Pinto Lake from the Icefield Parkway is a steady hike until you reach the meadow at the top near Norman Lake, after which it becomes an easy hike to the lake. We clocked 19.6km round trip in 5 hrs 48 minutes from the staging area to the Sunset Pass Lookout; we did not descend to Pinto Lake itself. Overall elevation gain/loss from the Parkway was 2770m, for an overall elevation of 755m. See our track here.
Pinto Lake can be reached from two directions, the much longer but more gradual elevation route from the David Thompson Highway or the shorter but steeper route from the Icefield Parkway north of Rampart Creek Campground. We approached it as a day hike from the Parkway which required a very steady hike up a constant grade full of switchbacks before coming to a gorgeous mountain meadow, known to be bear habitat like many areas in the rockies. Switchbacks all the way up to the meadow adds to the overall distance; from the map recce the hike looked to be shorter than it actually was, which was deceiving when planning the day. About three quarters of the way up you can take a well-marked detour of about 1.6km to the Sunset Lookout; from here you can apparently see the mountains clearly east and west. We did not take the path to the lookout this day but met some folks who did. They found the views worth the segway.
The trail up is well treed although you can in places see the mountains to the south across the plain where the North Saskatchewan River flows. It looks like so many other trails in the National Parks, but that does not make it any less spectacular.
About 1/2 way up you are greeted by a waterfall that is Norman Creek falling down the mountain.
The real views come when you finally reach the meadow at the top. From the first cresting of the trail into the meadow you will be greeted with spectacular views. The mountains surround the meadow on all sides with dustings of snow in early September when we were there. Norman Lake can be seen off to the left, and a back country campground (called either Norman Lake or Norman Creek) is found on the trail shortly after entering the meadow. You can see quite a distance across the meadow once you crest the top of the climb.
Just before reaching the back country campground you cross Norman Creek, which is a delightfully clear stream. We enjoyed a few minutes of rock-hopping here.
There is more than one path through the meadow on the way to Pinto Lake. We took a right turn as it appeared to follow the route on our GPS, but this was wrong. We ignored an arrow made of rocks that we back tracked to after discovering our error. This is apparently an equine destination and the horse trails go in other directions.
As we got farther through the meadow the growth of shrubs got taller. Given this is bear habitat it could easily hide any number of critters so it is advised to make sufficient noise not to surprise any feeding bears.
Once you clear the far side of the meadow you will begin another shorter climb up to the lookout. Somewhere on the ascent you leave Banff and enter a Provincial reserve.
The trail went off to the left but we strayed right toward the higher ground. Pinto Lake looked like a gem below us.
If you continue down the trail you will reach another back country Campground on Pinto Lake. We met a few people coming back from there and they all note it was steep hiking both directions but worth the effort. This will be a future adventure for us.
The Pinto Lake Forest Recreation Area is to be found forwards the North end of the lake.