Located about an hour up the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise, Sunset Pass sits on the boundary between Banff National Park and White Goat Wilderness. Before arriving in BC, I put together a monster list of potential hikes, having scoped out hundreds of trails in the area. For some reason, I never remember even seeing Sunset Pass, let alone adding it to the spreadsheet. Whether it was the overload of trails coursing through my brain or that I merely dismissed it, it hadn’t been on our radar.
With a stubborn snowpack leaving many trails still snowbound in mid-July, Sunset Pass was kind of a last-minute find. I found it while perusing Parks Canada’s Trail Conditions page (a brilliant resource, by the way), in search of something that was reasonably accessible and without avalanche danger. Sunset Pass’ current condition had been rated as poor (nothing dangerous, just not ideal conditions). ‘Poor’ sounded amazing compared to ‘not recommended,’ ‘caution,’ or ‘hazardous,’ so we figured it would be perfect. And it pretty much was. While I wasn’t really expecting much, it turned out to be a great little outing.
The first half of the trail is a moderate climb through a pine forest up roughly forty switchbacks. There isn’t much to look at and, admittedly, I was quick to assume the entire hike was going to be anticlimactic. That said, the wooded route did yield a few surprises. About 0.6 miles (1 km) up the trail, a tiny clearing on one of the switchbacks offered a nice look at Norman Creek Falls. Additionally, the ground beneath the thick evergreen canopy was littered with wildflowers. From bunchberry, violets, round-leaf and calypso orchids, paintbrush, glacier lilies, and some of the most beautiful columbine I’ve ever seen, there seemed to be a little bit of magic tucked beneath every corner of understory shade.
After a couple of miles of switchbacks, the trail abruptly opened into a vast, sub-alpine meadow. We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by towering peaks, including those of Mt. Coleman and a distant Mt. Amery. I was kind of surprised at how nice the views were from this secluded little valley. Quite unexpectedly, we were completely alone on the trail. Given its moderate trail rating and the fact that it was an absolutely gorgeous day, we thought for sure we’d run into at least a few people out here.
Ascending through the meadows and towards the pass, the wildflower flora changed completely. The taller flowers of the forest gave way to stunted blooms, seeking shelter from the harsher conditions close to the ground. Along this section of trail, we found shooting stars, anemone, eightpetal mountain-avens, moss campion, and globe flowers. While the species may have been quite different, the sheer density of blooms remained constant.
As we traversed Sunset Meadows, we made a couple of wet crossings over Norman Creek. With the water calf-deep and no opportunity for a dry crossing, we just went for it. Even though our shoes were soaked, the cool water felt amazing. Sanchez was loving it. After spending much of her life in the southeastern U.S. – a veritable cesspool of shitty lakes and rivers – she finds herself repeatedly stoked by all of the Canadian Rockies’ fresh, clean, glacial streams and lakes. She can splash around, have a drink… whatever she wants. Admittedly, having grown up around New England’s clean lakes, we are equally thrilled to be back around pristine water.
After one more quick ascent through a bit of forest, we reached Sunset Pass – a little knob at the base of Mt. Coleman. Under beautiful blue skies we got a sweeping view of Pinto Lake and the headwaters of the Cline River. Nestled beneath Minster Mountain (Mt. Harlan), Pinto Lake’s intensely turquoise water radiated in the midday sunlight. Although it was quite windy atop the pass, it was the perfect spot to stop for lunch. And as with the trail up, we found ourselves completely alone at the pass… a bewildering but welcome surprise.
While I’m not sure I’d rate the route as epic, Sunset Pass ended up being a really solid option for a day hike in a quiet little corner of Banff. On our afternoon return, we did eventually end up passing several groups headed up to camp at Pinto Lake, but it was still just such a chill outing. The best part, though, was that we were so pleasantly surprised with the scenery. I guess we should have expected it, as Canada’s mountain parks are certainly not lacking for beauty. This one was good enough that I’d actually consider returning for a fall hike, as I’d imagine the endless expanse of willows becomes bathed in a warm shade of gold. If you got the time and this one’s not on your list, we think it’s at least a worthy contender for a relaxing day on the trail.
Total distance: 12.0 miles (19 km)
Elevation gain: 3,102 feet (945 m)