Chiefs Head Peak is the third highest peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park. With Longs Peak and Pagoda Mountain, it forms the southern rim of the spectacular upper cirque of Glacier Gorge. Chiefs Head Peak owes its name to its resemblance to the profile of a recumbent man wearing a warbonnet when seen from the SE. The south side also provides the easiest accesses to the summit. (The southeast and west slopes, both Class 2.) For the hiker and climber, however, it is the view from the north that is bound to make an indelible impression. A sheer granite cliff that plunges from the summit for over 1000 feet forms the NW wall, which is separated by the vast NE face by the rostrum aptly named the Spearhead.
Though many admire Chiefs Head Peak from the shores of Mills Lake, the length of the approach means that few climb it: Only several tens of signatures are added to the summit register in the course of one year. Those who are not intimidated by the distance and the elevation gain are rewarded by breathtaking views and a selection of hikes/scrambles and technical routes, on both rock and snow.
We can only speculate as to the first ascent to Chiefs Head Peak. W. M. Bueler, in his Roof of the Rockies, examines the diaries of the party that completed the first recorded ascent of Longs Peak and conjectures that the same men may have climbed Chiefs Head on August 22, 1868, in an attempt to get closer to their goal. They would have then retreated to Wild Basin, rejected by the difficult traverse to Pagoda Mountain. It is quite possible that either the Utes or the Arapahoes had visited the summit of Chiefs Head well before that fortuitous ascent, but extant evidence is missing.
Access to Chiefs Head Peak is from three trailheads, all located within Rocky Mountain National Park.
To climb Chiefs Head from the south, one starts from the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead (8312 ft). To reach the trailhead, drive along State Highway 7 to the Wild Basin entrance to the park, located between Allenspark and Meeker Park. The trailhead is at the eastern end of Copeland Lake. Alternatively, one can reach Snowbank Lake (11521 ft) from the trailhead at the Wild Basin Ranger Station and climb the Class 2 west ridge, which connects to Mount Alice's Hourglass and merges with Chiefs Head Peak's northwest ridge near the summit. Access to Chiefs Head from the north is from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. From Estes Park, drive to the Beaver Meadows entrance to the park. Turn left soon after the entrance gates in the direction of Bear Lake and continue to the well-marked trailhead. Instead of driving to the trailhead, you can park at the shuttle bus terminal and board the bus for Bear Lake. Glacier Gorge TH is the second stop, while Bear Lake TH is the third and last stop. Bus schedules are posted at this page. As part of the Bear Lake Road reconstruction, the Glacier Gorge trailhead was moved back by 0.3 mi, thus lengthening the round-trip to Chiefs Head by 0.6 mi. Bummer!
No permits are required for day hikes and climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is no parking fee and the shuttle is free. The entrance pass to the park is $20 per car and is valid for 7 days. The fee, however, is not collected before 6:30 AM. All park visitors should follow the Leave No Trace policy.
When To Climb
Most people climb Chiefs Head Peak in July and August. The snow routes on the N face, however, are probably best climbed in June-July. In 2003, for instance, there was no snow left in the couloirs by late August. During the summer months, an early start is strongly advised to minimize the danger of lightning. (More people are killed in the U.S. each year by lightning than by hurricanes.) An ascent during the winter would be substantially more challenging than one during the summer: One should expect ice, strong winds, sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, and frequent storms. Spring and Fall present the most variability. Summer conditions may prevail until October, or may be already gone by late August.
There are several camping sites within the park. Details on locations, facilities, reservations, and fees can be found at the camping page of RMNP. Bivy information can also be found on the park's site.
The park's contact information page lists useful numbers. Two webcams, one pointed at Longs Peak and the other at a stretch of the Continental Divide, allow one to get an idea of the conditions not far from Chiefs Head. Detailed forecasts are provided by NOAA.
Never forget that the weather may change very rapidly in the high country. The temperature may drop by 50°F or more in a couple of hours. Those who have been caught out by such sudden changes without proper equipment and preparation have not always survived.