Exploring the Canadian Rockies by Rail

By, George Balogh, Blue Skies Travel, East Greenbush, NY

canadian rockies
Beautiful turquoise waters of the Moraine lake with snow-covered peaks above it in Banff National Park of Canada

Exploring the Canadian Rockies is known to many as a must-do vacation and one that my wife and I had the opportunity to cross off our wanderlist last year. Beauty abounds throughout this majestic place with awe-inspiring vistas showcasing nature’s most beautiful aspects with sparkling lakes, snowy mountains, and local wildlife at every turn.

We mapped out our trip to include an arrival in Vancouver for a few days, followed by two days on the Rocky Mountaineer train, one night in Lake Louise and the final night in Banff, our goal being to experience a combination of R&R mixed with some adventure. We were preparing for a half marathon at the time, so were fortunate to find some amazing runs along the way!

Our trip began with a stay at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver, a desirable location along the city’s dynamic harbourfront. This bustling area of Vancouver is home to the vast 1,000 acre Stanley Park, which is considered the soul of the city. Explore beautiful gardens, along with the diverse selection of restaurants along the parks waterfront, or enjoy the Gastown area which abounds with local brews and historic Victorian charm.

Our stay in Vancouver included an excursion to Grouse Mountain, a refuge for endangered wildlife where we rode the gondola to the summit to have Breakfast with the Bears. This neat attraction invites guests to have an up close look at resident grizzlies, Grinder & Coola, as they enjoy their morning feeding. Both were rescued cubs and have lived on Grouse Mountain ever since. In addition to these orphaned grizzly bears, Grouse Mountain is also home to retired movie star wolves, rare birds and more.

The next morning, we took an early shuttle to the Rocky Mountaineer rail station where we started our journey along this historic route. The Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train operating in Western Canada, is one of the best ways to see all that this part of the world has to offer. Connecting Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies, this train takes you on a journey alongside rivers, through quaint mountain towns, and within arms reach of stunning, craggy snowcapped peaks. Along the way, you will have a frontrow seat to fleeting wildlife, including moose, elk, bighorn sheep, bear, and soaring eagles.

Our route was titled the First Passage to the West, which travels from Vancouver to Kamloops on day one, and from Kamloops to the Lake Louise and Banff region on the second day. History came alive as we traveled the rail route that united Canada as a nation more than 130 years ago. From lush rain forests, through the semi arid desert, alongside the powerful Kicking Horse River, and into the Rocky Mountain towns of Lake Louise and Banff.

Traveling through Western Canada’s most remarkable attractions, the Rocky Mountaineer trip includes vistas of national parks, quaint valleys, and tranquil lakes. The train travels only by daylight, so we didn’t miss a moment of the beautiful scenery. On the one overnight that was part of our package, we stayed at a hotel in Kamloops so we could explore a bit of the destination before boarding the train the following day. Kamloops is a riverside city with fantastic restaurants, local pubs, and a serene park. After the train pulled in at 4:30PM, we had an amazing run along the riverfront followed by a great meal and craft brew at The Noble Pig across from our hotel. With the sunsetting so late, we still had time to stroll the town before heading to bed so we’d be rested for the day two of our train journey

Once onboard the train on day two, the ascent up the mountain range to the peaks of the Rockies continued to get better with each mile. The staff onboard gave us some talking points about the highlights of what we were seeing along with some amazing stories.  We enjoyed  gourmet food and quality spirits within this friendly atmosphere that is conducive for both solitude or for making new friends. It’s a journey we will never forget, in one of the most beautiful settings on the planet.

As our rail journey ended, our itinerary had us visit Lake Louise and Banff, one night each, which was certainly too short, although it was all the time we had. I consider Banff & Lake Louise as two separate destinations even though they are so close together. We rented a car so we could drive from one to the other, ending at Calgary airport for our return flight home. Having the rental gave us time to explore the area, which included seeing the former winter Olympics site.

In my opinion, including a stay or overnight at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a must on any itinerary. The iconic Lake Louise is one of the most pristine—and photographed—lakes in the world. I vividly recall when we walked into our room, my wife opened the curtains and I heard her gasp… as she saw the lake and the glaciers in the background, she exclaimed that it was the most beautiful view she had ever seen. Located just outside Banff, the phenomenal turquoise-tinged lake is set against a breathtaking backdrop of rugged peaks and glaciers. We were immersed in nature and went for a run around the quiet waters of Lake Louise, taking in the famous Victoria Glacier. The idyllic train station, peaceful lake, and neighboring mountains make this a must-see landmark in the Rockies

A short drive from Lake Louise into the village of Banff, which lies within the vast untamed wilderness of Banff National Park. It is the most well-known town in the Rockies, offering towering peaks, gorgeous lakes, and the amazingly turquoise Bow River. This picturesque resort area is full of distinctive hotels, restaurants, and watering holes. A delightful combination of rugged mountains, lush parks with postcard scenery, and a thriving arts community can be found here. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, an historical resort, sits majestically overlooking the spectacular Bow River Valley. Whether you stay at this iconic resort or stay in one of the other hotels in town that are closer to the restaurants and shops, Banff is a wonderful destination to consider on your trip.

We walked from the Fairmont into the town. In our typical fashion, we asked several locals where they’d go eat, and each of them directed us to a hamburger place, Eddie Burger Bar, where all the locals eat, and now I understand why. It was tiny and busy, and served more local brews than I could have imagined. It was a great town to explore, safe and easy to navigate, and what you’d expect from a winter ski destination that also has a fantastic summer industry including giant elks roaming throughout the town.

The final day of our trip, we went for a long run, along the river, where we saw a family of moose swimming in the river, allowing the current of the river to carry them downstream. Our run was interrupted for 15 minutes as we stood in awe and to take in this magical scene.

The Canadian Rockies will be ingrained indelibly in my memory forever!