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A Chief Hike FAQ: Three Great Squamish Peaks

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The most celebrated trail in the Vancouver area, “The Chief” tops our list of 22 Best Squamish Hikes. However, even though the Chief hike in Squamish is very popular, it is no joke. Probably the most impressive hike we had done since leaving Canmore, it is very strenuous but rewards you with a lot of spectacular viewpoints.

Woman jumping with pond reflection and mountains in the background
Celebrating Peak 3

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 among a long list of Squamish highlights and activities.

The Chief Hike FAQ

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.

Woman climbing up steep rocks with the Howe Sound in the background

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.

Woman climbing down a steep rock on the Stawamus Chief hike
Chains are affixed to the stone in spots to help you up and down

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

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 – altogether it took us around 5 hrs with breaks.

Is the Chief harder than the Grouse Grind?

The Chief hike is harder. 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 trail 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

1. The Chief Hike 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 Sky gondola. Soon after you will have the choice to go left to the First Peak or straight to Second and/or Third Peak.

Metal ladder affixed to granite stone on the Chief hike in Squamish
Ladder on the way up to the First Peak

The route up to First Peak is steep and involves some scrambling and clambering but nothing overly crazy. There are a couple of 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.

Woman sitting on the Stawamus Chief Mountain First Peak enjoying the view of the Howe Sound with snow covered mountains in the background on The Chief hike
View from First Peak of the Squamish Chief hike

It is perfectly reasonable to make this your end goal since you get exceptional views and a pretty decent workout.

2. The Chief Hike 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.

The blue water of the Howe Sound framed with snowy mountains and the first peak of the Chief hike in front
View down to First Peak and the Howe Sound from Second Peak on the Chief Squamish hike

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.

3. The Chief Hike 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.

View through a narrow mountain crevice with a valley and mountains in the background
The North Gully

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.

Woman standing on the third peak of the Stawamus Chief Hike looking at the sea to sky highway, the howe sound and snowy mountains
View to the west on the Third Peak while hiking the Chief in Squamish

Getting Down From Stawamus Chief Mountain

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.

Woman hiking in the forest
The one bridge on the seemingly endless downhill

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).

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. And if you aren’t yet an expert climber but want to learn, this popular beginner rock climbing experience in nearby Whistler can get you started. Maybe after a few days you can work up to giving the Chief a try…

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.

Check out our complete guide to Camping in Squamish

Tips for the Chief Hike

The Chief hike is exhausting 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. 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.

Getting to the Chief Hike from Vancouver

Vancouver is the closest major centre to the Chief Hike. If you aren’t already there, it is usually the most convenient place to fly in. For checking out flights we usually find that SkyScanner is the fastest and most accurate site.

The Chief is located on Highway 99 (Sea to Sky HIghway) 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.

If you are flying to Vancouver, we highly recommend renting a car as most of the top sights, trails and attractions are difficult to reach via public transportation. It is also nice to be able to set your own schedule rather than relying on buses or shuttles. We have gotten good deals and had excellent experiences using Discover Cars out of Vancouver (and many other places around the world). They often have the best value options from the Vancouver airport.

You can also start the Chief hike from the Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot just south of the park. It is worth adding on a gondola ride ($60) 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 Chief Hike Packing List

It is always important to be prepared when venturing out hiking. Obviously, long, challenging hikes require more advance planning and safety gear but even for short hikes you still need to be properly equipped.

Dressing properly will make the experience much more enjoyable and carrying useful safety supplies can ensure you are prepared in case mishaps take place (as they tend to). Here is a quick checklist of items we alway carry, wear or use while hiking:

A good day pack is essential. We have recently become big fans of Gregory packs and would recommend the Gregory Miwok 18 for short hikes or when your gear is split between two people. And the Gregory Optic 48 for longer hikes. I know 48L sounds big but it is a super-light and comfortable pack that cinches down smaller when it isn’t full.

Man hiking through a meadow towards snowy mountain peaks
My Gregory Optic 48

Water is obviously important and we go back and forth between using a Camelbak bladder and just a couple of water bottles. We also keep a few Aquatabs with us at all times just in case we ever run low and want to treat some river or lake water.

They are tiny and every now and then come in quite handy. It is always a good idea to carry some snacks as well. It never hurts and sometimes hikes end up taking longer than planned.

