Why the Rocky Mountaineer is the Best Way to Explore the Canadian Wilderness

The best way to travel across Canada
The best way to travel across Canada | Rocky Mountaineer

Join us as we take a scenic journey from Vancouver to Lake Louise on one of the most iconic train routes in the world. The Rocky Mountaineer has become a bucket list travel entry for many, and here’s why you won’t find many more pleasurable experiences on your North American adventures.

Rail trips are booming in popularity again. One of the oldest modes of transport fell out of fashion for decades and the romanticized vision of fine dining carriages adorned with well dressed passengers was a thing of the past. Images from murder mystery novels and Sunday afternoon films were juxtaposed with the reality of creaking commuter trains heaving with miserable city workers desperate to get to their destination without delays. I’ve done the rat race myself, in a previous career, and even now there’s a palpable sense of dread that descends when I think back to getting to the station early in the morning.

Not your average commuter route…

The mundane journeys remain, but it’s the pleasure travel business surrounding rail that has seen a spike in interest. Justifying short-haul flights when greener, cleaner and cheaper alternatives exist has become a difficult exercise. Sleeper trains are taking over routes that you would usually fly or drive to, and luxury trains are also on the comeback trail.

I’ve taken a few more budget options when traveling around Europe in my teens or when visiting family in India, but when the chance to take a trip on The Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Lake Louise on the first departure of the year presented itself, I punched my own ticket to get on board!

Things to do in Vancouver

I started my journey in Vancouver and opted to spend a few extra days here to reacquaint myself with the city and to get over the jetlag from London. I was here two decades ago and remember enjoying a lot of the main attractions, but this time I wanted to do something a little different.

Vancouver Art Gallery from the Law Courts in Downtown Vancouver

British Columbia’s largest city is a vibrant, urban centre famed for its stunning ocean and mountain setting, mild climate and relaxed, outdoorsy lifestyle. Tucked into the province’s southwest corner just north of the United States border, this modern seaside city is consistently ranked among the best places in the world to live or to visit, thanks to its culture, shopping, dining and friendly west coast vibe.

I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, also known as ‘The Castle in the Sky’. The location is ideal for exploring as you’re in the heart of Downtown and within walking distance of many attractions like Stanley Park and the famed aquarium. Vancouver is actually a great walking city, so pack some cody shoes and its also great for food with a recent Michelin Guide distinction highlighting great cuisine. I was actually after some comfort food after waking up from a very enjoyable night’s rest and so headed to the best poutine place I could find and had some filling local dishes.

Head to Capilano Suspension Bridge and you’ll find a series of walkways and treetop attractions that are a great way to start any journey

Armed with a list of things to see and do, as well as a Vancouver attractions pass, I set off away from the coast and towards the trees. I stopped off at the aquarium for a short while and then caught a free shuttle bus to an attraction I had been keen to experience ever since I saw pictures of it.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is a 25 minute drive from Downtown but feels like a different world. For me, it actually was one of many firsts as it was also my first time stepping into a rainforest. The wilderness was invigorating in itself, and I was expecting much more further into my journey, but for now I was able to take in the park and its elevated walkways that give you an incredible view of the region. Crossing the bridge was a good way to check I was over my childhood cases of mild vertigo (thankfully I made it) and the park has become a popular spot for all ages. My tip is to get here early to avoid the crowds and to also check out everything on offer. I saw some visitors cross the bridge and head straight back to the exit, all the while missing out on the treetop routes and viewing platforms further away from the obvious locations.

Right, with a full day of adrenaline-fuelled adventure behind me, it was time to head back to the hotel and prepare for the main event.

The Rocky Mountaineer Experience

Rocky Mountaineer travelling across Stoney Creek Bridge on the First Passage to the West Route

The Rocky Mountaineer is an end-to-end experience like no other. My luggage was picked up from my room as all I could carry on the train with me was a small bag. The trip I was on was the First Passage to the West, and would include an overnight stay in Kamloops. The final stop was Lake Louise and so I joined the other passengers on an early coach to the station in Vancouver to start my trip.

When I first caught a glimpse of the train I was in awe. The sheer size of the thing was impressive, although along the journey our excellent hosts Matt and Karmen would point out that other trains we passed were even longer, some clocking in at over a mile in length!

