge meadow on the other side. After this, it is a pleasant walk in the woods to where it joins the old road to Heller Lake about .8 miles from the start.
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 the headlamps in the distance near Gunsight Pass 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.
If you don't want to mess with a long car shuttle and choose to exit the ridge at Emmons and return to Henrys Fork via Atwood Basin, then you save 1334 feet of elevation gain by not going over S Emmons, Owl, Lost, and Flat Top and skipping the ascent from Lily Pad Lakes. However, you have to climb out of both Atwood and Painter Basins for a combined elevation gain of roughly 1400'. But you'd be climbing at lower elevation, most of the way on a trail or through low vegetation vs boulders, so even though it is slightly more, it's probably easier. But, you'd have a very steep, rocky descent of Mount Emmons, heading generally towards Allen Lake, that I can't imagine going too fast, not to mention the 7 extra miles of total distance.
If you don't mind exiting the ridge at Emmons and don't mind a big car shuttle, then I think the easiest way to end the hike is to descend east from Emmons, passing south of Oke Doke Lake to the Uinta River Trail. It is about 13.5 miles from Emmons to the TH and the trail is pretty good except for the blowdowns, but, it looked like a popular trail so there is a good chance they will be cleared. Hopefully, when you get to the bridge across the Uinta River, it will still be there.