Trip reports

Stawamus Chief

“You’ve got to do the Chief,” West Coast Hiker Girl said, leaning over her beer at a pub in Surrey, British Columbia. Her partner nodded agreement, “Absolutely.” Mr. Adventure and I were on our way to Vancouver, where he had a meeting and I had a day to explore. A hike somewhere along the spectacularly scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway, which follows the coast from Vancouver to Whistler, sounded enticing.

The Stawamus (sta WAH muss) Chief is a triple-peak granite dome near Squamish, where the highway turns north from Howe Sound and heads into the mountains. At about 2300 feet, it’s one of the largest granite monoliths in the world and an internationally known rock climbing destination. West Coast Hiker Girl assured me the hike was worth the effort for the glorious views from the top. “Do the third summit first, because it’s the highest, then do the other two,” she advised. “No problem!”

Heeding her advice to go early — the Chief is a very popular hike — I arrived at Shannon Falls parking lot and looked for the cutoff trail to the Chief trail. Whoops, closed for the season. This meant I had to hike over to the Chief trailhead, which skirts the base of the Chief. The monolith looked imposing but not impossible. A short walk through the provincial park campground brought me to the trailhead, and I started up.

The Stawamus Chief towers over the parking lot
The Stawamus Chief towers over the parking lot (Lauren Danner photo)

Up. And up. And up.

You know how sometimes you read a trail description and think, okay, I can do that. Then when you get there you realize you skipped over some important detail, like the fact that the first half-mile of the Stawamus Chief trail was straight up stairs and boulder steps. No breaks except the occasional landing to catch your breath and look at Oleson Creek rollicking downhill. Just up and up and up. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the park website, which notes the trail to the third peak is 1.8 kilometers long with an elevation gain of 630 meters. Fooled by the easy-sounding metric measurements! If I’d taken five seconds to convert the stats, I’d have realized that this was a 1.1-mile trail with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. In other words, really steep.

One foot in front of the other for a half-mile-long stretch of stairs, with the occasional uneven boulder step for variety.
One foot in front of the other for a half-mile-long stretch of wooden stairs, with the occasional series of uneven boulder steps for variety. (Lauren Danner photo)

After the first kilometer, I reached the top of the stairs (so many stairs), staggered a ways up the blessedly level dirt trail, and took a long drink of water. The trail split, and most hikers were heading toward First and Second Peaks. I turned onto a narrower track that led into the forest along a dry stream bed. The gentle grade didn’t last long, and soon I was climbing, hand over foot, through a steep gully filled with boulders that separated the Third Peak from the other two.

It's hard to capture the steepness of this gully. You can see the yellow diamond trail marker in the lower right. The next one up required some neck-craning to spot.,
It’s hard to capture the steepness of this gully. You can see the yellow diamond trail marker in the lower right. The next one up required some neck-craning to spot. (Lauren Danner photo)

At the top of the gully, the trail hugged the side of a granite rib, emerging at a steep dropoff with no trail markers in sight. Huh? Where was I supposed to go? I turned around and saw the top of the rib leading upward. But it was so narrow, surely that wasn’t the trail. Just then two people started down it, looking tiny from my perspective. Guess I was going up some more.

Unless you're a rock climber, this granite rib is the only way to get to the top of the Chief's third peak.
Unless you’re a rock climber, this granite rib is the only way to get to the top of the Chief’s third peak. (Lauren Danner photo)

Third Peak summit

The rib wasn’t as bad as it looked, and I quickly reached the broad granite dome of Third Peak. West Coast Hiker Girl did not exaggerate the views. Down Howe Sound and the Sea-to-Sky Highway, up to Whistler, around to snow-capped mountains everywhere. I wandered all over the dome before sitting down, watching puffy clouds drift overhead and groping for superlatives.

Looking southward down Howe Sound and the Sea-to-Sky Highway from the summit of third peak.
Looking southward down Howe Sound and the Sea-to-Sky Highway from the summit of Third Peak. (Lauren Danner photo)
The Chief's third summit is the highest, with 360-degree views into the Coast Range.
The Chief’s third summit is the highest, with 360-degree views into the Coast Range. (Lauren Danner photo)
Melted snow forms a reflecting pool at the summit.
Melted snow forms a reflecting pool at the summit. (Lauren Danner photo)

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about having made it to the summit of Third Peak, but I didn’t particularly want to descend on the same route. How much harder could it be to go down via Second and First Peaks, I reasoned. This might be a good time to note that the Chief is an ancient magma plug exposed by glaciation, a phenomenon called a pluton. The same glaciers that shaped the Chief’s steep walls also carved Howe Sound and created the gorgeous vistas that attract visitors to this area.

