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Rocky Mountaineer rounds Seton Lake
Rocky Mountaineer

Taking the Train to Now Aboard the Rocky Mountaineer

“It’s so beautiful, it makes me want to cry.”

The woman standing next to me on the train’s outdoor platform doesn’t break eye contact with the lake as she speaks. And, after a brief glance to make sure she’s talking to me, neither do I. We both sway along with the rhythm of the Rocky Mountaineer on its journey between Vancouver and Banff and look on in silence as the wilderness cascades past us.

People are graced with three types of tears: workday keep-your-eyes-blinking tears, no-nonsense reflex tears that wash away irritants like pollen, and these—the ocular steam vent for emotions that boil over.

And the woman standing beside me on the train is right: This kind of beauty needs an outlet. The chilly morning air is sweet with the scents of pine and lake mist. A bald eagle eyes us from its sprawling nest as we sweep by. As we follow the languid curve of the tracks along the shores of British Columbia’s Shuswap Lake, admiring the blue water doubling the mountains with mirror-like accuracy, it’s clear that susceptibility to beauty is an ideal human weakness.

The Rocky Mountaineer Experience

The Rocky Mountaineer is a glass-dome sightseeing train that weaves four routes through Western Canada’s most exceptional scenery. I’m on the First Passage to the West route between Vancouver and Banff; there’s also the Vancouver-Jasper Journey Through the Clouds, the Seattle to Jasper or Banff Coastal Passage, and the Rainforest to Goldrush route, which connects Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler.

Unlike more traditional passenger trains, Rocky Mountaineer operates all-daylight train journeys. On these two- and three-day trips, passengers disembark in the evening to sleep in a hotel and then continue the next morning; to travel in darkness would mean missing rivers, lakes, waterfalls, mountains, rainforest, and wildlife like bears, big-horned sheep, eagles, and elk. Since its launch in 1990, the Rocky Mountaineer has hosted more than two million passengers during its April-through-October seasons.

“When you’re on the train platform on the first morning, look around you. It’s an emotional moment for a lot of the passengers,” one Mountaineer devotee told me the night before I boarded. Though the trip’s high price tag (two-day packages starting at $1,579 CAD per person in Silver Leaf and $2,159 CAD per person in Gold Leaf) and overall experience puts it squarely in the luxury travel category, the Rocky Mountaineer is not just for the rich. This is a trip that people save for years—or even decades—to experience. In the post-dawn light, looking around the train station platform, I see it: families embracing, long-married couples holding hands, and everyone sparkling with excitement and posing for pictures. Everywhere I look, bucket lists overflow.

A ticket on the Rocky Mountaineer gets you a comfortable reclining seat in a sightseeing dome, elaborate breakfast and lunches highlighting locally sourced products, snacks and beverages (hot, cold, alcoholic, and non-alcoholic) served seat-side, and access to an outdoor viewing area. Gold Leaf and Silver Leaf, the two classes of service, offer slightly different experiences, most notably that Silver Leaf meals are served at your seat while in Gold Leaf, the bi-level car has a separate dining room.

But the star of the show—the endless views afforded by the dome windows of the train cars—is the same in both classes. Also standard aboard the Rocky Mountaineer are dedicated hosts in each car who bring warmth, humor, and serious storytelling chops to the journey.

Adventure Together

The Rocky Mountaineer follows many paths through the wilds of Western Canada, but its geographical heart is the town of Canoe, on a woman named Doris’ front porch. With her trademark double-armed wave, Doris has made a tradition of running to her front porch to welcome the train as it rambles past. For years, she has greeted every Rocky Mountaineer train along these tracks—waving at the train, of course, but also at the people aboard.

This train holds the population of a village, and we crowd toward the windows and wave back. The last car passes and Doris heads back inside to continue her day, while we, now feeling less like a group of individuals and more like a rolling township, continue our adventure together.

Somehow, that welcoming wave draws into focus two parallel experiences aboard the train. This sort of travel travel feels intensely personal as it clears space to just sit and watch, but it’s also a journey of community, most notably when it comes to the power of many eyes engaged in the singular quest for wildlife.

