Most of the hiking guidebooks we own strongly recommend the trail to Sunset Pass. But the trailhead is a two hour drive from Canmore (three hours from Calgary). That’s a pretty big investment of time and gas money. So this one stayed on the “someday” list for years before we finally got around to it in mid-September. Too bad we put it off for so long!
The Sunset trails are along the Icefields Parkway between Saskatchewn Crossing and Jasper. The driving time is a little over two hours from Canmore/3+ hours from Calgary.
We stopped a couple of times to photograph the stunning early morning mountain scenery along Highway 93 North (aka Icefields Parkway).
As we continued driving north, low lying clouds in the valley bottom gave way to smoke hanging in the valley. It turned out to be coming from a Parks Canada controlled burn to the northwest of the Sunset Pass trailhead. Initiated a few days earlier, the fire was mostly out. But several hotspots generated enough smoke between them to make for hazy conditions along the Parkway.
One other vehicle was in the parking lot when we pulled in a few minutes after 9 am. Standing water reflected Mount Amery across the valley. With the smoke still hanging low in the valley, this was the best view of its glacier capped peak that we got all day!
Practical note – there are no pit/vault toilets at this trailhead. Stop on the way, if needed. Or use the woods, following Leave No Trace principles.
The trailhead sign lists four possible intermediate / turnaround points. Both hiking guidebooks we rely on recommend heading to Sunset Pass via Norman Lake Campground. And they advise making the side trip to Sunset Lookout on the return trek – time and energy permitting. So we set out planning to do just that.
Parking to Norman Creek Waterfall
The trail started climbing as soon as we left the parking lot. The mostly pine forest is fairly open, with some buffalo berry bushes and lots of wild strawberry plants as undergrowth. At about the one km mark, three stub trails offer a choice of lookouts to view the multi-stepped Norman Creek waterfall. Skip the first one. The second is a better vantage point.
Immediately after the second short side trail to view the falls the trail made its first big switchback.
We also stopped at the third viewpoint location. But we thought it offered a better view of the North Saskatchewan River valley than it did of the waterfall. By this time however, smoke from the controlled burn hotspots was hanging higher in the valley.
Norman Creek Waterfall to Sunset Lookout
The trail steepened after the waterfall, averaging about a 15% grade to the Sunset Lookout trail junction. There were a few peek-a-boo views across to Mount Amery. And during wildflower season, dwarf dogwood, heart-leaved arnica and leafy asters would be blooming along the trail.
We took a short rest break at the sign marking the turn-off to the old Sunset Lookout. It’s old, and hard to read.
Anyhow, it’s good that we stopped for a few minutes. We got to talking about photography and ended up decided we’d be better off making the side trip to Sunset Lookout in the morning. Why? So we wouldn’t be shooting into the sun!
So off we went, gaining another 200 meters elevation over 1.3 km before dropping down about 50 meters to the site of the old fire lookout. Along this stretch of trail we saw some late season heart-leaved arnica flowers.
And some hardy leafy asters still bloomed.
In contrast, most of the wild flower leaves were sporting autumn colours.
The old fire lookout had amazing views of the North Saskatchewan and Alexandra rivers. From here, we could see where the smoke originated, Mount Saskatchewan across the valley, and Highway 93 down below.
North Saskatchewan and Alexandra Rivers come together on the west side of Highway 93. Meanders and side channels glowed turquoise even in the smoke haze.
Chunks of concrete and cables remain to show exactly where the old fire lookout used to sit. Try to imagine having a summer job of looking out over this landscape all day, every day.
Sunset Lookout to Norman Creek Backcountry Campground
By this point, our stomachs started telling us it was almost lunch time. So we booted it back to the trail junction. And from there it’s a left turn, more switchbacks and heading generally north towards Norman Creek Backcountry Campground.
For the most part, it’s a trail through the woods with no views. At one low point, a large, cracked-mud pan suggested a seasonal tarn. And fall colour showing on the nearby shrubs hinted at what was to come!
Forty minutes (2.5 km) after leaving the Lookout, I came to an abrupt stop as the trail opened up onto a stunning mountain meadow.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether the trail is named for the stunning fall colours that rival any sunset. Blue sky reflected off Norman Creek and Mount Coleman dominated the view to the north.
We stopped so many times to take photographs that we needed another half hour to reach the picnic tables at Norman Creek backcountry campground – just 600 meters past the start of the meadow!
Mr GeoK set up a timelapse to run while we ate. But we didn’t hang around once the timelapse finished. We were well aware of the time (1 pm) and that we still had at least as much distance to go to reach Sunset Pass.
Sunset Meadows Trail
Sunset Meadows Trail turned out to be much longer than expected! We tromped along the narrow track, surrounded by wolf willow and other shrubs for 3.6 km.
Undulating terrain and a couple of creek crossings added interest. We read some trip reports for this trail that complained about bogginess. But in mid-September, things were pretty dry.
At one point, Mr GeoK noticed a demarcation line across the sky – clear on one side, smoky on the other.
Finally, about 2 o’clock, we left the meadow behind.
Growing ever more concerned about the lateness of the time, we covered the final 2.5 km to our turnaround at a moving average speed of 4 km/h, gaining more elevation all the while.
We stopped once, for a unique and weathered sign.
At 2:45, we finally reached the point where the trail heads down towards Pinto Lake. That was it for us! Time to grab some photos, shoot a timelapse and head back.
Smoke haze obscured everything – not the best conditions for photography and videography! 🙁
At 3:15 I sent a preset message from our Garmin GPS unit with satellite messaging capability. Why? To let our emergency contacts know everything was fine, but that we were running late. Then we got moving.
Of course we knew that without the side trip to Sunset Lookout, plus speed advantage that comes with descending, we’d take much less time to get back to the the parking lot than we’d taken to reach our turnaround point.
So we kept watch on the clock, distance to destination (parking lot), as well as the stunning landscape. And we stopped infrequently for yet more photography.
The spot where the trail approaches Norman Creek as it wanders through Sunset Meadows demanded another stop, this time with the wide-angle lens attached to the camera!
Leaving Sunset Meadows we resolved to return next fall. But on any return trek, we will only hike as far as Norman Creek backcountry campground – a very manageable objective for most hikers.
Only two more things slowed us down as we headed for the parking lot. First, we chatted for a minute or two with a group of three headed for an overnight stay at the campground. Second, we took another look at Norman Creek waterfall. The light was no good for photography. So we were glad we’d stopped in the morning. But the light in the valley bottom was pretty good.
The clock showed 5:45 when we reached the car – just 2.5 hours to cover 11 km and we made it back before sunset!
Portions of this hike are much better than others. For us, the highlight is the front end of the meadow. The side trip to the lookout is also worth a repeat, perhaps later in the day to catch the sun going down. And we’d definitely wait for golden larch season to do this hike again. To be clear, there are no larches on this hike – for golden larches, head to Gibbon Pass.
Distance = 22.2 km
Elevation gain = 1165 meters (764 net)
Hiking time = 5.5 hours plus 3 hours for lunch, photography/videography and rest stops (total 8.5 hrs)