A Squamish icon

According to Squamish Nation tradition, the Chief, known as Siyám Smánit, is where a mythical hero, Xwechtáal, defeated a two-headed sea serpent, Sínulhka, that terrorized the local peoples. The serpent’s flight over the mountain burned a deep, dark cleft into the Chief’s west-facing wall known as the Black Dyke.

Squamish creation stories envision the Chief as a spiritual longhouse. Four brothers came to the region to teach the people, and they transformed the longhouse into the mountain, trapping the spirits of the beings who lived there inside. The Squamish search the rock walls of the Chief for faces of the spirits, but they come and go, visible at different times to different people.

Second and First Peaks

As I descended from Third Peak, I wondered what the spirits made of the thousands of people who climb the Chief each year, hiking up the back or rock climbing the front. These climbers come from all over the world — I must have heard 20 languages swirling in a wonderful backcountry Babel. Crossing the top of the steep gully I’d ascended to Third Peak, I followed the trail through the woods and realized I could see into the clefts formed over millennia by weathering and fracturing. I noticed a flash of blue close to the edge of the trail, and then I saw the rock climbers.

The flash of color that caught my eye? A rock-climbing rope, leading to a gaggle of climbers.
The flash of color that caught my eye? A rock-climbing rope, leading to a gaggle of climbers. (Lauren Danner photo)
Tightroping across one of the Chief's deep clefts, rock climbers nab stunning views.
Tightroping across one of the Chief’s deep clefts, rock climbers nab stunning views. (Lauren Danner photo)
Rock climbers look like spiders in their webs.
Rock climbers look like spiders in their webs. (Lauren Danner photo)

I walked out onto the broad summit of Second Peak and promptly lost the trail. It’s hard to find the markers on wind-twisted krummholtz, so I just headed toward the voices I heard over the dome. Unlike Third Peak, plenty of hikers lounged on Second Peak. I took in the views: to my right, Third Peak; to the left, First Peak. By now it was late morning and many more people were on the trail, taking advantage of the lovely weather.

Hikers on Third Peak from my vantage point on Second Peak.
Seeing hikers on Third Peak from my vantage point on Second Peak made me feel pretty good, in an I-was-just-there way. (Lauren Danner photo)
Hikers on First Peak, the destination of most hikers on the Chief.
Hikers on First Peak, the destination of most hikers on the Chief. (Lauren Danner photo)

The descent

I’d found more people, but the trail still eluded me. My legs were starting to feel the effects of the climb up, and I decided two out of three summits were enough. Down sounded good. I casually started following a friendly group of about ten people wearing University of British Columbia gear who were also obviously looking for the trail. We regained the trail, but were immediately held up by swarms of hikers coming up from below.

Getting though the trail in either direction was a one-way affair, because you had to grab chains anchored into the rock and haul yourself down or up. After waiting for several dozen people to ascend, the leader of the UBC student group shouted down, “Hold up! We’ve been waiting a long time. Let us come down.” There was some grumbling from below, but we did get through, picking our way down what felt like miles of chain to the base of the dome. At one point, I lost the toehold I had on the rock. Only my grip on a tree root and the chain prevented me from falling. I watched my biceps take the strain of holding my body weight before I scrabbled my foot to a ledge. Let me tell you, I felt fierce right then, in no small part because the whole day, I hadn’t seen anyone older than about 25. My legs were killing me, but my brain was singing, “You rock, grrl!”

A few of the lovely UBC students who let me tag along as they descended the chief. Steep, huh?
A few of the lovely UBC students who let me tag along as they descended the chief. Steep, huh? (Lauren Danner photo)

Finally, we were off the dome and in the woods. Scrambling down over roots and boulders, we reached the top of the stairs. Oh yes, the stairs. I had to go down the same way I went up. As fleetfooted students and rope-laden rock climbers bounded past me, I slowly descended, trying not to jar my legs more than necessary. At one point, I just stepped off the path and leaned against the railing. This was hard, and it hurt. But I only had a couple hundred yards to go, and the path back through the campground and over to my car felt flat in comparison.

When I returned to my car, the parking lots were jammed and crowds filled the paths to Shannon Falls and lined up for tickets on the Sea-to-Sky gondola (an easier way to see the views, undoubtedly, but I was stoked from having made the climb). I took a small detour to look at the falls, then made my way through throngs of picnickers to my car. Waving down a car looking for a parking spot, I backed out and headed toward Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway. I’d just seen this road from the summit of Third Peak, snaking along Howe Sound. My legs would pay for this hike over the next couple of days, I knew. But West Coast Hiker Girl is right. You’ve got to do the Chief.

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