10 reasons why the Rocky Mountaineer is Canada's greatest adventure

·8-min read
Mount Robson on Rocky Mountaineer's Journey Through The Clouds - Rocky Mountaineer
Mount Robson on Rocky Mountaineer's Journey Through The Clouds - Rocky Mountaineer

Founded in 1990, Rocky Mountaineer operates four rail routes, three of which connect Vancouver with the Canadian Rockies: the flagship First Passage to the West (ending in Banff/Lake Louise), Journey Through The Clouds (to Jasper via Kamloops) – which I boarded earlier this year, and Rainforest to Gold Rush (to Jasper via Whistler and Quesnel). Depending on your preference, these can each be worked into a package holiday, teamed with a self-drive or a coach tour through the Rockies, a city stay in Vancouver and even an Alaska cruise, to experience the region's highlights in one memorable trip that'll have you constantly reaching for your camera to snap away jaw-dropping view after view.

The ultimate window on Canada

Each rail journey provides enchanting vistas of evergreen forest, soaring peaks, rugged ravines, cobalt blue lakes and ancient glaciers. And there’s no need to crane your neck to take it all in: one of the company’s USPs is its glass-domed coaches – introduced in 1995 but more recently tinted to reduce the glare of the sun – which permit panoramic views for everyone. Or else you can get even closer to the action in the outdoor viewing area.

Or the best of the Midwest

For something a little different, Rocky Mountaineer’s fourth route, and its first outside Canada, launched this summer. Rockies to the Red Rocks begins in Utah’s adventure capital, Moab, and terminates in the hipster magnet of Denver, Colorado. Gawp at the canyons and rock formations of Arches National Park, relax in Glenwood Springs, where thermal hot pools sit at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, and then discover craft breweries and street art in Denver, which enjoys a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.

You don’t need to worry about cramped sleeping quarters

Does the prospect of narrow bunks and tiny showers turn you off the prospect of a holiday on rails? Fear not. Rocky Mountaineer is distinct from other luxury trains, travelling during daylight hours and dispensing with sleeper carriages entirely. Instead, guests are transported to a high-end hotel at the end of each leg. There’s no lugging of suitcases, either, as your bags are transferred directly to your room.

Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf glass-domed carriage - Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf glass-domed carriage - Rocky Mountaineer

In Banff, depending on the package you choose, accommodation might be in the imposing Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a National Historic Site known as the “Castle in the Rockies”. In Jasper, I stayed at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which has twice hosted the Queen and her late husband. Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, on the shores of the stunning glacial water, is another possible overnight stop.

It’s heaven for food lovers

With all that epic scenery to keep passengers entertained, one might imagine that food is an afterthought. Not a bit of it. Passengers can be certain of memorable culinary fare, and in the dining car (where premium “GoldLeaf” passengers take their meals), tables are laid out pristinely for a silver-service experience that equals any Michelin-starred restaurant.

Rocky Mountaineer high-quality food - Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer high-quality food - Rocky Mountaineer

Food is prepared on board by a team of chefs who draw on locally-sourced produce to create lavish breakfasts and lunches. Alberta striploin steak, Fraser Valley chicken and Pacific salmon all feature prominently. Chef Chris Kidd explained that cooking gourmet meals on a moving train is no easy feat. “Plating up can be a challenge around some of the bends,” he told me.

Bears roam on the other side of the window

There are 40,000 grizzly bears in the wild in British Columbia, and sightings from the train are possible, but rare. On my Journey Through The Clouds voyage, our luck was in. A grizzly was spotted, sparking a mad scramble as passengers rushed to get the perfect vantage point and photograph.

Our host Kelly Van Doornik, who has been doing the journey for seven years, said it was moments like this that kept her captivated. “Due to the changing landscape and the sightings of animals, it’s a different journey every time,” she explained.

Grizzly bear in British Colombia - DESPITE STRAIGHT LINES (Paul Williams)/Moment RF
Grizzly bear in British Colombia - DESPITE STRAIGHT LINES (Paul Williams)/Moment RF

We found further opportunities to capture the wildlife that inhabits the region. Bighorn sheep stood guard over the Rockies, and bald eagles and ospreys flitted between the clouds. Kelly explained that while the bald eagle is a protected species, they face a threat closer to home: the grisly tendency of the more dominant of the eaglets to eat its sibling. Don’t let it put you off your lunch.

