An in-depth guide to Canada's Rocky Mountaineer
Canada can be explored in so many ways, from fly-drive holidays to motorhome holidays, but there really is no better way to see the sights of Canada than on a Rocky Mountaineer train journey. Canada can offer more than just beautiful sights, it is home to some of the world’s most amazing wildlife, awe-inspiring waterfalls, glaciers and lakes, and with the Rocky Mountaineer train you can see them all in one go, in the comfort of luxury carriages with bespoke packages so you can enjoy an experience tailored to your taste.
Alesha and Jarryd, the duo behind Nomadasaurus, have travelled on the Rocky Mountaineer and said it is incomparable: “Having travelled by train all over the world, we can honestly say that Rocky Mountaineer's iconic journeys across Canada’s most spectacular landscapes are some of the best rail trips on the planet.”
This guide will give you a little more insight into the Rocky Mountaineer train and how it can truly transform your Canadian experience. Continue reading for some insightful information, perfect for planning your next trip to Canada.
An introduction to the Rocky Mountaineer Train
The Rocky Mountaineer train is an iconic symbol of Canada and one of the most breath-taking journeys in the world. Founded in 1990, the train has been an integral part of many avid travellers’ itineraries for years since and it is obvious why! The train offers a unique and awe-inspiring way to see some of Canada’s scenery with glass-roofed double-decker trains, a variety of packages and a range of onboard experiences, not to mention the world-class service. There really is nothing else like it in the world.
Gliding through British Columbia and Alberta, you’ll be travelling through some of the most picturesque locations in Canada, passing rocky mountains, waterfalls, lakes and much more, there is something that this journey can offer everyone. We spoke to some travellers who have all been on the Rocky Mountaineer train and they have told us a little more about why they love the train and the experience it offers.
Carol from Wandering Carol has visited Canada, travelling on the train in the past, and she told us a little about why the journey was special to her: “Rocky Mountaineer is one of those bucket list trips that offer stunning scenery, gourmet cuisine with a local flair, and the potential to see wildlife. It also takes you to some of the top destinations in the Canadian Rockies such as the incredible mountain town of Banff, the tranquil community of Jasper, and the buzzing coastal city of Vancouver. Some of the highlights I experienced were the views of postcard-pretty Lake Louise and the snowy expanse of the Canadian Icefields. Another top point about the trip was the friendly service, not to mention the freshly-baked oatmeal cookies!”
Keith, a blogger at Velvet Escape, explained a little more about his experience on board, he loved the combination of views and excellent service:
"If I had to choose one word to describe my trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, it would be 'epic'. There's just something special about going on a train journey but the Rocky Mountaineer certainly belongs in the upper echelons of the world's great train journeys. What makes the Rocky Mountaineer epic is the seamless combination of spectacular scenery with excellent service, comfort and mouth-watering cuisine. Delve deeper into the history of the Canadian railways, the ingenuity of the engineers who designed the routes and the livelihoods of the people who built the tracks, and the word ‘epic’ crops up again.”
There is so much to know and love about the Rocky Mountaineer. Continue reading to find out a little more about its history, the onboard experiences and the journeys.
History of Rocky Mountaineer
The Rocky Mountaineer train is rich in history and the tracks it now follows have been serving Canada for hundreds of years. The lines between Vancouver and Banff have been active for centuries and the journeys you experience onboard take you back in time to experience them all over again.
Lisa from We Said Go Travel explained how she learnt a lot about the history of the railroad on her train journey: “While travelling in luxurious comfort on the Rocky Mountaineer train between Vancouver and Banff, I loved learning the history of the railroad and seeing the spiral tunnels, Hells Gate and the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) at Craigellachie, British Columbia from November 7, 1885.”
Here we take you through a timeline of the major events from the Rocky Mountaineer.
The first railroad was built on the banks of Hells Gate, which is a formidable gorge that was a significant obstacle for early explorers. Today, the gorge can be seen on the Rocky Mountaineer’s Journey through the Clouds route.
Work begins on the Canadian Pacific Railway. This railroad united Canada and helped define a nation, and the route is still used for Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West journey.
Banff is founded as a railway tunnel site, originally called ‘Siding 29’. Today, the lively mountain town can be the start or endpoint of the First Passage to the West route.
Construction of the railway begins at Kamloops. The railway, in conjunction with the Gold Rush, brought great growth to Kamloops. Today, guests on Rocky Mountaineer can visit the area via the First Passage to the West and Journey through the Clouds routes.
The Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway is driven at Craigellachie. This historic moment marked the completion of Canada’s first transcontinental railway. Knowledgeable Rocky Mountaineer hosts point out this very spot on the First Passage to the West route.
The historic Spiral Tunnels replaced the difficult railway track known as ‘Big Bill’. Today, passengers aboard Rocky Mountaineer travel through the Spiral Tunnels as part of the First Passage to the West route.
The railway at Jasper was created at the site of the future town and Jasper is today an important part of both the Journey to the Clouds and Rainforest to Gold Rush routes and home to some stunning scenery.
The Pacific Great Eastern Railway reached Quesnel. Today, Quesnel station is used by Rocky Mountaineer on its Rainforest to Gold Rush route. The Pacific Great Eastern Railway ended its service in 2002.
The Canadian Pacific Railway helped facilitate the Royal tour of Canada. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 1939 (the first time the reigning monarch had visited the country), the CPR undertook their journey to Vancouver. Today, guests aboard Rocky Mountaineer and travel to Vancouver on multiple routes, including Rainforest to Gold Rush.
1990 saw the Rocky Mountaineer set off on its inaugural journey across the Canadian countryside showing its first guests the stunning sights that the mountains have to offer, the first of many exhilarating journeys.
In 1991, just a year after its first journey, the Rocky Mountaineer train was named one of the “World’s 20 Best Rail Experiences”.
In 1995, the train released its first bespoke service, the ‘Gold Leaf Service’. A service designed to offer a little touch of luxury to an already amazing experience. Guests got to enjoy stunning glass-dome carriages and delicious al la carte menus full of fresh and fragrant Canadian foods.
The Rocky Mountaineer has always been a large train, able to carry lots of eager passengers, but in 1996 it was named the longest passenger train in Canadian history, pulling a huge 36 carriages.
In 1999, it broke the record again for the longest passenger train in Canadian history, now boasting 41 cars.
In its 12th year, the Rocky Mountaineer welcomed its 500,000th passenger and got recognised for the second time for being on The International Railway Traveler magazine’s “10 Best Rail Experiences in the World”.
Features on the television programme, “50 Things To Do Before You Die”, a hit BBC show.
2005 was a prestigious year with the train winning a plethora of awards including:
• “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train”
• “One of the Great Train Rides in the World”
• One of “The World’s Top 25 Trains”
2006 saw the introduction of two new routes, the first being from Whistler Sea to Sky Climb (Vancouver to Whistler) and the second being Rainforest to Gold Rush (Whistler to Jasper).
More accolades are won by the Mountaineer, including winning the Tourism British Columbia’s “Foresight Sustainability Award” and named one of the “World’s Greatest Trips” by National Geographic.
This year saw the train welcome its 1 millionth guest!
The Rocky Mountaineer was featured on the Bachelorette where the train travelled on a 4-hour journey.
2010 saw the rebrand of the Rocky Mountaineer, featuring a new logo, website, route names and journeys.
The SilverLeaf Service was launched in 2012 on the First Passage to the West route.
A new destination was added to the mix in 2013, Lake Louise was offered on Rocky Mountaineer's First Passage to the West route.
The Rocky Mountaineer Train celebrated its 25th anniversary!
5 years on, it celebrated its 30th anniversary and continues to grow in popularity every day, showing thousands of visitors why Canada is truly spectacular.
Rocky Mountaineer Journeys
The Rocky Mountaineer goes along some legendary rail routes where you can enjoy the majesty of the Canadian Rockies and the comfort of luxury train travel.
Terri Shanks, who is the writer behind Mums Travel Blog, tells us about how the Rocky Mountaineer trip she went on with her child was the highlight of her world tour.
“Having just spent almost two years travelling the globe with my son (now eight) our trip on the Rocky Mountaineer still remains one of the highlights of the entire world tour. This had been a ‘bucket list’ trip for me to do for many years and I had done a lot of research, but it still exceeded all expectations. It really is impossible to put the trip into words, all I can say is if you are thinking of doing it, then just go, it truly is a multi-sensory experience, the memory of which will stay with you forever.”
There are three unforgettable rail routes and here we take you through the different ones so you can consider which one would suit you best during your holiday in Canada.
First Passage to the West
Route: Vancouver – Kamloops – Banff/Lake Louise
The First Passage to the West is one of the most legendary rail routes and it is known for uniting Canada by connecting the country to British Columbia more than 125 years ago.
With the route taking you along the Kicking Horse River and to stunning locations such as Kamloops, Lake Louise, and Banff, it’s not hard to see why it is such a renowned and popular route.
The Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to operate on this route and if you decide to travel this area you will also get to enjoy the historic Spiral Tunnels. The Spiral Tunnels were built in three-quarter circles into the valley walls and they replaced one of Canada’s most difficult railway tracks, called Big Hill, in 1909.
This route is one that Arnette, from the travel blog Round the World Girl, is a big fan of and she spoke to us about her fond memories of it:
“I loved the scenery around Lytton, Kinbasket Lake, the Spiral Tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass, Yoho National Park, and, of course, arriving at Banff. Growing up in Vancouver, there was no better way to see the geography of the land from the coast and through some of Canada’s most majestic national parks. No matter where you are on the train, whether at your seat or outside in the vestibule getting some fresh air, you’ll be able to get incredible photos! Eat everything! This is a great time to indulge. Every dish I had on the train was delicious, especially all the desserts!”
Attractions you can enjoy on the route
Banff is a town within the stunning Banff National Park in Alberta. The national park is the oldest in Canada, established in 1885, and encompasses 6,641 square kilometres of mountains, forest, glaciers, and ice fields.
It has been named as a World Heritage Site and is somewhere Sabina from the travel and lifestyle blog Girl vs Globe loved when she visited.
“I’d go as far as saying that Alberta is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and Banff is no exception. But the town’s best feature is probably the people – young workers from all over the world who are there to make sure you (and they!) have an incredibly fun time. My top recommendations for your trip there are canoeing on Vermillion Lake and going for dinner at Park Distillery, a restaurant that serves local campfire cuisine and handmade spirits.”
If you are in Banff at the end of your holiday or are heading there at the start of your trip, then we’d recommend booking your flights to Calgary as the city is just over an hour away from the town.
Kamloops, a city located in British Columbia, is a historic location that plays an important role in Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West and Journey through the Clouds routes. Situated alongside Thompson River and Kamloops Lake, the city has a fascinating history dating back to 1811, including playing a key part in the fur trade. After the 1860s, Kamloops experienced tremendous growth thanks to the Gold Rush and the construction of the railway in 1883. There’s no questioning the beauty of the scenery that surrounds Kamloops, especially on the banks of the Thompson River, making the city an exciting stop on a Rocky Mountaineer journey.
Tourism Kamloops, experts in helping visitors to learn more about their city, spoke to us about what they believe sets Kamloops apart as a must-visit Rocky Mountaineer destination: “Kamloops is a great place to visit. From our 100+ lakes all within an hour’s drive to our scenic hiking and twisty, single-track mountain biking trails, we have something for everyone. The emerging Kamloops Wine region is truly a story reflecting adventurous people with pioneering spirits and great passions for wine. With four distinct wineries, visitors are encouraged to savour the local scenery as they sip through tasting rooms, tour vineyards and dine on scenic patios. Your boldly unscripted adventure is here. What are you waiting for?”
Other attractions to look out for on the route include:
- Spiral Tunnels
- The Continental Divide
- Dramatic Canyons
- Lake Louise
Journey Through The Clouds
Route: Vancouver – Kamloops – Jasper
The Journey Through the Clouds offers views that just don’t stop as you’ll travel through spectacular valleys, past mountains and along canyons with dramatic water rapids.
This route is renowned for its diversity as in one day you’ll travel from the coastal rainforests around Vancouver to desert landscapes as you head towards Kamloops.
Hell’s Gate is one spectacular sight that you will not forget as the 33-metre wide gorge sees an unbelievable 750 million litres of water pass through it every minute. It was a formidable obstacle that early explorers once had to navigate, but now it is one of the many stunning sites you can see aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.
In the 1880s the first railroad was built on its banks and for centuries this passage has been a hugely popular spot for fishing among Canada’s First Nations communities.
