A train journey is a window to the world. It’s a chance to gaze out the window of a train while it rumbles over bridges, winds around mountains and slithers through tunnels. Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer train is an awesome two-day, 941km journey that starts or ends in either Banff, Calgary or Vancouver. The train winds passed five mountain ranges, semi-arid desert and temperate rain forests. Bears and raptors can be found near rushing waters and in silent valleys.
Early Canadian Rockies adventurers who explored this majestic land had to scrounge for food and, at the end of the day, their cold bottoms were probably covered with saddle sores.
In the late 19th century, William Van Horne, thought there was an easier way to savour the view.
Instrumental in building Canada’s transcontinental railroad, and a strong believer in tourism, he said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
Banff to Calgary
Nowadays, Rocky Mountaineer travellers view these incredible vistas encased in glass-domed luxury. That sure beats a horse and wagon.
I advise taking this opulent ride westward from Banff rather than Calgary as it leaves later.
It gives me a chance to explore Banff the day before. I visit the Banff Centre, a hub for artists, writers, musicians and culture.
The train still departs pretty early and even though I’m sleepy the smell of freshly baked pastries and coffee keeps me awake.
I’m glad I don’t nod off as we pass the charming old train station alongside Lake Louise where Dr. Zhivago was filmed.
Rocky Mountaineer train
I notice a mama osprey snuggling on her nest to protect her eggs from the crisp air. Clouds cling to the side of the peaks.
When the Rocky Mountaineer emerges from one of the many spiral tunnels, eagles soar toward the peaks of the snowy mountains.
Inside the train, it is warm and cosy. The staff educates us on the area’s history, geology, flora and fauna.
Meals are cooked on board and for GoldLeaf passengers, they are served in the lower level dining car.
It’s such a treat to dine on eggs Benedict or eggs wrapped in smoked salmon with caviar cream sauce as Banff and Yoho national parks roll past.
The highest point of the journey, the Continental Divide, is over 1,625 meters high.
The water to the east of the Divide flows to the Atlantic, while rivers on its western side flow into the Pacific.
The ride continues up a steep grade and through spiral mountain tunnels until the Columbia River appears.
All of these scenes are fabulous photo opportunities and keen photographers literally hang over the side of the outdoor observation deck, even when it is windy and rainy.
The most important thing for photographers is to capture that perfect shot of winding track and wildlife like bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep or deer.
Snow sheds (covered areas that protect trains from avalanches) are a popular subject for photographers.
Kicking Horse Pass
Another popular image is Kicking Horse Pass.
When the train emerges from the Upper Silo Tunnel (992 meters long), it spirals into the Kicking Horse Valley.
The barren shore of Kicking Horse Lake reveals bear tracks.
“Bear on the left,” shouts a passenger.
Everyone shifts to the left side of the train. It makes me wonder if this quick change in the train’s weight distribution could send it careening off the track. But all’s well as we whizz past the wildlife.
The day dims and the Rocky Mountaineer train pulls into Kamloops station, its overnight stop.
At Two River Junction Dinner Theatre, passengers are treated to dinner and a production about Billy Miner, the “Gentleman Bandit.”
The famous train robber often hung out in Kamloops.
After a night’s sleep, we board the train again and, as we leave Kamloops, we learn that the cross-covered, Indian cemetery on the outskirts of town is corpseless.
The “First Nations” people (Indians) rejected missionary customs, snatched the bodies and secretly buried them according to their tradition.
Some of the most stunning vistas on this journey are in British Columbia.
After Kamloops, vistas of soaring peaks, blue-hued glaciers and roaring waterfalls appear as the Rocky Mountaineer train navigates over bridges and through tunnels.
It weaves its way through Black, Thompson and Fraser Canyons and along the shores of the Thompson and Fraser rivers.
The nearly 34-meter wide Hell’s Gate Gorge boasts a thundering cascade. Nearly 3,785 cubic centimetres of water rumble down this the narrowest part of the Fraser River per minute. Concrete fish-ways slow the current for the upriver salmon run.
We pass the little town of Hope. “First Nations” shacks line the Fraser River shore. They use these huts to dry and smoke salmon.
As we get closer to Vancouver, there are more and more small villages and logging camps. Noise, traffic and huge cranes are a wake-up call that we have forsaken the wilderness and are entering the city.
“Still,” says passenger, Gary Slonim, “We’ve done a lot of rail travel including the Glacial Express. This is the best.”
All the train-travel junkies second that.
Rocky Mountaineer two-day trips offer two classes of service. The domed GoldLeaf car (CA$2,299 at high season), and the economical RedLeaf which is more like a 1940s train experience with seat-side food service (CA$1699 at high season).