Rated by Gerry Roach in his book on as the most difficult non-technical route among the 13ers in RMNP, this peak provides a satisfying scramble and can be done as either a long full-day hike or an overnight or two night backpack trip if you plan on climbing other summits in the immediate area. If backpacking, you must obtain a permit several months in advance and will be required to camp in a designated backcountry campsite. Class 3. Glacier Gorge Trailhead accessible to all passenger vehicles.
From Estes Park, the shortest way to the Glacier Gorge TH is to take CO36 SW out of town toward the park. Drive past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and continue to the entrance station and gain your admittance. A short distance past the entrance station is an intersection where you should turn left onto the Bear Lake Road. It's about 1.3 miles from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center to this intersection. Head on up the Bear Lake Road, going past the large Glacier Basin Campground and continue to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking area, which is about 8.4 miles from the intersection just past the entrance station. If this parking area is already full, there are two other close-by options. One is to continue on up to the Bear Lake parking area, which holds even more vehicles. From there, a trail leads back down that will intersect the Glacier Gorge trail. Another option is to go back down from the Glacier Gorge parking area two switchbacks and after the second one, there is a small parking area for a half dozen vehicles. From there, you're probably best off to just walk back up to the Glacier Gorge TH. All of these parking areas tend to fill completely on summer days, especially weekends. But there's almost always someone pulling out. Best advice is to get here early - prior to 7:00 AM. Do not park along the road. Your vehicle may be towed.
If arriving from Granby and the Trail Ridge Road, turn right at Deer Ridge Junction and drive 3 miles to another right turn onto the Bear Lake Road.There is also a shuttle bus system maintained by the park for visitor use. Shuttles even bring visitors in from Estes Park. To learn more, go to the park website and search for the shuttle schedule.
There is no at-large camping allowed within Rocky Mountain National Park. There is a system of designated backcountry campsites and there are also regular, fee campgrounds with the typical features of toilets, firepits, tent platforms for tent sites, water and pull-through options. The nearest of these is the Glacier Basin Campground. Sites may be reserved in advance at www.Recreation.gov. Most are reserved months in advance. Beetle kill has resulted in many of the trees in that campground being cut down so a number of the sites are now treeless.
In regards to backcountry campsites, these are available on an advance reservation system as well that also involves a drawing/lottery. Permits for a backcountry site must be applied for several months in advance. You'll be provided an opportunity to list alternate choices. It can be difficult to obtain your first choice for the date you desire. There is only one camp location in the Loch/Andrews Tarn area called "The Andrews Creek" at 10,560 ft. It is about 3.6 miles in from the TH and is on the trail to Andrews Tarn and Glacier at about where the trail takes a decided turn to the west after having been heading in a northerly direction. In Glacier Gorge, there is only one backcountry site there as well which is the "Glacier Gorge, #39." Permits for these sites can be obtain & submitted online now. Begin your search here:
From the Glacier Gorge trailhead parking area, hike generally SW until a footbridge takes you across Chaos Creek and continues SW to a trail intersection. The trail coming in from the right comes down from the parking for Bear Lake. Turn left and head for Alberta Falls in .5 mile. Above the falls, the trail winds and switchbacks by the "Glacier Knobs" to another intersection at 1.4miles from Alberta Falls or 2.2 miles from the TH. Take the left fork toward Glacier Falls and Mills Lake which is about 2.8 miles from the start. Jewel Lake is an additional .4 mile beyond Mills. The backcountry campsite (Glacier Gorge #39) we were able to use is at about 3.8 miles in and is on the west side of the valley. The turnoff is marked. Continuing past the turnoff for the campsite, you'll reach Black Lake at 5.4 miles in from the TH, so the campsite is 1.6 miles from the lake. For the last mile or so in, expect the trail to not be as well used, with some boggy sections, elevated planks, some cairns and some rebuilt sections. The maintained trail terminates at Black Lake.