It’s a history lesson

After an overnight stop in the small resort town of Kamloops, which sits amid desert-like landscapes, our train weaved down the vast Fraser Valley, following the 850-mile Fraser River to the Cascade Mountains. It’s a journey through history and a chance to follow the route of Gold Rush prospectors. A discovery in 1856 sparked the Fraser Rush which saw tens of thousands of fortune-seekers from as far afield as England, Australia and China make the journey up the Fraser River and into British Columbia. Today the descendants of those pioneers make up the diverse communities of the region.

Scenic highlights on this section include Hell’s Gate, a 35-metre passage in the canyon where the water crashes through.

When the train stops, the adventure continues

After our second overnight stop in Jasper, a village of handsome log cabins connected by picturesque paths in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, the journey continued by road.

In the company of no-nonsense wildlife guru Norm Bergen, billed as Jasper’s “Moustached Mountain Guide”, we set off for Pyramid Falls, a glorious picnicking spot to the north that offers access across a wooden footbridge to an island with beautiful views of Pyramid Mountain. Patricia Lake is another popular beauty spot where the heavens seem to meet the earth as the drama of the clouds above is perfectly mirrored in the green-blue waters.

Pyramid Mountain reflected in Pyramid Lake - Ferenc Cegledi/iStockphoto
Pyramid Mountain reflected in Pyramid Lake - Ferenc Cegledi/iStockphoto

We then took a brisk hike through Maligne Canyon, one of the deepest in the national park. Walking along the bridges that feature on the route, the thunderous sound of the churning rivers and waterfalls engulfs you.

There are sacred places to discover

Maligne Lake is the largest glacially-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies, and a 90-minute round trip by boat took us from here to Spirit Island, a deeply sacred place for the indigenous Stoney-Nakoda First Nations people. It is surrounded by peaks, making it particularly significant to the Stoney-Nakoda, who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. It also has a tale of forbidden love attached to it. According to legend, a boy and girl from two rival tribes met in secret on Spirit Island until their love was discovered and they were separated. The heartbroken boy died, but his spirit still haunts the island, giving it its name.

It's an Instagrammer's dream

The 150-mile highway from Jasper to Banff – and journey's end – passes a series of stunning lakes and ancient glaciers. If your travels are a great excuse for showing off your photographic skills, it offers endless opportunities to make your Instagram feed the envy of your followers.

Icefields Parkway - R.M. Nunes/iStockphoto
Icefields Parkway - R.M. Nunes/iStockphoto

At Sunwapta Falls you can capture the panoramic scene from a wooden bridge over a drop of 18 metres as the water churns below. Strike a pose against a backdrop of glistening glaciers at Lake Louise where rock flour silt gives the water its emerald hue. Tourists from around the world flock to the site to take photos against the flawless backdrop so expect to find yourself jostling in the crowd for the perfect spot.

Lake Moraine is deserted by comparison, where, Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, adventure-seekers can hit the hiking and biking trails and take in the view from the top.

You can get a taste of small town Canada

To bring your journey through the Rockies to a leisurely end, venture into the quaint, Alpine village-inspired town of Banff, which sits under the solemn gaze of the mountains. Follow one of the local walking trails to Bow Falls, where you can immerse yourself in the forests, take a guided tour of the town in a Cadillac or horse-drawn carriage, and then stock up on souvenirs, from ammonite jewellery to maple leaf sweatshirts.

How to do it

Journey through the Clouds at Leisure is a nine-night, 10-day journey through the Canadian Rockies with two days on board the Rocky Mountaineer. Prices for two people start from £5,032.49 for SilverLeaf and £6,999.50 for GoldLeaf. The price includes luggage handling and transfers, nine nights' accommodation in Vancouver, Kamloops, Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff and Calgary, as well as National Parks, Ice Explorer, Glacier Skywalk, and Banff Gondola passes. The 2022 season runs from April to October. Find more information and book your trip here

You must be fully vaccinated to visit Canada and present evidence of a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours old. You must submit this information via ArriveCAN (app or website).

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