Snow-capped peaks, turquoise lakes, ride the rails through scenic B.C. and western Alberta
Think of a trip through Western Canada on the Rocky Mountaineer as a cruise on rails. The experience of luxury train travel is a big part of the appeal.
For most of the day, you’ll remain seated on a plush, reclinable seat with plenty of legroom, peeking out a big window as you roll by jagged peaks, turquoise lakes, through dark train tunnels and over wooden trestles high in the mountains.
So, imagine you’re pulling out of the station right now for a two-day trip on what’s been called the most luxurious train in Canada, the Rocky Mountaineer.
AAA Travel Advisor Dallas Smiley, based in Olympia, took the Rocky Mountaineer on a rail trip through Western Canada. Much of what follows is based on her experience on the train and a motorcoach tour of western Alberta.
Boarding the Train
The Rocky Mountaineer departs from its own private station near downtown Vancouver, B.C. You’re seated in a domed glass compartment with 180-degree views as the train follows the course of the Fraser River surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
On the very first part of the trip, the Rocky Mountaineer chugs through lush, green valleys. Before the train has left the outskirts of Vancouver, you’ll be served hot drink and some pastries. This will be followed through the day with complimentary scones, cheese plates and other snacks, fruity drinks, sparkling wine; a full breakfast, like a soufflé or Eggs Benedict; a three-course lunch with wild pacific salmon, steak, risotto and vegetarian options on the menu.
The Rocky Mountaineer usually keeps to a leisurely speed of between 30 and 40 MPH (all the better for taking pictures). It does sometimes stop on the way to share the tracks with another train. At times, two sets of parallel rails run right next to each other, and your train may pass (or be passed) by another train hooting its whistle.
If you need to stretch your legs, you can head to the observation deck in the open air where you can feel the wind on your face. You might spot a bald eagle soaring over the river or a herd of Big Horn sheep on the craggy rocks just beyond your window. This first day’s ride provides an interesting contrast in landscapes. You start in a temperate rainforest passing high mountain peaks and green valleys, then move into arid country through dry canyonlands with rocky cliffs and yellow grass.
In the evening, you’ll arrive in Kamloops, a city of about 100,000 people at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers. Before disembarking from the train, the staff will hand you your hotel keycard, and a motorcoach will be waiting to whisk you off to your hotel. Your bags, which have traveled separately, will already be in your room.
In Kamloops, you can sit down for a delicious dinner before heading off to sleep. You’ll probably want to post your photos to social media. It’s been a memorable day.
The next morning, the train departs around 7 a.m., and heads northeast toward the high peaks of the Canadian Rockies. On this dramatic leg of the journey, the Rocky Mountaineer follows the North Thompson River through the Monashee and Cariboo Mountains approaching the Continental Divide.
You’ll see Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at nearly 13,000 feet. Pyramid Creek Falls also comes into view, cascading over three stairsteps before crashing into bedrock, and then fanning out into the shape of a pyramid. You may spot a black bear prowling around in the trees.
AAA Travel Advisors can draw on their own travel experiences to help you plan the perfect rail adventure. Get in touch with a AAA travel advisor today to discuss your options.
Over the Canadian Rockies
The view of the Pyramid Creek Falls from the train is unlike any other. You wouldn’t catch half as much driving the scenic route in a car. The seats slide forward to recline (no bothering the person in the seat behind you) and have a leg rest. Plus, they’re heated, so your seat will stay warm and cozy if you nip outside to take a picture on the observation deck.
The train crests Yellowhead Pass on the Continental Divide. You’ve now crossed into western Alberta, soon to reach your final destination: the alpine town of Jasper, a former fur trading post located in Jasper National Park. Here your Rocky Mountaineer train ride ends, but not necessarily your adventure in western Alberta.