Designated backcountry campsites only. This link is to the only designated campsite in Glacier Gorge. You must obtain a permit to use. There is only one designated site here that can accommodate two tents. There use to be an outdoor privy, but the most recent information on the park websites instructs campers to use Wag Bags like a Restop 2. The turnoff for this campsite comes a short distance after the trail crosses a large, exposed dome of rock with a single, large glacial erratic boulder sitting on the rock dome.
If camping at the Glacier Gorge Backcountry site #39, walk the additional 1.6 miles up the trail south to Black Lake. From Black Lake, the easier approach takes you along the east side of the lake on a trail, and begins gaining elevation to the east below steep cliffs and two smaller streams to about 11,000 ft. where you can then head south at a fork and make a gradual arching turn to the west gaining enough elevation to cross a little below (north of) Frozen lake. If snows have melted, you'll find a trail for this section. Views of "The Spearhead" dominate this portion of your hike. From just below Frozen lake, continue west and locate the ramp through the cliffs SE of the McHenry's summit that allows non-technical access to the south side of the ridge that connects McHenrys and Chiefs Head. This is called "Stone Man Pass." Progress above Black Lake is made more difficult by sections of low-growing conifers and deciduous shrubs.
Stone Man Pass is a break in the otherwise formidable cliffs that ring this basin. The route follows a steeply sloping ramp for over 400 vertical feet through the cliffs on rock, gravel and scree. In early season, this may/will be snow-covered and will require ice axes for safety. This section we would rate at Class 2+.
Once through the pass, you'll have two basic choices. Either attempt to follow the ridgeline S, then SE to the Chiefs Head summit or drop down about 500 feet into the basin above Lake Powell and then contour until you feel you can more easily ascend back up toward the upper portion of the NW ridge of Chiefs Head, several hundred feet below the summit. The traverse across the Lake Powell basin will be tedious on very large boulders requiring extensive rock-hopping. Following the ridge has multiple problems resulting in a Class 3 rating. See a link provided below for a report on navigating this NW ridge. So pick your poison. If taking the contour route above Lake Powell, look for a couple of couloirs that lead up through the rock bands and take you back toward the NW ridge of Chiefs Head. This will bring you onto a large, west-sloping tundra plateau. As you progress back toward the west ridge and follow it toward the summit, the terrain will change to large rock blocks requiring a fair amount of boulder-hopping. The last half mile seems never-ending.
The summit offers a splendid view looking back down Glacier Gorge and of Longs Peak, Mt. Meeker, Pagoda and McHenrys Peak. The view of the SW side of Longs is inspiring & impressive.
For the descent, retrace whatever route you choose back to Stone Man Pass. Here, decide if you want to continue on to McHenrys Peak. If not, descend the steep ramp north from Stone Man Pass. Once below the ramp, an alternate route down leads toward a tundra bench at 11,500 feet almost directly west of Black Lake. From the bench, walk north some more, contouring through dense scrub, following natural ramps and benches to a crack system in the rocks that allows access through a minor cliff band. Once through the cliff, it's an easy but very steep descent back to Black Lake where you can pick back up the well-defined trail out.
Chiefs Head can also be climbed from the Wild Basin side. There are numerous internet reports on approaching it from that direction. Done this way, it's often combined with Pagoda and/or Mt. Alice. The overall mileage is significantly longer than the Stone Man approach.
In our description McHenrys Peak is sequenced with Chiefs Head. Mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of Chiefs Head over to McHenrys. Follow the route description for Chiefs Head Peak to Stone Man Pass. From the pass, begin your ascent to the summit by following a somewhat faint trail that first contours west and then begins to gain elevation. The trail will be faint in spots and multiplied in other areas as it winds its way up through more and more boulders and minor cliff bands. The route we followed always kept us well below the ridge and became progressively steeper and rockier, requiring more and more "scrambling," reaching a 3rd class level at spots. The trail eventually led to the upper portion of the south ridge of the peak which required even more scrambling. This south ridge then connects with the main summit ridge and a short stroll west over easier terrain will bring you to the proper summit. After all the rockwork, the summit is surprisingly flat and large. Splendid views in all directions.
For the descent, return by the same route to Stone Man Pass and then follow the descent description for Chiefs Head Peak.