Thursday, October 10, 2013

Davis County's Lonely Outpost: Francis Peak

The north radar dome. You can't get this close anymore, because of a fence.

                 Francis Peak as viewed from part of the Skyline Drive road.

By Lynn Arave

FRANCIS Peak is undoubtedly the most changed Wasatch mountain peak in the Top of Utah since pioneer times.
Located east of Fruit Heights in Davis County, Francis Peak was once one of the craggiest peaks in the area. It was also among the first Davis and Morgan County peaks to be identified.
The peak, which straddles Davis and Morgan counties, was named Francis, at the suggestion of Brigham Young, in honor of Esther C.E. Francis (1836-1913), an early pioneer woman who helped settle and survey Morgan in 1860s.
“Our Heritage: Samuel and Esther Francis,” describes it this way:
“Rising majestically above Morgan Valley to the west of the Wasatch Mountains, one of its highest peaks bears the name ‘Francis Peak.’ Snow capped and glittering in the sun in the day and lit by two artificial lights by night it stands as a lighthouse in the sky to be seen for many miles.”
With two manmade radar domes sitting atop Francis Peak today, it looks far different than it did before the late 1950s.
The domes, operated by the Federation Aviation Administration and the Air National Guard, provide long-range radar and identification for area aircraft. Its radar range is 250 miles outward and up to 100,000 feet straight up.

                       The FAA radar domes on Francis Peak, as seen from old downtown Layton..

At first, the FAA wanted to install such a radar site near Alta or Snowbird. However, because the National Guard was already using a temporary facility at Francis Peak, that became the logical, joint location.

Workers atop Francis Peak had to wear thick, long boots and carry weapons. Rattlesnakes are not supposed to live that high, yet someone forgot to tell the rattlers that. Numerous rattlesnake nests were uncovered during construction, despite the almost 2-mile-high elevation.
In fact, according to the Standard-Examiner of Sept. 26, 1958, almost 100 rattlesnakes had to be killed by workers during the construction. Two workers were bitten and both survived.
Some workers also claimed that Copperhead rattlesnakes were killed at the work site.

Approximately 22,000 cubic yards of material and nearly a dozen yards of the peak's height were removed to level the summit. This $2 million construction project, in 1958-59, also included helicopters flying in 33 gigantic metal poles, weighing 800-1,000 pounds each, to shore up a foundation.

I’ve been inside the Francis Peak facility twice over the years on media tours and it is a high tech, lofty outpost, complete with a kitchen, bedrooms and its own water supply.
(Its “twin,” of sorts is the TV/radio transmitter facility atop Farnsworth Peak in the Oquirrh Mountains.)

How tall is Francis Peak? That is a loaded query.
U.S. Geological Survey lists Francis Peak as 9,547 feet above sea level. However, that was BEFORE the 1950s construction.
The natural height there now is 9,515 feet. The base of the facility's base adds 55 feet and the domes chip in 60 feet more for a total extra artificial height of 115 feet and a grand total of 9,630 feet above sea level.
(Thus, only Thurston Peak, located about four miles north, is “taller” in Davis County than that - at 9,706 feet.)

The FAA uses special rotary snow blowers to keep the dirt road to the radio domes accessible year-round, since it is manned continually. However a 17,000-foot-long tramway access was proposed to be constructed up Shepard Canyon in 1977. Environmental red tape delayed and eventually doomed this project.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the Farmington Canyon-Bountiful Peak road, from 1935-1939. This 26-mile loop road first opened to the public in July of 1939. Some 50 years of overgrazing had produced disastrous flash floods on the mountainside in both 1923 and 1930.
 The dirt road was built to aid access for the approximately 80 men of Bountiful CCC Camp No. 910 to construct flood control terraces and seeding projects from Parrish Canyon on the south to Farmington Canyon on the north.
Perpetually, the road was designed to help the U.S. forest Service keep erosion and wildfires under control. The bonus was opening up the scenic beauty to public access.
Workers and sheepherders also reported rattlesnakes at unusually high elevations there in the late 1930s.
The Sunset Campground at 6,200-foot elevation in Farmington Canyon opened in 1939, while the Bountiful Peak Campground, at 7,500 feet, was dedicated in 1941.
Steep grades, narrow curves and sheer drops still test the nerves of timid drivers along this road, officially called, the “Skyline Drive Scenic Backway,” today.

 When construction on the radar domes took place in the late 1950s, the FAA built the additional 5-mile dirt road northward, from the top of Farmington Canyon, to Francis Peak.
A jeep trail continues north from the radar domes and eventually swings to the backside of the Wasatch Mountain to access the three Smith Creek Lakes on the Morgan side.

                   A rare view inside the Francis Peak facility from years ago.

 It doesn't show up real well, but the peak on the top left is Francis Peak in this early 1950s aerial photograph of Layton's Verdeland P:ark. It shows the peak before the Radar Domes came along.

         The Francis Peak road is open most winter days for access to the FAA facility.

Francis Peak is a popular summertime scenic backway destination in Davis County, offering access to the Sunset and Bountiful Peak campgrounds as well as the most spectacular bird's-eye views possible of the Great Salt Lake.

The road to the lofty radar domes that top the peak is officially known as Skyline Drive. It begins on Farmington's 100 East. It is paved for the first mile and then follows a winding, narrow dirt road for another 12 miles. Most cars can make this bumpy journey, though it is a back-country road.

There's a fork in the road at the top of the canyon, about eight miles up. The right (south road) leads to Bountiful Peak and eventually Bountiful's east bench, some 19 miles later.

The left road (north) heads to the radar domes operated by . A gate on the left fork is closed during snow season because of dangerous snow removal equipment. 

Snow banks along the upper reaches of the road - 9,000-foot plus elevation - continue until mid- to late July. On a clear day, even the High Uintas are visible to the east.

A popular hike goes along a jeep trail northeast of the radar towers to the Smith Creek Lakes.

Prior to 2002, you could drive, or walk right up to the radar domes. Now there is some fencing and enhanced security to better protect the facilities there.
Sources: Personal visits to Francis Peak,, National Geographic maps, and "Kaysville, Our Town: A History," by Carol Ivins Collett.
Note: Lynn Arave has actually had a tour inside the radar domes twice. Once in 1980 and again in 1998.
(Published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on Aug. 1, 2014.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

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