AAA Rocky Mountaineer tours
AAA Washington offers several Rocky Mountaineer trips. Another popular trip to Alberta takes passengers via a different route over the Rockies to Banff or Lake Louise. The Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to travel along the historic Canadian Pacific rail line, passing over the last spike that completed the line and connected British Columbia by rail with Eastern Canada more than 130 years ago.
Some of the highlights over the Rockies include the Spiral Tunnels (which take the train through two long circular tunnels up the mountain toward Kicking Horse Pass); and the train also passes by the rocky Castle Mountain that looks like the ruins of a medieval fortress.
AAA Washington’s Rocky Mountaineer tours pair a two-day rail trip across B.C. and over the Rockies with a multi-day motorcoach tour with stops in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.
Jasper, originally established in 1813, is located in Jasper National Park and surrounded by mountains. One option is to take a boat tour out to Spirit Lake, one of the most photographed places in the world. For a great view, take a seven-minute ride up to the top of Whistler’s Mountain on the Jasper SkyTram. Foodies can take a guided walking tour of local restaurants.
Adventurers may also want to explore Maligne Canyon, the deepest Canyon in Jasper National Park. Hikers of all abilities can explore this incredible natural landmark by crossing six bridges built across various points of the canyon. Jasper National Park is also a designated Dark Sky Reserve. So, be sure to check out the Jasper Planetarium at night for amazing star gazing.
Banff offers spectacular hiking and fat tire biking trails in Banff National Park. Some of the options include Johnston Canyon, Bow Falls and Tunnel Mountain. All these trails provide amazing views with a moderate difficulty level. Consider buying a Pursuit attraction pass, which gains you access to some of Banff’s best attractions, including The Lake Minnewanka Cruise, Banff Gondola, Columbia Icefields Adventure and SkyWalk, among others. You can also take a guided mountain biking tour in the national park. Also, stop by Jolene’s tea house for a refresher.
On Bear Street, don’t miss the Carter-Ryan Gallery and Live Art Gallery celebrating the work of Indigenous soapstone sculptor and painter Jason Carter. Banff also has some excellent restaurants.
One of the highlights of a trip to western Alberta is the drive from Banff to Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway. It is one of the most spectacular highways in Canada. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife sightings. You can also do a canoe trip on iconic Lake Louise. Also, enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Louise while dining at the Fairview Bar and restaurant. Plus, Lake Louise is home to arguably the most luxurious hotel in the Canadian Rockies: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Some of Smiley’s favorite activities on the motorcoach leg of her tour included:
- Exploring the Columbia Icefields in a tracked vehicle. Around Jasper and Banff lies the largest ice field in the Rockies, and you can take a bus out on the ice. The bus will stop at times, and you can climb out and walk around with the ice crunching under your feet.
- Riding a helicopter. Seeing the Canadian wilderness from above is worth the price of the tour, Smiley says. “If you’re going on the train, you see the mountains, you see the trees and the water, and it’s absolutely beautiful, but then, once you’re up in the air, it is totally a different way of looking at it,” Smiley said. “You’re still seeing the same things, but it’s just another angle and it’s all so beautiful.”
- Taking pictures at Lake Moraine. Near Banff, this glacial lake’s turquoise waters are set in a picturesque location surrounded by mountains. “It wasn’t quite summer yet, so some parts of the lake were still frozen,” Smiley said. “But the color of the water — just amazing.”
- Riding the Banff Gondola. Located a few minutes from town, the gondola takes you on an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain and a panoramic view. Also, grab lunch at the Sky Bistro at the summit, where you’ll feel like you’re in the clouds.
Exploring Vancouver, B.C.
Rocky Mountaineer train tours typically begin or end in Vancouver, B.C. Before you board the train for Alberta, you’ll want to take at least two days to explore Canada’s third largest city. It ranks as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Vancouver and West Vancouver are separated by a large harbor, and the city’s lively downtown is located on a peninsula bounded by water and mountains to the West.
