History of the Rocky Mountaineer

posted August 16, 2018


Beautiful scenery along Rocky Mountaineer's rail route

As one of the most famous train journeys on the planet, Rocky Mountaineer is sought after around the world thanks to the stunning scenery of its home in the Canadian Rockies. Western Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer only began in 1990, quickly becoming a much-celebrated travel experience with people flocking from near and far to experience the journey themselves.

In 1996, Rocky Mountaineer set the record for the longest passenger train in Canadian history. In 2002, it was named one of the 10 best rail experiences in the world by The International Railway Traveler magazine. Over the years, Rocky Mountaineer has launched new and exciting routes to entertain travellers, and in 2008, the service welcomed its one-millionth guest. While Rocky Mountaineer’s train itself has a relatively short history, the Canadian Rockies, the routes available and the sights on display are blessed with an even richer history. In this article, we will delve into this historic area, the surrounding towns, and the routes that have become famous across the globe. We hope it will inspire you to become part of Rocky Mountaineer’s story.

Timeline

Rocky Mountaineer crossing Stoney Creek Bridge

Hells Gate is a formidable gorge that was a significant obstacle for early explorers. Today the gorge can be seen on Rock Mountaineer’s Journey through the Clouds route.

This railroad united Canada and helped define a nation, and the route is still used for Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West.

Today, the lively mountain town can be the start or end point of the First Passage to the West and Coastal Passage routes.

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.

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.

Today, passengers aboard Rocky Mountaineer travel through the Spiral Tunnels as part of the First Passage to the West route.

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.

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.  

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 travel to Vancouver on multiple routes, including Rainforest to Gold Rush.

First passage to the West was Rocky Mountaineer’s initial journey and guests can still enjoy this magnificent route today.

Praise for Rocky Mountaineer

Jasper Canadian Rockies - Paul Zizka

Image credit: Paul Zizka Photography

Before we get any further, we wanted to bring you some glowing words of praise for Rocky Mountaineer and the stunning scenery that surrounds it. Arnette, from the travel blog Round the World Girl, is a big fan of this famous train and spoke to us about her fond memories of riding it: “There were too many things I enjoyed about Rocky Mountaineer. I loved the scenery, the comfortable seats, the friendly staff, the food, and drink. This is not your average train ride! It’s a once in a lifetime journey of the senses.

“I loved the scenery around Lytton, Kinbasket Lake, the Spiral Tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass, Yoho National Park, and, of course, arriving into 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!”

The Canadian Rockies

moraine-lake-sunrise-canada-photography - Mickey Shannon

Image credit: Mickey Shannon [Moraine Lake]

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, a number of which comprise a World Heritage Site. The first railway here started construction in 1881 with the intent to provide a link from the province of British Columbia to provinces in the east.

There’s no question that the Canadian Rockies are a spectacular place, and Mickey Shannon, a travel and landscape photographer whose stunning images you can see at various points in this article, 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!”

Rocky Mountaineer Routes

foggy-peyto-lake-classic-banff-photography - Mickey Shannon

Image credit: Mickey Shannon [Banff]

We love the luxurious service on board but without the majestic routes which it traverses, Rocky Mountaineer simply wouldn’t be the same. Taking passengers through incredible landscapes and to fascinating locations, the routes Rocky Mountaineer covers are special indeed. Let’s delve into some of their histories.

First passage to the West

The first route of the Rocky Mountaineer is known as First Passage to the West and is the most historic route of the bunch. First Passage to the West is known for uniting Canada by connecting the country to British Columbia more than 125 years ago. Travelling along Kicking Horse River and taking passengers through beautiful locations such as Kamloops, Lake Louise, and Banff, it’s not hard to see why it’s such a renowned route. First Passage to the West also includes the historic Spiral Tunnels (built in three-quarter circles into the valley walls), which replaced one of Canada’s most difficult railway tracks, known as Big Hill, in 1909. Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to operate on this famous route.

