Waiting to board the Rocky Mountaineer in Vancouver I’m excited about many things: the caffeine in the station lobby, the possibility of seeing WILDLIFE , the certainty of seeing MOUNTAINS and the bagpipe music that is giving us a big sendoff.
FYI: I’m not sure how bagpiping fits into a luxury train ride through the Canadian Rockies, but it’s just after 7 a.m., too early to question anything as I get ready to head off on The First Passage to the West, one of five Rocky Mountaineer scenic train routes.
The lazy girl’s way to travel
Boarding the Rocky Mountaineer train is a breeze because I don’t have to carry my own luggage. Apparently it’s going to magically appear at the end of our first day in my hotel room in Kamloops (hopefully along with Colin Firth and caviar). As long as I have my camera, lipstick and a book I’m set to go.
Actually, scratch that. Who needs a book? As soon as we chug out of the city my main occupation is staring out the window, because the scenery on this Vancouver to Banff train trip is a page turner in itself – only instead of a whodunnit, it’s whereizit, because at every bend I’m peering outside looking for a bear, moose, eagle or osprey.
Spoiler alert: I never see a bear. I do, however, see mountain sheep, a deer, one elk’s behind, a number of soaring eagles, countless ospreys … and someone else saw a marmot.
Spoiler alert #2: My wildlife photos quickly became the laughing stock of our GoldLeaf car – get ready to laugh, cry and shake your head in dismay when I display my riveting photo exhibit of Wildlife in the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer. But that’s for another post. I’m sure you can’t wait.
Everything you ever wanted to know about the Rocky Mountaineer, scenic train routes and luxury trains
Yes, here it is. All (or at least some!) of your Rocky Mountaineer train trip questions answered.
What is the Rocky Mountaineer?
The Rocky Mountaineer is the largest privately-owned passenger train service in North America.
How do you travel?
Happily. There are 4 types of service on the Rocky Mountaineer: GoldLeaf Deluxe (which is really GoldLeaf with upgraded hotels), GoldLeaf, SilverLeaf and RedLeaf.
I was in a GoldLeaf car. It’s the most popular Rocky Mountaineer category because it’s a double decker car with a glass domed roof, so you can sit above the trees and see everything from lofty glaciers to low-lying bears. (Except I didn’t. See one. A bear.)
Can you feel the wind in your hair?
Why, yes! The best thing about the GoldLeaf car is the Vestibule, an open air viewing car, so that pine-y smells and wind rushing past your ears become part of the experience. Also, then you don’t get a glass reflection when you take photos of an osprey nest on a telephone pole.
Fun fact: Ospreys like to decorate their nests and return to the same one year after year, so if you should see a big nest with flashing Christmas lights, pink ribbons and a neon sign for a Las Vegas Casino, you’ll know who, or what, is nesting inside it.
What are the different Rocky Mountaineer scenic train routes?
- The Rocky Mountaineer’s flagship route is The First Passage to the West, which travels from Vancouver to Banff (or Lake Louise or Calgary or the other way around all together). It’s the only way you’re going to ride these tracks, because today, in the (sniff) sadly declining ways of train travel, the Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger line that plies this route – unlike the days of yore when trains were the main form of transport in Canada. I say bring back the golden era of the train!
- The Journey of the Clouds goes between Vancouver and Jasper.
- The Rainforest to Gold Rush route trundles (and I’m using the term ‘trundle’ literally, because the Rocky Mountaineer never goes more than 40 km an hour) through the Caribou and Chilcotin areas between Whistler and Jasper, and I REALLY want to do this trip because it’s sounds all rugged and wild and I bet I’d see cougars, grizzlies and …. more osprey nests!
- Rocky Mountaineer has a new scenic train route, The Coastal Passage from Seattle to Vancouver. Let’s give a cheer for cross border travel and intercultural relations!
- The quickie – The Whistler Sea to Sky Climb is a 3-hour ride between North Vancouver and Whistler – and you can go there and back in a day. (Although then you wouldn’t get to stay in Whistler overnight, and that would be a shame.)
Now let’s get back to Rocky Mountaineer scenic train routes and my exciting journey on The First Passage to the West
Here are some highlights of what you will see:
- Pine trees! Ponderosa pines! Douglas firs! And every other pine-ish looking tree you can think of.
- Hell’s Gate – where water muscles its way through the Fraser Canyon at its narrowest point.
- The Last Spike – where the final spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in in 1885, at which point, some wiseguy said, “At last, I’ve driven my point home.”
- Rogers Pass – a high mountain pass through the Selkirk Mountains discovered, unsurprisingly, by a man named Major Albert Bowman Rogers.
