Start from the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 9,265 feet. A quarter mile from the TH, just after crossing Chaos Creek, the trail merges with the Glacier Creek Trail - go right ( 2
). Immediately thereafter the trail splits again, as the Glacier Creek trail ascends to Bear Lake to the right. Go left. ( 3
The goal is now the Loch-Mills Junction (also called Glacier Junction or Mills Junction in some cases), which is about 1.9 miles more up the main trail following signs for Mills Lake. However, an easy-to-miss unmarked cutoff trail cuts off 0.5 miles and avoids the heavy traffic of Alberta Falls. Find the cutoff trail by proceeding a bit over a tenth of a mile after the main trail separates from the Glacier Creek Trail, counting two small bridges, and then looking for the first huge slab of bedrock adjacent to the main trail ( 4
). The slab bedrock area on the right side of the trail is roughly the size of a house, and the main trail actually crosses the edge of the rock. At this point, look for a distinctive split rock on your right, a few feet high ( 5
). The cutoff trail ascends from behind that rock. If the cutoff is missed, the main trail can lead to the same place. The following distances assume that the cutoff trail was taken.
The cutoff trail leads back to the main trail just a few hundred feet from the Loch-Mills Junction. Go right to turn right to reach the junction at 1.7 miles from the trailhead and 9825 feet ( 6
). Here the trail splits three ways, with options to Mills Lake and Black Lake, Loch Vale and Sky Pond, and Lake Haiyaha. Go left toward Mills Lake and Black Lake.
Cross Vale Brook on a bridge almost immediately, and continue. The trail occasionally turns to trackless bedrock ( 7
) for a few hundred feet before resuming. Simply continue the heading when this happens and the trail becomes evident on the other side. Cross Glacier Creek on another bridge at 1.9 miles, and then reach the eastern edge of Mills Lake at 2.3 miles and 9950 feet ( 8
The trail continues along the southern shore of elongated Mills Lake for about 0.4 miles before entering the forest again, periodically traveling on elevated boards through marsh areas ( 9
). Pass by Jewel Lake on the right and continue on through a large section of forest destroyed by a microburst in November 2011. The trail here undulates over roots and bedrock slabs, making for an occasional loss of clarity, but roughly tracks Glacier Creek up toward Black Lake.
At 3.1 miles and 10,200 feet, pass the turnoff to the Glacier Gorge campground ( 10
). Continue left to ascend to Black Lake, 1.2 miles away now per the sign. Reach Ribbon Falls right at the outlet of Black Lake at 4.2 miles and 10,550 feet ( 11
). Ascend the left side of Ribbon Falls and travel across rocks to reach Black Lake at 4.3 miles and 10,600 feet ( 12
Take the trail south of Black Lake, ascending a few hundred feet before the trail turns to rock ( 13
) and then back to trail ( 14
). The trail turns west and crosses the outlet stream from Green Lake. Take a long step or a short jump over the river ( 15
) and then turn left, ascending a gully in the rock ( 16
). The clear trail ends.
From here, survey the route across the glacial shelf to the Pagoda-Keyboard couloir ( 17
). Chain together slabs of bedrock and paths crushed into the brush to get past the marshy outflows from Green Lake. There are cairns, but they indicate multiple pathways. Look back periodically to get a clear sense of landmarks for the return, as it would be easy to get disoriented in the maze and end up trudging through brush and water to get back to the trail.
Reach grassy tundra just past 5 miles from the trailhead and continue toward the visible couloir ( 18
). Observe the cliffs and steep slabs guarding the couloir, and plan to maneuver around them in a giant S-turn up the slope ( 19
). Enter the couloir at 5.5 miles and 11,850 feet to begin the crux of the route - a trudge up 1200 vertical feet of steep, loose, shifting scree and dirt. Rocks are likely to be dislodged here ( 20
Reach the top of the couloir at 6.1 miles and 13,075 feet. Immediately to the left are the two lowest towers of the seven-tower system of Keyboard of the Winds ( 21
). The closest one is Sievers Tower, and the next is Jackpot Tower. Both are advanced technical climbs from the front, but can be scrambled up easily from the back.
To ascend Pagoda, turn right from the top of the couloir and follow the ridge up, staying just inside the largest slabs of rock for easier going. 1
is an overview shot from further up Keyboard of the Winds. 22
shows the view from the route.
Reach the summit after 420 vertical feet of climbing from the top of the couloir, for a total of 6.3 miles from the trailhead. Take in views of Chiefs Head ( 23
) and Spearhead ( 24
), as well as much of Glacier Gorge and Longs Peak.
On the return, pick your line carefully across the glacial shelf ( 25
) to find the trail descending to Black Lake with a minimum of water and foliage.