Hiking The Chief

There are lots of popular hikes in Southwest BC, but I would argue that The Chief in Squamish is one of the most iconic. I had experience hiking before I moved to BC, but my practical knowledge was very limited and has grown enormously since I moved here. The only trail I was aware of before moving across the country was the West Coast Trail and I thought it was similar to the East Coast Trail in that it extended down the entire West Coast and could be day hiked in sections like in Newfoundland. I was obviously very wrong and quickly learned that it is actually a remote hike that requires substantial backpacking skills over 7+ days.

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Similarly, somehow I heard about The Chief soon after moving here and decided it was a great trail on which to start my west coast hiking adventures. So one sunny day in early June 2014 when my Dad was visiting, we drove out to Squamish to tackle the beast. Looking back on the experience now, it’s a bit comical. We left Vancouver late in the morning and were amazed that we couldn’t find anywhere to park (not a problem in Newfoundland). We ended up finding a place at Shannon Falls (this was before the Sea-to-Sky gondola) and decided to hike up to the First Peak from there. It’s easy to judge people that head blindly into the backcountry with no experience, but that was also how I first started adventuring when I moved here, so I can relate. There’s a very different culture on the East Coast, and while I think East Coaster’s could be a little more prepared, the level of risk associated with hiking in the mountains is a great deal higher on the West Coast.

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So I don’t think tackling The Chief as my very first hike was a great idea, but fortunately we didn’t get into any trouble on this hike, or any future hikes, while I was building up my safety and adventure smart knowledge. I remember the hike being very strenuous and it taking us a long time to hike up all the stairs to the top. I remember the rope and chain sections, but I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe on the trail. I bring this up because I recently re-visited this trail in May (8 years after my first visit) to hike to the Second Peak and it brought back a lot of memories that caused me to reflect on this trail and my journey since that very first hike.

The Chief is a hard trail. As my knowledge has grown and I’ve had experiences that required better trip preparedness and wilderness first aid, I’ve become both more safety conscious and risk adverse. It’s easy to walk blindly into situations that we are unprepared for in the wilderness and I’m not surprised to find that The Chief is one of the most visited places by BC Search and Rescue. I can’t quite trust my memory, so perhaps the First Peak is easier than the Second Peak, but returning there this year I felt quite astounded at how challenging The Chief is for how many visitors it receives.

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There are many rope climbs, narrow sections with steep drops, a ladder, and steep scrambles over slippery rock. The challenges are exacerbated by the crowds, which create bottlenecks at critical junctions. I’m sure this creates a sense of impatience among hikers that could result in mistakes at challenging locations if people are trying to hurry. I felt like it would be hard to lose the trail (though this does happen), but easy to get an injury. We were able to mostly avoid this with a very early hiking start, but it did make for a slower hike back down on the way out.

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So I definitely don’t recommend this hike for everyone. I’d like to return some day for the Third Peak, but after my last visit I can’t say I’m in a huge rush to do it again. Like I said, I’m reluctant to trust my memory, but given my recent experience with the Second Peak, I’m inclined to say that it’s a bit easier going up the First Peak (which I have done twice in the past). All 3 trails start at the same trailhead and it’s an easy flat walk through the walk-in campsites before you hit the stairs. Once you hit the stairs, it’s all uphill for the rest of the hike. It starts with constructed wooden staircase (which on its own is even challenging because the steps are very shallow and steep), but it quickly transitions to stone steps for the rest of the hike.

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Approximately 1.1km into the trail, there is a right branch that you can take to get onto the Sea to Sky trail or the branch to Third Peak. I’ve also done the Sea to Sky trail which climbs up to the gondola (you take the gondola down). It’s a very steep trail, but doesn’t feel as perilous as The Chief. I haven’t taken the branch to the Third Peak, but you can access it either through here or continuing on from the Second Peak. The topography looks a bit gentler than the trails to First and Second Peak, so if I do return for this peak, I’ll take that trail instead.

