Keyhole Hotsprings

March 24, 2019

Hiking

Pemberton / Upper Lillooet River, BC

Keyhole Hotsprings locate about 40 km NE of Pemberton in a remote area of the Upper Lillooet River’s watershed. This is truly in the middle of nowhere but thank to the construction of Innergex hydroelectric project (hence the maintenance of Upper Lillooet FSR year-round), and in recent years, the boosts of social media one would expect at least 50, if not 100 tourists gunning for the hot springs in any given weekend. The area has been permanently closed between April and November and the official reason was for protection of grizzly habitat but to me this was purely because of “too many people out there to manage”. The landscape wouldn’t sustain that much of traffic and the government was definitely short on $$ to maintain such a fragile area. One needs to drive over an hour down a rough, single-lane logging road past Pemberton, and to get to Pemberton requires at least 2, if not 3 hours of drive from Vancouver.

I don’t think tourists do this hike as a day-trip but “long drives” had never been an issue for me, so when Julia suggested we should hike to some hot springs in the spring break I immediately thought about Keyhole. As far as I know, this is pretty much the only hot spring doable in one day within a reasonable distance from Vancouver, while still preserving at least some degrees of wilderness. Julia and I left White Rock at around 4 am and after a familiar, but exhausting drive through Metro Vancouver and up Sea-to-Sky Corridor we arrived in Pemberton. We took a short break in the McDonald’s before tackling the long ass bumpy ride down Upper Lillooet FSR. This was actually my first time driving on that road. I had been up in the Upper Lillooet watershed twice before, but both times the trip was accessed from Lillooet South FSR. The road condition was worse than I thought and despite what’s suggested on the internet, I would say a high clearance vehicle is almost a “must” unless one possesses expert driving skills with enough patience. I had neither and the Tacoma didn’t let me down. We arrived at the trail-head almost exactly 5 hours after leaving home, only to find at least 15 other vehicles parked there. This was a Sunday in a spring break, so what else could we expect, huh?!

Keyhole Hot Springs hiking route. GPX DL

Given what I had seen on various sources we came prepared with a ton load of gears such as microspikes, crampons, harnesses and a 30-m rope. Julia had never done a real hike on snow and I figured the terrain could be too adventurous for her. It turned out that we used everything other than microspikes. I wore my trusty Trango Ice Cubes for better footing on the snow. Right off the bat we made a mistake taking that plowed road to the hydroelectric plant. I soon realized the mistake but instead of backtracking all the way back to the parking lot we decided to take a short-cut. This involved a ton of knee+ deep post-holing but I think it was still faster than backtracking. We struggled for at least half an hour on this stage but with perseverance we did get up that hill and joined the trail. The trail then did a steep traversing descent down to Lillooet River with a bit of exposure on the downhill side. The trail was no wider than a foot and was slippery. Once down to the river flats we had a bit of easy time but then the trail rose again near a couple waterfalls. In short words, the hike was treacherous and even more challenging than my anticipation.

Julia at the trail-head ready excited for the adventure

(Off-route) post-holing with the hydro plant behind

The trail descends to the bank of Lillooet River

Down to the Lillooet River now. Note the snow pillows

One of the more impressive waterfalls along the way

Trying to get some natural water

As you can see, the trail was narrow and steep.

Sections of this trail had some questionable snow bridges with water running underneath. We could see the deep holes that people made and thankfully this wasn’t a uber warm day. The next while was again, a steep traverse with exposure on the downhill side. A couple spots of the trail was down-sloping that further added to the tense. We were still too lazy to don crampons. The hardest was right at the end that we had to lose about 30 m elevation. The last bit was a solid 45-degree down climb. There’s a big tree truck that I wrapped a quadruple sling around as an anchor. We spent a few minutes donning gears and then I belayed Julia down-climbing the pitch to the hot springs. I then made a short rappel while leaving the rope there for the return. It turned out that at least 20 other hikers used our rope in the next hour or two. The lower pool was already occupied but the upper two pools were empty. The uppermost pool was too hot for bathing. The middle pool was also hot, but manageable with some mixing of cold water.

There are two bridges en route.

Another photo of Lillooet River. The trail had a lot of up-and-downs

Carefully descending a steep zone near the end

I belayed Julia down the last 10 meters of down-climb

We made it! Bathing in Keyhole Hot Springs

This is looking further up the Lillooet River from the hot springs

Once having enough time in the hot springs while watching hordes and hordes coming in we decided to leave. There were at least 20 people trying to bath in the three small pools and more were coming. On the return we made a decision to wear crampons for the added bit of security. The crampons surely made footings more secure but one does need to pay attention to each step in order not to trip and face plant. The few spots with thin snow bridges still required caution. The last 2 km hike down the (correct) logging road seemed to drag on for a while. Once back to the truck I turned the stove on and cooked some instant noodles before turning on the engine.

The steep up-climb at the beginning of the return hike

A look down into Lillooet River.

To not risk crossing a questionable snow bridge we found a “mixed bypass”…

Back onto easier terrain…

Almost done.

The drive was exhausting and I had to take a nap about halfway back on Upper Lillooet FSR. After the power nap I had no further issue putting down the entire drive back to White Rock in a single shot, 10 pm at night. That concludes another awesome day in the mountains, albeit not for peak-bagging.