All you need to know about Canada's Rocky Mountaineer – the perfect addition to an Alaska cruise
By Katie McGonagle | 19 Apr 2022
With so many Alaska cruise travellers tagging on a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, Katie McGonagle finds out what to expect from Canada’s most scenic rail journey.
Just five more minutes, I think, as I draw another deep breath of crisp mountain air and exhale slowly, watching the tiny cloud of fog swirl away towards the forested slopes in front of me. The lure of the heated railway carriage and reclining seat is tempting, to be sure, but having this open-sided observation car all to myself is just too good to give up.
Passengers had been wandering in and out all morning to take photos or exchange stories of their travels thus far – many of them comparing notes on Alaska cruises or offering tips for those about to embark.
But now, there’s nothing to distract me from the view except the rhythmic trundling of the train on its tracks and a distant buzz of chefs hard at work in the kitchen car.
That is until the tiniest hint of a snowflake drifts across, followed by another and another, carried on the air in a gentle flurry until it feels like I’m in the midst of my own personal snow globe, the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains my fairytale backdrop. Barely two days ago, I’d been basking in sunshine in Vancouver, but climbing from the coast into the mountains is like turning the clock back a season as far as the temperature is concerned.
My secret solitude doesn’t last long – drawn by the first glimpse of snow, a rush of fellow travellers races to the viewing platform in barely the time it takes to throw on a coat and grab a camera. Yet I can’t begrudge them wanting to share in this experience, just one of the unexpected moments that occur on a journey through Canada’s great wilderness.
How far we had come from boarding the Rocky Mountaineer train in Vancouver, though the buzz of excitement in the air had been just as tangible then. Fresh from sightseeing in Vancouver – strolling along the seawall in Stanley Park, sampling artisan eats at Granville Island Public Market and taking a tour to Capilano Suspension Bridge – we were heralded onto the train by a bagpiper, the resounding notes echoing as we found our allotted GoldLeaf carriage.
The train operates a mix of Gold and SilverLeaf services, including new GoldLeaf carriages added in 2019 to offer more legroom and other improvements. The most obvious differences are the size and mealtime routine: GoldLeaf offers a double-decker set-up with a dining room downstairs and seating on the upper deck (also accessible via a wheelchair lift), which brings you closer to the glass-domed ceiling. In SilverLeaf, meals and drinks are served to the seat, but there’s plenty of room and no shortage of scenery to enjoy through oversized windows.
There was just enough time to admire the gleaming blue-and-gold façade before we were welcomed on board by our hosts, Holly and Jocelyn. Their voices would become pleasingly familiar as they led the commentary on the two-day First Passage to the West journey from Vancouver to Banff, highlighting points of interest along the way, not to mention keeping an eye out for sightings of bears, eagles, ospreys and more.
We set off through the rather unassuming (some might say unattractive) outer reaches of the city, which gave way to the suburbs and slowly unravelled to reveal wide open stretches of British Columbian countryside.
I spotted the shadowy curve of a mountain away in the distance. “Is that the Rockies?” I asked Holly, eager to catch my first glimpse. A bit too eager, it turned out, as she pointed to the Cascade Mountains on a map and promised me the best was yet to come.
Indeed it was, as the wide sweep of the Fraser River soon narrowed into a rushing torrent at the aptly named Hells Gate, the fastest-flowing spot along the river. We followed its tree-lined banks for a time, crossing over to the other side and back again, all the better to appreciate its powerful currents. It’s a reminder of just what it must have taken to lay down mile after mile of track in the midst of such vast tracts of untamed wilderness.
The Rocky Mountaineer might be a relatively modern invention, in operation for just over 30 years, but the railway dates back much further. The nearly 600-mile route uses the tracks originally laid down for the Canadian Pacific Railway, following a promise to connect the eastern and western provinces by means of a cross-continental railroad.
The train even passes the point at Craigellachie where the last spike was driven into the tracks in 1885, completing a gargantuan effort that cost not only huge sums of money but also countless lives. The contribution of legions of Chinese workers in carrying out some of the most dangerous construction tasks, often for the least reward, is only just starting to be recognised.
Soon, we skirted the edge of Kamloops Lake, getting ready to pull in for the night at the British Columbian city of Kamloops. I’ve travelled on other long-distance train journeys where you settle into a sleeper carriage and wake up with a new view in the morning, but Rocky Mountaineer travels only during daylight hours so you need not worry about missing the best scenery under cover of darkness.
We disembarked and were transported to our chosen hotel – which varies depending on whether you are travelling in Gold or SilverLeaf – and didn’t even need to worry about bags as these made it to the room before we did.
There was plenty of time for dinner in a local restaurant and a good night’s sleep before we were up early to complete act two of our journey through the Rockies. Breakfast is served on the train and makes a feature of high-quality Canadian ingredients. Think Yukon Gold potatoes, Montreal smoked beef and British Columbian salmon lox, followed by Fraser Valley chicken and Alberta steak at lunchtime. The preference for Canadian produce even extends to the drinks list, with a host of BC-made wines.
The correlation between cruise travellers and Rocky Mountaineer guests becomes ever more apparent, with the same focus on good food and stellar service to complement the experience. And what an experience it was, as we twisted and turned through sheltered valleys and across yawning gorges, watching the scenery transform from arid, undulating plains into slate-grey rockfaces and pine-forested peaks.
We passed over the vaulted arches of Stoney Creek Bridge, towering dizzyingly high above the rushing water. Then snaked along the shores of Kicking Horse River for several miles, marvelling at how it seems almost to glow bright turquoise thanks to the glacial meltwater flowing through.
Nature and industry go hand in hand every step of the way along this route, and no sooner had we finished gushing over the wonders of the natural world than we came across a wonder of engineering: the Spiral Tunnels. Ascending the Rockies is no mean feat, and the sudden increase in gradient in this section of the route proved treacherous for early 20th-century trains.
That’s when assistant engineer JE Schwitzer came up with the idea of carving two huge spiral tunnels out of the solid rock under Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain. The half-mile-long tunnels twist around inside the mountains and emerge 50 feet higher than where they started, offering a genuine thrill for rail buffs and novices alike.
Once navigated, the final stretch to Banff began, leaving time to scour the landscapes for any last wildlife sightings. It was in these exciting final few minutes that the call “Grizzly on the right” came over the speakers, as Jocelyn turned our attention to the fuzzy blob lumbering down the slopes.
But in truth, I spent this time reflecting on how much I’d seen in just two days, collecting a mass of individual views – each one more spectacular than the last – into one abiding memory. Like the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, travelling on the Rocky Mountaineer isn’t just an accumulation of snapshots of mirror-like lakes or rugged peaks, wondrous as they are.
It’s about letting the scenery swirl around you and settle in the mind until you can close your eyes, no matter where you are in the world, and imagine yourself back in the heart of the Rockies.
How to book a journey on the Rocky Mountaineer
A First Passage to the West journey in SilverLeaf starts at £1,043 and in GoldLeaf from £1,428, including overnight accommodation in Kamloops; departures run from April 25 until October. Rocky Mountaineer has also launched its first US route, From the Rockies to the Red Rocks, between Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah (rockymountaineer.com).
Agents and tour operators can package up a journey on the Rocky Mountaineer with an Alaska cruise and sightseeing tours including to Lake Louise, Maligne Lake, the Icefields Parkway and more.
Travelsphere offers a Rockies, Rail and an Alaskan Cruise holiday from £4,324 per person for 15 days, including a sailing on Holland America Line’s Volendam. Departures are available May to September 2022 (travelsphere.co.uk).