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Hike the Chief Mountain Trail

Chief Mountain Trail: Everything You Need to Know

The Chief Mountain Trail is a short but sweet hike less than an hour west of Denver. Starting out in the forest, you climb a series of switchbacks until you pass above the tree line and reach the summit. The mountain’s prominence, height, and lack of summit cover means you get to experience spectacular 360 degree views. Learn what you need to know to have a safe and successful ascent with our complete hiking guide below for the Chief Mountain Trail. Let’s dig in!

Chief Mountain Trail: Hiking Fast Facts


You are responsible for your own safety in the backcountry.

These peaks can be unpredictable and dangerous. Help is often hours or days away: your safety is primarily your responsibility. Prepare for your trek, understand your limits, be aware of the risks, and equip yourself with the necessary skills and gear. 

Hiking the Chief Mountain Trail

From I-70 West in Denver

  1. Take exit 252 for CO-74/Evergreen Parkway.
  2. Head south on CO-74 for 2 miles.
  3. Turn right onto Squaw Pass Road.
  4. Follow Squaw Pass Road for 10.4 miles.
  5. The trailhead will be on the right-hand side of the road, just past mile marker 18.

Total Distance: 40 miles

Total Time: 55 minutes

Trailhead Information

The trailhead is on the south side of Squaw Pass Road, just past mile marker 18. It is small and can get crowded, especially on weekends. There is a small fee to park at the trailhead. While the trailhead is open year-round, it is best to hike in the summer or fall when the weather is warm and dry.

Additional Chief Mountain Trailhead Info

Located in the heart of north central Colorado, the Chief Mountain Trail presents an exhilarating hiking experience with breathtaking views of the iconic Rocky Mountains. Beginning your ascent through the aromatic pines of the Arapaho National Forest, the trail soon offers a natural clearing, where the treeline recedes and the landscape stretches out in a grand panorama.

From this point onwards, the trail becomes short yet steep, a challenging path that is amply rewarded with spectacular 360-degree vistas. Marvel at the majestic beauty of notable peaks such as Pikes and Longs, prominently visible against the skyline. The trail itself is characterized by its rocky terrain, meticulously maintained for safety and accessibility. Clear markers guide hikers along the path, ensuring a seamless navigation through the landscape.

Parking is available along the roadside, but be prepared for potential limitations, especially during weekends, as there are no dedicated parking facilities at the trailhead itself. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just seeking a day out in nature, the Chief Mountain Trail offers an unforgettable journey through the heart of Colorado’s mountainous beauty.

Never rely 100% on your phone for navigation. I recommend saving a digital copy on your phone and printing out a paper backup copy in case something happens to it. Phone screens shatter and batteries die – best to be prepared!

Below are several weather forecasts for Chief Mountain Peak near Idaho Springs, Colorado. It is important to check conditions several times leading up to the day of your hike. Make note of the high and low temperatures, precipitation, wind, and any risk of storms.

Note: In summer, thunderstorms are common during the afternoon. Start early, before 9 am, to ensure you are finished by 1 pm when lightning becomes more likely.

Looking for hiking gear to help you tackle the Chief Mountain Trail? We have you covered; here are some of our favorite hiking boots, backpacks, navigation devices, and other gear for those visiting Colorado.

Hiking Boots: Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid GORE-TEX Boots

Power through ascents and stay comfortable on your way back down in any weather with Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid GORE-TEX men’s hiking boots. They give you the stability and grip you need, plus a higher cut for extra ankle support.

Buy at REI 

Backpack: Osprey Talon 22

Osprey is known for the quality of its bags and backpacks and the Talon 22 is no exception. The Talon 22 is my standard choice for day hikes, with enough space for the ten essentials and some extra food and water, along with helpful accessories like a place to stash your trek poles and climbing helmet for class 3 and 4 routes. I highly recommend it for day hikes and 14ers too. 

Buy at REI →

Trek Poles: REI Co-op Traverse Trekking Poles

Trek poles provide stability while hiking and help you use your upper body strength while moving to give your legs a break. These award-winning poles from REI are lightweight, strong, and adjustable for rugged terrain.

Buy at REI →

Always Pack the Ten Essentials

The ten essentials are the most important pieces of gear you need to survive in an emergency in the backcountry. They empower you to actively respond to a crisis instead of passively waiting for search and rescue to respond. You should tweak the specific equipment you bring on each hike according to conditions, but you should always have something for each of these ten categories.

1. Navigation Gear
I recommend bringing a map and compass. If you want to use GPS, get a dedicated unit. Phone batteries die quickly in the cold on a 14er.

