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Sunset Pass & Sunset Lookout Hike – Icefields Parkway

Sunset Pass & Sunset Lookout Hike – Icefields Parkway

I discovered the Sunset Pass and Sunset Lookout hike accessed from the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park completely by chance. I was researching campgrounds to stay in that are a short hike in from the trailhead. Without looking into the details too much, the Norman Lake Campground on the way to Sunshine Pass seemed like a good choice as it is approximately 4 km from the parking lot. But to get there you have an elevation gain of approximately 530 metres.

The Norman Lake Campground is a great choice – but not for the reasons I was looking for. Initially I had hoped to spend the night in a campsite that was easy to access from the Icefields Parkway – while on route to do a multi-day hike in the Tonquin Valley. Many campsites along the Icefields Parkway are closed during COVID, and I was trying to avoid a 5 AM start time from Calgary. I decided to book the campsite anyway over an August weekend so we could do the wonderful combination of the Sunset Pass hike and Sunset Lookout hike.

And I scored a night in a Banff hotel to so the drive to the Tonquin Valley trailhead will be 90 minutes shorter in the morning.

Most guidebooks along with Parks Canada signage, suggest that the hike to Sunset Pass is 16.4 km return plus an additional 3.2 km to include Sunset Lookout. One website suggests via their GPS that the total distance is 23 km with 950 m of elevation gain. That number feels a tad high to me based on my hiking pace. I never use a GPS so you’ll have to test it yourself.

I can tell you that it’s steep for the first 2.9 kilometres to the turnoff to the lookout – but even so, it’s not as steep as most of the Kananaskis hikes I do along Highway 40. And the 35 plus switchbacks help to moderate the grade. 

The bottom line – count on a solid 60 – 90 minutes of huffing and puffing – at a decent pace to reach the top of the major hill before the grade moderates on the final 0.4 km to Norman Lake. We got to the campground in 75 minutes.

And the return hike to Sunset Pass from the campground took us about 2.5 hours with time spent wandering around the pass and refueling. I also know it took us just under an hour on the descent to the parking lot from the junction at the 2.9 km mark. All told, as a day hiker, I would count on 6 – 7.5 hours to do both Sunset Pass and Lookout. We were a bit slower because of backpacks.

The route to Sunset Lookout

Steep trails keep the crowds at bay and this one was no exception. We saw a few groups hiking down but the parking lot on a Sunday held at most 10 cars – a far cry from what you see in the Banff – Lake Louise corridor.

Leave the parking lot on a moderate grade trail that will try to trip you up with all the exposed roots. When the trail starts to steepen and the roots disappear, you can start counting switchbacks. When you get to 35 you know you’re almost through the worst of it.

Early on in the hike you’ll hear running water. Our dog must have been getting thirsty as she started to tug hard on her leash. But that running water is Norman Creek Falls – and it’s not easily accessible from the trail. Take one of the side trails, with the higher one – a few switchbacks later – being the prettier one to enjoy views of the canyon.

Along this section of trail look out for buffaloberries – a favourite food of black and grizzly bears. According to the Biosphere Institute, a grizzly can chomp through over 100,000 berries in a day! Keep a close eye out for bears and your bear spray close at hand. Despite the fact that grizzlies reportedly use this trail, we didn’t so much as see any bear scat over the two days of camping and hiking in the area.

When you get to the top of the last switchback in a clearing, head left onto the Sunset Lookout Trail. See below for the description.

On the ground advice: If you are planning to hike to Sunset Pass and Sunset Lookout in a day, do the Sunset Pass hike first. It alone is 16.4 km with an elevation gain of 727 m. That way you can see how much energy you have left when you get to the Sunset Lookout trail – as it requires another 3.2 km of hiking with an elevation gain in the order of 200 m.