- The Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park – long twisty tunnels that curve their way through the mountains, and which I know are supposed to be an engineering marvel and a big super highlight, but as it’s completely dark in there, it’s not as exciting to go through them as it would be if you were say, an osprey, watching the train head into the mountains from above, all the while laughing because humans can’t fly and have to dynamite their way through things.
- The Continental Divide – the point where water decides to drain into either the Pacific or the Atlantic.
- Kicking Horse Pass – so named for the cranky horse that kicked explorer/geologist James Hector unconscious after he ran after it (thus discovering the pass).
- Mountains! Glaciers! Rivers! Did I mention pine trees?
What will you eat on the Rocky Mountaineer?
Too much. The Rocky Mountaineer takes its cuisine seriously, focusing on regional dishes such as Rocky Mountaineer Barley Risotto with roasted button mushrooms and wilted greens or Last Spike Beef Short Ribs with Alberta beef slowly braised in Okanagan Valley Merlot.
The salads were divine. I would have licked the vinaigrette off my plate if it hadn’t been a luxury train trip and I hadn’t been minding my manners.
When do you eat?
You have breakfast and lunch on the Rocky Mountaineer. If the train is delayed (by lots and lots of freight trains passing in the night, I mean, in the day), you will also get a light dinner so that you don’t get as cranky as James Hector’s horse.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but at some point a freshly-baked oatmeal cookie might pass your way.
What will you drink on the Rocky Mountaineer?
Cocktails as soon as breakfast ends. Local wines. My new favourite white is a Sumac Ridge Estates unoaked Chardonnay from Summerland in BC.
Where do you sleep on the Rocky Mountaineer?
You don’t, unless you have too much unoaked Chardonnay at lunch and take a nap. To make use of the daylight viewing opps, you don’t travel by night. Our train stopped in Kamloops.
What’s great about Kamloops?
- Craft beer at the Noble Pig. I wanted to try a Witless Blonde but they were out so I ordered a tasting selection of Fascist Pig, Imperial Pig, Mocha Porter and Ginger.
- Free evening concerts in the Riverside Park.
- Guys on horses on pedestals waving to you as you sail into town. (How do they get their horses to stand on that little thing? It’s a mystery.)
What’s not great about Kamloops?
Okay, Kamloops, here’s the thing. Having heard you have a surprising amount of excellent dress shops on your main street, I dashed out with credit card in hand, and it’s true. You have the shops. But they were all closed! You have a captive audience on the Rocky Mountaineer, people who are starved for shopping, so keep the shops open an extra hour, will you, otherwise people such as I will be forced to buy 20 Rocky Mountaineer stuffed bears.
What’s the downside of the Rocky Mountaineer?
Well, if you hate getting up early, be forewarned that the days start around 6:30 a.m. (So don’t drink too many Imperialist Pigs at the Noble Pig.)
Other solutions to early morning can’t-get-out-of-bed-ness: Think of all the things you might see that day (bears!) and the things you will eat at breakfast (Eggs Benedict!) and lunch (Sockeye Salmon!) and this will help propel you out of bed.
On the plus side: If you’re a seize the day and get up early type of person (I’ve heard such humans exist) it’s a bonus.
If you’re on the train all day how can you stretch your legs?
GoldLeaf Car Solutions:
- Trot out to the Vestibule regularly.
- Bound from side to side of the train car along with everyone else as scenic landmarks come into view.
- Tramp up and down the stairs obsessively.
- Carry your camera at all times so you always look purposeful even if you’re aimlessly wandering up and down the car.
How much does the Rocky Mountaineer cost?
A 3-night, 4-day Classic First Passage to the West Vacation from Vancouver to Banff starts at $1579. Visit the Rocky Mountaineer website for more information on train prices, schedules and itineraries.
Conclusion: why travel on the Rocky Mountaineer?
Because slow travel is the way to go. Rail journeys have a romance that no other mode of transport can beat (except maybe for pioneer covered-wagons through the wilderness or yacht voyages through the Mediterranean).
Plus you’ll meet lovely people – the camaraderie is intense (at least after the first cocktail). Then there’s the food, the service and the lazy luxury of it all … and the ospreys. Oh, and did I mention pine trees? You’ll definitely see a lot of them.
Article by Carol Perehudoff
Read more about the Rocky Mountaineer:
Planning a trip to Canada? Visit my Things to do in Canada article.
Wondering where to stay in Vancouver before your Rocky Mountaineer trip? Read my Fairmont Hotel Vancouver review
Wondering what to do in Vancouver before your trip? Read One Day in Vancouver. With a man who is not my husband.