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Parks Beyond Borders / Video Feature: Riding the Rails to Canada's Banff And Jasper National Parks
There are great national park train trips all over the world. One of the best is riding the rails to Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Swaying through the Canadian Rockies is as good as it gets—especially when the setting, service, and food are first-class. That’s what you get on the Rocky Mountaineer—but lower cost options make this a not-to-be-missed national park experience.
Taking this train is like being on a cruise. Both trains and ships suspend normal travel tasks as they isolate and immerse. But on a cruise, the scenery over the rail or off the balcony rarely changes unless you enter or leave a port of call. The Rocky Mountaineer is a land cruise that cocoons while engaging, ever-evolving scenery flashes all around.
Not Your Usual Train Trip
On many trains, graffiti-covered trash facing the railroad tracks seems to be "the “scenery." And a microwave meal is often the onboard menu choice. Imagine the opposite and you have the Rocky Mountaineer—or a ride on Canada's VIA Rail. (Don’t just imagine—watch the short video and set it on Hi-Def.)
This trip runs from Vancouver to the Canadian Rockies, splitting at Kamloops into two routes, one to northerly Jasper National Park, the other to more southerly Banff. Rocky Mountaineer routes also run to both parks from Calgary. These parks are global icons of scenery, preservation, and recreation. Understandably, Banff and Jasper and the Rocky Mountaineer are on many people’s “bucket list” of lifetime travel experiences.
For the stereotypical “world-class” train experience, the luxe GoldLeaf level of service on double decker dome cars (with wheelchair elevators) is the way to go. But Rocky Mountaineer offers three-classes of service—Gold, Silver (also dome cars, and new this year), and RedLeaf—so it’s accessible for many. RedLeaf is not GoldLeaf, but—you’re going to love Jasper or Banff whether you got there in a Subaru or a BMW, right?
The Rocky Mountaineer’s scenic appeal rivals the legendary scenic spots known for great railroads to or through parks—Japan, Scotland, Switzerland. When I took my Rocky Mountaineer adventure last fall, I was frenetically taking pictures until I realized—chill, this isn’t going to end.
It’s just beginning! Anywhere you look the scenery just gets better. Another cruise analogy—GoldLeaf service features an outdoor balcony where you can feel the wind in your face and really see the scenery up close (sorry, no smoking). Check out the video.
It is possible to just gaze endlessly out the window. These trains run from the coast to the peaks (or vice versa, including a start or end in Calgary), so you see a truly amazing transition of climates and ecosystems, including the almost Arizona-like semi arid beauty of Kamloops where you spend the night in a nice hotel (don’t worry—you do not sleep-away the scenery on this train!).
Rolling With The River
These Canadian rail routes run with the rivers, so world-class watersheds course just outside the window, powder blue and emerald green, through verdant evergreen forests below snow-capped peaks. The Vancouver route follows the Fraser River, one of the world’s great Salmon fisheries, through the tight, torturous gorge of the Fraser River Canyon pinched by Hell’s Gate. You’ll see fishing camps and salmon drying racks used by First Peoples fishers (Canada’s term for “Native Americans”). You won’t miss these fascinating vignettes, thanks to off and on interpretation over the PA system, often keyed to thoughtful slowdowns at spectacular sites (the video shows one at spectacular Pyramid Falls).
Food Comes First
This is railroad dining the old fashioned way—real chefs preparing Alberta and British Columbia-sourced produce, meats, and fish in a rolling restaurant-quality kitchen. Presentation, place settings, and service are four-star, the meals three-course, and menu choices are varied for a gourmet breakfast and lunch. Check out the video for a taste of the elegant atmosphere and to see how French executive chef Frédéric Couton and his custom kitchen cope with the challenges of creating cuisine on the rails.
Make a Loop or Take a Different Route
Whether you take the Rocky Mountaineer to Jasper or Banff, it’s possible to make the loop train tour. By taking the spectacular Icefields Parkway drive between the parks— either by renting a car (with a GyPSy guide interpretive system that plays through the car stereo) or taking mass transit—you can get back on the train at the second park and head back to Vancouver.
This is the Mountaineer’s nine-day Canadian Rockies Getaway package but you can do this yourself in a shorter time. It’s one among forty-five packages, including other routes that include Whistler (and even a cruise ship!). The packages are very diverse and range up to 24 days for elaborate explorations of the Rockies, so check the website. The basic two-day trip I took, from Jasper to Vancouver, costs about $2,000 for GoldLeaf service (June-October) and $1,800 (April-May). RedLeaf service is about $1,000 (June-October) and less than $900 (April-May).
More Frugal Options
There are smaller-budget options. The Canadian government’s VIA Rail was formed in 1978 to offer quality, cross-country passenger service. VIA Rail only runs through Jasper, but if you hop off there and take the Icefields Parkway journey south to Banff, you could complete the loop on Rocky Mountaineer for less cost. The route involves overnight travel (no hotel stay in Kamloops), but there's still plenty of scenery and luxe cabin accommodations that include meals range from about $600 to $1,500 (with cheaper options—search the website).Bottom line—pop on the websites for these trains and run the numbers. The options are many.
You can also make Rocky Mountaineer part of a transcontinental trip. Canada’s always been a favorite focus for train fans intent on long-distance travel and VIA Rail offers many options.
On my train trip, I met one of those folks—Jools Stone, a Brit from Edinburgh, Scotland who writes the lively Trains on the Brain blog. He’d taken VIA Rail from Toronto to Jasper, then switched to the Rocky Mountaineer to continue on to Vancouver (he could have gotten on in Calgary too). Jools said his entire journey had been great. (And of course, the really frugal could pause to explore Jasper, and Banff too with a rental car, and take VIA Rail the entire way.)
All-in-all—Rocky Mountaineer and VIA Rail offer a number of once-in-a-lifetime travel options when the national parks of the Canadian Rockies call. The irony for people from the United States? Our northern neighbor largely built these tracks to ensure Canada reached coast to coast before an American scheme could claim the area for the States!
No national parks are nearby but the Rocky Mountaineer’s overnight stop in Kamloops surprises. The coast and the Rockies get all the press but this place looks like a Canadian Scottsdale with great year-round outdoor recreation. Its un-Canadian climate zone runs south to the US border through British Columbia’s enticing Okanagan Valley wine region (the source for wines served on the train).
Kamloops makes the most of its opportunity to host the train’s worldwide travelers. Locals are friendly, ready to tout their town, and help you enjoy it. There are dining sites and after-dinner offerings for train guests, but unscripted options include memorable Hoodoos Restaurant where great food meets a spectacular view of the valley from the Sun Rivers golf community. (Hoodoos are geological feature you see here and in many arid landscapes where tall, thin spires of rock rise above bottomland.)