Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer: First Passage to the West

Last October, I finally reached that long awaited “Medicare Milestone.” Since it was a significant birthday for me, I wanted to commemorate it in a special way. But the blog typically runs behind, and I ran out of time to document my celebration before I jumped on the plane bound for my Dragoman tour through Sudan and Ethiopia last December. After that, I never seemed to get the blog caught back up.

So now that I have all this spare time on my hands, freed up by lack of travel planning, I am going back to recreate the narrative and share the photos on how I celebrated my official entry into “geezerdom.” I hope you will come along as I cross this long anticipated journey off the wish list…one of the great railway journeys of the world, traveling across Canada.

The thought of getting on a train on the Pacific side and riding across five provinces and four time zones just sounded like the ultimate indulgence for a “train nut” like me. I knew nothing about the route. I just knew I wanted to originate in Vancouver, cross the Rockies, and fly back from Toronto, covering as much of the initial historic rail route as possible. The fact that I was already in the Pacific Northwest this time last year was an added bonus, as I had only to find a place to park the Winnie for a couple of weeks, and hop on Amtrak.

But once I began the research, I found two vastly different offerings, both leaving out of Vancouver. The one I had read about most often, always showing up in listicles (articles of lists, i.e. “Ten Greatest Railway Journeys of the World,” from the likes of Nat Geo and Conde Naste) was the highly acclaimed Rocky Mountaineer. Having been awarded the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train” at the World Travel Awards seven times, it’s a “must do” for a lover of train travel. I didn’t want to regret having missed this experience.

The Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West,” follows the historic Canadian Pacific route through the Rockies, opened in 1885. When British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the agreement was contingent on the building of a transcontinental railroad, so it is credited with not only building a railroad, but building a nation as well. This journey passes Craigellachie, site where the Last Spike was driven in 1885. So I love the historical significance of it!

But the Rocky Mountaineer is absurdly expensive! Like more money for two days than I typically spend in two weeks! And to allow for the best views, Rocky Mountaineer operates exclusively during the day, which means no sleeping on the train. And it would only be two days, traveling across two provinces, as it only goes as far as Banff. That’s not exactly “a train across Canada!”

VIA Rail Canada’s “Canadian” was my other option. Traveling across five provinces over three nights and four days, this journey truly would provide the “riding the rails across Canada” experience that I was seeking. It was much more affordable, even in going with the sleeper compartment option. AND they offer a senior discount! But I would miss following that first passage over the Rockies, the Continental Divide, traveling through the spiral tunnels and into Banff National Park.

The Rocky Mountaineer is more of a “tour” than a train journey. Since they don’t travel overnight, they offer packages that include hotel accommodations at each point; Vancouver, Kamloops, and Banff. If I eliminated the accommodations on each end keeping only the hotel booking in Kamloops, that would cut the cost significantly. In order to save money, I would stay in hostels on both ends of the journey. So after a great deal of “ciphering,” I came to the conclusion, “Why not do both?”

I stored the Winnie in Mount Vernon, Washington, where I caught the Amtrak to Vancouver. I spent a couple of days there touring the city before my departure on the Rocky Mountaineer that would take me up over the Candian Rockies as far as Banff. Then I would take a shuttle from Banff to Jasper, where I would board “The Canadian” bound for Toronto. What follows are the photos from the first leg of this journey on the Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West.”

Much of the Amtrak route from Mt Vernon, Washington follows the coastline.

Coming into Vancouver on the Amtrak train.

Vancouver is such a gorgeous city, and worthy of a visit in of itself.

Fall color is vibrant on this early October day.

Lots of venues along the waterfront, including water taxis over to Granville Island, location of the Granville Island Public Market.

Geodesic dome across the waterfront is the Science World museum.

The Rocky Mountaineer has its own station a few blocks away from Amtrak’s Pacific Central Station.

The elegant grand piano music, the rosy sky in the background, the clock striking seven o’clock, one might think it was an evening event, but no….it is 7:00am! Early departure on the Rocky Mountaineer! (Hard to see in this photo, but the musician is wearing piano key socks.)

We are allowed out on the track early to snap a few photos of the early morning light reflecting on the big diesel engine.

The Dining Car, which is one level below the dome car.

Starting the birthday celebration off right with a little Eggs Benedict for breakfast.

Our seating is one level above the dining car. The back half of the car is empty because it’s their turn to go below for breakfast.

We are given a brochure, “The Mile Post” that provides a description by subdivision and milepost of upcoming scenic points along the track so that one can be prepared to take in the views. It’s also the source of details shared in these captions.

Low lying fog over the river.

Harrison River near Harrison Mills. A popular recreation spot, Kilby Provincial Park where the Harrison River meets the Fraser River.

