Mid-morning on our first day comes a call from a fellow passenger seated further up the Rocky Mountaineer’s glass-domed observation car: “Bear!” It’s the moment everyone has been waiting for. Whether it’s a grizzly, brown or black bear doesn’t matter to the 70 people in our section of the train vying to catch a glimpse. People rise from their seats. They turn their heads left, then right, scanning British Columbia’s Fraser Valley countryside. A speck of black comes into view through an opening in the trees. It’s only a black dog. His owner, previously hidden, is walking him along a rail-side path.

For the passengers travelling along this historic railway system—one that helped create Canada—this journey is not about getting from Point A to Point B. Rather, it’s a chance to spot bears, beavers, bighorn sheep, elk and deer. And, it’s an opportunity to enjoy some of the country’s stunning scenery, including its majestic rivers and lofty mountains, that draws people to travel on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Day 1: Vancouver to Kamloops

I gather, bleary-eyed, with the rest of my group in the lobby of our Vancouver hotel at 6:30 a.m. Buses shuttle us through the still-quiet downtown arteries to the Rocky Mountaineer Station, located on Cottrell Street. The sounds of a grand piano and the excited chatter of passengers who have gathered here from all over the world, including England, Australia, China and the United States, fills the air.

We are about to depart on The First Passage to the West journey, a two-day train ride that will take us from Vancouver to Kamloops and— after an overnight stay in a hotel—to our final destinations, Lake Louise and Banff in neighbouring Alberta. This is one of three routes offered by Rocky Mountaineer, with the others travelling from Vancouver to Jasper, Alberta.

Photograph by Richard Jacyno/iStock

Just before our 8 a.m. departure, a whistle is blown and a bagpiper escorts us to our train car. I settle into my observation-level seat—complete with pillow and blanket—adjust the chair back and footrest, and watch out the window as we pull out of the station. Rocky Mountaineer staff line the platform, waving us off as the train begins winding its way alongside the Fraser River and out of the city.

The Rocky Mountaineer has two levels of service. GoldLeaf passengers—where I am seated—make the journey in a two-level car topped by a glassed-observation area. Below, there is a dining room and an outdoor viewing platform. SilverLeaf passengers ride in a single-storey car with oversized windows, reclining chairs and meals served seat-side.

Photograph courtesy of the Rocky Mountaineer

The call for breakfast sees passengers make their way down the stairs to the dining level to enjoy a menu of eggs Benedict with tarragon hollandaise, farm-fresh frittatas with smoked sausage and buttermilk pancakes. As our day progresses, we pass Hell’s Gate, where a canyon suddenly narrows to 35 metres, creating a torrent of rapids in the Fraser River, and the Jaws of Death Gorge, another whitewater area along the Thompson River. Later, making our way through Black Canyon, I am reminded of the TV show Westworld and its steam train that transports guests clad in period clothing to the wild-west town through a landscape of canyons and coulees covered in low sagebrush.

Arriving in my Kamloops hotel room that night, my bag, which I had tagged and left in my Vancouver hotel that morning, is waiting for me. I go to bed listening to the occasional whistle from passing freight trains in the distance.

Day 2: Kamloops to Banff

Hardly anyone wants to stay in the observation level on the second day of our journey. As the train climbs higher into the Rocky Mountains, the shutterbugs are drawn to the viewing platform, cameras and phones in hand, to capture those perfect images.

In the morning, we pass by Craigellachie, B.C., where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven into place in 1885— an important act in the building of Canada as a nation. I’m seated beside a woman from Ontario, who is married to a descendant of the CP engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming. She leans across me apologetically and takes a picture of the monument commemorating the event.

Photograph courtesy of the Rocky Mountaineer

Lunch is spent dining on dishes inspired by ingredients from the provinces the Rocky Mountaineer passes through on its three routes—appetizers like Okanagan sweet apple or candied salmon salads, and mains featuring roasted Alberta pork tenderloin. Throughout the meal, people wander between the dining car and viewing platform to watch as we pass waterfalls streaming almost vertically from the mountain tops. We soon travel through the eight-kilometre-long Connaught Tunnel, and— with a light snow falling—pass through Kicking Horse Canyon before entering the spiral tunnels of Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain.

Between Field, B.C., and Lake Louise, the train hits the highest point on our journey. At 5,300 feet, this is the Continental Divide. On one side, water flows into the Pacific Ocean, on the other into the Atlantic or Arctic oceans.

Photograph courtesy of the Rocky Mountaineer

As we descend toward the mountain town of Banff, another call goes out.

“Grizzly on the right,” the attendant tells us over the public address system. Everyone moves to the right side of the observation desk, catching a glimpse as the bear, located slightly up hill from the tracks, lumbers slowly between the pine trees.

For the next 30 minutes, it’s the talk of our train car as we chug the last few kilometres to the station in Banff. A passenger connects their phone to the sound system to play John Denver’s “Cold Nights in Canada.” Clear waters are laughing, they sing to the skies. The Rockies are living, they never will die. No one seems to care the song is about Jasper, not Banff.

The Rocky Mountaineer resumes service July 31, 2020. 

This article appears in the May 2020 issue of WestJet Magazine.