Total distance: 19.5 km
Total elevation gain: 850 m
Trailhead to Norman Creek campground (one way): 4.2 km, 530 m
Campground to Sunset Pass (return): 8 km, 100 m
Detour to Sunset Lookout (return): 3.2 km, 200 m View mapDownload GPS track
This is either a short backpacking trip or moderate day hike to expansive meadows. The trail starts at the Norman Creek parking area about 17 km north of Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway.
The trail ascends very steeply for the first 3.8 km or so, switchbacking up 530 m through forest with only a few views here and there. At approximately the 2.9 km mark, a trail to Sunset Lookout turns off to the left and rises another 150 m before dropping about 50 m to a rock outcropping with vast views along the Alexandra and North Saskatchewan Rivers. Despite it's name, the view is stunning at any time, but is accentuated by the low light at both sunrise and sunset. We chose to do this side trip on the second day to avoid too much continuous elevation gain all at once.
The official backcountry campground - Norman Creek - is located 400 m from the point where the trail enters the first large meadow. The campground is quite nice and has a fire pit - bring a saw, not a hatchet, and you'll find plenty of large-limbed deadfall to cut up and burn. Camping is also permitted on the other side of Sunset Pass as this is outside Banff National Park. From the campground the trail continues northeast along the edge of the meadow, meandering up and down small bumps and through small areas of sparce trees.
About 2 km from the campground reach a confusing fork where the trail meets a stream. Right is blocked with small logs and a large arrow made of rocks points to the left across the stream. The blocked trail is actually the trail to the Sunset Pass, while the route to the left is the trail that will eventually descend to Pinto Lake. Both trails involve some ascent through trees before reaching decent views into the Cline River valley and the Sunset Pass route apparently
requires an additional ascent at the end to get a full view of Pinto Lake. We went left across the stream, but as the trail neared the far end of the meadow (just before entering trees and ascending) we veered off the trail to the right and picked up a trail heading due northeast along a narrow spur of meadow. This trail was old, but obvious and evidently well used in its time. After a few hundred meters this trail emerged onto the top of a bedrock cliff. This vantage provided a great view of Pinto Lake and the Cline River valley below. Best of all, we never left the meadows to get there!