Colorado is home to some of the tallest peaks in the country. With 53 peaks that rank taller than 14,000 ft., it’s safe to say Colorado is prime time “fourteener country”. Hiking to the top of one is something many strive for. Some might do it to see how fast they can summit, and some might do it because it’s a challenge. But everyone who hikes one can agree – it’s also all about the views. If you have aspirations of one day accomplishing this, Chief Mountain might be a good place to start.
Chief Mountain is just off of Squaw Pass Road outside of Evergreen, CO. A little farther up the road is Echo Lake Mountain Park which is essentially the gateway to Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in the country. Chief Mountain stands 11,710 ft tall, just a few hundred feet below tree line. Despite its elevation, Chief Mountain is a foothill in comparison to the other surrounding mountains of the Continental Divide. The hike itself is moderately easy, but hiking it can give you an idea of what higher elevation peak trails are like. Toward the end of the trail, the scene will start to resemble that of the rocky and boulder ridden summits of Thirteen and Fourteen thousand foot peaks. To get to the top of Chief will require a slight scramble and some maneuvering across boulders and rocks to reach the peak.
Getting to the trailhead can be difficult depending on the time of the year. Snowfall can often times obstruct the actual trailhead sign which sits literally off the side of the road, meaning there is no parking lot. The best way to find it is to head up Squaw Pass Road for about 12 miles until you pass Squaw Pass Fire Tower, and then reach the Echo Mountain Ski Resort. When you see the gondola just off the road, you’ll know you have arrived. There are typically parking spots on the same side as the ski resort that can hold about seven or eight cars. Park and cross the road, then the trailhead sign will become visible. The trail will start south up into the side of the mountain above.
At this point you are entering the part of the hike where the trees begin to dissipate, vegetation starts to decline, and the trail becomes noticeably more rocky. The trees become warped in these zones due to the lack of oxygen there is just below tree line. Above this elevation only alpine vegetation is capable of growing. You can also see the rather rare and ancient Bristlecone Pine in this area.
The trail will cut back to the east as you begin the final ascent of the hike. Just another quarter of a mile more and you’ll be on the backside of Chief Mountain again. From here, look to the east and you will see the Squaw Pass Fire Tower sitting atop the mountain across the way. Back to your west you will see your final destination, the rocky, craggy, outcropping that sits atop Chief Mountain.
Continue up the trail for one final push to the top. Hike up a few more switchbacks and navigate through talus and you will find yourself just below the summit. Once you get there, scramble up the large rocks to gain the highest vantage point.
At the top, the Continental Divide will unfold before you. Look across the Bear Creek Basin, Mt. Evans is clearly visible, and on an extremely clear day, you can even spot cars driving up the road. You can also view Mount Goliath, Rogers Peak and Roslin Peak from this vantage point, and to the North, James Peak and the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
If you plan on hanging out for a while, the peak itself serves as a nice spot to post up and relax. The top is riddled with little nooks and crannies to hang out. If it’s an extremely windy day, these spots will provide some refuge from the winds.
Once you have returned back down the way you came, you have a few more options if you’re trying to pack a little more fun into your day trip. You could head back to the Squaw Pass Fire Tower hike and tackle that hike, which is very similar in difficulty and length to Chief Mountain. The mountain town of Idaho Springs is also nearby, as is Evergreen. You could even take a leisurely drive up Mt. Evans. Whether you decide to explore the areas nearby, or just decide to head home, Chief Mountain will certainly have you dreaming of bigger peaks and craving more high altitude adventure.
Well maintained and clearly marked. May need snowshoes or spikes during the winter months.
Chief Mountain is between Evergreen and Idaho Springs on Highway 103. From Denver, take I-70 West to Exit 252. Head south on Colorado 74 for about 3.4 miles until you reach Colorado road 103. Turn right onto Squaw Pass Road, and follow the road for about 12.5 miles until you pass mile marker 18, and see the sign for Echo Mountain. Park on the right off the road.
With wildifres, smoke conditions, COVID-19, and National Forest and other public land closures rampant, please reach out to the land management agency in charge before you head out for a hike to make sure the trail is open and safe to be on.