For much of the first days journey, we will be following the Fraser River, named for explorer Simon Fraser who in 1808 explored the river seeking a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. From its headwaters in the Rockies, it travels 850 miles to its release near Vancouver. It’s also home to B.C.s largest salmon run. It’s tributaries produce more salmon than any other river in the world, providing habitat for all five Pacific species.

T. Kilby General Store, built 1922, now a museum. Harrison Mills is surrounded on three sides by water and located on a flood plane, therefore the store was elevated with surrounding boardwalks.

The fall is an ideal time to travel through Canada.

Following the Fraser River. Only a third of the world’s rivers longer than 600 miles remain free-flowing. In North America, 70 percent of those are in Canada. Kudos to Canada!

Meals and all beverages, including alcohol are included. Eating a meal in the dining car is one of my favorite pleasures in life. (Looking at these photos and remembering the joy of meeting nice people from all over the world while sharing a meal in pre-COVID days!)

Hell’s Gate, narrowest part of the Fraser River. The towering rock walls force the waters through a passage only 110 ft wide, forcing 200 million gallons of water to surge through per minute. Named by explorer Simon Fraser who wrote in 1808, “a place where no human should venture, for surely these are the gates of Hell.” Note red dot in upper third of photo is aerial tram car passing overhead, a tourist attraction overlooking the salmon switchback fishways to aid migrating salmon. 2010 marked the largest salmon spawn in 97 years, when 34 million salmon returned to the river.

Excitement levels are high as breathtaking views appear during lunch.

There’s a lot of competition between the views outside my window, and my melting ice cream.

At this point along the Fraser river, two train lines cross, the Candian Pacific built in 1885, and the newer Canadian National track built in 1914. They run on opposite sides of the river.

We catch a quick glimpse of the beautiful Murry Creek waterfall.

The vegetation and topography have really changed as we left the lush green forests behind to travel through the arid high desert.

Heading into Black Canyon tunnel which in 1914 collapsed twelve days after the last spike was driven, causing a delay in the opening of the CN track.

Bighorn sheep!

At the end of Day One, we arrive into Kamloops with just enough time to have a look around before dark. While several go to dinner, I am still stuffed from lunch, so I opt for a walk through Riverside Park. Opting out of the room in Kamloops was not an option. I figure they want to keep track of all the passengers. So this Marriott was quite luxurious for a budget traveler like me.

Day Two, we have a ridiculously early departure at 5:30am, but it was worth it to see one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve seen.

Our hostess narrates the trip to alert us when wildlife is spotted, and provide a little trivia along the way, as well as upcoming photo opportunities.

Day Two breakfast is no less of a delight than Day One.

This is the vestibule, or outdoor viewing platform. It was rarely crowded, so usually easy to get a spot along the railing.

The only wildlife I spotted were a couple of eagles, lots of osprey, and the sheep. Some saw a bear on the other side of the train, but I missed it.

As we climb higher toward Banff National Park, we begin to see snow in the mountains.

I love the national pride displayed on the freight cars.

Old Stone Bridge. The train used to run on that side of the river, but the track was moved to avoid avalanches.

Each car is divided into two groups for meals, an early seating and a late seating. This is how they keep the late seating happy when it’s time for the early group to dine!

Each of the cars has a galley. One bit of trivia, a hostess logged 30,000 steps on her fitbit while servicing passengers during a one way journey.

Lots of excitement as we approach the Rockies.

Having the glass dome overhead is a real treat once we reach the mountains.

Waterfall in Kicking Horse Canyon. I don’t think there was a time on this whole trip that we weren’t in sight of some river or lake.

Yes, it’s that time again! (Note to self: Don’t edit these photos on an empty stomach!)

There is a trade-off in doing this trip during the fall. The colors of the leaves are gorgeous, but the days are sadly too short.

We have left the muddy waters of the Fraser River, and are now following the clear Thomson River. Beautiful icicles overhang the river

Notice the road in the upper third of the photo that ends abruptly.

Scenery becomes more dramatic as we continue to climb toward Banff National Park, home to 25 peaks rising to 9,800 ft. Banff was the third National Park in the world, preceded only by Yellowstone in 1872 and Royal National Park in Australia in 1879.

Having left the arid desert for a return to the densely forested Columbia Mountain region, it looks like moose country!

Much of the train track runs parallel with Trans-Canada Highway, aka “Hwy 1” which can be seen here to in the left of the photo.

Coming up are the “spiral tunnels” built in 1907 to resolve the problem on the original track known as the “Big Hill,” reducing the grade from 4.5 to 2.2.

Our hostess shares a drawing of the too loops that make up the noteworthy spiral tunnels. They double back twice tunneling under mountains and crossing the river twice. The tunnels took 1,000 workers 20 months and $1 million to complete.

At this point, we are looping over the track below. When the train has a full load of cars, it is possible to cross over itself as the track doubles back.

