The most celebrated trail in the Vancouver area, even though the Chief hike in Squamish is very popular, it is no joke. Probably the most impressive hike we have done since Canmore last fall, it is very strenuous but rewards you with a lot of spectacular viewpoints.
One of the BC coast’s classic hikes, it features stunning views of the area, including Howe Sound and Garibaldi Provincial Park. Stawamus Chief Mountain is one of the largest granite domes in the world, located just south of Squamish and looming over the city from a height of 700 metres. You can’t miss it, whether you are in the city, on the water or just arriving on the Sea to Sky Highway.
Not only is it an impressive monolith, millions of years of destructive geology has split “The Chief” into three unique summits, all of the which can be reached from the Chief Hike trail. You can visit them all in one long hike or return to see each of them one at a time. There are also a number of popular rock-climbing routes on the Chief. When visiting Squamish, hiking the Chief is the most popular thing to do.
The Chief Hike FAQ
How long is The Chief hike?
The entire Chief Trail to all three peaks is 6 kilometres long. It will take 4-5 hours and involves 770 metres of elevation gain. That 6 kilometres includes backtracking from Peak One to the main trail, and eventually returning from the Third Peak to the trailhead via the more direct gorge trail. If you just want to visit one peak at a time the Chief hiking distances are slightly shorter:
Peak One: 3.5 km / 2 hrs / 535m
Peak Two: 3.2 km / 1.5 hrs / 580m
Peak Three: 4.8 km / 2.5 hrs / 625m
AllTrails GPS: Stawamus Chief Trail
How long to hike The Chief?
Hiking The Chief to all 3 peaks will take most people 4-5 hours of hiking time. Hiking to just the first peak will take 2-3 hours. Here is our breakdown of The Chief hike time for each section of our hike. Some people would definitely go faster (for instance, the people we saw using it for trail running practice) but we generally hike at an average to above-average speed so most people would take at least this long. We also spent 15-20 minutes hanging out at each peak, which is not included in these Chief hiking times.
First intersection: 45 min
Intersection to First Peak: 20 min
Back to intersection: 15 min
Intersection to Second Peak: 30 min
Second Peak to Third Peak: 40 min
Back down on the inner route: 1.5 hrs
Total Hiking Time: 4 hrs – took us around 5 hrs with breaks
How hard is the Chief hike?
The short answer: very hard. The longer answer: very hard, for lots of reasons. First is the 600 metres of elevation gain in just 1.7 kilometres to First Peak – without getting too deep into the math, that is pretty steep. To see all three peaks you are looking at closer to 800 metres of elevation gain since you have to keep going down and back up to get between them.
Then there is the terrain. You start out on stairs, but soon that switches to a dirt forest trail with lots of roots and loose rocks. Closer to the peaks you will have to do some scrambling on the big, smooth granite rocks, occasionally using ropes, chains and ladders. It’s not great if heights make you nervous. Then, coming back down on the gorge trail, as I call it, you are entirely in the forest and mostly following a small stream back down a steep slope on a very rough “path” that requires extreme care at the best of times, and you need to be even more cautious when your legs are already exhausted from all that climbing.
What is harder, the Grouse Grind or the Chief?
The Grouse Grind technically involves more elevation gain in a shorter distance. However, the entire climb takes place on stairs, which may be monotonous, but are much simpler to navigate than the rocks, roots, chains and ladders of the Chief. Also, in order to keep traffic manageable you can only climb up the Grind, then have to take the gondola down.
The Chief, on the other hand, adds differing terrain and balancing challenges to the climb, plus there is no gondola option to get down so you’ll have to manage that part on your already tired legs. About a 1/3 of the way up (at the top of the stairs) you can branch off on a trail that will take you to the Sea to Sky gondola but that is an entirely different hike on its own. If you were to only go to the First Peak and back the total hiking time would still be longer than the Grind and involve an exhausting descent.
So, when comparing the Chief hike vs Grouse Grind, we would say the Chief is harder. However, we would still recommend it over the Grouse Grind because of the multiple outstanding viewpoints (vs just one at the top of the Grind), fascinating terrain (chains and ladders, anyone?) and fewer fellow hikers (the Grind is probably the most popular hike in Vancouver).
Can dogs hike The Chief?
