Canada’s magnificent Rockies unfold in a blur of grays, whites and deep greens through the panoramic windows of the train car on a 19-hour rail ride from Vancouver, British Columbia, on the Pacific Coast to picturesque Jasper, near the Alberta/British Columbia border.
The gentle sway and rumble of train travel is inspiring, especially onboard VIA Rail Canada or Rocky Mountaineer, the two non-charter lines operating in the region.
VIA Rail’s comfortable Sleeper Plus cabins – which range from single berths with Murphy beds to cabins for four – create the romance of being lulled to sleep by the clickety-clack of the train at night. If you choose this option, you’ll also get access to a special viewing car, white-linen dining with meals made with fresh, local ingredients by top-star chefs and the ability to roam the train.
In the morning, breathtaking vistas of forests and powerful river canyons surround you. On my trip, I stood in the glass-topped Panorama Dome car and watched with fellow travelers as the awesome peaks of the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges rushed by; we marveled at the way the dramatic scenery shifted from Fraser Valley’s verdant fields to British Columbia’s rocky, desert- like interior.
The train slows for passing freight trains, letting its passengers get a better look at the scenery, which, in warmer months, may include the occasional brown bear lumbering off the tracks. (The bears feast on grain dropped by passing freight trains.)
We traveled in winter (VIA Rail operates year-round) and were lucky enough to see the majestic snowy peak of Mount Robson — at nearly 13,000 feet, the highest point of the Canadian Rockies — which is often invisible and veiled in fog.
Other highlights included a view of the cascading, 300-foot-high Pyramid Creek Falls (you can only see the falls from the highway or a train; they are not accessible otherwise) and Yellowhead Pass, a natural route across the Continental Divide used by fur traders and gold prospectors in the 19th century. I was amazed — and saddened! — by how quickly we arrived in Jasper National Park (at roughly 4,200 square miles, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies).
A trip through the Rockies can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you might as well make the most of it. From Jasper, a separate train can take you northwest to Prince George in central British Columbia and on to coastal Prince Rupert, just south of Alaska’s panhandle; both are small logging towns whose charm will win you over.
For an even more luxurious trip through these beautiful landscapes, you can opt for VIA Rail’s Prestige Class service, available on The Canadian, a four-night, three-day route across Canada between Vancouver and Toronto, with stops in Edmonton and Winnipeg; you can make any of these cities your final destination. It is by far the best way to see this vast country.
Highlights onboard include dedicated service by a Prestige concierge and a cabin with a large lounge area that transforms into a comfortable double bed, private bathroom with a shower, flat-screen monitor with video selection and minibar stocked with your choice of beverages and snacks.
Unlike the Vancouver-Jasper trip, The Canadian’s passage through the Rockies includes only a brief, 45- to 60- minute stop at Jasper, enough time to stretch your legs but not to see the town or the park.
VIA Rail provides short stops at select train stations where you can disembark briefly while the train refuels.
If disembarking, sightseeing and staying overnight in a hotel is your preference, book a trip on the popular Rocky Mountaineer instead. This Canadian rail company offers several routes through the Canadian Rockies with several trips departing from Seattle. For an additional charge, you also can add a seven-day Alaskan cruise to any route that starts in Vancouver.
Onboard the Rocky Mountaineer — which travels from April to October — you will enjoy white-linen meals and unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in your dining or lounge cars. The GoldLeaf upgrade provides exclusive access to breathtaking glass-domed cars and an open-air vestibule.
Choose a Journey through the Clouds tour package, and you can opt for a scenic look at Jasper National Park, with time to explore the town of Jasper on your own, followed by a motorcoach trip through awe-inspiring scenery to Banff National Park. You’ll travel along the Icefields Parkway to the Athabasca Falls and the Columbia Icefield, where you will ride on an off-road bus into the middle of the Athabasca Glacier. A stop at stunning Bow Lake precedes a visit to the mesmerizing, turquoise Lake Louise. Here, an overnight or dinner at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is highly recommended.
Lastly, if taking a trip back in time is more your speed and you’re traveling with 30 of your closest friends, the Royal Canadian Pacific, which once carried Sir Winston Churchill, is available for private bookings.
It’s not cheap, but the wood-paneled sleeping cars with private lounges and patios may be worth the $29,000 to $59,000 price tag.