Trail reviews, tips, photos, stats, maps, and more!

The Keyhole

The Keyhole

Looking for a challenging day hike? The Keyhole trail climbs way up high to bring you through a hidden notch at the edge of the Kokanee Glacier. It’s a scenic route, but it’s also a bit of a sufferfest with boulders and scree and an endless ascent.


Trailhead: Kokanee Glacier Road

Map: Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park

Distance, Round Trip: 12.4km

Elevation: +1133m


Starting at the Gibson Lake Trailhead, start following the main Kokanee Lake Trail. This is the main access into Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and the trail is well-maintained and busy.

After switchbacking above Gibson Lake, the trail will curve over a ridge and descend slightly. Now pay attention because there are lots of faint paths leading off and you don’t want to make a wrong turn. At 3.6km, just after the main trail crosses a stream with a wooden block bridge, the Keyhole trail branches off high to the right. It is an unsigned junction.

Following the Keyhole Trail

The Keyhole trail is much rougher with overgrown vegetation and loose rock. You’ll hop across a stream, and then carry on, gaining height over the main Kokanee Lake Trail below.

As the trail ascends to meadow, it becomes more compact and easier to follow. Esmerelda Peak slowly comes into view, along with the ridge-line and the distant Keyhole notch.

Keyhole Trail ascending towards the notch

Although the climb is steady, this is the most pleasant part of the hike – alpine meadows, huckleberries, big views of Mount John Carter – enjoy it while it lasts!

Wildflowers with the Keyhole in the background

After about 5km, you reach the end of the trail. It is officially signed and foreshadows the unpleasantries to come:

The end of the trail, it’s official

Now, at this point, you could happily sit down, have your lunch, and enjoy the view of the valley below. You would have already climbed a respectable +715m which is more than a day’s hard work. Or you could… go on…

The view at the end of the trail

Final Scramble

Without an official trail, you have cairns dotting the boulder fields and scraps of path beaten into loose talus.

As usual, the best route was discovered on the way down: avoid the boulders, follow the talus as much as possible, and choose the snow when it becomes mercifully available. On the way up, we mostly climbed the boulders.

Towards the Keyhole
Nooooooo! So much work!

The boulders are the size that require hands and feet and leaps of faith. I often chose routes that left me puzzling and backtracking. It was slow going.

As we climbed, the view behind kept getting bigger and better:

Looking back at Mount John Carter
Almost there!

The Keyhole loomed high above like the chasmal gateway to my own personal hell. Yep, at this point I was really really tired. The last hundred meters of distance offered very loose, slippery rock.

Finally! Through the Keyhole

The Other Side

We staggered through the Keyhole to the meet the massive wall of Kokanee Glacier. And a helpful sign.

Kokanee Glacier on the other side

Someone had built a windbreak out of the rock which was greatly appreciated – the temperature was freezing cold with a strong wind blowing of the glacier. And just when we dug out our lunches, it began to rain.

Looking back through the Keyhole from the glacier side

From the Keyhole, it’s possible to venture on and bag Esmerelda Peak. It’s also possible to venture forth onto the glacier, if you have the skills and equipment.

Slowly back down

With freezing hands, we grabbed our poles and began the slow descent through loose talus. Looking down, we were able to pick out better routes, following snow and talus and avoiding boulders.

It was a great relief to rejoin the trail. Even the sun came out again to reassure us!

Hiking down the Keyhole Trail
Fireweed along the trail

Finally the Keyhole trail dipped down to merge into the Kokanee Lake Trail, and we were   flying on our way back to the trailhead.

Download the Keyhole GPS file



5 thoughts on “The Keyhole”

  • You probably realized on the way down that you need to keep left on the way up, to avoid those car sized boulders. if you’re out in the middle of the boulder field, that’s very bad! There were actually quite a few cairns up from the end of the trail last year, leading up left, but the snow may have done a number on some of them.

  • Over half a century ago, there used to be more snow and Kokanee Glacier was larger then. I used to hike past Nancy Green and the National Ski Team, who used to train near the ‘Battleship’ and the ‘Giant’s Knee Cap’, South of and up from the Slocan Chief cabin.

    Sometimes in my dreams, I re-live my ‘Keyhole’ hikes as a young man. After a final scramble up the long ‘waterfall’ of small loose rocks, I would step onto that plateau on top of the world, and into an incredibly beautiful field of view: a horizon divided by white and blue.

    Ahead: the intense white of the snow-topped glacier; beyond and above: a brilliant, psychedelic blue sky.

    The photo with the caption “is it closer yet”, is much like the “Keyhole” image in my minds eye. It reminds me as well, of how long it seemed to take for “it” to get “closer”.

    Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park is such a gem: jam-packed with so many wonderful Alpine features in a modestly sized Provincial park. Thank you Kooteneers for the great photos and the story that brought back fine memories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.