Dogs are allowed on the Chief trails, but whether you want to take them is another matter. With all the various steep parts, several ladders and multiple chain-aided sections, most dogs are going to have a pretty tough time (yet another win for opposable thumbs). Having said that, we did see a couple at First Peak with two dogs. Unfortunately, we also ended up behind them on the way down and had to wait while they awkwardly struggled to carry the terrified mutts down the ladders and scrambling sections. They weren’t particularly small dogs, either.
When can you hike the Chief?
Being right next to the ocean, the Stawamus Chief doesn’t get as much snow as some of the other mountains in the area and can be hiked from March until October, maybe later depending on the year. We hiked it right at the end of March and there was only a tiny bit of snow left in the shade of the bushes.
It is good to check the latest conditions, though, because many of the steep parts are already pretty treacherous and the last thing you need is a layer of snow making them even trickier. Unlike on forest hikes, micro-spikes and crampons do not work well on the Chief because much of the time you are on smooth rock. Even hiking in the rain would complicate it significantly.
Can you hike the Chief in the rain?
You can, but be aware that the rock will be slippery and the views could be decreased or even non-existent. Hiking the Chief in the rain would make it even more important to have grippy shoes and to take extra time to go a bit slower in some areas towards the end.
How can you avoid the crowds on the Stawamus Chief hike?
The Chief is one of the most popular hikes in the greater Vancouver area and tends to get very busy in the summer. You can avoid the worst of the crowds, though, by hiking the Chief on a weekday and getting there at first light if possible. It is also quieter in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. We hiked it on a Tuesday in late March and even though it was a perfect sunny day (the best of the entire week) we probably only saw 30-40 people combined between the trail and all three peaks.
How high are the Stawamus Chief Mountain peaks?
Peak 1: 610 m
Peak 2: 655 m
Peak 3: 700 m
How do you get to the Chief Hike from Vancouver?
The Chief is located on Highway 99 just north of Shannon Falls and just before you reach Squamish. It will take around an hour to drive from Vancouver and is difficult to miss. Just turn in at the large Stawamus Chief Provincial Park sign.
You can also start from the Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot just south of the park. The gondola has been closed on and off because of vandalism but if it is open and running it is worth adding on a gondola ride to enjoy even more incredible views.
A third option is to hike from Shannon Falls, joining the main trail just at the top of the stairs. It is only a slightly longer route overall.
The Trail to First Peak
3.5 km (return) / 2 hrs / 535m
After a very short, highly deceptive flat section to start, you head straight up the stairs with a nice river and some small waterfalls running alongside. You will probably get tired of the stairs pretty quickly but later will look back on them fondly when you are very slowly picking your way down the steep, rocky, rooty trail from Third Peak. After you reach the top of the stairs the trail forks – left for the Chief, right to hike to the top of the Sea to Summit gondola. Soon after you will have the choice to go left to the First Peak or straight to Second and/or Third Peak.
The route up to First Peak is steep and involves some scrambling and clambering but nothing overly crazy. There are a couple ladders and several chains to help you along. Near the top it opens up into a spacious rock area with fabulous views of the Howe Sound, Squamish, Garibaldi Provincial Park and a lot of different mountains in every direction.
It is perfectly reasonable to make this your end goal since you get exceptional views and a pretty decent workout.
The Trail to Second Peak
From the parking lot (return): 3.2 km / 1.5 hrs / 580m
From First Peak it adds 2 km (return) and 150m of elevation gain.
If you continue on from First Peak to Second Peak, you have to backtrack down a bit then head up an even sketchier section with a few ladders and lots of chains. For my money, though, this was the best viewpoint of the three. This peak is slightly higher and your view of the sound actually includes First Peak. It is the largest of the three peaks and has lots of different areas and viewpoints to explore.
From here, you once again have a choice – head back down or continue on to Third Peak. We definitely recommend continuing but be careful to assess your energy levels because you want to make sure you have something left in the tank for the long slog back down.