If you continue on past this branch, you’ll hit the second branch to the First and Second Peaks around 1.8km. It’s a shorter hike up to the First Peak – some apps show a trail connected the First Peak to the Second Peak trail, but it’s a climbing route, so do not attempt! In terms of views, both the First and Second Peaks have incredible views. The First Peak is the closest to Howe Sound, so if you want to snag some photos of the vibrant blue water, I’d pick this one. The Second Peak is higher and looks down on the First Peak and provides more of a bird’s eye view of Squamish.

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My visit to the Second Peak was a little sentimental because I hiked with Karen and Grant. Karen is my oldest friend (27 years and counting) and they recently moved back to Newfoundland after also spending the last 8 years in Vancouver. The Chief was my first ever hike here and also the last one that I did with Karen and Grant. We’ve all grown a lot since then and even though the climb is still strenuous, the stairs didn’t have us as breathless and panting as they did when we first moved here.

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The Second Peak is quite exposed for the last section – there’s no marked trail, you just scramble up the rock until there’s no where higher to go. We had the summit mostly to ourselves due to our early start and we stayed up there for a while snacking and taking some photos before hiking back down to get beers and pizza at Backcountry Brewing. The climb is tiring, but I always find the hike down worse. Take your time and do the rope and ladder sections backwards. There’s one particularly challenging part before the ladder that me and Karen both struggled on because we are shorter. There were more people on the trail on the way back, which slowed us down, but we made sure not to rush on the top section and talked each other through it on the way back. My biggest word of advice would definitely be not to do this hike if it’s rainy as the rock will become a big slip’n’slide.

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So that is my assessment of The Chief. I feel really different about it now than I did 8 years ago and I think that comes from better understanding the risks. Sometimes a little knowledge is almost worse than no knowledge because you don’t understand the depth of your unknowns. If you’re new to hiking, I’d recommend taking the Sea-to-Sky gondola instead of hiking The Chief. It has just as incredible (if not better) views as The Chief, but has much easier and well-maintained trails. There’s no shame in doing the easier hike. I just want to present a bit of a different perspective on The Chief because I don’t want people to blindly walk into it the way that I did when I first moved here. I still think it’s a great hike, but something to work your way up to.

Let’s Talk: Campfires

There’s only really one thing that matters when it comes to having a campfire in the backcountry – if it’s not allowed, DON’T DO IT. I’ve camped in so many locations and there’s almost always one group breaking the campfire rule. Just because someone else is doing it does not make it okay for you to have a campfire too. Just because you see evidence of fires from past campers does not make it okay to have a campfire. Forgetting to check in advance if fires are allowed also does not give you the right to have a fire. Campfires are not an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” issue. Respect the backcountry and always check first.

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If you want to have a campfire when you’re hiking, there’s two things you should check in advance:

  1. Whether campfires are permitted. Most Provincial Parks don’t allow fires in the backcountry, though there are definitely some that do. Fires are a risk in parks and they can be destructive to the natural environment, but I think the main reason why Parks don’t allow fires is because of the impact of firewood collection. People will cut down and destroy live trees and shrubs in their zeal for foraging firewood and even dead branches have a lot of value to the forest ecosystem, so usually, parks are better off left alone.
  2. If there’s a fire ban. Regardless of whether fires are permitted or not, if there’s a fire ban in the area that you are camping in, then you cannot have a fire. Hopefully I don’t have to explain the risk of this one given the wildfires spreading all over the Pacific Northwest the last couple of years. So I usually try and prioritize campfire friendly locations in Spring and Fall since the fire ban will likely prohibit any fires throughout the summer regardless of location.

However, there are some times when you will be able to have a fire! The coastal trails on Vancouver Island (above photo) are a great place if you’re looking to have a campfire because the damp environment keeps the wildfire risk low and there’s lots of driftwood to burn, which has lower ecological value. Often if you stick to trail networks that are outside of park systems, fires are generally permitted as well, though there are some parks that permit campfires. Finally, if there’s no fire ban, campfires are almost always permitted in frontcountry campsites! This is a great way to enjoy a campfire because you don’t have to forage for firewood and there are often firepits provided, creating a safer environment for fires.

But if you are lucky enough to find yourself at a backcountry location where fires are permitted, what should you keep in mind?

