Ride the rails through Canadian Rockies
In planning my “journey through the clouds” excursion last summer aboard Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer train, little did I realize the adventures ahead. After all, whizzing along on a train usually puts me to sleep. Not this train.
By the end of my six-day excursion, I had walked on a glacier, helicoptered over the Rocky Mountains, and been dazzled by tumbling waterfalls, rushing rivers, soaring peaks, mountain goats, moose, loons, bald eagles and a grizzly with her cub.
Just rolling through western Canada watching spectacular scenery unfold, mile after mile, is mesmerizing too. Despite the soothing rumble, you can’t snooze. If you nod off, you’ll be jolted by cries of “Moose, moose!” “Mountain goat!” and “Grizzly!” from fellow passengers.
As you travel along through the vast, stunning landscape, the backdrop is one of majestic mountain peaks shrouded in clouds or projecting their bald or snow-capped heads. Waterfalls cascade down mountainsides, rivers froth, pristine lakes shimmer in the sun, and fir-covered slopes plummet down to verdant meadows sprinkled with wildflowers.
“All aboard” to bagpipes
Conde Nast Traveler named the Rocky Mountaineer one of the top five trains in the world. The service offers four routes through the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia and Alberta from mid-April to mid-October.
The coaches have roomy seats with ample leg room and big windows for viewing. The train has wheelchair facilities for all services and wheelchair lifters at all stations.
Breakfast, lunch, snacks and generous beverage service aboard the train are included in your ticket. Passengers spend nights in hotels, usually with time to explore the towns or take excursions. Some routes also include bus travel and additional sightseeing trips.
“It’s a perfect way to see the Canadian Rockies without having to drive,” said Patricia McCarthy, a fellow tourist from Arlington, Va. “It’s an all-encompassing trip that captures the magnitude of what you’re seeing.”
There are two levels of service — Silverleaf single-level dome coaches and Goldleaf bi-level dome coaches. The Goldleaf Service dome coaches are equipped with interior elevators.
Usually, the train travels about 30 mph, a crawl in the railroad world, but a good pace for sightseeing. The Mountaineer slows down for some pre-determined sites and when the locomotive crew spots something exciting.
Friendly guides explain the sights, local history, geology, botany and other miscellany. “We are about the journey, not the destination,” one staffer said.
On-board chefs say they can prepare meals without dropping dishes because they have “train legs.” Breakfast and lunch are varied, tasty and ample; British Columbia wines, plentiful.
In the towns at dinner, you’ll likely find northwest salmon dishes and Canada’s favorite, poutine — fries and cheese curds smothered with gravy.
When we set off from Vancouver, one of several departure points, a bagpiper played a send-off, and soon we were aboard savoring early-morning, nonalcoholic cocktails served by staff.
The train snaked along the Fraser River through Hope (“Chainsaw Carving Capital of the World”), and soon to Hell’s Gate, the narrowest point on the Fraser River — where 750 million tons of whitewater rapids rush per minute, twice that of Niagara Falls. Next came the Jaws of Death gorge, more roaring rapids and gravelly slopes.
We stopped off in the town of Kamloops, the Tournament Capital of Canada, known for its forestry, mining, paper manufacturing and cattle ranching. The Kamloops Mounted Patrol greets arriving guests. Kamloops’s Main Street is a 1950s throwback of mom-and-pop stores.
At the unusual First Nations cemetery, caretakers let the grass and sagebrush grow as nature intended. The area’s gray hills have made Kamloops a favorite spot for filming sci-fi shows like “The X-Files.”
On a gondola and a glacier
The bus segment of this journey explores up to four world-renowned national parks, all connected to one another — Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Kootenay. In Jasper, guides tutored us on black and grizzly bears.
For example: bears eat 150,000 buffalo berries a day, totaling 60,000 calories. The most common bear, they chuckle, is the “stump bear,” poking fun at overly-eager tourists who mistake a tree stump for one. And guides explained that bear spray is not a repellent. You spray it at the bear, not on yourself.
Banff National Park in Alberta is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885 and now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. In its 2,564 square miles of wilderness, visitors hike through old-growth forests amid roaring rivers, alpine meadows, pristine lakes and a bison herd.
The Banff gondola lifts visitors 7,486 feet above sea level to Sulphur Mountain’s crest for 360-degree views of mountain after mountain, as far as you can see.
One of the park’s most famous visitors was Marilyn Monroe, who injured her ankle while filming and recuperated for six days in the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Legend has it that the bellhops tossed a coin for the chance to push the blonde bombshell’s wheelchair.
The scenic drive on Alberta’s Icefields Parkway, also known as the Promenade des Glaciers, is billed as one of the top ten drives in the world. It parallels the Continental Divide from Jasper to Lake Louise.
The Athabasca River and many alpine lakes along the way are a milky turquoise because of rock flour — the fine silt suspended in the water that comes from glaciers grinding down the mountains.
The 125-square-mile Columbia Icefield feeds eight glaciers and several rivers with its meltwaters, and offers a once-in-lifetime — if a bit harrowing — experience. This massive ice sheet, formed during the Great Glaciation, is surrounded by mountains and is basically a gigantic bowl of ice up to 1,200 feet thick.
Visitors here get a quick lesson in glaciology. A glacier’s toe has bluish ice. Crevasses (not the same as crevices) are deep cracks in glaciers that water flows through, washing out the fine-grained rock flour into lakes and rivers.
Peyto Lake, for example, is glacier-fed, and its suspended particles scatter blue-green rays of light making it the “bluest lake in the Rockies.” It’s also distinctive because one end is shaped like a coyote’s head.
At the Athabasca and at Brewster Glacier Icewalks, you can literally walk on a glacier. Large hybrid bus-truck vehicles called Ice Explorers, featuring six-wheel drive, rumble down and then up a track delivering bold visitors to an icy expanse with no guard rails, ropes, bannisters or other supports.
Wary glacier novices carefully pick the spot to place each foot on what looks like a vast frozen lake, as the wind whips across the stark white landscape. Be sure to be fully insured before doing this!
Hiking the hills and up in the air
Lake Louise is a 1.2-mile, aqua-emerald lake surrounded by mountains and bookended by the Queen Victoria glacier and the towering, elegant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The opulent 550-room hotel was built in the 1890s by the Canadian Pacific Railway and is open year-round.
Four million people visit Lake Louise every year. The lake, fed by six glaciers, is frozen from November to June, warming up to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
Lake Louise boasts the most grizzlies in Canada, but that doesn’t deter hikers who explore the compound’s trails, including one up to the alpine-style Lake Agnes Tea House.
Hold onto your seat, not so much for safety, but for jaw-dropping views of the Canadian Rockies from high in the sky over Kananaskis, Alberta.
At the Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino is this bucket list adventure — soaring over the Rockies in a Bell 407, six-seater helicopter. The view of high, snowy mountain tops, chiseled granite peaks, sheer cliffs, more turquoise lakes and even wild horses on the First Nation’s reservation are unforgettable.
Planning your trip
There are 65 different Rocky Mountaineer packages to choose from. Start at www.rockymountaineer.com and choose a route, departure city, date and service level, and preferred side trips. Departure cities are Seattle, Vancouver, Lake Louise, Banff, Jasper and Calgary.
Trips last two to 14 days, with prices ranging from $1,300 (U.S.) up to $12,150 per person, double occupancy, depending on the package (with the costliest including an Alaska cruise).
For some bookings made far in advance, the company offers credit toward an extra hotel night or other benefit. Friendly telephone staffers at (866) 545-2766 can help with customization options and answer questions.