View from the Top: Hiking the Stawamus Chief

The view from atop the Stawamus Chief is the proverbial cherry on top of a great hike

Credit: Luc Hilderman

Kristen takes in the humbling view from the peak of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish

The view from atop the Stawamus Chief is the proverbial cherry on top of a great hike

When Vancouverites get a hankering for a hike, the majority default to Grouse Mountain’s infamous Grind. But not me; I’m one of the few who would rather poke out my own eyes than ever go through that again.

So when May relinquished its crummy weather to the sporadic sunny days of June, I looked further north and took to the Squamish mountains for a little West Coast adventure. I’ve had my eyes on the Stawamus Chief for years—basically every drive to Whistler since I could walk—so it was surprising even to myself that it took this long to make the ascent.

Hiking Squamish’s Stawamus Chief

The Chief towers above Highway 99 at 700 impressive, intimidating metres. The terrain on the way up is a lot like the grind in many ways—wooden stairs with smooth banisters worn down by shaky hands; twisty, sodden paths; deceptively slippery rocks; and bonus, the most amazing, eclectic group of hikers. We’re talking fitness buffs, khaki-clad tourists, small dogs, big dogs, children, photographers, Mr. and Mrs. head-to-toe spandex, and me and my fiancé.

There we were, ready to hike, and only 10 minutes in I’m at the side of the trail playing at the bottom of a waterfall. The beauty of this hike though, is that you can make as many exploratory detours as you want. We stopped several times, taking photos, petting dogs, and of course, the obligatory water breaks.

The culture around the Stawamus Chief allows that kind of leisurely yet purposeful march to the top. That’s what made it more enjoyable than the Grind; nobody in a fanny pack asked me what my climbing time was when I got to the top. And when I finally did reach the peak, the view was shared with fellow climbers, all of whom had also earned that view. It gave me a different sense of accomplishment, knowing that the only way to the top is by foot. There were a few kids and babies in backpacks that got a free ride, but I let that slide.

Finding Adventure Near the Top

The final 20 minutes of the hike were when things started to get interesting in a uniquely physically challenging kind of way. Hikers have to squeeze through slim crevasses and up dizzying rock faces, but not without the aid of some strategically placed chains. “It’s gonna get a little scary,” one descending hiker warned us.

Heaving ourselves up a particularly steep slope while clinging to chains wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was a heck of a good time. It’s the kind of dynamism I look for in an outdoor adventure. 

It’s All about the View of Howe Sound

The hike was memorable, challenging and enjoyable, but it was quickly overshadowed by the panoramic views from the Chief’s peak. Finally emerging at the top, I felt like my surroundings were going to swallow me whole. Howe Sound’s immense waters could make even the most jaded city-dweller wide-eyed with awe.

Towering above the highway and city, sitting atop the Chief makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled into an alternate dimension. The views make you feel like a mere speck in the universe, but at the same time they make you feel superhuman, like you could do anything.

We took the road less travelled on the descent. A couple of guys looking for the lesser-known back route goaded us into following them. There were tree markers emblazoning our exit route, but the path itself left much to be desired.

We took the uneven terrain as a challenge and ended up jogging most of the way down, eventually finding solace in that waterfall from the beginning of the hike. My polar bear of a fiancé took the plunge in the icy, glacier-fed pool while I was content to dangle my feet in the shallows and take in the view.

I wish I could get that chip off my shoulder and do the Grind again, but I’m already planning our next trip to the Chief. True, we could barely walk the next day, but we had too much fun not to do it again.

Visit my blog for a video slideshow of the trip to the top.

Kristen Gladiuk is a born-and-raised BC girl and a Master of Publishing student at SFU. She blogs at about her insatiable appetite for books, live music, food and wine, and has been known to write a post or two about DIY wedding planning.