This year, Keith and I decided to take the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Vancouver. I don’t know about you, but train travel to me has always seemed romantic. Having seen pictures of the rocky mountains is not the same as traveling through them. The luxurious Rocky Mountaineer provides a glimpse at otherwise inaccessible terrain in the Canadian Rockies.
The Adventure Begins First by Coach
Our adventure with the Rocky Mountaineer began in Calgary, Alberta. We flew from Seattle to Calgary where a warm, comfortable Brewster Express bus took us to Banff. We sat in luxury seating and had wide viewing windows to enjoy the views.
As we traveled along the Trans-Canada Highway from the prairies of Calgary to the mountains of Banff, our driver provided some narration. While still in Calgary he pointed out the 1988 Olympic Park. He also let us know when we entered native land known as the Morley Reserve.
The landscape between Calgary and Banff is ever changing and provides some insight into the creation of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Along the way, our coach climbed a big hill that our driver said is called Scott Lake Hill. He said that we just crossed the highest point on the Trans-Canada Highway outside of the Canadian Rockies.
A Night in Banff
Our bus took us to our first hotel, the Elk + Avenue Hotel in Banff. Unfortunately, we no more than left the hotel to explore Banff when the skies opened, and it began to pour. The temperature dropped quickly too. But, we did not let that deter us. We wanted to see Banff, visit some shops and have dinner, so we ventured on. When we returned to the hotel, we were pleased to find Rocky Mountaineer representatives there to answer any questions we had and get our boarding passes for the next day.
The Adventure Begins on the Rocky Mountaineer
Our adventure with the Rocky Mountaineer began in Banff at 7:30 am. A bus took us a very short distance to the train station. The station was full of people both passengers and greeters from the Rocky Mountaineer. In addition, fresh juice and coffee, awaited us and the music from a violinist set the mood for the day.
We were at the station only a few minutes when we heard our train approaching. In a short time, the train was ready for all of us to board. Boarding was quick but not so quick that you couldn’t get a picture with the train. In fact, there were Rocky Mountaineer team members everywhere to assist you in taking photos.
Onboard the Train
We boarded the Rocky Mountaineer in Banff, bound for Lake Louise, Kamloops and ultimately ending in Vancouver. Once on board, just like a plane, we went over some safety demonstrations as we began to move.
We knew we would be in the gold leaf service car and we knew what it was supposed to look like, but we were still amazed by the glass dome ceiling. There seemed to be much more personal space once we were seated than in standard first class airline seats. The seats consist of two rows of large, leather seats on each side of the coach, and of course, the panoramic windows offered uninterrupted views of the epic landscapes.
Many of the passengers we met onboard were Americans, but there were also lots of Australians. We even met some British, New Zealanders, and Scottish adventurers making this a very international group of travelers.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a privately-owned luxury train company with routes through the Great White North’s magnificent mountains. The company began running the trains in 1990, has a variety of itineraries, with the most popular one being the First Passage to the West. Also, there are two different classes of service – Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf. Thus, both services on the Rocky Mountaineer enjoy the company's signature glass-domed train cars. However, the Silver Leaf is a single level, while the Gold Leaf is double-decker. In the Siver Leaf service, you are served meals at your seat. The seats are not as big, and there is less personal space with each seat. In my opinion, the double-decker Gold Leaf cars give you the best views and experience.
Luxury All the Way
We signed up for the Gold leaf service. As I said, we were onboard the train before 8 am, so the first thing that happens is breakfast. In Gold Leaf service, you sit on the top of the double-decker for viewing, and you go below to the dining car for meals. In the Silver Leaf service, you eat your meals at your seat, similar to an airline.
The Rocky Mountaineer staff divided the people in our car into two groups for breakfast. The first group goes to breakfast while the second group stays above to enjoy scones, coffee, and tea in their seats. We stayed above the first day, and one of the hosts came by with a hot towel and showed us the controls for the chair. It was fully automated and even had a rising leg rest. Even more surprising was that the seats had built-in heaters although we didn’t use them.
About an hour and a half later, the second group, us, went down to the Rocky Mountaineer dining car for breakfast.
The dining car was bright and spacious, and we shared a table with another couple. I love dining like this when we travel because we get to meet other travelers. We met a couple from Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand while dining.
Top Notch Menu
The menu was similar to what you would find in a five-star hotel. The options varied a lot, so there was something for everyone. And, when I wanted something from one entre and something from another entre because I am vegan, the chef was accommodating. Equally important the chef made my meals look as beautiful as all of the other entrees. As we dined and conversed with our dining partners, we watched the landscape slowly change.