Good socks! Everyone understands good shoes or boots are essential (my current favourites are Salomon Cross Hikes) but wearing good wool socks can make just as much of a difference:

Laynni always hikes in compression leggings that she swears by for the extra knee, hip and muscle support.

Layers, baby! You never know what kind of weather nature will throw at you so it pays to be ready for anything. Obviously, the forecast might change what you carry but if there is any doubt (and there almost always is in the mountains), bring extra.

Northface Canyonlands full zip fleece

Northface Venture rain jacket

Arc’teryx Incendo hooded wind jacket

Quechua 40L rain poncho

And just in case we are so impressed by the scenery that we decide it’s worth a photo with both of us in it we always carry the tiny, extremely handy octopus tripod.

Of course, a comprehensive first-aid kit is key to make sure those “mishaps” are simply inconvenient and don’t ruin your whole day.

Other useful items that we sometimes carry and sometimes don’t, depending on the hike:

Hiker Hunger Aluminum trekking poles

Auhike Stainless Steel Crampons

Sabre bear spray

Well, that probably covers most of it, although somehow we have even more to say on the matter in our Day Hike Packing List post. Check it out if you’re looking for even more detailed info.

Where to Stay: Squamish Hotels

There are plenty of good accommodation options in Squamish and we would definitely suggest sticking around awhile to check out some of the other excellent Squamish hikes after you’ve completed the Stawamus Chief hike.

If you’re into camping, here is a comprehensive list of all the campgrounds in and around Squamish (including Stawamus Chief Provincial Park).

Or if you prefer 4 walls and a bed, here are some excellent hotel options in the area:

Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company

The Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company is one of the best lounges in Squamish but they also have excellent rooms for those looking to settle in for awhile. A relatively affordable choice for the area, this modern hotel has a range of rooms, some with outstanding mountain views. Right in the heart of the city, it is a convenient, comfortable choice.

Click here for room prices at Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company

Mountain Retreat

The Mountain Retreat has an indoor pool and hot tub, a fantastic on-site restaurant and a very convenient location right in the centre of town, just off the highway.

Click here for prices and availability at Mountain Retreat

Crash Hotel Squamish

Right in the centre of it all (and very close to the Goat Pub), the Crash Hotel Squamish is very popular with adventure seekers who want to be close to all the trails and rock climbing routes.

Click here for prices and availability at Crash Hotel Squamish

Squamish Highlands Bed & Breakfast

Finally, the Squamish Highlands Bed & Breakfast is a highly recommended (and reasonably affordable) luxury option located up in the hills above town. If you have your own wheels this is a terrific choice, known for the outstanding views, fabulous breakfast and friendly, helpful hosts.

Click here for prices and availability at Squamish Highlands Bed & Breakfast

Other Great Day Hikes

Nearby Tunnel Bluffs also offers some terrific views of Howe Sound, plus Bowen Island has a lot a great hiking choices. Then there is 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.

East Sooke Coast Trail
East Sooke Coast Trail

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 Squamish as the area is literally littered with hiking trails.

Two green lakes and a sharply peaked mountain on the Smutwood Peak hike, one of the best hikes Canmore
Smutwood Peak near Canmore

Trip Planning Resources

Here is a list of the most important resources we use when planning our travels, all in one convenient spot. Full disclosure, when you use any of these links to reserve or sign up for something, we receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated. However, your price does not change and we have only included products and websites that we can honestly recommend.

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  • If you’re interested in local guided tours, including everything from city tours to cooking lessons to adventure activities, check out the huge range of options at Get Your Guide.

Stawamus Chief Hike Summary

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 British Columbia.

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 definitely be on your list. Even if you aren’t up to tackling all three peaks, doing just First Peak is a far more reasonable option. However, if you were going to do just one, I would personally recommend going straight to Second Peak. Enjoy!

Other useful articles you may want to check out:

Brohm Lake: The Perfect Place to Hike, Float, Jump and Fish

Cat Lake: Squamish’s Wonderful Summer Playground

Lillooet Lake: Camping, Fishing and Floating

Pemberton Camping: 8 Great Rustic Campgrounds

Seton Lake: Stunning Blue Water and a Viewpoint Hike

Hiking on Bowen Island

Snug Cove on Bowen Island: 11 Reasons to Visit

Teapot Hill Hike: An Easy Family Trail with a Twist

The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary