Glad You Asked: Where Does Utah’s Kings Peak Rank on the List of U.S. State Highpoints?

by Michael Hylland

The 50 U.S. states showcase an incredible diversity of natural landscapes and geology. However, there is one thing that all states have in common—a highest point. Many state highpoints are obvious mountain summits that tower above the surrounding landscape, whereas others are subtle topographic locations that require careful surveying to confidently identify as a state’s highest elevation. Utah has nearly two-dozen mountain summits higher than 13,000 feet, all of them in the Uinta Mountains in the northeastern part of the state. The highest of these, Kings Peak in Duchesne County, reaches an elevation of 13,528 feet. So how does Kings Peak’s elevation stack up against the highest points in other states across the country? And how does the geology of Kings Peak relate to the unusual east-west trend of the Uinta Mountains? Finally, what “King” was the mountain named after?

Landscape photo of Kings Peak prominently highlighted by the sunlight.

Kings Peak stands as a sunlit pyramid beyond the shadowed cliffs at the head of the Henrys Fork basin.

Highpoint Ranking

Kings Peak holds the position of number 7 on the U.S. state highpoint list. It is a few hundred feet higher than New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and a few hundred feet lower than the lofty volcanic summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kings Peak actually comprises two summits: the higher main peak, and South Peak which has a summit elevation of 13,512 feet.

*Above mean sea level
RankStateHighpointElevation* (ft)Elevation* (m)
2CaliforniaMount Whitney14,4974,417
3ColoradoMount Elbert14,4334,399
4WashingtonMount Rainier14,4114,392
5WyomingGannett Peak13,8044,207
6HawaiiMauna Kea13,7964,205
7UtahKings Peak13,5284,123
8New MexicoWheeler Peak13,1614,011
9NevadaBoundary Peak13,1404,006
10MontanaGranite Peak12,7993,901

Geologic Overview

The origins of Kings Peak go back about 750 million years to late Precambrian time, when life on Earth consisted solely of very simple organisms such as cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). Utah occupied a place on the edge of a former continent called Laurentia, which at that time was beginning to separate from what would eventually become Antarctica and Australia along a continental rift zone. As Laurentia slowly moved away from the other continents, an arm of the rift opened and extended inland, forming a long, narrow basin. Over time, sand, gravel, silt, and clay were deposited in the rift basin in a variety of coastal environments including deltas, tidal flats, lagoons, and shallow marine waters, as well as in alluvial fans and the channels and floodplains of streams flowing from the continental interior. The resulting sequence of sedimentary rocks (shale, sandstone, siltstone, orthoquartzite, and conglomerate), over 20,000 feet thick, is known as the Uinta Mountain Group and contains cyanobacteria that were preserved to become Utah’s oldest fossils (see Survey Notes, v. 37, no. 2, p. 6–7).

Illustrated figure showing Utah with shallow sea and sediment-filled rifts where Kings Peak would be, compared to Utah today.

Left – Schematic diagram of rifting along the margin of the former continent of Laurentia in late Precambrian time. Arrows indicate crustal extension. The narrow arm of the rift across northern Utah filled with sediments that would become the sedimentary rock of the Uinta Mountain Group, eventually forming the east-west-trending core of the Uinta Mountains. Right – Present-day physiography of the Uinta Mountains and location of Kings Peak.

Three hikers going downhill among loose rock and horizontal layers of rock.

Hikers negotiate loose talus on interbedded sandstone, siltstone, and shale of the Uinta Mountain Group at the head of the Henrys Fork basin; view looking north. Like all the major valleys throughout the Uintas, the Henrys Fork basin contained ice during Pleistocene glacial episodes, the most recent being around 24,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Fast-forward to about 70 million years ago, near the end of the Mesozoic Era (the “Age of Dinosaurs”). What had been the rifted margin of Laurentia has undergone geologic and tectonic changes and evolved into the continental margin of western North America. And instead of being extended and pulled apart, the crust is now being squeezed and compressed in a mountain-building event called the Laramide orogeny. During Laramide time (about 70 to 34 million years ago), numerous upwarps and adjacent basins formed throughout the Rocky Mountain region, including what would become known as the Uinta Mountains, the Green River Basin to the north, and the Uinta Basin to the south. Uplift of the Uinta Mountains occurred partly by broad folding and partly by movement along reverse faults that extend the entire length of the range along both the north and south flanks. So, the sediments that accumulated 750 million years ago in a rift basin near sea level now lie as sedimentary rocks 13,000 feet above sea level, forming a mountain range whose unusual eastwest orientation reflects the configuration of the ancient rift basin.

Much more recently, glacial erosion sculpted the present topography of the Uinta Mountains during Pleistocene glacial episodes, the most recent having reached its maximum extent about 20,000 years ago. Cirque glaciers joined to form confined valley glaciers, which generally did not cover the crest of the range or major drainage divides. The results are deep, glacially scoured valleys separated by sharp ridges (arêtes) and broad, unglaciated alpine plateaus (collectively known as “biscuit-board topography” for the resemblance to dough left on a cutting board after the biscuits have been cut). The main and south summits of Kings Peak form the highest points on a short arête that extends south from the main crest of the Uinta Mountains.

Oblique aerial view looking east at Kings Peak and the upper Henrys Fork basin, showing the characteristic biscuitboard topography of the Uinta Mountains. Peaks, ridges, and alpine plateaus preserve bedrock that remains after glaciers eroded the valleys.

Oblique aerial view looking east at Kings Peak and the upper Henrys Fork basin, showing the characteristic biscuitboard topography of the Uinta Mountains. Peaks, ridges, and alpine plateaus preserve bedrock that remains after glaciers eroded the valleys. Google Earth image © 2015 Google Inc. Map data: Google, USDA Farm Service Agency

Story Behind the Name

Black and white photo of Clarence King.

Kings Peak is named after Clarence King, leader of the Fortieth Parallel Survey (1867–72) and first director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1879–81). Photo source: U.S. Geological Survey, public domain.

Utah’s highest point was called Tei’an-Ku-ai (meaning “a small peak” or “peak with a small tip”) by the Eastern Shoshone who formerly occupied the area. Later, the mountain was named for Clarence King, an American geologist, mountaineer, and author who, along with Ferdinand Hayden, John Wesley Powell, and George Wheeler, led one of the “Great Surveys” that explored the American West after the Civil War. King’s survey was focused along the 40th Parallel and extended from Wyoming to eastern California, including northern Utah. The four western surveys led to creation of the U.S. Geological Survey as a federal science agency, and King served as the agency’s first director from 1879 to 1881. King was succeeded by John Wesley Powell, famous for his explorations of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Mount Powell (13,159 feet), a few miles west of Kings Peak, honors this intrepid explorer and scientist, and Gilbert Peak (13,442 feet), a few miles northeast of Kings Peak, bears the name of G.K. Gilbert, a key geologist on the Wheeler and Powell Surveys who went on to conduct groundbreaking research on Utah’s Henry Mountains and prehistoric Lake Bonneville.

A note about ascending Kings Peak:

Kings Peak is in the High Uintas Wilderness of Ashley National Forest, and lies about 12 miles from the nearest trailhead. Although an ascent does not involve technical climbing, hikers should be prepared for strenuous scrambling at high altitude as well as sudden changes in weather conditions including wide temperature fluctuations and thunderstorms. Safe backcountry travel requires sound judgment, experience, personal fitness, and proper clothing and equipment. Please be respectful of the land and practice the environmentally friendly travel ethic of “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”