After leaving Banff, we pass by Lake Louise in the Banff National Park. Then we crossed the continental divide, the rocky high point that separates the continent into east and west. Basically, the train seemed to follow a river most of the trip. In the beginning, we see mountains mixed with glaciers. By midday, we are traveling through scrub pine.
We also passed through the spiral tunnels. It was quite difficult for railway engineers to build a rail system around the Rockies. So, rather than go over the mountains, the engineers decided to go through them, building two long, winding tunnels. Along the way, we saw eagles and osprey.
Have you Heard of Rock Flour?
Rock flour forms as the mountains are eroded by glaciers. The rock flour gives some of the waters of the Canadian Rockies their bluish hue. Thus, rock flour consists of fine-grained, silt-sized particles of rock. Because the particles are so small, they become suspended in the glacier meltwater. Thus the water from the Rocky Mountaineer appears a beautiful, cloudy turquoise.
The Last Spike
One of our hosts aboard the train announced that we soon would be passing by the location where workers placed the last spike in the tracks. This place is called Last Spike. Last Spike is a very important part of Canada’s railway history.
In 1885 the Last Spike is where Canada’s east and west were finally connected by rail. At this point, a ceremonial spike was driven into the ground to mark this historical position. Today the spike is at home in a small museum. Markedly, completion of the railway allowed freight to get to the communities of the west easily.
Arriving in Kamloops
Our first day aboard the Rocky Mountaineer was 12 hours long. Not to worry, besides the breathtaking scenery, the extras onboard made the time pass. Extras such as gourmet breakfast and lunch, wine and cocktails, narrations along the way and snacks. They also have a nice size outdoor observation platform where you can get some fresh air and where you can stand a little if you’re tired of sitting.
Meanwhile, as we arrived in Kamloops, our hosts said that our suitcases would be waiting for us in our rooms at our hotel. And they were. Moreover, this stress-free luggage assistance is part of the Gold Leaf class service.
A Night in Kamloops
Once we left the train, we hopped a waiting bus that took us to our hotel. We stayed the night at the Sandman Signature in Kamloops. Kamloops is a popular Western Canadian city, and today, it is a vibrant place filled with parks, excellent restaurants, bistro, and cafes. Unfortunately, we arrived fairly late in Kamloops and had an early departure the next morning so we had dinner in the hotel but would have loved to explored Kamloops.
Beginning Our Adventure to Vancouver
In the morning we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer train early again with the same routine as yesterday only our group had breakfast first today. Shortly after we left the station, we crossed a river. Unquestionably, we are definitely in different terrain this day. Although yesterday we began with views of glaciers and high mountains, today we are in the desert.
The outside landscape continuously changed. Surprisingly, as midday approached, we had departed the desert, and things were greener. There were now, pine trees and hills. Soon, we entered into the Fraser Valley. Basically, Fraser Valley is a huge basin around the Fraser River famous for its lush hills and deep canyons.
One of the highlights of today’s Rocky Mountaineer journey was crossing by Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate is the narrowest point of the Fraser River. The formation of Hell’s Gate is natural even though it looks to be manmade.
Later in the afternoon, our views changed to rolling pastures. And with all the chatting with other passengers, time passed quickly. Likewise, the next thing we knew, we were in the outer limits of Vancouver.
We were not far from Vancouver when we passed by Fort Langley. Fort Langley is the historical site of the former trading post of the Hudson's Bay Company. Also, Fort Langley is considered the birthplace of British Columbia.
All Great Things Must Come to an End on the Rocky Mountaineer
As the Rocky Mountaineer train pulled into the station, we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts of the past two days. Like before, we boarded buses to our respective hotels. But alas we will not be returning to the train in the morning. In Vancouver, we stayed at the luxurious Sutton Place Hotel, located in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Undeniably, the hotel was the perfect blend of luxury and cosmopolitan ambiance.
An Amazing Way to See the First Passage via the Rocky Mountaineer
The trip we took on the Rocky Mountaineer is known as the First Passage to the West. The route began in Banff, took us through the Rockies, past Lake Louise, and Craigellachie, B.C., the site where the last spike was driven to complete Canada’s transcontinental railroad.
We overnighted in Kamloops and then ventured on to Vancouver. Traveling from Banff in Alberta, to Vancouver, Britsih Columbia on this two-day train tour we saw some of the country’s most diverse scenery. Without a doubt, it was the trip of a lifetime!
Yes, while other trains may go through the tunnels, the Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to regularly travel through them.
Yes, the Rocky Mountaineer provides guests with their full color RM magazine and their Mile Post newspaper. Along the ride, the hosts are pointing out areas of interest and are always available for questions.
Read about our time in Victoria, British Columbia on our way to Alaska.
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