From Vancouver to Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer

MY FIRST TRIP OVER THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS FINALLY HAPPENED BECAUSE CANADA WAS CELEBRATING AN ANNIVERSARY. It was the country’s sesquicentennial – 150th anniversary, you know – and my editor at the travel section of the paper decided I would spent part of it traveling by train. And so I remember 2017 for three scenic railway journeys – more about the other two later, but the first one was a real jackpot: across the Rockies from Vancouver to Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury cruise of a train trip, and the sort of journey people put on their bucket list.

The schedule was generous, and included a full day in Vancouver, where I was able to meet an old friend for drinks, take a very wet tour of the coastline in a high-speed rubber boat (no pictures, alas, since water doesn’t agree with camera equipment) and enjoy the city’s justifiably famous food and scenery. So far, my experience of Canada had stopped at Edmonton in the depths of winter – tantalizingly near the foothills of the Rockies. I felt deficient as a Canadian in the throes of this anniversary year, and was hungry to make up for this deficit.

View from Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

Home base in Vancouver was, fittingly, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – an old railway hotel finished by Canadian National Railway in 1939, and as luxurious as you’d imagine. Thanks to the magic entree provided by working for the country’s largest daily newspaper, I persuaded hotel management to let me out on their roof with my new fisheye lens to photograph the building’s iconic gargoyles brooding over the skyline. They were my favorite mythological beasts from the trip, but nowhere near as charming as the canine ambassadors who live in the Fairmont lobby – suitable for a hotel with a pet-friendly policy.

The day was clear and sunny when we arrived at the Rocky Mountaineer’s Vancouver terminal in Strathcona, where guests can enjoy a morning drink and a pianist while they check in, before being piped onto the train. There are two classes of service on the Rocky Mountaineer: Silver Leaf guests dine at their seats and take in the view through extended height windows, while Gold Leaf passengers enjoy wraparound glass roof panoramas on the top of double-decker cars, with restaurant seating below. I was lucky enough to enjoy the Gold Leaf service, even though I didn’t end up spending much time in my seat.

Passengers ranged from couples celebrating an anniversary with a treat of a trip to railway junkies enthusiastically spotting engines and rolling stock as we made our way through the mountain passes. They were from all around the world, and you’d learn their stories over meals, drinks and snacks – it’s impossible to go hungry or thirsty on the Rocky Mountaineer – or on the special open observation decks built onto the Gold Leaf cars. This is where I ended up spending most of the trip.

Executive chef Jean-Pierre Guerin and his team work in the tiny but highly efficient rolling kitchens to feed passengers breakfast and lunch every day. Produce is washed and prepped ahead of time to save water, but everything is cooked from scratch – a challenge in kitchens that can’t use open flame or deep fryers for obvious reasons. The eggs with smoked salmon is the best I’ve ever had, and I order it both mornings on the train.

The train enters the Fraser Valley outside Vancouver, through the Coast Mountains of the Rockies, passing by the whitewater rapids of Hell’s Gate. The First Passage to the West route is a historic journey along the route that connected the country across the mountains, and over the course of the day we go from steep valleys thick with trees to the arid mountain valleys outside Kamloops. The views outside the windows and observation decks will bring out the Ansel Adams in any photographer, so I was inspired to shoot in black and white for a lot of the first day on the train.

Everyone leaves for their hotels when we pull into Kamloops, but I ask if I can follow the train into the Rocky Mountaineer’s nearby service yards. I was fascinated by the logistics necessary to run these luxurious journeys, and I wanted to see where they maintained the rolling stock to such a high standard. I was really hoping to see crews do the daily cleaning of the expansive windows on the passenger cars, but that happens in the wee hours of each morning, before passengers are even awake.

Leaving Kamloops the next morning, we exit the mountain plateau, passing by Shuswap Lake and into the steep valleys on our way over the Continental Divide. The sun had followed us most of the way from Vancouver the previous day, but we’re closer to the clouds for this part of the journey, where the train mostly travels through deep cuts between steep mountain slopes, and through spiral tunnels carved into the rock. There’s a lot of railway history along this part of the trip, and the train’s staff are always ready to tell stories, or point out wildlife outside the train windows.

The water in the rivers on the way inland was khaki-coloured, but on the second day it runs in shades of bright green and turquoise – meltwater from the glaciers and mountain peaks. The landscape here looks more raw and primal, and with the mountainsides often rising up just a few yards from the observation deck of the train, you need to think fast and shoot quickly to capture the views as they race past. I’m on a steep learning curve on this trip, finding new ways to shoot scenery with my cameras while we pass freight trains a mile long.

For much of our trip through these mountain gorges the peaks of the summits above us are shrouded in rolling mists, obscuring and then revealing layers of steep forest beneath snowy peaks as the winds near the top of the world whip the mists between the summits – rivers of cloud running high above the whitewater rapids next to the tracks. But every now and then the train will turn into a wide valley and a new peak will heave dramatically into view.

Our journey on the train ends in a new province – in Banff, a mountain town I know mostly for skiing and arts conferences. Everyone seems sad to leave the coaches that have been their home for the last two days, and exchange fond farewells with the Rocky Mountaineer staff. You almost want to re-book for the next trip back to Vancouver – and you can – but there’s still another day on my schedule, and more to see.

Lake Louise, AB
Chateau Lake Louise

The next day begins with a ride out to Lake Louise, and one of the most iconic views in Canada. It’s April but the water is still frozen from shore to shore up here in the mountains. Despite the little streams of clear, cold runoff by the shore, it’s apparently safe enough that visitors are walking all the way across from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – another fine railway hotel, this one built by Canadian Pacific over a hundred years ago – to the valley between Sheol Mountain and Mount Whyte on the western shore.

Sulphur Mountain, Banff, AB

After lunch in Banff and a bracing walk through the Fenland Trail just outside town, we take the cable cars up to the saddleback peaks of Sulphur Mountain, overlooking the Bow River Valley. We’re level with the adjacent peaks of Mount Rundle, Mount Norquay, Mount Peechee, Cascade Mountain and Princess Margaret Mountain here, with plenty of places to take stunning views of the clouds and sunset behind them all. It’s a great place to get a final look at the majesty you almost take for granted over two days on the rails.

It’s no surprise that, thanks to Covid-19, the Rocky Mountaineer had to cancel its 2020 season, but they’re coming back in the new year with a new journey. Rockies to Red Rocks is two days on the train from Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah, along the Colorado River, across the Continental Divide and into the red sandstone mountains and high desert of Utah, with a night in the resort town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. With amenities including an onboard mixologist, it sounds like another incredible trip, featuring views to rival the ones I enjoyed so much back before we hit the pause button on travel.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by the Rocky Mountaineer, which did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2017, 2020 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved