by Lee Foster
A few great railroad trips in the Americas truly inspire the imagination.
In Mexico, for example, there is the Chihuahua al Pacifico trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua over the Sierra Madre Mountains.
So, what does the U.S./Canada offer that is comparable in rail trips?
One main contender is the Rocky Mountaineer rail tour from Vancouver on the British Columbia coast to Banff and Calgary in the Canadian Rockies.
The Canadians have done it right on this adventure in several respects.
First, this is one of the most historic rail trips in North America. The train tracks united East and West Canada, historically, with completion in the 1880s. The railroad opened Canada for tourism. Moreover, British Columbia and the whole of western Canada might have become part of the United States if the railroad had not been built.
Second, this train trip passes through some of the most stunning scenery in North America, the Canadian Rockies, which are fully as impressive as the U.S. Rockies.
And third, the Canadians have arranged this historic rail tour to occur during daylight hours, so you see all the scenery, spending the night at the midpoint, Kamloops. (There is nothing more frustrating that falling asleep in your rail car knowing that imposing scenery is passing you in the dark, as happens on some of the U.S. trains crossing the American West.)
This scenic train ride has a “season,” operating April to October. The first burst of spring and the tree leaves turning color in fall are treats near the ends of the season. I took an October trip and enjoyed the brilliant yellow color of the larch trees.
I boarded the train at 7 a.m. in Vancouver after spending the night at The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. This is the fitting lodging to stay at because it is one of the grand hotels of Canada built in conjunction with the railroad.
As the railroad builder William Cornelius Van Horne said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
To achieve this goal the company needed both a railroad and grand hotels. On this trip I experienced both The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (built in 1939, the height of the rail era) and The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (built in 1888, at the start of the rail period).
The train meanders out of Vancouver up the Fraser River, which is noted for its huge salmon runs. An upstream tributary, the Adams River, is said to have the largest red sockeye salmon run in the world, at over a million fish.
The train passes over the route that explorer Simon Fraser first charted in 1808 as he was seeking a trade route to the Pacific Ocean.
The most dramatic moment of the coastal-mountain passage on the Fraser River comes at Hell’s Gate, where the mountains squeeze together to make an opening only 110 feet wide, requiring the torrent of the river water, 200 million gallons a minute, to gush through with awesome force.
After passing the coastal mountain range, the train crosses a long stretch of high desert terrain along the Thompson River, with the most arid area around Ashcroft. This desert environment comes as a surprise to many travelers, who can see the mountain peaks from Vancouver and assume the route will be mountains all the way to Banff.
Finally, after the town of Revelstoke, following further tributary rivers, the train reaches the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Hour after hour of spectacular scenery in the Selkirk Range and the Purcell Range follows. One brief stretch of the trip passes along the Columbia River, which eventually empties into the ocean at Portland, Oregon. Near Lake Louise the train crosses the Continental Divide, the highest point on the trip, before descending into Banff, home of one of the premier hotels in all Canada, The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Along the way I became aware, partly through the informed commentary of railroad attendants, of the grand historic visions of the area. For example, an entrepreneur named C. E. Barnes persuaded a cluster of British aristocrats to locate in this remote region at Walhachin to farm apples. They built over 18 miles of wooden flumes to bring water from a lake to the apple orchards. The enclave flourished until World War I, when storms wrecked the flume system and the men were called away to fight the war. Eventually, the community collapsed.
The railroad line is still vital today because it ships west to Vancouver in the winter the huge autumn harvest of wheat and other grains grown on the Canadian prairies. Wheat is a substantial Canadian export to China and Japan.
Eagles, osprey, and bighorn mountain sheep are seen many times during the trip. The osprey need about four pounds of salmon per day from the river, which is an easy matter during the spawning season.
I overnighted in a modern chain hotel at the city of Kamloops, which took its name from an Indian word meaning “meeting of the waters,” where the North and South forks of the Thompson River join. The overnight in Kamloops allowed me to experience the entire 600-mile rail trip, roughly 300 miles each day, in total daylight. The days began early and ended when I descended from my dome car at 5 p.m.
The dome car in which I traveled offered unparalleled mountain viewing as the train proceeded at a measured pace. Moreover, viewing areas between the cars allowed direct contact with the fresh air and the outdoors. The food was superb, for breakfast and lunch, on white table cloths, with menu items such as scrambled eggs wrapped in wild BC smoked salmon and succulent molasses glazed pork loin, all cooked to order on the train.
The luxurious dome car service, with a dining room and gourmet hot meals, is called GoldLeaf. More affordable options, with fewer amenities but the same scenery, are called Silver Leaf and Red Leaf.
I spent a few days in Banff, taking guided nature trips to look at the wildlife and scenery, all arranged by the concierge at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The level of guide service available here is high. Guides provide the transportation and much insight into nature. The number of patrons on a trip is small, usually nine or less.
Caretakers for the Canadian Rockies are taking many steps to preserve the grand natural heritage, partly by restoring the checks and balances that man has disturbed regarding the large mammals. There are now too many elk, which are stripping the ground for food in winter, preventing the normal growth of new poplar trees, for example. The solution is to encourage the wolf and cougar populations. Highway animal overpasses now allow the free migration of large mammals, prey and predator alike.
I hiked around Johnson Lake, enjoying sightings of elk and mountain sheep as well as breathtaking views of Mt. Rundle reflected in the turquoise waters.
One evening in Banff, celebrating my rail tour, I had dinner at the Caboose Restaurant, located in the original rail station. This beef-and-salmon restaurant has walls lined with historic photos of the rail legacy. The photos of rail construction helped me appreciate what a feat of engineering was involved in constructing a rail bed through the Canadian Rockies. A couple of trains passed by, shaking the building, during dinner.
After my sojourn in Banff, I flew home from the Calgary airport, east of Banff.
The Rocky Mountaineer is one of the more satisfying rail trips possible in North America. The historic story, the scenery, the wildlife, the all-daylight itinerary, and the service are all superb.
If You Go: Rocky Mountaineer Rail Trip in Canada
Rocky Mountaineer rail trip details can be seen at www.rockymountaineer.com.
For tourism information on either end of this trip, contact the following:
Tourism British Columbia info is at www.hellobc.com.
Tourism Vancouver is at www.tourismvancouver.com.
Travel Alberta is at www.travelalberta.com.
Banff Lake Louise Tourism is at www.banfflakelouise.com.