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.
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.
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!
After about 5km, you reach the end of the trail. It is officially signed and foreshadows the unpleasantries to come:
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…
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.
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:
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.
The Other Side
We staggered through the Keyhole to the meet the massive wall of Kokanee Glacier. And a helpful sign.
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.
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!
Finally the Keyhole trail dipped down to merge into the Kokanee Lake Trail, and we were flying on our way back to the trailhead.