Speed and size, therefore, are not what the Rocky Mountaineer specialises in. For reference my bags, along with all those of my fellow travellers, were actually on a truck heading to our first stop. It is quicker to drive this route than take the train, but where exactly is the fun in that?

With incredible scenery starting to reveal itself as we left Vancouver and one of the comfiest seats I’ve ever sat in, I settled in for several ours of relaxation with the only interruption being a breakfast and lunch service in the dining floor below. Executive Chef Kaelhub has put together a series of dishes that make the most of local ingredients and Canadian heritage. You won’t want for food or beverages as the team will regularly make sure you have everything you need.

The Goldleaf seats on the Rocky Mountaineer come complete with reclining seats and a viewing dome above

The dome above allows for clear views of the mountains, lakes, rivers and wildlife from every angle. There’s also a viewing platform that will give you even more ways of taking endless pictures. My phone was full of images by the end of the first day, so I was glad I had a break in the evening to try and do some editing.

There is a layer of opaque filtering on the top of the dome that can be controlled by the train hosts and manager to make sure it never gets too hot onboard. Even though it was still snowy outside in April as I got on my carriage, the blazing sun was intense.

We actually had a great guide talking us through the entire journey at key points, and Matt actually made sure I was in the perfect position to take the photos I needed (actually, wanted) to catalogue my journey.

Viewing platform on the Rocky Mountaineer

I was on the Goldleaf service, but having had a peak at the slightly cheaper Silverleaf carriages, its all different levels of luxury that you won’t regret paying for. As an introduction to travelling by train and not having to use a student discount, this wasn’t a bad way to start.

We arrived in the small town of Kamloops in the early evening just as the sun was setting. You could opt to go to a local bar or restaurant here once you’ve checked into your room (and yes my luggage was waiting for me in my room), but be warned that it is an early start again on the second leg of the trip. I was able to grab a quick bite, set the alarm and nod off in no time.

Day two starts in a similar fashion to you first one. You leave all you big bags behind, take what you need for the day onboard and get on a short ride to the station. This time coffee and pastries were waiting for us and we were off again for an arguably more spectacular day heading right into the Rocky Mountains.

There are more highlights on this leg to enjoy than on the previous day, and now feeling like a pro I was able to bide my time and enjoy the experience even more. You’ll get to know you passengers well over the course of the trip, and its a great way to meet people from all over the world with a shared interest in rail travel. Getting off the train and heading to Lake Louise’s spectacular Fairmont Hotel, I was sad to say my goodbyes. Not everyone stays in the same place here, and some continue on to Banff a few minutes away, so it was the end of this part of the journey.

Explore more of Canmore

As much as I wanted to stay on in Lake Louise, I felt I had to try somewhere else. Many years ago, I had stayed here whilst working as a film journalist and covering the release of The Revenant (2015) which was filmed in various locations across Alberta.

Do you recognise this Setjetting location?

Another destination that has become popular with Setjetters had caught my eye and I was off to explore somewhere new.

Around an hour’s drive from Calgary International Airport is Canmore, in the heart of Kananaskis country, is an easily accessible although surprisingly less well-known area of the great Canadian Rockies. The charming small town is all about the outdoors with its incredible mountain backdrop and unspoiled wilderness location. There are endless opportunities to explore by foot, bike or on the water, with guided tours or solo on well-marked trails. There are over 70km of multi use trails within the town and Roam Transit is also free to everyone within the town of Canmore.

Checking into The Malcolm I went looking for a specific spot that has recently been featured in HBO’s The Last of Us series. Canmore Engine Bridge is short trek from Downtown, which itself is only a few minutes from the hotel. The town is small, but it really packs in a lot. As well as the bridge and Main Street, both of which were used in the series, you can try a brewery tour and fantastic food bike experience which will show you more of the region and fill your belly. The e-bike tour is suitable for most levels and the only thing you have to worry about is over-indulging on the local cuisine.

Finally, to end my Canadian adventure I went on a Canadian Rockies Experience to see the Kananaskis I remembered from my previous visit. The experiences can be tailored to your schedule, so I was able to get dropped off at the airport after a day of hiking. Still no bears, but I think I had seen more than enough to make this an unforgettable trip already.

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