Date: August 18-20, 2017
Elevation: 13,528 feet
Distance: ~29 miles
Gain: 5,350 feet
Bathrooms: Vault toilets in the parking lot and overflow lot near the trailhead. After that, bring a shovel!
Day 1 (10 miles; 5 hours)
Our journey began with an eggs and potatoes breakfast in Evanston, WY. Once fueled, five of us drove an hour and 40 minutes to the trailhead, geared up, and began our trek to Dollar Lake. The trail was what I’d call a subtle rolling terrain. But, this description comes after we lived through summit day. Others had told us the approach to Dollar Lake was flat, which it legitimately is in spots. But, as we shouldered our 40-50 pound packs, we wondered aloud to each other – who would describe this as flat? While it maybe doesn’t feel that way on the approach, by Day 3 it is most certainly flat, quick, and easy.
Dollar Lake is not marked, or at least not that we saw. So, we overshot it by about a mile. Hikers returning to Dollar Lake from the summit intercepted us before we got too far and helped course correct our path. An 8 mile trip turned into a 10 mile day, but it was worth turning around for the lovely views of the lake and the shelter of the trees. We set up camp for the next two nights, delighted to be among moose families.
We’d expected to battle blankets of non-stop mosquitoes this time of year. We somehow got lucky. Night 1, we saw maybe half a dozen mosquitoes. We all applied bug spray, but after that, we didn’t see any more and never reapplied the repellent.
Day 2 (~13 miles; 10 hours)
Out of our tents by 6:00, we started the day with hot breakfasts and coffee. We were on the trail by 7:15, and made great time to Gunsight Pass. We decided to save ourselves 1.5 miles and take the cutoff over the mountain to the right. Our group left that decision point at the same time as a family who opted for the longer, flatter trail. While the cutoff saved us mileage, it did not save us time and it cost us some energy. We bumped into the family again at the junction on the other side of the cutoff. Thinking we were through the toughest part of the day at this point was ill-informed. The mountain only got more demanding from there.
The next hour or so, we spent hopping from rock to rock on mostly flat land. But, few were stable, so each step required precision and care. Route finding could also have been an issue without our map as nothing is marked this far into the climb. We saw one or two signs on Day 1, but at a certain point on summit day, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a basin with tall mountains on either side of you, and no direction of which is actually the highpoint (the mountain to the left is where you need to go, assuming you take Gunsight Pass up). Solving the puzzle of finding Kings Peak, however, makes this accomplishment all the sweeter.
In addition to the extreme dearth of signage, the last hour or two goes straight up. It’s a put your poles away, hand over hand scramble with again, no discernible route. My friend, Steve, described the final push well, “It’s like someone dumped a giant pile of loose rocks on the ground and said, make your own path.” Many trip reports comment on the existence of a rock scramble near the top, but let me not understate it – this experience will last for hours with several false summits among unstable rocks. Signage and blazes showing the preferred route would make this endeavor significantly easier.
Finally, five hours into Day 2, having scrambled for what seems like a full day, we reached the summit! A King Peak sign awaits your arrival as the perfect companion for pictures. Verizon users, rejoice: you have a shot at cell access at the summit.
We gathered the old registers for the Highpointing archives and placed a new one, which generated some excitement. We could not locate the ammo box reported to be on the summit, so hopefully someone locates that and adds the register to it for protection.
Day 2: The Descent
On the way down the giant rock pile, thunder started rumbling. We picked up our pace as much as we could, but our legs were pretty worked. All of those steep rocks, threatening to be covered with slick rain could quickly turn this strenuous hike into a dangerous one. Not to mention the lightening with full exposure.
At the base of the giant rock pile, the descent offers three options that we knew of: the toilet bowl chute, the cutoff, and the main trail. A fellow climber advised that the toilet bowl chute would shave about two hours off of our return trip, but it would add the danger of being steep and someone above us loosening boulders that could fall down on us. We watched others look down this chute from the top of it and turn around in favor of the main trail. Without exerting the energy to get all the way there and assess for ourselves, we opted for the main trail as well.
Again, the trail is NOT marked. The main trail is visible in most spots, but continues a circuitous route along what appears to head miles out of the way. We got nervous, remembering the general direction of the cutoff we took that morning, and abandoned the main trail toward instinct. This inadvertently took us to the cutoff again, but in a steeper, more strenuous spot. I fell a few times, bruising my legs in half a dozen places. The storm was still rolling in and twice, I found myself sliding/falling down loose gravel on terrain steeper than I would ever feel comfortable skiing. If it was snow, we would have had a blast gracefully glissading. Since it wasn’t, I’ll leave it to you to infer exactly how graceful this trip down was.
Ten hours from our departure, we returned to camp for a delicious hot dinner, a view of the gorgeous lake, and a giant moose visitor.
Day 3 (8 miles; 4 hours)
Day 3, we broke camp, finding the return trail quick and easy. Our packs felt light and we were in good spirits from a successful trip. Day 3 was supposed to be solid rain, but the weather held out for us and those four hours flew by.
To maximize your chances for a smooth trip:
- Either be comfortable in the wilderness or bring someone who is. Steve and I would have failed at wilderness if not for our friend, Kevin, who was well versed at filtering and boiling water, setting up camp, and protecting us from wildlife intrusions.
- To keep weight to a minimum, limit your water to two liters and filter at camp. Normally well hydrated, I drank only half a liter each hiking on Day 1 and 3, and a liter on summit day. Hydrating at camp was plenty for our group.
- Be prepared for a strenuous summit day. All of those trip reports that talk of a quick, light rock scramble – put those out of your head. This is the real deal. Prepare for hours of climbing on unmarked rocks that you expect to be stable, but aren’t.
- Given the lack of trail markings in many spots, bring a map and consider bringing a GPS. We had a map, but a GPS would have mitigated some of the stress, particularly on the return.
- Gear to consider that I’ve tested previously and continue to use include: Screamin Energy Max Hit which kept me fueled during summit day and Fenix CL30R Camping Lantern, which was perfect for lighting the tent and keeping my phone charged.
- Share the experience with great company. Steve, Kevin, Andrea, and Paige – we were an awesome team. I had a blast climbing with you. Looking forward to our next adventure together.