  1. Safety: pick a good location for your fire. It should be away from your tent and anything that could catch fire from flankers. If possible, build a fire ring out of rocks to help contain the fire, or dig a pit in the sand, and always have a source nearby to put out the fire. Carolyn’s trick is to fill all our pots with water and keep them next to the fire in case it spreads. Or if you’re on the beach have sand nearby to throw on the fire.
  2. Firewood: like I’ve discussed above, try and disturb the surrounding environment as little as possible. Beach campfires are great because it’s easier to find rocks to create a pit and driftwood makes for great firewood. Never take branches from living trees and avoid larger logs – these are generally wet and provide valuable habitat to many forest critters. Stick to smaller deadfall that will be easier to burn and has less ecological value.
  3. Put out your fire: never leave a fire burning after you’re done with it. Even if it’s just embers left, douse them with water or throw sand on top. A fire should never be left unattended.

Tips for starting your fire:

  1. Stack your wood, by which I mean, start with smaller dry materials, move up to twigs, then sticks, then logs. As the fire grows, start adding the bigger pieces of wood to keep it going. Collect enough wood in advance so that you don’t have to leave the fire unattended to look for more. Use a pocket knife to make wood shavings for kindling, or find some small twigs from the underbrush.
  2. Bring a firestarter to help speed things along. I like to use fluffed up tampons because they’re tiny and burn well, but Brandon dips pieces of paper towel in hot wax and brings them with him. If you don’t mind carrying something a little bulkier, the old dryer lint stuffed in an egg carton and dipped in wax works great too.
  3. Make sure your fire always has oxygen. Use a pot lid to blow some air into the fire when you’re getting started and have a fire poking stick to turn logs over and keep the fire fresh.

I’m not really a fire expert, so if you have any more tips to share or if I missed anything, please let me know and I’m happy to add! Just remember, only you can prevent forest fires!

Kayaking Barnet Marine Park

Since we got our own kayaks, we finally had a reason to check out Barnet Marine Park! I’ve seen it a few times hiking from Belcarra, but had never visited. We decided to check in out during the unseasonably warm weather we got in mid-April in 2021 and loved it!

Barnet Marine Park is located just off – you guessed it – Barnet Highway! It’s behind Burnaby Mountain, at the narrowest part of Burrard Inlet, where it branches and you can either head east into Port Moody, or north up Indian Arm. There’s a lovely sandy beach area that’s popular among picnickers, and it’s only a short paddle across the channel to Belcarra Regional Park.

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To date, we’ve mostly been accessing the water from the parking lot in Belcarra, but that is a much smaller lot and you have to get up a lot earlier to secure parking (plus it’s a longer drive). The Barnet parking lot definitely fills up too, but it’s a lot larger so you don’t have to get up quite as early to get a spot. It has more of an urban feel than Belcarra, but I suspect we’ll spend a lot more time here in the future because of its practicality. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for Indian Arm because it will add length to your paddle, but I’d like to return some evening for a sunset paddle, as I think it’s a great location for when you just want to get out on the water for an hour!

The only downside when we visited is that they’ve closed the drop-off loop that goes right down to the beach, so you have to unload the boats at the first loop, which makes for a longer walk down (although that may have changed more recently). We have a set of wheels for our kayaks, so it’s manageable, just makes for a bit more work – I’m glad we didn’t have to carry them though. We went on a hot day and got there somewhere between 9:30-10am and didn’t have any trouble finding parking. When we left around 1pm though it was a lot busier!

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We launched out into the inlet and basically paddled back up to Belcarra. You could also paddle along the shore to Port Moody, but it’s pretty industrial, so we paddled over to Burns Point instead and made our way back to the main launch in Belcarra. We stopped at a small beach along the way for a snack and to avoid the busy launch, then we paddled around Boulder Island before heading back. It’s not a strenuous paddle, but it made for a nice 2-3 hours on the water. We definitely could have been faster, but we were in no rush so we just took our time.

It’s definitely a popular place for paddlers though – there were tons of kayaks and SUPs out on the water when we were out there and I imagine it probably gets busier as it gets warmer. Overall we really liked it, and I hope to return this year!

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