Ask people anywhere in the world what image immediately springs to mind when they think of Canada and chances are they’ll say the Rocky Mountains. And if you were to ask them how they would traverse the Rockies, chances are they’d say by automobile.
Yet while driving the Trans-Canada Highway has been an option since 1962, there may be a better, more luxurious choice. Travelling across the Rockies by train is an experience like no other, providing a chance to see vistas that are often inaccessible, or difficult to get to by car or by foot.
There’s also something refreshingly simple about sightseeing by rail. Rather than squinting at road signs, worrying about where to make your next turn, and eating junk food at roadside stops, why not sit back and relax? Travelling in luxury by train provides a perfect opportunity to settle into a comfortable chair, spend actual quality time with your companions, dine on gourmet meals and enjoy the stunning scenery passing by.
Alison Stewart, senior director of Guest Experience for Rocky Mountaineer, which offers a variety of journeys by train across the Rockies, has seen first-hand the amazement on guests’ faces as they get a close-up look at the mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and wildlife all around them.
“It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite spot along the way,” she says, “as our routes feature such a range of unique perspectives and awe-inspiring vistas. “Pyramid Falls, which is on the Journey through the Clouds route, is incredible because you can only see it from the train or by hiking down from the road on an overgrown path. Our train takes us close enough to hear its roar, capture some amazing photos, and maybe feel the spray of the falls from the outdoor viewing platforms.”
While summer is prime season for tourism in the Rockies, guests can get an entirely different perspective during the spring and fall, too. In the fall, for instance, larch trees turn a vibrant shade of gold, attracting avid photographers. Come spring, the waterfalls and rivers are especially spectacular as they swell with melting snow.
Unrivalled access to some of Canada’s most iconic sights, Stewart says, is a thrill onboard Rocky Mountaineer. From Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies to the historic Cisco Crossing, where the tracks of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways both cross the Fraser River in British Columbia, views from the train make perfect photo ops. “Our rail fans travelling along the First Passage to the West route love Cisco Crossing,” Stewart says, “because you can sometimes see another train on the opposite bridge as we pass over or under one other.”
Rocky Mountaineer’s onboard Hosts on each coach know the routes well and alert guests to opportunities to take the most remarkable images and video footage. At some points on the journey, the train will try to slow down to allow guests to fully enjoy the spectacular views.
Rail enthusiasts may be well acquainted with the Spiral Tunnels, an engineering marvel completed in 1909. And Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to pass through these incredible tunnels that allow a gain of 50 feet (15.2 metres) in elevation through the lower tunnel, then another 56 feet (17 metres) through the upper tunnel, before emerging closer to the top of Kicking Horse Pass. It’s an incredible way to experience these famous tunnels – now a part of the Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site – that take you through the centre of two mountains. For many guests, it’s one of the highlights of their journey.
The leisurely pace of train travel is another big draw, Stewart says. It’s a welcome change from the usual hectic, schedule-packed vacations that can leave travellers more tired than relaxed. Rocky Mountaineer travels at a speed of 50 kilometres an hour on average, which allows guests to observe wildlife and fully appreciate the scenery. Depending on the season – with the best wildlife viewing in spring and fall - it’s not uncommon to see bears, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, bald eagles and mountain goats from the train.
Of course, a journey by train also allows for ample time to meet fellow guests who visit from around the world, some of whom have taken to the rails on more than one occasion. For Canadians, it’s a chance to showoff and admire the country, see a key part of it in style, and learn about local lore.
“We pride on ourselves on providing excellent service onboard,” Stewart says, adding that Rocky Mountaineer Hosts recount stories and local history at different spots along the way “but not so much that it distracts from the amazing views.” At times, Rocky Mountaineer trains pass through remote areas without cellphone service, and there is no WiFi onboard. “This means our journeys offer a great opportunity for guests to unplug, sit back, admire the scenery and connect with the people who they are travelling with,” Stewart says. “And that is really what makes the experience magical.”
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.
Photography: Rocky Mountaineer
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