2. Headlamp and Batteries
Even if you don’t plan to be out until dark, you can’t plan for everything. If you’re running behind, having the ability to see – and be seen – is everything. 

3. Emergency Shelter
When bad weather strikes without warning or someone falls and is injured, a shelter to get out of the elements can save your life. 

4. Extra Water
Bring 2 liters of water per person on your hike – if not more. You also want to bring a purification system to get more if you get stuck outside. That could be purification pills or life straw.

5. Extra Food
I recommend packing 1,000-2,000 extra calories while hiking. If you do get stuck out there longer than expected, some extra power gel or energy bars will make a big difference.

6. Knife or Multi-tool
The benefits of having this around in an emergency are self-evident: You can prepare firewood, create a shelter, fix gear, and solve other problems. I recommend a leatherman multitool, which is so much more helpful than just a knife.

7. Sunglasses and Sunscreen
The solar radiation is powerful when you are above the tree line. Bringing strong sunscren (60+ SPF) is recommended to avoid sunburn. Bring a pair of polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes too.

8. Fire-Starting Kit
If you get stuck outdoors in the mountains, the cold is one of the biggest immediate threats to your life. Being able to start a fire can keep you alive through a cold night. Bring a small kit with matches and a tinder for starting a fire.

9. First Aid Kit
For day hikes you don’t need to go overboard. Some bandages, moleskin, and pain relief medication is more than enough to deal with falls and scrapes, blisters, and altitude sickness. 

10. Extra Layers
Bring one layer beyond what you expect to wear. In summer, that usually means bringing an extra coat or jacket you keep packed away in your bag. If you end up stuck outside overnight with a broken ankle, you will be very happy you brought it with you. Nanopuff jackets from Patagonia are lightweight but provide a ton of warmth.

Satellite Messenger/SOS Device: Garmin InReach Mini

When something goes wrong out on the trail, it is immensely helpful to be able to contact search and rescue teams quickly. Many areas in the mountains do not have dependable cell service. A satellite messenger or personal locator beacon allows you to call for help in an emergency in almost any location. They are expensive and require a subscription, but they have saved many lives.

I recommend the Garmin InReach Mini 2, which also offers premium GPS mapping in addition to text and SOS features.

Buy at REI →

Campsites near Idaho Springs aren’t always easy to find due to the large number of people in the area. Check out the campgrounds below and reserve a site in advance to ensure you have a place to stay.

Camping near Chief  Mountain and Idaho Springs, Colorado:

There are also some dispersed camping opportunities along forest roads in the area, most require staying in signed, designated campsites.

Lodging near Chief Mountain and Idaho Springs, Colorado:

Not a fan of camping? Here are some great motels and hotels in the area for those visiting to hike Chief Mountain.

There are many cabins available via Airbnb and other services in Idaho Springs and Evergreen. They’re a perfect solution for staying the night before or after hiking to the summit of Chief Mountain.

Note: As a affiliate I receive a small commission if you book a room using the links above – but your price remains the same. Thanks for supporting The Next Summit.

Chief Mountain is climbed by thousands of people every year. To help limit the impact of these growing numbers, please follow these simple Leave No Trace practices to protect and preserve these mountains for future generations to enjoy.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Research the park’s rules and regulations, trail conditions, and weather forecasts before embarking on your adventure. Ensure you have the right equipment, clothing, and food to minimize waste and reduce your reliance on park facilities.

  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stay on designated trails and avoid creating new paths, as this can damage fragile ecosystems. When camping, use established sites or camp at least 200 feet away from lakes, streams, and trails to protect water quality and minimize disturbance to wildlife.

  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter to prevent pollution and the spread of disease. Use designated bathroom facilities or, when not available, dig a “cathole” at least 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water sources. Cover and disguise the hole when finished.

  4. Leave What You Find: Respect the park’s natural and cultural heritage by leaving rocks, plants, and other natural features undisturbed. Do not build structures, dig trenches, or remove any historical artifacts.

  5. Minimize Campfire Impact: Use a camp stove for cooking instead of making a fire, as this helps prevent damage to the environment and reduces the risk of wildfires. If you must build a fire, do so in established fire rings or use a fire pan to contain it.

  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a distance and never feed them, as this can harm their health and alter their natural behaviors. Store food and trash securely to prevent wildlife from accessing it, and give animals plenty of space to avoid disturbing their natural activities.

  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Respect the experience of fellow park-goers by keeping noise levels low, yielding to other hikers on trails, and following posted rules and guidelines.

Click here to read our full Leave No Trace guide.

Hiking in the mountains can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but it’s crucial to prioritize safety. Here are seven safety tips for mountain hiking:

  1. Plan and prepare: Research the trail, its difficulty, and weather conditions before you start. Obtain a detailed map, and familiarize yourself with the route. Make a realistic plan for your hike, considering your fitness level and daylight hours. Let someone know your plans and estimated return time.

