My first vivid rail memory was a childhood trip on the historic Amtrak Empire train that surged through the Hudson Valley from my home in upstate New York to New York City. My father made sure we sat on the right side of the train so we could watch the majestic Hudson River carve its slow circuitous path toward the open sea. The powerful throbbing of those large diesel engines and the slap of the iron wheels against the rails spoke to the romance in my young soul and made me a lifelong fan of train travel.
When I learned of the privately operated Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West,” a scenic train ride that linked the mile-high town of Banff, Alberta, with the port city of Vancouver, B.C., I knew this was a trip I had to take. Like the Empire, the Rocky Mountaineer is a journey to the sea. But unlike the monochrome and somewhat sedate Hudson, this ride takes you along a chain of raging wild rivers, each pouring into the next, eventually flowing into the mighty Fraser River and, finally, the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the glass-domed observation car treats you to a vivid parade of white-blue glaciers, towering craggy peaks, and deep lush-green valleys.
The Rocky Mountaineer offers a number of excursions, but the First Passage to the West is its flagship route. What makes this journey so fantastic is the terrain, specifically, the endless mountains of the Canadian West.
Come May, the trip becomes even more accessible to Puget Sound-area residents as service begins connecting Seattle to the Banff/Calgary train.
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Fly in to Calgary
To get the most out of this experience, I started my adventure in Calgary. Calgary is an eclectic mix of old cow town and new oil wealth. Brimming with great restaurants and countless summer festivals and events, it’s worth a look-see. It’s also a major airline hub, so this is your best option for finding cheap direct flights to the region.
From Calgary I rented a car and headed to Banff. First of all, driving out of the flat and sedate high plateau of Calgary into the jaws of the massive snaggletooth Canadian Rockies is awe-inspiring. Second, a rental car gave access to all that Banff has to offer, such as Lake Louise and the Athabasca Glacier.
After three days exploring Alberta, I woke early, drove to the rail station and joined the Rocky Mountaineer’s other eager passengers on the platform — the cool mountain air smelling of hot brewed coffee and sweet alpine dew.
A murmur rose from the crowd as the Mountaineer’s gleaming white headlamp appeared through the mist at the end of the track. Soon we could hear the thunder of the diesel engines and the powerful locomotive came into focus, the sun gleaming off its polished dark blue steel flank. Our carriage had arrived.
With rehearsed efficiency, the staff got us loaded into our glass-domed viewing car and this million-pound steel horse grunted and bucked into motion.
As we began our journey, I couldn’t keep pace with the spectacular alpine vistas that rolled by, one after another. After the initial excitement of departure, however, I finally settled into the rhythm of the voyage, enjoyed a warm croissant, and listened to our host unravel the history of this legendary route. He explained how this was the very first rail line that connected the east and west coasts of Canada. He went on to tell us of all the perils workmen faced carving a track through this wilderness: avalanches, rock slides, foul weather and harsh conditions.
Throughout the ride, the staff took turns explaining the significance and story behind each leg of our journey. One of the more remarkable of these stories was of the twin spiral tunnels that corkscrew through the mountain rock in order to decrease the steep grade of the track as it descends toward the sea — a trick borrowed from Swiss railway engineers.
And then you eat some more
As I pondered the hardships these early pioneers faced scratching through the cold mud and rain to lay these tracks, our host gently drew me back to the warmth and comfort of our cozy carriage with the gentle words, “Lunch is served.” Along with my fellow guests, I descended to the posh dining car with its white tablecloths, crystal glassware and fine cutlery, and enjoyed the other half of the Rocky Mountaineer story: luxurious travel.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a well-oiled machine both inside and out, and great service is one of the tenets. The pacing of the informative talks, wine and cheese tasting, elegant dining, and alone time leaves you constantly entertained and never overwhelmed.
And aside from a pleasant overnight break in the quaint mountain plateau town of Kamloops, B.C., the action never stops on this ride.
You know a good trip when you start mournfully counting the hours you have left to enjoy it. And so it was with the Rocky Mountaineer. The only saving grace was we were headed to Vancouver, one of my all-time favorite cities. To keep within the tradition of historic travel, I stayed at Fairmont’s downtown Hotel Vancouver, opened in 1939 by Canadian Pacific, the railway that built the tracks that brought me there.
Eric Vohr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.