Canada By Rail: An Unforgettable Road Trip

Soak up the scenery, breathe in the mountain air and maybe spot a grizzly
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

We’ve been traveling east all day, the late afternoon sun is golden, the sky deep blue. I’m standing on an open-air deck watching the range-country scenery outside of Kamloops, British Columbia, roll by. It’s dry cattle country—a surprising shift from the dense greenery west of the Cascades.

Suddenly, someone shouts “sheep,” and we scan the landscape with our cameras and binoculars. I expect to see white fluffies grazing alongside the tracks, but instead spot a majestic bighorn ram standing atop a rock outcrop with his impressive curled horns, as if posing for a picture. Then there’s another bighorn and another, and soon we notice that the hills are dotted with a large herd. The lowering sun turns them into dark silhouettes, but these are no cardboard cutouts. It’s our first taste of the kind of Rocky Mountain wildlife that’s brought us here.


Knute Berger spent hours on the outdoor deck; Carol Poole

    
A black bear in Jasper National Park

We are cruising on a sightseeing train—the Rocky Mountaineer—through the forests, river valleys, gorges, prairies and spectacular glacier-encrusted mountains of western Canada. Think of it as the Orient Express of Cascadia.

Recently, the Rocky Mountaineer has made it easier for Seattleites to take such a journey by starting a day-trip run from Seattle’s King Street Station that connects with other routes in B.C. In late May of last year, my wife and I were invited as guests on a trip to sample two legs of the Mountaineer’s itinerary. We took an evening trip to Vancouver, B.C., stayed a couple of nights, seeing the sights, then hopped the Mountaineer’s premier GoldLeaf service for a two-day train journey to Banff, Alberta, and its namesake national park in the Canadian Rockies. Once there, we spent a few more days hiking along the shore of the still-thawing Lake Louise, staying in cozy lodges and walking atop an actual glacier near Jasper.

The journey began in the early morning when we were picked up at our hotel and taken to the grand old Pacific Central Station for a bagpipe send-off. The Mountaineer leaves the coastal lowlands and follows the rivers upstream like a salmon returning to its source in the mountains. It follows the Fraser, then the Thompson and then crosses the Columbia as it chugs toward the Continental Divide. We overnighted at a hotel in Kamloops the first night and spent the next day winding upward through the Rockies, arriving at Banff in time to bed down.

The best part of the Mountaineer experience may be the train itself. The cars are designed to maximize the views. Nights are spent in hotels, and your baggage is moved on ahead so it greets you in your room upon arrival. Our GoldLeaf-class car was a double-decker. Up top, it featured comfy seats and windows that extend from your elbow to the ceiling, turning every car into a glassed-in dome car. You can settle back, stretch your legs and relax. The only interruptions were attendants offering us drinks.
    
Dome windows in GoldLeaf cars mean passengers won't miss any of the sites

On the lower level are a dining room, bathrooms and the door to the outer deck. A PA system keeps you in contact with what’s going on as a train car attendant calls out points of historical interest, spectacular Lord of the Rings–style scenery, visible wildlife, or lets you know what time dinner is served. Basically, all day long, you’ll have nothing to do but soak up the epic scenery.
    
The train takes you close to the action

And eat. The GoldLeaf menu emphasizes local fare, such as Alberta beef, fresh wild B.C. salmon and Whistler beer. You pair up with strangers as you are called to your meal seating. This is your best chance to meet your fellow travelers for that kind of brief, intimate friendship that travel provides over a dining-car meal. We found great company with a pair of doctors on holiday from Toronto and a couple from Florida who also has a gold-prospecting camp in remote Alaska.

At the table, we heard stories of the doctors’ recent trip to Haida Gwaii, the Haida tribe’s remote island homeland, which has moved higher up on my must-see list. During a hearty breakfast on our first morning, the part-time Alaskans shared their stories about bear encounters, which served to whet our appetites for seeing grizzly country—though a dome car sighting would be close enough, thank you. We traveled with passengers from the world over—folks from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the U.S. and China. Banff and British Columbia are on many peoples’ bucket lists, and for some, this was the trip of a lifetime, and the scenery proved exotic. The Australians on board, for example, were especially excited at the prospect of seeing snow for the first time.

