Editor’s Intro: Traveling by train is a romantic way to visit the world's national parks. I'm Randy Johnson, Traveler's travel editor, and I recently wrote about the experience of riding the Rocky Mountaineer (see that feature and video), a luxe Canadian train that makes world-class train trips to Jasper and Banff national parks from Vancouver and Calgary.
That's just the start. Canada's VIA Rail runs from one end of the country to the other. By itself, or with Rocky Mountaineer, this cross-country rail ramble offers easy access to countless national parks, historic sites, and marine reserves. Many are close to the rails (see sidebar below). That's nice—but what would that transcontinental trip be like? And what parks could you visit?
On the Rocky Mountaineer, I met British train writer Jools Stone who’d taken VIA Rail to Jasper then rode Rocky Mountaineer to Vancouver. Here’s Jools' revealing review of crossing Canada. The sidebar below highlights parks to visit and offers planning resources. (UK English spellings have been retained to respect the voice and reflect the atmosphere of Jools' writing.)
Last autumn, I had the great pleasure of travelling across Canada by train from Toronto to Vancouver and spending time in one of the world's premier national parks on the way. This allowed me to compare two great rail services that offer memorable access to parks: VIA Rail & the Rocky Mountaineer.
My journey started with VIA on board their excellent service The Canadian. This goes all the way to Vancouver in 4 nights, but I stopped off at Edmonton after 3, where I met the esteemed travel editor of this very site at the Canadian GoMedia conference. After a number of days exploring Jasper National Park, I switched to the Rocky Mountaineer.
It's worth saying that Rocky Mountaineer and VIA Rail are very different types of experiences. A lot depends on how you like to travel and what your expectations are. VIA Rail is the national operator, Rocky Mountaineer is very much the quintessential tourist train catering for an upscale, international group of visitors, so they do differ a fair amount in certain respects. Both are truly great railway experiences though—and each can make parks a big part of the trip.
"Unstandard" Service on VIA
Perhaps surprisingly to some—VIA offers a comparable standard of service to the decidedly fancy Rocky Mountaineer. The food quality was very high indeed, which surprised me. Pretty much gourmet fare with enough variety from meal to meal, decent wines on offer too. These cost extra but all the food comes inclusive with your ticket, and there are sampling sessions held daily, taking in wines, beers, canapes and other local delicacies, plus on the first night we got a welcoming glass of 'champagne' and petit fours, which was a really nice touch. You get a 3 course meal, 3 times a day if you want it, and if you can rouse yourself early enough for their breakfast sittings!
Then there's the accommodation options to factor in. I spoilt myself rotten in a 3-berth family room on The Canadian, more than ample for one or even two. It had its own en suite toilet (with one surprisingly good shower per train car) and some nice touches, such as lots of storage space and lovely retro stainless steel ceiling fan and sink taps. Not everyone can sleep that well on board a train—I can't say I do—but I still love the experience of waking up in the middle of night in some wilderness with an endless freight train rattling past outside.
This is probably the biggest difference between the two companies. As you know from Randy’s article and video on the Rocky Mountaineer, you don't sleep on board but are transferred to a nice downtown hotel for the night in Kamloops. Some will prefer this no doubt, but to my mind it makes the experience a little less special.
On VIA's journey, you cover much more vast distances and stops are rare, one or two a day at most, usually for just 20 minutes or so just to stretch your legs. You do get a few hours in Winnipeg, and well, that's probably ample there... The Rocky Mountaineer doesn't stop until you reach your destination for that day, after a 12-hour journey.
Trans-Country versus Tourist Train
The Rocky Mountaineer is a dedicated to tourists, no doubt about it. Part of the package are the announcements made throughout the journey, pointing out various sights on the way. After a while I found them a little too persistent and grating to be honest, especially with the incredibly perky, sing songy voices the staff tended to have! Again VIA's train isn't designed exclusively for tourists, and if you're an independent traveller it's all the better for it. You get the odd announcement, but a good chunk of their passengers are students and ordinary Canadians visiting family etc, so it's a different vibe. It's a more communal experience, you dine with your passengers, hang out in the bar and get to know them a little. On the Rocky Mountaineer, you're served at your seat or downstairs in the dining car area and apart from the regular photo sorties made to the outdoor caboose (which I have to say is possibly the ace up the Rocky Mountaineer's sleeve) you've little reason to wander.
Of course the scenery is phenomenal and so diverse. That's the main thing that struck me, how it can change so radically in a matter of hours. It's worth pointing out too that VIA's Canadian follows the exact same route as the Rocky Mountaineer does on its Jasper- Vancouver trip, though of course there are two dozen other itineraries to pick from with the Rocky Mountaineer (some are very expensive, but they include all costs for a few weeks of unbelievable touring and travelling). Luckily, VIA Rail also has its own list of special packages and prices that can be aimed at national park or other experiences.
Nice Touches, Two Trains
There are some very nice touches on the Rocky Mountaineer too. I liked the little newspaper with the map that points out things to see along the way and gives a bit of history. And the between meals snacks and aperitifs were lovely. The customer service really was faultless, I have to admit. It's like a five star resort on wheels.
So really, while it's hard to compare the two—in a way they're apples and oranges—VIA's service would get my vote personally. But it all boils down to what sort of traveller you are - if you like being pampered and guided the whole way and sleeping in comfy hotel beds, the RM is definitely a wonderful experience and one you're not likely to forget in a hurry. But if you're the more traditional national parks person, where atmosphere isn't always about over-the-top luxury, VIA Rail is a perfect platform for putting parks and Canada in the same unforgettable experience.
I'm very lucky to have tried both and I urge everyone to add crossing Canada by train to their ultimate national parks travel wishlist!
Jools Stone is a freelance travel journalist and copywriter from Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his rail travel adventures - in Canada and beyond - on both his blogs: Trains on the Brain and Charter Trains
Where to Stop, Why, and How?
Want to check out Parks Canada's rail planning materials? Click here to download a guide to dozens of parks near railroad stops. This Parks Canada's rail planning site also contains downloads of diverse regional brochures that point at rail accessible parks and historic sites. Julie Cossette, of Parks Canada, says, "Many of our parks are located along the VIA Rail routes, especially national historic sites on the Montreal-Windsor corridor, in Quebec City and in Atlantic Canada."
Any glance at the map will show that the red-marked historic sites are plentiful, and the green-marked national parks are plentiful too. "If your focus is on national parks, Jasper is for sure number one," she says.
Here are her suggestions for the best places not too far from the rails:
Forillon, Gaspé, QC
La Mauricie, Shawinigan, QC
St. Lawrence Islands, Kingston, ON
Point Pelee, Windsor, ON
Riding Mountain, MB
Elk Island, Edmonton, AB
Gulf Islands, from Vancouver BC
Gwaii Haanas, from Prince Rupert, BC