Attractions you can enjoy on the route
Another of the destinations most closely associated with Rocky Mountaineer, and a key part of the Journey Through the Clouds route, is the municipality of Jasper in Jasper National Park, Western Alberta. With roots going back to 1813, Jasper has played an important role in the history of Canada’s fur trade and the famous Hudson’s Bay Company. The national park – spanning 4,200 square miles of hot springs, lakes and mountains – was established in 1907. The railway was created in 1911 at the future townsite and Jasper was later surveyed in 1913 when it received the name it bears today.
Of course, not many know Jasper quite like the team at Tourism Jasper, the area’s official tourist board and a wonderful resource of information for future visitors. Just check out this fascinating nugget of information they revealed to us about Jasper’s history: “At one point in time in history, the Columbia Icefields extended all the way to the Jasper townsites, over 100km north of where it currently is. The glacier was so thick that it covered Whistler Mountain. While it receded, it carved the top of the mountain so it is the smooth, rounded shape that it is today. Currently, Whistler Mountain is 2,463 meters/ 8,081 feet above sea level.”
For a little insight into the joys of visiting Jasper today, we spoke to Char from the travel blog Taylor Hearts Travel, who has visited Jasper in the past and adored the experience: “The scenery is absolutely amazing. The mountains frame every viewpoint and have an almost magical pull – it’s impossible not to be drawn to them. Vivid turquoise lakes cover the ground and bears casually stroll the greenery. Nothing seems real, almost too beautiful to be true. There are so many exciting activities to try, but even a simple drive down the road results in numerous photo opportunities and a fluttering heart. It’s such an amazing place.”
Other attractions to look out for on the route include:
- Fraser River
- Mighty Valleys
- Mount Robson
- Hells Gate
- Pyramid Falls
Rainforest to Gold Rush
Route: Vancouver – Whistler – Quesnel – Jasper
Witness true wilderness as you travel from the sea to the sky on the Rainforest to Gold Rush route. The three-day route takes its name from the coastal rainforest which it navigates before stopping at the famous gold pan-city of Quesnel in British Columbia.
This route offers some of the most breath-taking scenery anywhere in the Rockies and if you decide to take this route you will also uncover plenty of history as you travel through the Cariboo Gold Rush region. Back in 1858, the first gold discovery was made in the region and it is now known as being the most famous of British Columbia’s gold rushes.
Another section that you will also travel along is Porteau Cove, a provincial park that is known for its world-class diving areas, marine life and spectacular scenery. On the Rocky Mountaineer, you will be blessed with a host of stunning views.
Attractions you can enjoy on the route
The Canadian Rockies and Mount Robson
Famous for its multitudinous high peaks and ranges, the Canadian Rockies lend themselves to some of the most stunning landscape photography anywhere in the world. Today, much of the area is protected by national parks, which comprise a World Heritage Site.
There’s no question that the Canadian Rockies are a spectacular place, and Mickey Shannon, a travel and landscape photographer, is just one of many people with a great fondness for the area.
Mickey told us what he believes makes the Canadian Rockies so special: “The Canadian Rockies are a magical place. I’ve been privileged to visit some of the most beautiful scenery in the world as a photographer. Yet, the Canadian Rockies almost always seem to draw me back more than any of it! There is something for everyone between the breath-taking view at sunrise atop the rock pile at Moraine Lake to the entire drive up the Icefields Parkway, with its vivid blue lakes, majestic peaks, beautiful glaciers and a plethora of wildlife to see. It’s a dream vacation spot, whether you’re an adventurer looking for a good hike, a photographer looking for great scenery to shoot, or a family looking for attractions that everyone can love!”
The most impressive peak in the Rockies is Mount Robson, which is the highest peak, and you will be able to see it on this route.
Another exciting British Columbia location associated with Rocky Mountaineer is Quesnel, a small city in the Cariboo district that can be visited via the Rainforest to Gold Rush route. Situated at the confluence of the Fraser and Quesnel Rivers, people have been living off the land here long before prospectors arrived during 1862’s Cariboo Gold Rush. Because of its ideal location on the Fraser River, Quesnel has historically been an important landing point for steamboats from the Gold Rush until 1921. Quesnel has now become a popular location to visit thanks to its access to nature, fishing, hiking and many heritage sites relating to the Gold Rush.
