We rarely take organized tours of areas. Instead we prefer to plan our own itinerary and timing. But once in a while, we sign up to be taken care of. What better place than in the Canadian Rocky Mountains? Instead of one of us driving or navigating, we could take a train and both relax and enjoy the scenery.
Banff to Vancouver 2-Day Trip
We had taken a train across Canada from the Rockies to the Pacific, long before there was a dedicated tourist train. We decided that it was about time to revisit that adventure but this time, in grand tourist class, via the Rocky Mountaineer.
We chose the two-day trip that goes from Banff to Vancouver. We spent the daylight hours on the train with an overnight stop at a hotel in the town of Kamloops.
The Trip Starts in Banff
After covid postponed the trip for 2 years, it finally was on again. We traveled to Banff (Alberta Canada) where we met up with the Rocky Mountaineer team. We are not sure if it was a staffing issue or poor planning. But we spent the evening before our train in a mandated poorly resourced check-in and ticket pick-up process that required an hour wait in line. Not a great start.
A bus picked us up the next morning at our Banff hotel to take us to our train (our luggage was taken directly to the evening’s hotel in Kamloops). While the process again seemed a little disorganized, once we were on the train, things smoothed out.
GoldLeaf Service Versus SilverLeaf Service
The Rocky Mountaineer has 2 levels of service. We chose the more expensive Goldleaf Service. This level provided:
- Two level in each train coach. Viewing seats are in the upper level with the lower level reserved for dining. SilverLeaf passengers are in one level and eat in their seats.
- The domes are tinted at roof level to protect from the sun (while also providing some interesting optical effects). We had virtually 360-degree views of the majestic mountains. SilverLeaf service has large side windows but not glass-domed roofs.
- When we want a breath of fresh air and unobstructed views, GoldLeaf passengers have access to private outdoor observation decks, versus one large shared deck for SilverLeaf.
- GoldLeaf leather seats are very comfortable recliners with footrests and heating elements if it gets cold.
Then there is the food. Although we didn’t see menus for other classes, our food service included breakfasts and lunches in the dining car and regular snacks served at our seats between meals. Breakfasts had a selection of six dishes, from cheese and spinach soufflé and eggs benedict to fruit plate and granola and fruit. Each of the four breakfasts that we sampled over the two days was properly cooked and quite good.
Lunch also offers a choice of six dishes including: healthy mushroom, grain, and vegetable-based power bowls; steelhead salmon; beef shortrib,s and a huge pork chop that was impossible for one person to eat.
We also had snacks at our seats. Snacks began with pre-breakfast pastries and progressed through trail and nut mixes. After lunch was a cheese course. Later we had a plate of spinach samosas.
And let’s not forget that passengers get unlimited beverages, including alcohol. We had a choice of six Okanagan Valley wines (not to speak of two additional Okanagan wines served with an afternoon snack of Canadian cheeses), BC craft beers and ciders, and a range of spirits and cocktails—all beginning at 9:30 AM!
The Main Event
Although we were impressed by the service and much (although certainly not all) of the food, we were here for the views. And the views, especially through the Rockies, Hell’s Gate, the Cascades, and the Pacific Range are magnificent. Except for those times when tall trees or tunnels blocked the scenery, these views are virtually non-stop. Even some of the tunnels have frequent open spaces which, when going around curves, provide views of the rest of the train as well as the spectacular volcanic-created, glacially-scoured mountains, lush forests, glaciers, rushing rivers, lakes, and gorges that made the construction of the tracks such a long, tortuous process.
Although staff provided commentary about each view, one could also track each site via trackside mile markers. The markers coordinated with a map in a 24-page tabloid that confusingly lists and describes a number of the primary sights. Several of its articles explain the history and building of the railway (completed in 1885), the gold rush, the histories of the First People, the role of the Chinese in building the railroad, the flora and the fauna that one sees along the route in different sections of the journey, and much more.
Day One: Banff to Kamloops
After being picked up from our hotel at 7:00 AM, we were taken to the train station, boarded and set off for a brief stop at Lake Louise to pick up more passengers. Our train car was divided into 2 shifts for breakfast on the first level of our coach car. This was followed by several hours of sightseeing, a two-shift lunch, and more sightseeing (not to speak of snacks and continual drink service).
Although we will spare readers most of the explanations and stories behind many of the sights, the first-day journey passes dozens of particularly impressive and interesting sights. These include:
- Lake Louise’s historic train station
- Continental Divide which we passed shortly after leaving Lake Louise;
- Seven rivers that we rode along and traversed over the day;
- Several tunnels including the Spiral Tunnels that require curves totally 290 degrees over their 6,200 feet of length to reduce the original grade from 4.5 percent to a safer two percent;
- Deep, majestically carved river gorges, such as the Kicking Horse Canyon and the Illecillewaet Valley.