Journey through the Clouds

PeopleCheersonTrain-RockyMountaineer-CR

Image credit: Tourism Jasper

Journeying from Jasper to Vancouver, stopping at Kamloops along the way, Journey through the Clouds is another of Rocky Mountaineer’s most notable routes. Here, guests travel through scenic valleys, mountains and canyons with dramatic water rapids. Highlights of Journey through the Clouds include Mount Robson (the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies) and the unforgettable Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate – a 33-metre wide gorge that a staggering 750 million litres of water pass through every minute – was certainly a formidable obstacle for early explorers of the area and now is just one of many majestic sites available for those aboard Rocky Mountaineer to admire. The first railroad was built on its banks in the 1880s and for centuries the passage was popular for fishing among Canada’s First Nations communities.

Rainforest to Gold Rush

Rainforest to Gold Rush is a three-day route which takes its name from the coastal rainforest through which it traverses and the stop at the historic gold pan city of Quesnel. Starting at Jasper and finishing up in Vancouver, this route offers some of the most diverse and breath-taking scenery anywhere in the Rockies. There’s plenty of history to uncover here, not least when it comes to the significant Cariboo Gold Rush region. The first gold discovery was made there in 1858 and is today known as the most famous of British Columbia’s gold rushes. Another fascinating section of this particular journey is Porteau Cove with its clear waters and old sunken ships – as you can imagine, the cove is an absolute must-see for divers.

The sights

moraine-lake-sunset-banff-photography - Mickey Shannon

Image credit: Mickey Shannon [Banff]

Now that we’ve learnt a little more about some of the Rocky Mountaineer’s routes, it’s time that we delve into a few of the surrounding areas and locations that can be enjoyed via this exceptional train service. There’s so much to discover in the Canadian Rockies, and you can learn more about all of the stops and itineraries here. For now, let’s take a look at the history of some of the Mountaineer’s most famous locations.

Banff

Banff, which is a highlight of the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West, is a town within the absolutely 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. The Canadian Pacific Railway was an important part of Banff’s early history, helping to attract tourists to the area. The town itself was settled in the 1880s, shortly after the railway was built through the Bow Valley. Flash-forward 100 years to 1985 and Banff National Park was named as a World Heritage Site.

Lake Louise Banff - Paul Zizka

Image credit: Paul Zizka Photography

Sabina from the travel and lifestyle blog Girl vs Globe loved the time she spent visiting Banff. We asked her what it was that she most enjoyed about the area: “I can’t answer this question without mentioning Banff’s stunning natural surroundings. 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.”

To help paint the picture even further, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism told us about the history and scenery awaiting visitors to the area: “Banff National Park is truly a special place. Year-round adventure awaits visitors, with the vast rocky mountains so many enjoy as not only our playground but also as a place where we find ourselves and reconnect with the natural world. From hiking in the backcountry to wandering along the charming streets of the town of Banff, this place allows everyone to make amazing memories. It’s a place where you truly feel alive. As Canada’s first national park, you feel the history here – when you see a Mountie on horseback talking to a group or visit one of the historic landmarks such as the Cave and Basin where the first national park was declared.”

Jasper

medicine-lake-Jasper-photography - Mickey Shannon

Image credit: Mickey Shannon [Jasper]

Another of the destinations most closely associated with Rocky Mountaineer, and a key part of both the Journey to the Clouds and Rainforest to Gold Rush routes, 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 100 km 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.”

Jasper Town

Image credit: Tourism Jasper

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 bear 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.”

Kamloops

Kamloops photography

Image credit: Tourism Kamloops/AlexMey 

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?”

Quesnel

Quesnel Canada

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 become a popular location to visit thanks to its access to nature, fishing, hiking and many heritage sites relating to the Gold Rush.

The historical surroundings of Rocky Mountaineer

We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey with us through the wonderful world of Rocky Mountaineer as we’ve delved into the history of the fascinating locations and environments that have helped make it so famous. 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 rail holidays.

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