Starting up towards Sunset Pass and Lookout
Starting up towards Sunset Pass and Lookout
Canyon beside the trail about a kilometre in
Norman Creek Falls in a pretty canyon just off the trail about a kilometre in
Look for buffaloberries along the trail
Look for buffaloberries along the trail – a favourite food of grizzly bears

The Sunset Lookout hike

The Sunset Lookout hike starts at the junction of the trail to Sunset Pass, 2.9 kilometres up from the parking lot and trailhead. It’s signed and very obvious. The trail to the lookout takes you through thick sub-alpine forest, climbing 183 metres (600 feet) over 1.6 kilometres. There is little in the way of views until you reach the airy lookout, though there are occasional patches of wildflowers.

When you get close to Sunset Lookout, the trail angles west and descends on a steep slope. At the lookout you’ll find pieces of concrete and lightning conductor cables, the only remains of Sunset Lookout. It was built in 1943 and stayed in operation until 1978. 

At the lookout the views are compelling both up and down the Icefields Parkway. Admire Mt. Saskatchewan rising to 3342 m at the southeast edge of the Icefields. The confluence of the Alexandra River with the North Saskatchewan River is particularly beautiful. 

The Graveyard Flats pictured below are quite a sight. Reportedly these flats offered the Native people some of the best camping in the upper North Saskatchewan Valley. It is also where they would dress their kills. 

Mostly sub-alpine forest on the way to Sunset Lookout
Mostly sub-alpine forest on the way to and from Sunset Lookout
Looking south down the North Saskatchewan River
Looking south down the North Saskatchewan River from Sunset Lookout
Spectacular views to the north of the North Saskatchewan River
Spectacular views to the north of the North Saskatchewan River

The route to the Norman Lake Campground

It doesn’t take long to hike from the junction of the Sunset Lookout Trail to the Norman Lake Campground. It’s only 0.7 km (give or take a tenth of a kilometre or two) with the last half of it being flat.

Cross Norman Creek on the way to the campground via a couple of substantial planks. You can see the campground from the bridge off in the trees at the edge of extensive meadows.

At the 3.8 km mark at the top of the steep section
At the 3.8 km mark at the top of the steep section
Cross a bridge over this stream on route to the campground
Cross a bridge over this stream on route to the campground

The Norman Lake (or Creek) Campground in Banff National Park

We spent one chilly but lovely night in the Norman Lake (sometimes called Norman Creek) Campground. We set up our tent and hung our food when we first arrived and then continued to Sunset Pass with a far lighter pack.

On our return to the campground at about 6 PM, there wasn’t another soul around despite the fact that when we made reservations, it showed that four out of five of the campsites were booked. A bonus for us!

The Norman Lake campsite is one of the nicer ones I’ve visited in Banff National Park. The five tenting sites are spread apart – so there’s a sense of privacy. A couple of wooden tables away from the campsites are well-situated for cooking. The fire ring – with a small stack of firewood, was a welcome addition on a cold night.

There is also a privy and water is available about 50 metres away from Norman Creek.

You can book a campsite online here. There is a reservation fee so expect to pay about $Cdn31 in total.

Arrival at the Norman Creek Campground
Arrival at the Norman Creek Campground though online it says Norman Lake
A fire keeps the late August chill away
A fire keeps the late August chill away
Norman Creek campsite in Banff National Park
One of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve stayed in Banff National Park
There are poles for hanging your food
There are poles for hanging your food
There is fresh snow on Mt. Coleman
Fresh snow on Mt. Coleman as seen from the campground
I was very happy to have warm gear
I was very happy to have warm gear

From the Norman Lake Campground to Sunset Pass

To continue to Sunset Pass, take a left just after the fire pit in the campground.

Follow the trail as it skirts the edge of a large meadow for several kilometres. In view for much of the time will be Mt. Coleman, topping out at 3135 m. (The following morning it was dusted with fresh snow.)

On the trail, there will be times when you’re walking through willows that are shoulder high. In these sections we made lots of noise, just in case there was a bear around.

Look behind occasionally – to get your bearings and to admire 3260 m Mt. Wilson, named for an early explorer in the Canadian Rockies. Apparently its amphitheatres are wild and scenic – and quite the spot for experienced ice climbers.