It’s afternoon on the first day when we get our first taste of crowd-sourced wildlife sightings. For hours, our hosts Pete and Anna have primed us for this moment—pointing out osprey and eagles, noting where we might catch a glimpse of big-horned sheep, and hinting at the possibility of a bear sighting. The atmosphere in the train car is jovial. The hosts serve drinks and distribute mid-afternoon treats; people are chatting, and the blue sky illuminates the dome like a halo. And then, from the back of the car, someone shouts: “A bear!”

We spring into action, jumping to the right side of the train with such enthusiasm it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t topple over. People search for movement on the bank of the river that runs below us. “A bear!” a second person shouts. More people gather, everyone is out of their seats, scanning for life. We spot something big and brown at the river’s edge, the excitement rising among us. And then, over the intercom, the calm, mildly amused voice of Pete, our host. “Cow. It’s a cow, ladies and gentlemen.”

We erupt in laughter; we’re riding the adrenaline high of possibility. We haven’t seen a bear, but have discovered that when we do see one—and we do eventually spot two black bears and a grizzly—we’ll be ready. When those first real sightings come, we’re a team, a single eye, and it’s full-carriage jubilation, like we’ve just won an Oscar.

The First Passage to the West: Eastbound

Nature nestles in close as the train weaves east. Trees grow a celadon tunnel around the tracks; leaves sometimes hang mere inches above the dome as we speed by. It feels more like a hiking trail than a road, and it makes me wonder, “Where is the road?”

As we follow one of the nine rivers we’ll encounter on the journey, I start to look for the highway, and eventually glimpse it on a ridge far above us. It’s a stark contrast: the railroad let Mother Nature do most of the heavy lifting in carving a path through the wild; the highway, balanced on the horizon, traces a trail of efficient passage and rights of way.

Leaving Vancouver, the land unfolded around us, from city to farmlands and then deep into the temperate rainforests of the Cascades, which seemed tall and close around us. But as we continue our voyage through valley and then into the next set of mountains, the Coastal Range, I revise my sense of scale upwards.

Day one was dedicated to an unhurried wending through forests and along the shores of grand inland lakes; day two is about the climb. The Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to navigate these tracks between Kamloops and Banff. We trace the path of the Kicking Horse River, whose milky turquoise waters are the first hint of the rock-flour magic that gives Western Canada’s glacial lakes—most famously Lake Louise—their almost-Caribbean glint.

The Rockies loom, first in front of us, and then all around as we begin our climb toward Banff. As we prepare for the two spiral tunnels that allow the train to gain serious elevation quickly but safely, our hosts tell the stories of the land around us, giving voice to the stories of the land that could so easily slip by unnoticed—from First Nations creation myths to the geologic trajectory of the Rockies. Then we’re in a tunnel, spiraling up with a barely perceptible lean, emerging both higher and oriented toward an entirely new alpine horizon.

A Low-Tech Journey to the Present

Train travel was once the height of technology. Now, it’s almost an antidote to it. Because most of the journey is so remote, Wi-Fi is spotty. Even the way we follow our progression is decidedly low-tech: A newspaper in each seat-back pocket tells the story of the route and offers maps and history tied to the mile markers visible every so often out the window. Within a few hours of departure, smartphones mostly disappear.

Bathed in cool sunlight, each moment offering a new view from my seat, I remember something I didn’t realize I’d forgotten: a time when living in the present was second nature. In the absence of portable screens, it was the only option. And on the Rocky Mountaineer, the present is expansive, and has been here all along.

I head down to the outside viewing area and discover the woman who wanted to cry in the face of all this grandeur standing at her post again, this time looking out across a blanket of forest that tumbles to the banks of a rapids-studded river. It’s not just the two of us out here this time, but she nods to me and makes space at the rail. I stand and watch, the silky spring air a blanket wrapping itself around me, the rapids churning below. And then, it happens: An osmosis of vision. Transfixed by the tumble of water against smooth stones, my eyes give back to nature.

It feels good, and it feels right, this moving at the pace of now.

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Christine Sarkis explored First Passage to the West as a guest of Rocky Mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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