To the north of present-day Salt Lake City, Utah, and one mile north of the State Capitol sits Ensign Peak, a hill top with significance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the State of Utah. Rising just 1,080 feet above the valley floor, it was the first summit climbed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ after the Pioneers entered the valley.
According to George A. Smith, a counselor to President Brigham Young, "After the death of Joseph Smith, when it seemed as if every trouble and calamity had come upon the Saints, Brigham Young, who was President of the Twelve, then the presiding Quorum of the Church, sought the Lord to know what they should do, and where they should lead the people for safety, and while they were fasting and praying daily on this subject, President Young had a vision of Joseph Smith, who showed him the mountain that we now call Ensign Peak, immediately north of Salt Lake City, and there was an ensign fell upon that peak, and Joseph said, 'Build under the point where the colors fall and you will prosper and have peace.’” Young understood that he was to lead the Church members west and that the peak he saw in vision would be a sign that they had reached their appointed destination.
When Brigham Young viewed the valley for the first time, he recognized Ensign Peak. According to the text inscribed on a new marker at Ensign Peak, "Two days after the Mormon Pioneers entered this valley, Brigham Young and party climbed to that point, and with the aid of field glasses, made a careful survey of the mountains, canyons and streams.”
"Wilford Woodruff was the first to ascend the peak, Brigham Young the last, due to a recent illness. It was suggested that this would be a fitting place to 'set up an ensign for the nations' where the Lord 'shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth,' as foretold in Isaiah 11:12. It was then named Ensign Peak, and in later years a standard was erected on its summit.”
Folklore has persisted that the Church leaders erected a flag, possibly an American flag on the summit. But rather than any flag being flown on Ensign Peak at that time, an account indicates it was a yellow bandana belonging to Heber C. Kimball that was waved or hoisted. A few weeks later, a company of pioneers ascended the peak and unfurled the American flag, “rejoicing under the emblem of freedom.”
While surveying the valley on the peak, Brigham Young determined the right location for the temple to be built and announced it two days later.
Uses of Ensign Peak
The Saints, volume 2, indicates that “on July 21, Addison [Pratt] received the endowment on the top of Ensign Peak, which Church leaders had consecrated for that purpose in the absence of a temple.
During the Utah War (1957–58), watchmen were stationed on the summit to watch for signs of troop movements toward Salt Lake City. Troops used smoke signals during the day and fires at night, and when the watchmen saw the signals, they sent messages to the militia stationed in the city.
In 1897, the Salt Lake Tribune erected a wooden flagpole on Ensign Peak to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pioneers arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. That flagpole remained in place until a new one was erected in 1947 as part of a centennial celebration.
Groups regularly climbed the peak for a variety of reasons, including public speeches, events, celebrations, or achievements.
Throughout the twentieth century, Ensign Peak has been a place to celebrate Pioneer Day as well as a place for recreation.
In the 1920s, however, the Ku Klux Klan pushed expansion throughout the United States, which resulted in public backlash. In 1925, they paraded through Salt Lake’s business district and demonstrated during April [General Conference|general conference]. They also “marched up Ensign Peak and burned several large crosses at the summit. To ensure the success of this effort, hooded Klansmen blocked access to the summit. This resulted in a public assembly at the foot of Ensign Peak that numbered in the thousands; some of those gathered were members of the Klan, and others were simply onlookers who were curious over the actions of this controversial group. While the Klan considered the event a success, it frightened the community, causing the Klan to continue to lose influence in Utah.”
Initiated by George Albert Smith, the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association was created in 1930 to place “permanent markers to identify key pioneer historical sites.” In 1934, an 18-foot monument was constructed of stones gathered from the Mormon Pioneer Trail, including the Sacred Grove and the temple site in Independence, Missouri. It was unveiled on July 26, 1934, by young women who were direct descendants of the pioneers who first climbed the peak.
For many years, the city discussed the possibility of developing the area into a city park or parkway, but meanwhile, housing expanded at the base of the peak despite the opposition by The Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association joined the Sons of Utah Pioneers, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and the Utah Historical Society.
Meanwhile, people continued to climb Ensign Peak, four-wheel vehicles created ruts in the hillside, the monument was vandalized, and the marker had been removed by vandals (and later found in an old chicken coop by a scrap metal dealer who gave it to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers).
In 1990, the Salt Lake City Council approved ordinances that would allow the development of 150-acres into a nature park, which would include a trail to the summit of the peak and a six-acre community park. On July 26, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Ensign Peak Historic Site and Nature Park. During 1997, the Church constructed a memorial garden on land it owned near the base of the mount.
Ensign Peak Today
- Ensign Peak received renewed attention when the newly sustained Young Women general presidency [in 2008] climbed to its summit. Before her call as the Young Women general president, Elaine S. Dalton had climbed Ensign Peak with a group of youth. At that time she participated in a discussion related to the sacrifices required to establish the gospel and build the kingdom of God. At the conclusion of the meeting, each of the participants waved a symbolic banner on which they had written what they wanted to stand for in their lives. All those present then sang “High on the Mountain Top” and cheered in unison, “Hurrah for Israel.”
- When Sister Dalton became the general president of the Young Women in 2008, she led her counselors on a hike to the top of Ensign Peak. Upon reaching the summit, they gazed over the valley below and saw the statue of the angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple. The impression was clear: their mission was to “help prepare each young woman to be worthy to make and keep sacred covenants and receive the ordinances of the temple.” Like the first pioneers to climb the peak, they also waved a banner of their own. They considered their banner, made of a gold Peruvian shawl, to be an ensign to all nations, a symbolic call for a return to virtue.
- The experience of the Young Women general presidency and others has fulfilled in part the request made by President Hinckley in his dedicatory prayer: “We pray that through the years to come, many thousands of people of all faiths and all denominations, people of this nation and of other nations, may come here to reflect on the history and the efforts of those who pioneered this area. May this be a place of pondering, a place of remembrance, a place of thoughtful gratitude, a place of purposeful resolution.”
- Recent experiences such as these confirm the importance of the historic symbolism related to the peak. When Brigham Young and others stood on the summit, they envisioned the scope and direction of their call to build a grand city and temple to the Lord. Today, as Sister Dalton and others climb the peak, they view the great legacy left by the pioneers and the realization of their vision. Climbing the peak continues to provide the means of connecting the past with the present in order to better envision the future. And while some aspects of Ensign Peak have changed, it remains a place where Saints can gather to rejoice in the Restoration of the gospel, unfurling banners that “wave to all the world.”