Canada A Journey Through The Canadian Rockies
The Canadian Rockies offer scenery that can enliven a traveler with its pristine majesty, and one of the most comfortable ways to catch these stunning sights is by train. As I traverse the Icefields Parkway – the 141-mile road, lying between picturesque Lake Louise in Alberta and the northern outpost of Jasper – I contemplate my upcoming rail adventure. The scenery outside my SUV is magnificent. It’s September and the first flakes of snow drift. As I drive parallel with the Continental Divide, glimpses of glaciers and frozen waterfalls adorn mountain ranges like geological regalia. Yet, it’s only a glimpse.
As stunning as this is, I’m eager for the train journeys ahead: the chance to fully behold every vista of this terrain’s grandeur while someone else drives. Many more feel this way. In its almost 30 years of existence, the Rocky Mountaineer railway has welcomed nearly two million passengers – each of whom came to experience the majesty of the Canadian Rockies without taking responsibility for navigating themselves. I drop my car at the rental depot and join the 20 or so others who’ll be my carriage companions on the “Rainforest to Gold Rush” route. Several routes and itineraries exist for the region, but I’m bound for Whistler via Quesnel on a two-day journey.
It soon becomes clear why many people choose to experience the Canadian Rockies by rail. Here, you can see nature in full glory. Watching the autumnal hues of the trees in the Jasper National Park fade in the distance, I spot a bull elk on a rocky outcrop near the track, gazing as the train passes. During the next two days, I’ll observe black bears, caribou, bighorn sheep, ospreys and red-tailed hawks: an impressive assortment of fauna surpassed only in greatness by the landscape supporting them.
Foremost amongst these topographic spectacles is a glacier-encrusted Mount Robson – the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, piercing the heavens with its razor-sharp apex – the expansive valley of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the mirror-sheer, milky green Anderson and Seton Lakes, and the formidable Deep Creek Bridge: a wooden crossing that permits a spectacular view of the waterway 312-feet below.
Nothing compares, however, to the visual delight offered during the journey’s second day, as the fields of the Cariboo plateau abruptly open to the precipices of the Fraser River Canyon.
Snaking down a narrow gorge in this arid, treeless setting, the panoramic train windows permit vistas of both the vertical cliffs to my left and the rapids of the Fraser River several hundred feet below. As the descent finally levels off 30 miles down the track, I observe details in the river: waterside flowers, glistening black boulders and fish ladders, created to help migrating salmon circumvent a rockslide that altered the water’s flow 100 years ago.
Further still is Hell’s Gate, where the river temporarily tapers, ferociously churning its contents in a passage 33-meters wide. Beyond that, the town of Lillooet: a 19th-century hub from the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush era. Today, Lillooet is a sleepy logging town, four hours from Whistler: the terminus of the first part of my rail journey.
We stop in Whistler where I have a day to explore this village famous for hosting the ski events of the 2010 Winter Olympics and for being a best-loved summer-time mountain-biking destination. For me, the appeal lays in the zip-trekking tour I’ve booked near town. Here, I revert to dreams of becoming a stunt-woman, hurling from a platform above the tree canopy, relying on the harness strapped upon me, and the strength of the thin metal wire that will propel me 2,000-ft airborne to the far side of the creek.
Suitably exhilarated, I’m ready for my second excursion: a single, 3.5 hour, 75-mile ‘Sea to Sky Climb’ train, linking Whistler with Vancouver on Canada’s western coast. The contrast is palpable. Where the previous journey was characterized by open spaces, this one glides through dense forest, over the lip of the 195-ft Brandywine Falls, before cutting a narrow, elevated pathway through the confines of the Cheakamus Canyon.
Finally departing the Rocky Mountains, we steer toward the coastline, hugging the banks of Canada’s triangular-shaped fjord, the Howe Sound, until the Horseshoe Bay Tunnel appears. On the other side, Vancouver’s gleaming skyscrapers await: a different experience entirely.
Spotlight: The Rocky Mountaineer
It’s easy to see why the Rocky Mountaineer train service – which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020 – is widely touted as one of the world’s leading travel experiences, particularly for its first-class GoldLeaf carriages.
For me, the first-class service only enhanced an already spectacular journey, with twin-deck dome coaches and 180-degree panoramic windows ensuring views of the landscape. And then there’s the menu: a gastronomic feast with ingredients such as caviar, salmon, and sirloin steak carefully sourced from the provinces the trains pass through.
But what made this journey outstanding was the natural terrain. Whether traveling GoldLeaf or in the eminently comfortable SilverLeaf carriages, the train allows you to witness snapshots of the majestic Canadian Rockies that simply aren’t accessible by car or foot.
- When to go: Several rail operators run trains through the Canadian Rockies, including the national carrier VIA Rail Canada. Because most routes venture to the farthest reaches of the mountain range, however, they’re generally only available between April and October, when there’s less chance of snow.
- Currency: Canadian Dollar.
- Language: English, although French is also widely spoken.
- Getting around: Greyhound buses operate between major towns and cities of the Canadian Rockies. Options for exploring remote tracts of land that aren’t serviced by train tracks include hiring a car or taking a coach trip.