The downtown is highly walkable. There’s also an excellent public bus, SkyTrain (light rail and subway) and ferry system that serves the entire city. Make sure you visit Chinatown, the second largest Chinatown in North America after San Francisco’s. Also, consider visiting Granville Island, where there’s a wonderful open market, great food and shops built partially on a wharf. Plus, don’t miss Stanley Park, which takes up roughly half of the acreage on the downtown peninsula.
Stanley Park is one of the largest public parks in North America. You can walk the entire circumference of the park on a paved path that follows the seawall. This is a great way to see picturesque scenery of the water and mountains across the harbor, as well as build up an appetite for an excellent meal. (PS: Vancouver has great restaurants all over the city; particularly the city’s Asian-influenced cuisine is not to be missed.) You can also walk the forested interior trails of Stanley Park, then visit the park’s aquarium.
Life on the train
The Rocky Mountaineer offers two levels of service: SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf. Both are great, Smiley says. A SilverLeaf passenger sits in a reclinable plush seat with a view through large windows. You enjoy a wonderful breakfast and lunch, snacks and drinks.
But, Smiley says, if you can, it’s worth the upgrade to GoldLeaf.
GoldLeaf passengers sit in a glass-domed compartment perched on the train’s second level (the lower level is a dining area that serves gourmet food on white linen tablecloths). Within the glass dome, you have views on all sides of the mountain peaks and forest. It can feel, at times, as if you’re riding in the treetops.
Some of the coaches are wheelchair accessible. On the Canadian rail routes, GoldLeaf Service coaches have elevators as well as a spiral staircase. Those who have mobility issues or concerns are asked to inform the company of any concerns or requests at the time of the booking.
Meeting new people
One thing about Rocky Mountaineer vacations (and luxury rail trips generally) is that socializing is encouraged. You’ll meet fellow travelers and train enthusiasts. You might even decide to have lunch with your new friends, and swap stores of your adventures.
“It’s definitely an experience,” Smiley said. “Of course, I think that people who love trains are going to enjoy it more than people who don’t, but I think everybody would enjoy it. It’s so special and so different.”
AAA Rail Tours
AAA Washington offers numerous rail tours in North America.
Here are just a few of the options:
- Take a 12-day tour of the Canadian Rockies. On this tour, you take the Rocky Mountaineer on two separate scenic legs. The first leg of the tour travels from Vancouver to Whistler into the British Columbia’s interior. Then travel east by Motorcoach over the Canadian Rockies, tour Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. Then board the train again in Banff bound for Vancouver.
- On this 8-day journey, you spend four days onboard the Rocky Mountaineer traveling the American southwest. You start in Denver, cross the Continental Divide with views of rugged canyons, then proceed to Glenwood Springs and Moab.
- On this 10-day Railbookers Alaska adventure, you’ll take several scenic train rides on the Alaska Railroad that will have you overnighting in Seward, Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks.
- You also have the option to join a small group tour in the Alaska interior, which includes a scenic train trip from Talkeetna to Denali. This trip includes a jet boat tour to a trapper’s cabin and a visit to a sled-dog kennel.
- Do a 14-day Yukon and Denali tour. This trip combines a cruise, a train trip, bus tour and flight up the Alaska coast to the port cities of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. You will travel into the Alaska interior on a domed rail car on the McKinley Explorer for two nights in Denali National Park, then fly to Dawson City, once the center of the Klondike Gold Rush.
- Tour Quebec and the Maritimes on a seven-day tour of Eastern Canada. See Olympic Stadium and Basilica Notre Dame and the other famed sites in Montreal, then walk around the old Port district of Québec City and the boardwalk in Halifax. This tour includes an overnight rail trip from Québec City to Halifax.
These are just some of the rail options available through AAA Travel. A train tour is a great way to do scenic travel in a different way. Call a AAA travel advisor today to discuss your options.
—Written by AAA Washington staff
—Top photo: Rocky Mountaineer
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