A journey through the magnificent Canadian Rockies is understandably atop many travellers’ to-do lists. Throughout this picturesque pocket of western Canada, you’ll find four national parks and three provincial parks that are absolutely bursting with native wildlife, soaring peaks, lush meadows, glacial lakes, roaring rivers and some of the quaintest mountain towns you’ll find anywhere in the world. While the winter sees this region transformed into the type of winter wonderland you thought only possible in snow globe, the summer is by far the most popular time to visit, owing to the lush fields of wildflowers that blanket the valleys in springtime, the countless hiking trails leading to breathtaking views and, of course, the chance to journey through the mountains on the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer.
Founded in 1990 as a family-owned business, Rocky Mountaineer provides scenic adventures throughout western Canada. Across three main routes — First Passage to the West, Journey Through the Clouds and Rainforest to Gold Rush — the train introduces passengers to some of the best sights in the Rockies while pampering them with on-board luxuries like incredible food cooked by talented chefs.
Just some of the breathtaking sights travellers will enjoy front-row seats to include Hells Gate, a thunderous section of the Fraser River caused by the sudden narrowing of cliff-line; Kicking Horse Pass, the high mountain pass that marks the border of British Columbia and Alberta; and Mount Robson, the tallest mountains in the Canadian Rockies. Through the train’s windows, passengers will also spy the Painted Bluffs, a multi-hued rock formation near Kamloops that is the result of thousands of years of erosion; Pyramid Falls, a 300-metre cascade located between Blue River and Valemount; and the Spiral Tunnels, a historic passageway through Cathedral Mountain that was a feat of early 20th-century engineering. In fact, Rocky Mountaineer is the only regularly scheduled passenger train that has the privilege of passing through these tunnels.
Additionally, the train also stops off at main towns and cities along the various routes, including Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Whistler, allowing travellers to combine their train journey with tours to key landmarks within the parks. As such you can split your time between adventuring around the Rockies on foot, and sitting back to admire the very best of this mountain range from your luxurious cabin.
Let’s start at the beginning with things to do in the coastal city of Vancouver. While Rocky Mountaineer runs in both directions, one of the most popular ways to experience the train is to begin in Vancouver and ensure the Rocky Mountains are the end destination.
Book-ended by the water and the mountains, there’s no shortage of activities here to keep you occupied if you want to arrive early ahead of your tour and uncover even more of Vancouver’s best to-dos. Hire a bike and cycle around the stunning sea wall at Stanley Park. Take the bus out to Deep Cove to walk up Quarry Rock and indulge in some deep fried treats at Honey Doughnuts & Goodies, a local favourite. Travel to the North Shore to stroll across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, or walk through the stunning Lynn Valley. You could also take the gondola up Grouse Mountain (or walk up via the Grouse Grind, if your legs are feeling up to it) and pay Grinder and Coola a visit. These two orphaned Grizzly bears have lived at the top of this mountain for years, and while your chances of seeing bears along your Rocky Mountain journey is rather high, Grouse Mountain offers a guaranteed sighting.
Explore the Garibaldi National Park
Those journeying along the Rainforest to Gold Rush route will have their first stop in Whistler, which lies within the Garibaldi National Park. While not yet in the Rocky Mountains (Whistler is still within the coastal mountain range), this park is absolutely stunning. There are numerous walks you can take from your base in Whistler, or simply spend some time in this world-famous resort itself. While known as an extremely popular snow sport destination, Whistler is just as bustling in the summer, not only due to its hiking trails but also its mountain biking opportunities. If you want to save your legs until you get to the Rockies, Garibaldi is also home to the Scandinave Spa, a beautiful array of hot springs set within the mountains.
If you’re journeying along either of the other two Rocky Mountaineer routes that don’t visit Whistler, consider hiring a car while in Vancouver to make the trip in your own time. Whistler is only two hours’ drive from Vancouver, and is reached along the spectacular Sea to Sky Highway, which winds along the banks of Howe Sound and visits the popular alpine town of Squamish.
Go Wine Tasting in the Okanagan
Both the First Passage to the West and the Journey Through the Clouds routes on the Rocky Mountain train through Canada stop at Kamloops, one of the biggest cities in central British Columbia. This city is located in the northern reaches of Canada’s Okanagan region, which is one of its biggest wine regions. Yes, despite its climate, Canada has a robust wine industry, and is known particularly for its ice wine, which is a dessert wine made from grapes that were frozen on the vine. As such, while in Kamloops, be sure to visit one of the local wineries for a tasting and to appreciate the area’s pretty hills. From here on out, the landscape is going to get much more rugged…
Hike to Lake Agnes Tea House
As far as glacial alpine lakes go, they don’t get much more beautiful than Lake Louise. Nestled within the Rocky Mountains just across the BC border into Alberta, Lake Louise refers to both the small alpine town Rocky Mountaineer stops at, and the turquoise waters next to which lies the castle-like Fairmont Lake Louise hotel. Take the time to stroll along the edge of the lake or hire a paddle boat to drift out into the water for a different perspective. If you feel up to it though, the trail up to the ‘Lakes in the Clouds’ is an extraordinary experience. This trail takes you high above Lake Louise to two other, much smaller alpine lakes, namely Lake Agnes and Mirror Lake. While the walk itself is delightful, the real pay off is getting to stop in at the Lake Agnes Tea House for a pot of tea and a baked treat. The views from here are simply stunning.
Look For Wildlife in Banff National Park
As Canada’s oldest national park, Banff is a treasure trove of natural wonders. The park is home to some 57 species of mammals and 265 species of birds, with visitors likely to see bald eagles, osprey, bighorn sheep, mule deer and elk, with a lucky few perhaps even spying black bears, Grizzly bears and moose. However – and this cannot be stressed enough – never approach the wildlife and NEVER attempt to touch them. Despite the tendency of deer and elk to wander into the town of Banff, these animals are still very much wild, and any attempt to get close to them could lead to injury and repercussions for the animal. As such, simply admire these beautiful creatures from a distance.
Naturally, Banff is also a hiker’s haven, with such must-visit trails including Tunnel Mountain, Sundance Canyon, Johnston Canyon and Sulphur Mountain, though this latter mountain also offers a summit gondola if you want to give your legs a break. If you do plan to do a lot of hiking while in the Rockies, the best time of year to do Rocky Mountaineer is during the springtime, when the native wildflowers will be in full bloom along countless trails.
Sample the Sights on the Way to Jasper
Another key destination for Rocky Mountaineer is the alpine town of Jasper. Jasper National Park may not be the biggest national park in Canada, but it is certainly the biggest in the Rocky Mountains, and therefore offers plenty of terrain to explore. First of all though, you’ll pass through Mount Robson Provincial Park, which is home to the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies — you guessed it, Mount Robson. Once you reach Jasper, you’ll have the chance to explore even more hiking trails, but one of the best experiences you can have here is to hop in a boat and cruise out onto Maligne Lake’s azure surface towards the Valley of the Gods, a most awe-inspiring journey that will dwarf you beneath the park’s towering mountains. If Jasper is your final destination in Canada, there is truly no better way to sign off your Rocky Mountain adventure.
Hero image: Rocky Mountaineer. Supplied.