One of the two spiral tunnels passes through Mt. Cathedral. It is in Yoho National Park, which borders Banff NP.

Time for another snack! Fresh baked cookies still warm from the oven!

This was my last decent photo from the Rocky Mountaineer. After this point, darkness fell. I wished I had done this trip in the summertime for more daylight, but then I would have missed the fall color. Always a trade-off.

NEXT UP: Jasper to Toronto on VIA Rail’s “The Canadian.”

24 thoughts on “Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer: First Passage to the West

  1. OH thank you for this post! Back in pre RV days Ed & I often talked about traveling across Canada by rail. The idea being to get places on the train, but stop in towns or villages that caught our fancy along the way. Needless to say we never got around to it, so I am delighted to see this post and very much look forward to others about your adventure (assuming they will be coming soon 😉 ) Who knows, we might do it too someday.

    • Thanks for the nice comment, Marti! Yes, the next post will cover the other option, the VIA Rail Canada’s “Canadian.” While I adored the Rocky Mountaineer for it’s indulgent luxury and pampering, the Canadian was a true rail experience. I would do it again tomorrow if I could! I look forward to sharing that one next! Just soooooo many photos to cull through, it will take me a few days.

      Hope you and Ed are hanging in there with a little help from our friends, Cosmo and Woodford!

  2. Over the past few years, Corinne and I ran that entire route – by WInnebago and Honda Gold Wing. The food was better on your trip. Have you, amidst all possible rail journeys, ridden the Glacier Express (St Moritz – Zermatt) yet?

  3. Once again I am in total awe of your train ride. Deede and I had that adventure in our now retired bucket list and I can see we shudda have done it. By the way that Eggs Benedict just blew me away. It looked so different and begged to be eaten. The mountains defy my meager vocabulary in their majestic-sens, We wait for the return trip. Thanks for taking us along.

  4. Hi Suzanne….I’ve wanted to do this train trip for so many years and can’t wait for part 2. I’m so happy you didn’t edit out the food photos! I recently sold my van (for lots of reasons) but now have some travel dollars! This is so tempting.

  5. What a clever itinerary to address both costs and maximum benefit! I often thought about a Canadian rail trip east when we lived in Portland, OR and then Vancouver, BC, but couldn’t coordinate the options as well as you did. Now that we live in Halifax, NS, I look forward to the return of Halifax-Montreal rail service post-COVID, and perhaps further west. Can’t wait to see your next post(s)!

  6. Beautiful pictures! Have camped around Banff and Jasper many years ago so it’s nice to see what the train offers. Looks like a lovely trip!

  7. Ooh, another train trip! This one is now on my bucket list. What an adventure! And the food! Looking fwd to hearing about your Canadian rail experience.

  8. My Dad worked for the CPR and we had passes. I have done this run a number of times from Montreal to Vancouver. The most beautiful sight was going through the Rockies in Dec. 11p.m. we had a full moon , and they had had a snow storm. Just beautiful.

  9. Beautiful pictures and scenery! We would love to do this one day all because of your tour! Seems they really spoil you on that trip! Can’t wait for the next installment, thanks for taking us along!

  10. As always, Suzanne, you show us magical journeys (journeys that you make magical) and inspire us to live life more aware and appreciative.. Thank you for sharing. And Happy Birthday!

  11. In the late 80’s my son and I were lucky enough to take VIA rail from Montreal to Vancouver and then spend a month on and around Vancouver Island. An experience we still consider a traveling highlight.

  12. Loved the post. Train travel is my favorite way to see places that one cannot get to any other way. “Back in the day”, over 50 years ago, I used to take the train from Kilgore Tx to Chicago to see my sister and her family. Of course, it was nothing fancy back then……..BUT memorable nevertheless……….

  13. So glad you are finally posting about this trip! Yes, longer days would have been nice but the beauty of the fall colors made up for it. Such spectacular scenery. Since spending a few weeks in the Canadian Rockies in 2018 I have wanted to return, maybe by train next time!

  14. You are NOT a geezer by a long shot and so thrilled you opted to take the tour and share it with us. That has always looked so interesting to me (when advertised on PBS ya know). Gorgeous views and so glad you got it done before the covid madness! I too am frustrated by the lack of opportunity right now to plan travels….still trying to keep my hopes up for 2021 but after having to cancel everything planned in 2020 it is a challenge.

  15. What a beautiful train ride you took me on today! I so enjoy your attention to detail of the where’s and how’s with your trip taking, along with your gorgeous photos. Vancouver looks like a fun walking city, clean and bright. Those magnificent nature shots from inside your bubble are enticing, for sure. And, being a fattie, er…foodie, my mouth is now drench with salivation over the gourmet delights you enjoyed en route. Thank you, Suzanne, for taking us along for this once in a lifetime trip. I enjoyed it so! 🙂

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