Discovering the Canadian Rockies by Rail

It’s been 30 years since luxury train company Rocky Mountaineer embarked on its first journey through the Canadian Rockies, but as you gaze out through the oversized and glass-dome windows of the train’s coaches into the surrounding wilderness, it’s clear the pristine landscapes of Western Canada haven’t changed at all.  

Departing from either the stunning port city of Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.) on the West Coast, or from Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Rocky Mountaineer travels only by daylight, exploring three rail routes. The views differ by rail route and destination, but you can expect to travel through temperate rainforests, along rushing rivers and glacier-fed lakes, and witness some of the most remarkable mountain ranges in North America.

There’s a reason more than two million guests have travelled on this luxurious train since it launched in 1990 – it’s well known for delivering more than just scenery. Guests rave about the exceptional service and rich commentary provided by its Hosts, and the delectable meals served onboard. It is also an ideal journey for cruisers. If you’re considering an Alaska cruise from Vancouver, you can add a Rocky Mountaineer train journey as an extension. The company partners with Holland America to offer Rail and Cruise packages, but you can also work with your travel advisor to curate this experience in combination with the cruise line of your choice. In addition, many cruise lines offer Rocky Mountaineer as part of their land tour program, including Cunard Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, and Viking Cruises.

Rocky Mountaineer traveling along its First Passage to the West rail route.

Rocky Mountaineer: Choose Your Own Adventure 

With the touches of luxury, comfort, indulgence, and adventure found on Rocky Mountaineer (which operates between April and October), the train experience has much in common with a cruise. Each train journey can also be combined with local tours and activities so you can easily extend your trip and explore even more of Western Canada. Pairing this with an Alaska cruise means you’re combining two vacations into one unforgettable experience.

A cruise ship docked in Vancouver, B.C.’s downtown harbor.

You can also choose between two levels of service – GoldLeaf Service and SilverLeaf Service. In GoldLeaf Service, relax in a bi-level rail car with glass-dome windows, and enjoy freshly prepared meals in the lower-level dining area. Delicious dishes are created by chefs onboard and feature a selection of regionally inspired dishes, including Fraser River salmon, Alberta beef, and wines from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. GoldLeaf Service cars also offer an outdoor viewing platform and multiple Hosts to make sure that you’re well looked after. And like a cruise, you’ll never go hungry.

In SilverLeaf Service, the scenery, attentive service and spaciousness of the train’s coaches are the same, but you’ll enjoy them both on a single-level rail car with oversized windows. Meals are served by your seat, so you’ll never miss a moment of what’s happening outside. 

An onboard Host in a GoldLeaf Service rail car shares stories about the region.

First Passage to the West 

Soak in phenomenal landscapes and learn a lot about Canadian rail history on Rocky Mountaineer’s popular rail route, First Passage to the West, a two-day train journey that travels  between Vancouver and Lake Louise or Banff in Alberta. In fact, Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to travel along this historic rail route. 

Heading east from Vancouver, follow the mighty Fraser River, and pass Hell’s Gate, where the water crashes through rapids, making its way through a passage as narrow as 110 feet. Pass desert-like landscapes along the Thompson River towards Kamloops, B.C., where you’ll overnight in a hotel before getting back on the train the next day. 

Rocky Mountaineer traveling past Vermilion Lakes near Banff, Alberta.

Between Kamloops and Lake Louise/Banff, the train climbs as it nears the Canadian Rockies. See Craigellachie, B.C., where the “Last Spike” was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886, linking the western province to the rest of Canada by rail. Rivers and lakes take on different hues and mountain peaks grow taller. Travel along the Kicking Horse River, and through the Spiral Tunnels, an incredible feat of human engineering. Once in Banff National Park, glide through the Vermilion Lakes and past Castle Mountain (so named for its resemblance to a castle’s ramparts and towers) before reaching your destination. 

Rocky Mountaineer passing the rugged peaks of Castle Mountain.

Lake Louise is best known for its namesake, a vibrantly turquoise, glacier-fed lake. It sits just below Victoria Glacier, which provides the “rock flour” that is carried into the lake, reflecting light in a way that leads to the stunning color. Spend a day exploring both the lake and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which first opened as a chalet in 1890. Just a 40-minute drive east, Banff provides a host of quintessentially Rockies experiences including the Banff Gondola, with endless views from the top of Sulphur Mountain, walks or raft excursions along the Bow River, day tours, museums and galleries, spas and Banff Upper Hot Springs, plus great dining opportunities.

Canoes at Lake Louise, in Banff National Park.

Journey through the Clouds 

There’s no shortage of ocean, valley, and mountain views on the rail route Journey through the Clouds, a two-day train journey that travels between Vancouver and the charming mountain town of Jasper, Alberta.

Traveling east from Vancouver, you enjoy the same highlights on Day 1 as First Passage to the West, while Day 2 brings new surprises as you travel from Kamloops, B.C., northeast to Jasper. Like Banff National Park, Jasper National Park is a part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On this leg of the journey, you’ll see Pyramid Falls—a waterfall best seen by this train—and view the monumental snow-capped peak of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Jasper is also a “Dark Sky Preserve,” making it a great place for stargazing. On cold, clear nights you may even catch sight of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. 

Pyramid Falls, as seen on the Journey through the Clouds rail route.

Rainforest to Gold Rush

If you want to truly “see it all” and spend more time on the train, the Rainforest to Gold Rush rail route is a three-day train journey that travels a northerly path between Vancouver and Jasper. The first day takes you through rainforests and along Howe Sound and Cheakamus Canyon, towards the mountain resort of Whistler, B.C., where you’ll overnight in a local hotel. On Day 2, marvel at Seton Lake, the Fraser River Bridge and a huge diversity of landscapes. Spend the night in Quesnel, B.C. before journeying on towards the majestic Mount Robson and Jasper on Day 3. Along the way, hear about the incredible gold rush history of “The Cariboo” – the region that extends between Clinton and Quesnel, as the onboard Hosts bring this region to life with stories and history.

Rocky Mountaineer traveling across the Fraser River on the Rainforest to Gold Rush rail route.

Since Rocky Mountaineer travels at an average speed of 50 mph, you’ll always be able to get that perfect photo. Expect to hear announcements of a “roll by”: the opportune moment (and slowing of the train) where you can ready yourself for the view. And if you’re lucky along the way, you just may catch a glimpse of soaring bald eagles, elk, deer, bighorn sheep or, especially in spring and autumn, a black or grizzly bear.


Elk along the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park.

No matter which journey you choose, the Canadian Rockies are a must-see wonder of the world, and it’s never been easier to combine this luxurious train experience with your cruise plans to create an unforgettable trip of a lifetime.