For me, the means of travel was especially exciting. While for most Americans, train travel means sitting indoors, that’s not necessarily so on the Mountaineer. The outdoor decks are covered but open on the sides, which means passengers can inhale fresh mountain air—and the occasional whiff of diesel from the engine. It’s a gift to photographers, who can get unobstructed shots of scenery and wildlife. Many passengers don’t use the deck, preferring the glassed-in comforts inside, and I don’t blame them. But I stood out there for hours at a time. It’s an incredible experience. Even the most mundane aspects of life along the railway become fascinating—old railroad depots and tramp camps. I noticed right away that I could not only see the world better, but could smell it: barbecues, tide flats, dairy barns, pine trees and sawmills. The olfactory element of travel is, well, elemental to one’s experience of place, but you don’t get that on Amtrak.
    
Elk in Jasper National Park

This style of train travel is marvelous and romantic. You rattle and roll, smoothly—an earthbound version of dream flight, passing through cities and villages, pastures and woodlands. At times, the Mountaineer clings precariously to railbeds cut into sheer mountain rock. Other times, you’ll be plunged into the Stygian blackness of a rail tunnel. You sway, and occasionally lurch, as the rhythms of the train signal to your bones the lay of the land.

The frontier history of the road to the Rockies includes fur trading, gold prospecting and the construction of the railway. That colorful past is alive in places with names like Jackass Mountain, Avalanche Alley, Scuzzy Creek and Salmon Arm that pass your window. You’ll go through Craigellachie Pass, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific was driven in 1885.

Rivers also provide drama. The Mountaineer takes you through Hell’s Gate, where the enormous Fraser must funnel through a 100-foot(ish) gap in the rock. When we passed it in late May, it boiled with white foam and water the color of a latte. The walls of the canyon squeeze the river so that it rises in the middle. We saw whirlpools and huge tree trunks spun like blackened matchsticks.
    
The Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park: a thrilling vantage point for an eagle’s-eye view

Train travel has its elements of unpredictability. One time, I was almost scared out of my boots by a passing freight train thundering within inches of my nose—if you travel on the open deck, don’t stick your head out! There are some unexpected stops along the way for freight trains that share the tracks, but time doesn’t matter much since the Mountaineer is a cushy cocoon. During one delay, some of us on the deck spotted a black bear walking casually through the woods next to the track. We called others to see, but its appearance was fleeting. Still, the wildlife viewing is the best I’ve ever seen from a train. Our list of animals sighted includes eagles, ospreys, deer, bighorn, elk, marmots and that bear. At the end of the second and last day, as we rolled into Banff, we were rewarded by the sight of a young moose grazing at dusk.

Once in Banff, we Mountaineer passengers went our separate ways. Some planned to return via the train, others were taken by motor coach to Calgary for a flight home. A few stayed on, as we did, to see the sights. Banff and Lake Louise are upscale mountain resorts nestled in a spectacular wilderness, with lots of options for dining, lodging and outdoor recreation. It would be a shame to get there and not stay and explore.

As we roved around, we occasionally bumped into people we’d met on the Mountaineer and somehow that seemed comforting. In just two days, we’d bonded over a common experience of basking in beauty, good food and wildlife viewing with our train friends. We didn’t feel sated, however.

It just nursed our appetite to keep moving.

