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.

Hiking ECT: Deadman’s Bay Path

I haven’t hiked Deadman’s Bay Path since 2019, but it is one of my favourite trail sections on the ECT and I’ve done it 3 times. Most recently I did it with Lien and Brandon when they visited Newfoundland for my wedding, but I’ve also solo hiked it in the past. This section of the trail runs from Fort Amherst to Blackhead and is approximately 10.5km in length. I feel like it has a bit of a bad rep because of the steep climb out of Fort Amherst, but I think it’s unjustified because it’s only a steep climb and the views from the top and along most of the trail are really unparalleled.

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You can hike the trail in either direction, but I’ve always done it from Fort Amherst to Blackhead. If you try to logic that the other direction will avoid the steep climb, you’ll just have to do it out of Freshwater Bay instead, so either option is basically the same. I definitely recommend 2 vehicles for this trail since you won’t want to have to turn around and go back the entire trail, but given the proximity to St. John’s, it’s easy to get dropped off or picked up on one end. If you’re looking for a shorter day, you could also exit at Freshwater Bay or just turn around at Freshwater Bay and only do half the trail. I haven’t done the Freshwater Bay access trail in years, but I believe it’s about a 45 minute walk.

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If you start in Fort Amherst, you can visit the lighthouse and get the climb out of the way early. It only takes me about 15 minutes to climb up to the top of the bluff and once there, you’ll have an amazing view of Signal Hill and downtown St. John’s. One time I started the trail around noon and ate my lunch once I reached the top so I could enjoy the view a bit longer. If you don’t want to do the whole trail and are just looking for an hour long walk to get some exercise, I suggest doing the climb up to the top and just enjoying the view before turning around. It’s a great workout and will help build up your stamina.

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After that, the trail meanders along the top of the cliff without too much up or down. It goes in and out of the trees and past a few water holes, all with fantastic views of the coastline. Right around the 4.5km mark you start the downhill section into Freshwater Bay (which is the worst uphill part if you go the opposite direction). Freshwater Bay is another lovely short hike on it’s own if you want to park off Blackhead Road on the way to Signal Hill and hike in. It’s marked by the long strip of beach that separates Freshwater Bay Pond from Freshwater Bay – I’ve never swam in the pond myself, but Emily has and it makes for a good cool down on a nice day.

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I had a minor breakdown at Freshwater Bay when I hiked it with Lien and Brandon because I forgot sunscreen and was petrified of getting a sunburn or awful tan lines before the wedding, but fortunately a kind stranger happened upon us at the exact right moment and lent me some! Freshwater Bay is located at ~5.5km, so it makes for a good halfway point to stop and have lunch if you’re doing the whole trail.

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After crossing the beach, you head back up into the woods and traverse along the edge of the bay. The trail comes out of the woods at the end and I recommend following the trail out to the viewpoint on Small Point for amazing views back to St. John’s and out to Cape Spear. After Small Point the views are more about Cape Spear than St. John’s and the trail winds it’s way around Deadman’s Bay before finally heading into Blackhead. The trail is pretty exposed walking into Blackhead, so gets pretty windy and you can get hit with ocean spray on a particularly blustery day.

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If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can continue for another 4-5km to Cape Spear on Blackhead Path. I did this once when I was hiking solo and I was ahead of schedule for when my Dad was going to pick me up. It’s not a difficult trail, but it will significantly lengthen the hike, so most often I just end at Blackhead. I’m about 60% through the East Coast Trail to date, but Deadman’s Bay Path remains one of my favourite trails, and given it’s proximity to the city, I definitely recommend!

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ECT Series: Silver Mine Head Path

This is going to be a short post for a short trail. Silver Mine Head Path runs from Middle Cove Beach to Motion Drive on the edge of Torbay. If you want to take 2 cars, it’s approximately 2km one way, but given the short distance, it’s still only 4km to walk there and back, which is what I did.

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Silver Mine Head Path was never really a priority for me because it was so short (funny how that happens), but it was the only section of trail I hadn’t done on between St. John’s and St. Francis, so I decided to fit it in one morning when I was home in August 2021. I parked at Middle Cove Beach and walked towards Torbay – it only took me an hour and a half and it was a gorgeous sunny day, so I finished it off with a dip in the ocean! Not something I normally do, but I’ve been getting more into cold water swimming in the last few years. I always thought North Atlantic Ocean was the coldest place to swim, but it turns out in the middle of the summer, the glacier fed lakes in BC are a fair bit colder!

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For such a short walk, Silver Mine Head Path gives you a really good bang for your buck. It starts with a short climb up to the top of the bluff and then you continue along the scenic coast all the way to Torbay and back. There’s not too much going on since it’s a short trail, but there aren’t many trees either, so I enjoyed the beautiful ocean views. Plus I really liked the grassy meadows on the Torbay side of the hike – I imagine it would be a great place for lupins at the right time of year (or at the very least, fireweed).

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So in conclusion, this is the hike to do if you’re looking for a short walk after work or on a Sunday morning. Along with hiking out to Torbay Point and back (on Cobbler’s Path), I think both trails make for great evening walks when you only have an hour or two and are craving that fresh salty air. I’ve always gone to Signal Hill, but I’ll be hitting up these trails instead in the future!

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