You do have to rock hop across Norman Creek at one point, but in late August the water isn’t running very high. It’s a good place to fill your water bottles if you’re starting to run low. 

At the northeast end of the meadow follow the trail as it enters the trees. Start climbing, gaining a total of 193 m of elevation from the campground. Reach the Banff National Park boundary after 20-25 minutes. It is marked by a sign. Continuing, you enter the White Goat Wilderness. 

Once we broke out of the trees, we wandered off trail, eventually finding a short trail to a rock cairn overlooking gorgeous turquoise-coloured Pinto Lake – named for a troublesome packhorse from an 1893 expedition led by A. P. Coleman.

The views here are superb – and what makes this hike so worthwhile. Admire the headwaters of the Cline River – and what looks like untouched wilderness. Have a wander around but unless you’re planning to camp at Pinto Lake, do not descend to the lake as part of a day trip as it will add another 10 km and 415 m of elevation gain. 

Camping at Pinto Lake in the White Goat Wilderness Area

You can random camp near Pinto Lake – with no reservations needed. We saw about 10 people returning after a night there, so it’s a more popular spot than I would have guessed, at least on a summer weekend. Alberta Parks does recommend that you let someone know your plans before you head into the White Goat Wilderness Area.

If you’re hiking the Great Divide Trail in this part of Alberta, you’ll end up hiking right by Pinto Lake.

Hiking towards Sunset Pass through large meadows
Hiking towards Sunset Pass through large meadows
Hiking through waist-high meadows
Hiking through waist-high meadows
Arrival at Sunset Pass just beyond the national park boundary
Arrival at Sunset Pass just beyond the national park boundary
Quite the view John is enjoying over Pinto Lake
Quite the view John is enjoying over Pinto Lake
The boot beaten trail to Pinto Lake can be seen when exploring Sunset Pass
The boot-beaten trail to Pinto Lake can be seen when exploring Sunset Pass
Fall colours making an appearance
Fall colours making an appearance
Heading back to the campground from Sunset Pass
Heading back to the campground from Sunset Pass
Keeping an eye out for grizzly bears on the way back to the campground
Keeping an eye out for grizzly bears on the way back to the campground

Where is Sunset Pass and Sunset Lookout?

This is one trailhead that isn’t marked on Highway 93. You’ll find it here on Google maps.

If you’re coming from the south on the Icefields Parkway, zero your odometer in Saskatchewan River Crossing and drive north from the junction with Highway 11 for 16.4 km. The parking lot is on the east side of the highway at the bottom of a hill. 

From the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre drive south for 32.9 km. Turn left (east) into the parking lot.

Trail map of hike to Sunset Pass and Sunset Lookout
Trail map of hike to Sunset Pass and Sunset Lookout
Note the distances to Sunset Pass and Lookout
Note the distances to Sunset Pass and Lookout

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

A few things I’d recommend taking with you

If you’re planning to camp, especially later in the season take a pair of gloves and a down jacket like this one with a hood.

Enjoying dinner by a fire is a wonderful way to experience the Norman Lake Campground on a cold night. Don’t forget the firestarter.

You’ll need to treat your water to be on the safe side. I like the Pristine Water Purification System. I am seeing a lot more people in campgrounds using gravity filters like this one.

The Gem Trek – Bow Lake and Saskatchewan Crossing Map is the one to have.

Further reading on backpacking trips in Banff National Park

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The hike to Sunset Lookout & Sunset Pass in Banff National Park

 

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Leigh I started huffing and puffing reading the phrase ’35 switchbacks’! Gorgeous scenery but I’m thinking this type of hike would not be for your beginner back country hiker? Wonderful to have it pretty much to yourselves and not to have any signs of bears. Always a bonus.

    1. @HYL My audience is international and not just from Calgary. And as much as I like Maptown myself (and personally support them) my blog takes a lot of time, energy and money to run and I’m just trying to help pay my bills.

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