  2. Dress appropriately: Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for the terrain and weather conditions. Dress in layers, as temperatures can change rapidly in the mountains. Choose moisture-wicking fabrics, sturdy and comfortable hiking boots, and don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

  3. Carry essential gear: Always bring the “Ten Essentials” for outdoor activities, which include a map, compass, extra clothing, rain gear, a flashlight or headlamp, first-aid kit, firestarter, knife or multitool, extra food, and water. A fully charged phone and a portable charger are also helpful.

  4. Stay on designated trails: Follow marked trails and avoid shortcuts, which can lead to erosion and harm the environment. Staying on the path reduces your risk of getting lost or encountering dangerous terrain.

  5. Know your limits: Be aware of your physical limitations and do not push yourself too hard. Take breaks, stay hydrated, and maintain a comfortable pace. Turn back if you’re not feeling well or if the weather conditions worsen.

  6. Be aware of wildlife: Understand the types of wildlife that inhabit the area you are hiking in and learn how to react in case of an encounter. Keep a safe distance from animals, store food properly to avoid attracting them, and never feed them. If you encounter a potentially dangerous animal, follow established guidelines for how to respond.

  7. Take time to acclimatize to the altitude: If you are visiting from lower elevations (below 7,500 feet), it is a good idea to take your first day or two in the park easy. Your body will gradually adjust to the altitude over time and reduce your risk of developing altitude sickness. If you are prone to this issue, talk to your doctor before your trip about medication options.

Click here to read our complete mountain safety guide.

Chief Mountain, steeped in history and surrounded by the pristine beauty of the Rocky Mountains, is an iconic feature of north central Colorado. This isolated mountain, a part of the Front Range in the Rocky Mountains, has a rich heritage that predates the arrival of European settlers. Native American tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho, considered Chief Mountain sacred, its imposing stature a testament to the might of nature. Throughout the years, the mountain has become a cherished destination for hikers and climbers, offering both an exploration of history and an escape into the natural world.

Geographically, Chief Mountain occupies a unique position, being one of the most prominent peaks in the Arapaho National Forest. Its geology is equally intriguing; the mountain is composed mainly of Proterozoic basement rocks, the oldest rock layers in the Rockies, formed by intense geological activity over millions of years. This dramatic formation provides not only an awe-inspiring hiking backdrop but also offers a glimpse into the ancient history of the earth’s crust. The rocky terrain, coupled with the cool, high-altitude climate, has led to the development of a rich array of flora. As you ascend the trail, you’ll journey through dense forests of pine and spruce, interspersed with colorful wildflowers during the spring and summer months.

In terms of fauna, Chief Mountain is home to an assortment of wildlife. You may spot mule deer and elk meandering through the woodland, while smaller critters such as squirrels and chipmunks scurry in the undergrowth. Bird watchers can look out for various species of high-altitude birds, including the Clark’s nutcracker and the mountain bluebird. As a fun fact, Chief Mountain stands at an impressive elevation of 11,709 feet, making it a popular destination for those seeking to conquer a “ten-thousand-footer” without the strenuousness of a full fourteener. Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer or a weekend hiker, a trek up Chief Mountain is an adventure that blends natural beauty, fascinating geology, and historical significance into one unforgettable experience.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A: The Chief Mountain trail typically takes between 1 to 2 hours for most hikers. This can vary depending on your pace, current conditions, and how long you choose to spend at the summit.

A: The Chief Mountain trail has an elevation gain of approximately 1000 feet from the trailhead to the summit. This steep climb makes for a moderately challenging hike.

A: The summit of Chief Mountain in Colorado stands at approximately 11,709 feet above sea level, just above the treeline.

A: Chief Mountain is located near Idaho Springs in the beautiful state of Colorado. The trailhead starts from the Squaw Pass Road (Highway 103), which is about 5 miles west of Echo Lake and roughly an hour’s drive from downtown Denver.

The mountains are calling: They need our help

Become a member to support leave no trace and outdoor safety education to protect the peaks and those who climb them across the American West.

Notice: The material presented in this route guide may not be comprehensive or precise and should not be solely relied upon when planning your climb. Inadequate experience, physical fitness, supplies, or equipment may result in injury or fatality.

The Next Summit and the author(s) of this hiking guide offer no guarantees, neither explicit nor implied, regarding the accuracy or dependability of the information provided.

By utilizing the information herein, you agree to indemnify and absolve The Next Summit and the hiking guide author(s) from any claims and demands against them, including any legal fees and expenses. 

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Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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