11,500 Feet (Ranked 1,551st in CO)
Old Squaw Pass Road Trail
11,709 (Ranked 1,452nd in CO)
February 3rd, 2008
10.1 Miles Roundtrip
Squaw Mountain and Chief Mountain are a pair of peaks on Squaw Pass near Mt. Evans. Squaw Mountain can be seen from Denver, and is easily recognized because of the radio and television antennas on its summit. Either of these mountains, if climbed individually, makes for an easy half-day hike. Climbing the two mountains as a pair, or as a trio with Papoose Mountain, is a much more challenging proposition.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, and a snowstorm was bearing down on the Front Range. I had enough time for a half-day hike, but I didnít want to spend much time above timberline because of the impending storm. Squaw Mountain seemed like a safe option; the Class 1 trail is entirely below timberline except for the rocky summit. I hit the trailhead on Squaw Pass Road at the crack of 11:30 and started hiking. Just a few yards from the road, the trail forked; I took the right fork and followed a portion of the Old Squaw Pass Road. This part can be driven in the warmer months, but is not plowed in the winter.
Short trail connecting to the Old Squaw Pass Road
The roadís grade was gentle, and the snow was hard packed from the high volume of snowshoe and ski traffic. I carried my snowshoes on my backpack as a precaution, but I didnít expect to use them. The road was wide and the snow cover was continuous. In spite of the anticipated storm, the weather was incredibly nice. The temperature was in the mid-30ís, the sky was blue, and there wasnít a breath of wind.
Hiking on the Old Squaw Pass Road
The road headed south and then southwest. I passed quite a few hikers who were slogging along in snowshoes on the firm snow. I wanted to avoid the burden as long as possible. The summit of Squaw Mountain was not visible from the road, but I had a nice view of Chief Mountain to the southwest.
In some places, the road seemed to narrow because of the deep drifts. Travel was still easy on the packed track.
Snowdrifts along the route to the summit
At about the 1.2-mile mark, I reached another fork in the road. The Old Squaw Pass Road continued westward, and the service road to the summit headed in an easterly direction. I took the service road towards the summit, but on the return trip I intended to take the Old Squaw Pass Road to the Chief Mountain Trail. As I headed up the service road, there was a large rock outcropping on the north side. I caught my first glimpse of the fire tower on Squaw Mountainís summit.
A rock outcropping in the foreground, with Squaw Mountainís fire tower visible in the distance
After I had hiked for 1.6 miles, I came to a gate across the road. This was the summer trailhead; there was a small parking area just below the gate.
Gate across the service road on Squaw Mountain
The road was a bit steeper beyond the gate. It was fairly straight for about 0.6 miles, and then it began a series of switchbacks up to the summit. The trail passed under the fire tower, which is on the National Historic Lookout Register.
There were three large rocky peaks on the summit plateau; all appeared to be nearly the same height. The fire tower was on one of the peaks, a television antenna on another peak, and a radio tower on the third peak. It was disappointing to see so much clutter on what was obviously once a very scenic summit. There were plenty of scrambling opportunities among the numerous boulders on the summit.
The tangle of man-made clutter on Squaw Mountainís summit, viewed from the fire tower
The weather was still pleasant, but the wind had started to pick up. I could see that the storm was already hitting Mount Evans pretty hard.
Mount Evans shrouded in storm clouds
The storm had not hit Chief Mountain yet, and it did not appear to be moving very quickly. I decided to make a dash for Chiefís summit.
I came back down the service road to the intersection with the Old Squaw Pass Road. I stopped to put on my goggles, mittens, and gaiters, and headed towards the Chief Mountain Trail.
Junction of Squaw Mountainís service road with the Old Squaw Pass Road
†I followed the wide and well-packed road for half a mile to reach the junction with the Chief Mountain Trail. The trail was mostly just a narrow trench through the deep snow.
Junction of the Old Squaw Pass Road with the Chief Mountain Trail
The trail headed southeast until it reached the saddle between Chief Mountain and Papoose Mountain. Above the saddle, the trail turned to the southwest. The trees were much more sparse on the saddle.
Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis) on the saddle between Chief Mountain and Papoose Mountain
The trail plunged back into a dense forest on the north side of the mountain. Reflectors were nailed to trees to mark the trail. At about 11,400 feet, the trees opened up and I could see the summit.
When I came out of the trees, the wind hit me like a hammer. I had to get to the summit and back to the trees before the snow hit, or risk having to deal with whiteout conditions. I tried to pick up my pace, but the elevation gain and the mileage had caught up with me. I stashed my backpack behind a rock and made a run for it. On the way up the slope, I could hear the avalanche blasting on Berthoud Pass.
The wind on the summit was truly unpleasant. Iíve experienced worse, but there was nothing enjoyable about being blasted by ice pellets. I snapped a shot of the benchmark, and ducked between some boulders for cover.
Benchmark on Chief Mountain
The full force of the storm was hitting Mount Evans, but it was headed in my direction. I was anxious to get out of the wind and back in the trees.
I took a bad step coming off of the summit block, and glissaded about 25 feet on the hard crusted snow. To paraphrase Bobby Knight, it was inevitable so I just relaxed and enjoyed it. There were some nice rocks at the bottom to stop my slide.
Before I hightailed it back to the trees, I stopped to take a shot of Squaw Mountain.
It was snowing by the time I made it back to the trailhead, but I had beaten the worst part of the storm. Later that evening, most of the major passes in the state closed due to the bad weather.
The Chief and Squaw Mountain combo makes a really nice hike. The views are sensational in good weather, and Chiefís summit has a particularly pleasant wilderness feel to it. Good trail conditions and mostly good weather allowed me to make this a relatively quick trip.