The Trail to Third Peak
From the parking lot (return): 4.8 km / 2.5 hrs / 625m
From Second Peak it adds about 1 km and 50m of elevation gain
From Second Peak, the Third Peak really doesn’t look that far away, except you will almost certainly notice the steep gap between the two. You may wonder how you’re going to cross, but it isn’t as bad as it looks. Here you have two choices. You can either backtrack to the main path again and climb to 3rd Peak up through the gorge in the middle – no cakewalk but there is no new exposure to heights. The other option, and the one we would recommend, is to continue along the ridge on the open (but grippy) rock face before eventually heading down into the trees to meet the gorge trail. You get to enjoy even more great viewpoints and take a slightly more direct route, at the small cost of a couple short but steep descents into “the Saddle”. There is one spot with a very cool view through the North Gully, a narrow gap in the rocks that frames Squamish and Mount Garibaldi in the distance. It can get a little confusing in this area so having the trail map downloaded will probably come in handy.
While Third Peak is the highest of the three summits, getting up to it doesn’t involve any ladders or chains and offers the best views of the mountains to the north, plus the mountains to the east seem almost close enough to touch.
On your way down from Third Peak, right before the rock switches to bushes, it is worth detouring slightly south (left) for another wide open rock expanse with yet more awesome views. After that, return the way you came but then continue down the gorge of boulders instead of climbing back up to Second Peak. From here on, it is truly all downhill, which sounds great after all that climbing, but with already tired legs and a really steep, rough trail, it can start to feel pretty endless.
Be sure to focus – most hiking injuries happen near the end when people get tired and fail to pay attention to their footing. There are a few spots along the trail where you may see some rock climbing routes that look impressively difficult. Eventually you will join up with the original trail and, finally, reach those stairs that you were so annoyed with earlier that now feel like a dream (only in comparison to the rocks, of course).
Tips for Hiking the Chief Trail
This is an exhausting hike so make sure you carry plenty of water and wear good shoes or boots. You should also dress in layers because you could easily be sweating up a storm on the way up, then freezing in a cold wind sitting on the edge of the peak a few minutes later. We have a Day Hike Packing List that covers everything that you will need for this hike. Be aware that the only toilets are at the trailhead.
Take your time, always be sure of your footing before putting all your weight down and be careful along the edges – these are definitely not just “bumps and bruises” type of cliffs. Be courteous on the trail and let faster hikers pass, especially on the ladder and chain sections. Unlike the couple struggling with the chains in front of us on the way to Second Peak – rather than let us pass, her boyfriend just did a lot of extra pushing and pulling to speed her up while we stood waiting behind them. I suppose he didn’t want any extra delays getting to the top so he could get his shirt off as soon as possible to pose for photos (pretending not to be freezing) while endlessly combing his beard with his fingers.
Also, as we mentioned, hiking in the rain could be dangerous, and if possible it is even best to wait until there have been a few dry days in a row to make sure the rocks are as grippy as possible.
Stawamus Chief Provincial Park Facilities
The extensive day use areas have cold water taps (only running in summer), pit toilets, lots of picnic tables and one covered shelter. There are no showers or flush toilets. You can watch rock climbers from the highway pullout section, while the area next to the campground has great views of Squamish and Howe Sound.
The Stawamus Chief Campground has 52 vehicle-accessible campsites and 57 walk-in sites right next to the trailhead. All sites are first come, first served.
All in all, it was a pretty epic hike, absolutely a must-do for avid hikers. Comparing hikes is always difficult since the best tend to be pretty unique, but the Chief hike in Squamish definitely ranks up there among the best we’ve seen in Western Canada. Nearby Tunnel Bluffs also offers some terrific views of Howe Sound, plus British Columbia has a lot a great hiking choices which includes the nearby Eagle Bluffs hike on Cypress Mountain which was the most impressive of many good choices in North Vancouver, while East Sooke Coast Trail on Vancouver Island is a phenomenal coastal route. Hiking in Kelowna offers plenty of variety but lacks a standout option. If you have the time to make it into Alberta, the Canmore and Banff area features several of the best day hikes we’ve ever done. There are also a wide variety of hikes near The Chief as the area is literally littered with hiking trails.
You’ll have to think long and hard, though, about tackling the Chief if you don’t do much hiking, aren’t fit or don’t like heights. We saw a group on and off who were always waiting for their friend who was struggling mightily with the climb, lacked the agility needed for the scrambles and certainly wasn’t helped by hiking in Vans. We shudder to imagine how it went for her on the way back down. However, when visiting Squamish, The Chief hike should be on the list. If you aren’t up to all three peaks, doing just First Peak is a far more reasonable option, although if you were going to do just one, I would personally recommend going straight to Second Peak. Enjoy!
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