A JOURNEY FOR THE SENSES:
FIRST PASSAGE TO THE WEST
Discover the historical route that connected the West to the rest of Canada
What can you expect from a Rocky Mountaineer journey? Come along on this audio and visual journey to find out.
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On November 7, 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway drove its “Last Spike” at Craigellachie, British Columbia, uniting Canada’s east and west by rail. This formidable train route travels through the Canadian Rockies and into the heart of B.C., traversing a spectacular mountain terrain featuring both bountiful lakes and astonishing desert-like canyons.
Rocky Mountaineer is the only rail company that takes passengers along the iconic “First Passage to the West” route, which travels through Banff, Lake Louise and Vancouver by way of the Spiral Tunnels, past Craigellachie and through dozens of other highlighted spots.
Passengers have the choice of departing from Vancouver (heading east) or from Banff or Lake Louise (heading west). An overnight stop in Kamloops, B.C. means that you only travel by day and won’t miss a single, awe-inspiring sight.
Its beauty inspires oohs and aahs regularly from the visitors who come to soak up the sights, culture, cuisine and outdoor activities. Framed prettily by Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain, this resort town bustles with life year round.
Here in the heart of Banff National Park, whose beginnings can be traced back to 1885 with the establishment of a small two-square-kilometre park, many Rocky Mountaineer guests embark on their journeys at Banff station. All aboard!
Named after Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, this popular and beautiful destination is famed for its turquoise lake, the colour of which is created from the “rock flour” that is carried by the meltwaters of the Victoria Glacier.
Visitors will love strolling along the paved pathway next to the lake, or renting canoes for a leisurely paddle to take in the full splendour of the views.
Not able to see the lake? Don't fear. Guests on the train can appreciate the impressive sight of the imposing glacier towering over the area – one that attracts nature lovers worldwide. Tall pines line both sides of the track, creating an ideal environment for a range of wildlife including deer, elk or even bears - be on the lookout!
At an elevation of 1,627 metres, this is literally the high point of the First Passage to the West route. It also marks the boundary between Alberta’s Banff National Park and B.C.’s Yoho National Park. Both are home to a large population of elk. If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear them “bugle,” a vocalization that signals males are looking for mates. Wildlife-spotting opportunities abound, so keep an eye out for black bears, grizzly bears and deer.
Also watch for the monument at mile marker 122.2, which designates the Continental Divide. The spot acts as a major watershed for two different oceans with water to the east flowing into the Bow River, the Saskatchewan River, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, rivers to the west flow into the Kicking Horse River, the Columbia River and, finally, into the Pacific Ocean.
Passing through the legendary Spiral Tunnels is an experience that only Rocky Mountaineer offers to passengers. Depending on the direction the train travels, you’ll enter them at a high point and emerge at a point 50 feet lower, or vice versa.
The tunnels still stand out as a remarkable feat of engineering. Construction began in 1907 with the aim of helping trains navigate the Big Hill, a 13-kilometre-long stretch with a perilously steep slope. It took $1.5-million, 1,000 men and 20 months to complete. And if a train is longer than 80 cars long, you can see the head of the train coming out of the tunnel and crossing over top of the tail as it continues through the tunnel.
KICKING HORSE RIVER
For 48 kilometres through the Kicking Horse Canyon, take in views and listen to the rush of the legendary Kicking Horse River – the train crosses over it seven times. Geologist James Hector discovered the river in 1858, and it earned its unique name after he was knocked unconscious from being kicked by one of his pack horses.
There’s a perfect photo op to capture views of the waterfall coming from the eastern slope of Mount Tupper and the creek bed 325 feet below. The bridge itself stretches 480 feet and is the third one built on the site. It dates back to 1929 and is the highest bridge that any Rocky Mountaineer journey will cross. Fun fact: The wife of Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada’s first prime minister) made an earlier version famous when she dared to walk across its trestles.
Canada was a country built and united by its railway. It was completed by Donald Smith, one of the founders of CP Rail, who drove in the famous Last Spike in front of a celebratory crowd. A cairn marks the spot of this historic event from 1885. Guests who love history should have their cameras ready.
The river, lakes and marshlands of this area provide a perfect setting for a wide variety of bird life. As many as 250 different species can be found here. Keep an eye out for the bald eagles and osprey that feed on an abundant supply of fish. It is said that there was once so many spawning salmon in the lake that settlers could use a pitchfork to catch them.
The landscape begins to change substantially the closer the train gets to Kamloops. The area is dryer, and, as the train travels westbound out of Kamloops, begins to take on the appearance of a semi-arid desert with grasslands, hoodoo rock formations and mineral deposits that change the colours of the hills. This is also a good area to spot Bighorn sheep perched on the hillsides. The males are easy to spot with their massive set of horns that spiral backwards toward the head.
Railway fans wait in excitement for this spot along the route. It’s here that the tracks for two railway titans – Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways– exchange sides across two bridges over a steep canyon. The view of the two bridges – CN’s is painted orange and CP’s is black – makes for an eye-catching photo, particularly if another train is crossing or approaching at the same time.
In the southern Fraser Canyon, the towering cliff walls that frame the mighty Fraser River narrow, forcing water through a passage just 35 metres wide. When explorer Simon Fraser first saw them, he remarked “surely these are the gates of Hell.” It’s a dramatic scene, and outside you may hear the constant roar of the ferocious stream as it churns and splashes its way to the other side. Guests on the train get a unique view, as do any passengers who take the Swiss-built AirTram across it.
After disembarking at Rocky Mountaineer’s own train station near downtown Vancouver, it’s easy to understand why the city is often voted among the world’s most beautiful. Listen to the natural ambiance of a city surrounded by mountains, forest, ocean and bays. You’ll discover plenty worth boasting about: the stunning, 405-hectare West Coast rainforest of Stanley Park, unique neighbourhoods like Kitsilano, Commercial Drive, Yaletown and Gastown and a delicious foodie scene that encompasses diverse restaurants, farmers’ markets and Granville Island’s covered, public food market.
Adventure awaits in Western Canada’s most cosmopolitan city!
IMAGE: TOURISM BRITISH COLUMBIA
Rocky Mountaineer travels across four routes through the Pacific Northwest and into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Its GoldLeaf Service, launched in 1995, features bi-level, glass-dome coaches with stunning panoramic views on the upper level and a dining room and outdoor viewing platform on the lower level. SilverLeaf Service features oversized windows, delicious meals served at your seat, and the same impeccable service and astounding views.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser.
The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.
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Planning a trip to Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper? Here’s a complete guide
Get the most out of your vacation to Western Canada and the beautiful Canadian Rockies