Other attractions to look out for on the route include:
- Hidden Lakes
- Porteau Cove
No matter which service level you choose on the Rocky Mountaineer - SilverLeaf or GoldLeaf – you can expect exceptional service.
The onboard experiences on the Rocky Mountaineer are renowned and these range from breakfast and lunch being served on board, hot drinks and snacks being available throughout the day to the spacious, comfortable seating and the large glass-dome windows that offer you unrivalled views of the stunning scenery.
Angie Orth, the publisher at the Angie Away blog, told us that she was thoroughly impressed with the onboard experiences when she has travelled on the Rocky Mountaineer.
“I’ve been on the Rocky Mountaineer twice, once from Vancouver to Banff and the next time to Jasper - dream trips from start to finish! I loved standing in the open-air vestibules and watching for animals along the way. And inside the glass dome, the staff took incredible care of us. We never had a moment without a drink in our hand or a gourmet snack on our tray. I still think about the scones! It's like cosying up for story time all day as the hosts narrate all the interesting sites along the way.
“Even our luggage had VIP treatment, arriving at the hotel before we did. Never having to cart a suitcase on board was just one of many extravagances. It’s a level of comfort and excellence you don’t often find in modern travel.”
Here we take you through some of the best onboard features that you will be able to enjoy on the Rocky Mountaineer that has seen it offer an award-winning service.
- Glass-dome coaches – The custom-designed coaches offer you panoramic views of the scenery and there is also an outdoor viewing area if you want to get even closer to the outdoors. Travel blogger Keith from Velvet Escape loved the panoramic windows during his trip on the Rocky Mountaineer: “I was in GoldLeaf class with panoramic windows which allowed us to feel like we could reach out and touch the Canadian Rockies. Along our route, we saw osprey nests, eagles, Bighorn sheep and five bears were sighted.”
- Local cuisine – The Rocky Mountaineer offers West Coast-inspired cuisine such as Okanagan wines and Fraser River salmon.
- Northern hospitality – Whether it is refilling a wine glass, helping out with a request or telling you a story, the hosts on the Rocky Mountaineer will help make your onboard experience unforgettable.
- All daylight train – You don’t have to worry about sleeping overnight on a train and missing out on the sights. Instead, you will be sleeping in a hotel at night and getting to see all the attractions and scenery during the day.
Terri Shanks from the Mums Travel Blog said she was impressed by the service offered on the Rocky Mountaineer and that it started even before she stepped foot on the train.
“Whilst we waited to board the train we were serenaded by a pianist on a grand piano before we finally were given the ‘all aboard’ call and a bagpiper piped us aboard. We travelled in the Gold Leaf service which in my opinion was worth every penny, the domed glass roof of the upper carriage offering top levels of comfort and breathtaking scenery.
“The food and the service were first-class with attentive stewards who also provided a fun, informative and educational commentary throughout the entire journey. My son is train crazy and was just six when we did this trip, whilst I know the Rocky Mountaineer may not market to the younger audience, Cameron loved every second of it and was fully engaged with both the scenery and the stories and information shared in the commentary. He was absolutely thrilled at the end of the trip when the train manager came and presented him with a little bear ‘Jasper’ for being so well behaved on the train.
“We will definitely make a return trip one day in the not too distance future and explore a new route, but we would 100% recommend it to anybody young or old.”
It is this onboard experience as well as all the stunning views that you get to see along the different routes that attract people to the Rocky Mountaineer.
Annie Brooks, the author of the Tales of Annie Bean travel blog, told us that while she has visited Canada, she has not had the chance to ride on the Rocky Mountaineer. It is something that she would love to do in the near future.
“I often travel by train as it provides a calm and scenic opportunity to soak in the surroundings of a destination. When travelling by car it can become a rather frantic, yet dull experience, especially as there is nothing but the views of vehicles and endless stretches of road in front of you. This is definitely why something like the Rocky Mountaineer appeals to me, with its panoramic views from a windowed ceiling and excellent service, not to mention the variety of travel routes, there is literally no excuse to ever miss Canada in all its beauty. Gliding through this scenic location, it’s easy to see why this is on my bucket list!”
There’s no question that Rocky Mountaineer is one of the most sought-after train journeys anywhere in the world, so if you are considering heading to Canada, take a look at our different Rocky Mountaineer train holidays.