- Columbia River and its dam-created lakes;
- Beaver Valley with its dramatic Tupper Falls and five-mile-long Connaught Tunnel which was built to reduce the threat of continual avalanches—especially one that killed 62 railway workers–in an area that gets 30-50 feet of snow per year;
- Stoney Creek Bridge which passes 495 feet over the Beaver Valley;
- Craigellachie where, in 1885, the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. This united the country and satisfied a key condition by which British Columbia, with is wedged between Washington State and Alaska, committed to becoming part of Canada, rather than the United States.
- Shuswap Lake, with about 1,000 miles of shoreline, is known as the houseboat capital of Canada.
Johnson plateau where the scenery changes from dense forests to dry sparsely treed landscapes.
We arrived in Kamloops (British Columbia) at about 8:30 PM due to a delay while we had to let a freight train use the train tracks. A bus took us to our hotel where our luggage was already in our rooms.
Kamloops was originally a native trading center. It became the first European fur trading post and home to a succession of forts beginning in 1812. It was also home to one of the country’s most notorious Residential Schools which tore young indigenous children from their families to be “Westernized”. The last of these schools was finally closed in 1996 after discoveries of children buried in mass graves–including 215 at the Kamloops school.
Due to the delay in arrival, our “exploration” of the 90,000-person city was limited to a brief walk through downtown and the next morning, a bus ride from the hotel to the train.
Day Two: From Kamloops to Vancouver
The second day of the trip is very different but equally rewarding. Our route began in a hot, dry, desert-like environment (the Kamloops area is one of Canada’s warmest and driest regions) with few trees, sparse grasses, and plenty of sagebrush. The area next to the hoodoo-lined shoreline of the large Kamloops Lake has only slightly more vegetation. But while the land may not seem particularly inviting to us, the bighorn sheep, eagles, and osprey seem to be right at home. This includes the osprey family that has used and continued to expand the same nest for more than 100 years.
Among the more interesting sites were:
- Ashcroft, one of the country’s driest spots with about 10 inches of precipitation per year. It is also home to the country’s largest open-pit copper mine which, in its heyday, produced 4% of the world’s copper.
- Jaws of Death Gorge and Avalanche Alley. Here, the churning waters of the Thompson River cut narrow, steep-walled channels that make them some of the most challenging whitewater rafting locations in the country with 5+-rated rapids.
- Rainbow Canyon, where mineral deposits including copper, iron, and sulfur create canyon walls with bands of green, orange, red and yellow;
- Boston Bar is the site of Canada’s 1850 Gold Rush. It drew veterans of the California Gold Rush, followed by Chinese who sought to pick up what the Americans left behind. The subsequent, larger 1860 Gold Rush was significantly further north in Cariboo and especially Barkerville. That rush drew prospectors from around the world—significant numbers of whom stayed to work in industries such as ranching and logging.
- Hell’s Gate is the steepest, deepest, most treacherous stretch of the Fraser Canyon. The swift, 200 million gallons per minute of water flows through the narrow gorge. The carved sheer walls reach up to 2,000 feet above the river. An interesting note: Although the 850-mile Fraser River is relatively short (only the tenth longest of Canadian rivers), its tributaries are the largest sources of salmon in the world.
- Hope, in the center of the Cascade mountain range, marks the entry into the Fraser Valley. This is one of the country’s most fertile and productive agricultural regions, growing about half of the country’s produce.
- Logruns along the Fraser River that are still used to store timber.
- Coastal Range can be seen in the distance over Fraser River.
- Port Mann Bridge is a $2.46 billion, 10-lane bridge that spans the Fraser River. It was the widest cable-stay bridge in North America prior to the rebuilding of the Eastern span of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.
Overall, Day 2, while interesting, was a bit of a letdown from Day 1. The views were somewhat less dramatic. More importantly, many views, including of premier sites like Hell’s Gate, are often limited or even fully blocked by trees.
Our trip ended in the beautiful city of Vancouver. A bus took us to our hotel where we planned to stay for several additional days in one of our favorite Canadian cities.
Hints For If You Go on the Rocy Mountaineer
- Yes, it is expensive. Whether it is worth the money depends on your expectations.
- To us, the GoldLeaf upgrade service was worth the extra money. The upstairs seating gives you a spectacular view. The leather seats are very comfortable, an important consideration as you are going to be sitting in them for 16 hours over 2 days! And let’s face it, it isn’t something you are going to do every year.
- Seats are pre-assigned and not every seat is in a prime location. Those persons seated by the bar area or in the emergency exit seats were not as happy with their location. But you can go out onto the open deck if you want.
- The train staff (at least on our train) did a great job of keeping us engaged and providing information.
- The food was good. Not great, but good. We were continually told that we would not go hungry. Honestly, we would have liked a few more snacks during the day. But no, we were not hungry.
- Yes, alcohol and beverages are free-flowing and part of the price.
- Most of the passengers on our train were older (as are we). This is expected due to the price and the ease of travel. We enjoyed the opportunity to chat with others at the lunch and to get travel hints. But if you are looking for any exercise, this is not for you.
- Have patience. The train had to wait for some freight trains that had priority, which put us a little behind schedule. And, some of the staff seem to still be in training, although they tried hard. Fortunately, our trip did not have any weather or fire issues, but other reviewers have complained about issues that seem to be beyond the train’s control.