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 the 1860s.
“Our Heritage: Samuel and Esther Francis,” a family history book, 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.
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.
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.
Today, there’s fencing around the radar installation and the north dome is now dark colored, while the south dome remains white.
(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 radar facility 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, to access the facility. Environmental red tape delayed and eventually doomed this project.
The Civilian Conservation Corps 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 Mountains to access the three Smith Creek Lakes on the Morgan County side.
The Great Basin Trail also provides access northward to Thurston Peak and beyond.
Sources: Personal visits to Francis Peak, digitalnewspapers.org, National Geographic maps, and "Kaysville, Our Town: A History," by Carol Ivins Collett.
Lynn Arave is a veteran journalist who started writing for newspapers in 1970 at Roy High and for daily papers starting in 1976 with high school game reports for the Standard-Examiner. He has been an avid history researcher for three decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.