On the train, you’ll want a camera, iPad, smartphone or other means of capturing images. Some passengers would take pictures during the day, and by evening have a tablet slideshow ready to display the results. I also recommend a pair of binoculars to extend the views. Snacks and beverages (including alcohol) are plentiful on the train in GoldLeaf class and included in your fare. If you have a special diet, the kitchen can probably accommodate you—in other words, you don’t have to bring your own gluten-free muffins as the staff will bake something for you. Make sure you have a coat or jacket for transfers, etc. Even in the middle of the summer, the weather can be variable. Seattle to Banff rates from $2,906–$6,986. 1.877. 460.3200;
rockymountaineer.com

Vancouver
STAY: The renovated ’50s-cool hipster hotel/motel The Burrard (1100 Burrard St.; 604.681.2331; theburrard.com) is easy walking distance from downtown.
SEE: Consider hitting a few of the high-altitude sights as a kind of prep for your Rocky Mountain trip: a new 4-D multimedia experience—wraparound 3-D video plus seats that move to give you the feeling of flight—called FlyOver Canada at the waterfront’s Canada Place (flyovercanada.com); walking the suspension bridge, and treetop and cliff walks at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (10-minute drive from downtown; capbridge.com), and popping up the Space Needle–like Vancouver Lookout tower (555 W Hastings St.; 604.689.0421; vancouverlookout.com) for great views.

Kamloops
Mountaineer guests are taken by bus to a variety of downtown Kamloops hotels and are on their own for dinner. If you are traveling GoldLeaf of SilverLeaf class, your baggage is moved for you and should be waiting in your hotel room when you arrive. The train staff passes out a handy map and guide to all the restaurants and services in town—everything is within walking distance. We went with some fellow train travelers to The Noble Pig Brew-house (650 Victoria St.; 778.471.5999; thenoblepig.ca) to try local beers and so I could sample “classic” Canadian poutine for the first time, an artery-clogging mess of french fries, cheese curds and gravy. A Texas version includes pulled pork and barbecue sauce.

Banff/Lake Louise
STAY: The Buffalo Mountain Lodge on a mountain top not far from downtown Banff is a comfortable, modern lodge featuring an outdoor hot tub. The rambling, historic Deer Lodge, located right behind the grand Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, offers a charming, less expensive alternative to that grand place and is a short walk from the famous lake and its spectacular views. Details and reservations at Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts; 403.410.7417; crmr.com
DO: Hiking is the main activity, but gondola rides at Banff and Lake Louise also get you stunning views of the surrounding mountains, regardless of the season. Encounters with wildlife are expected in Banff National Park and environs. We returned to our lodge one evening to discover a giant bull elk grazing out front, unperturbed by gawkers. This is also grizzly country. At the Lake Louise Gondola (lakelouisegondola.com), after the snow melts in spring, you can take the lift up to nearly 7,000 feet over meadows often occupied by the big bears. The ride is known as the “Grizzly Express.”
DINE: Dive into Rocky Mountain cuisine. It draws on elk and buffalo, Alberta beef and grains, and fish such as salmon, char and steelhead. A can’t-miss restaurant is The Bison Restaurant & Terrace in Banff (211 Bear St.; 403.762.5550; thebison.ca), where we were treated to a superb dinner of steamed wild steelhead and duck breast in a blood orange reduction sauce along with an Okanagan Pinot Gris. Figure dinner at around $100 per person.

Beyond to Jasper
Banff is a great jumping-off point for more epic ramblings in the north. Rent a car and drive up the Icefields Parkway north toward Jasper, 180 miles away. The highway threads huge mountains—including the aptly named Endless Chain range. At about 115 miles, we stopped at the Athabasca Glacier for a tour up and onto the ice via ginormous, six-wheeled vehicles called snow coaches. Once there, you can get out and walk on the surface of the glacier. Cost is about $45 per person (Jasper National Park; 866.606.6700; brewster.ca). Farther up the road, the spectacular Glacier Skywalk (which opened last year) lets you stroll along a transparent walkway on the cliff’s edge over a valley with a raging river some 900 feet below. It’s not for the faint of heart. Our trip there was interrupted by a herd of bighorn sheep blocking the road. Cost is about $24. Jasper National Park; 866.606.6700; brewster.ca

 

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