On Track to Adventure: Exploring Canada Via Train

Maligne Lake

The majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, giant glaciers that are thousands of years old, slow traveling on a train and plenty of bear sightings!

These experiences and more peppered our 2023 family trip to Canada and made exploring a small part of our neighbor to the north an enchanting vacation.

My husband, Dean, and I have traveled together for our entire relationship, and made sure to travel with our children (boys Reilly, Spenser and Riordan) starting when they were infants. Because our family enjoys these trips so much, each son’s high school graduation gift is to choose the location for our summer family vacation. For 2023, it was our middle son’s turn, and Spenser chose train travel in Canada.

Narrowing down the trip to fit into a 10-day window was not easy! Canada is enormous, and trains travel the entire length of the country. There also are two types of trains: Via Rail, which has sleeper cars and is more of a “traditional” train ride, and the Rocky Mountaineer, a specialty train that travels only during daylight hours to allow passengers to soak in more of the amazing scenery.

The Rocky Mountaineer

Spenser enjoys the mountains and we decided that it would be a shame to pass through the Rockies without stopping to enjoy the grandeur. So why not both?! We took Via Rail from Vancouver to Jasper, stayed several days in the mountains, and then returned to Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer. It was the best decision we could have made.

The Via Rail trip was wonderful. You can do it on a budget, traveling in seats even through the night. But as this was a graduation gift, we chose sleeper cars. I admit there was very little sleeping — it’s hard to get used to the click-clack of the train speeding through the night — but we were glad of the private compartments.

The included meals were delicious. It was like taking a step back in time, where the speed of getting from one place to another was no longer the most important factor. The travel by itself was the adventure, not just the destination.

We arrived in Jasper ready to hike, and the opportunities were boundless. We stayed in cabins in Jasper National Park and immediately went for a short hike right across the road from our cabin. The waterfall we saw was the first of many. No bear sightings yet, but those weren’t far in the future!

The next day we drove the Icelands Parkway, the famous road between Jasper and Lake Louise. We saw our first bears, just grazing on the side of the road. Fortunately, our rental car had a sunroof. So, I could pop up and get some photos while we parked on the roadside.

Sunwapta Falls

We stopped for two short hikes (and a picnic lunch), Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. The roar of the water was deafening and the views stunning.

And then, our destination: the Athabasca Glacier, which is said to be more than 12,000 years old, although it is shrinking. You can ride out to the glacier on an all-terrain Ice Explorer, but we chose instead to strap on crampons and hike up the giant icefield on a guided tour. We even filled our water bottles from the ice-cold runoff — the most delicious water we’ve ever tasted!

The best bear sightings of our trip were near Miette Hot Springs, where we spotted a mother teaching her two cubs to stay “home” in a tree. They would sneak down the tree while she was snacking on dandelions, and she would chase them back up. It was quite a show.

The highlight for everyone, however, was a different hike, one we took to the top of a small peak and where we had a lesson in back-country cooking. With our guide, we packed in everything we needed. We selected a picturesque spot and then created a delicious Indian meal. We even made our own naan and cheese! Gourmet dining with a view.Our trip back to Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer was a relaxing end to our trip. We rode in cars that were virtually all glass so we wouldn’t miss any of the views. We also indulged in fine dining — breakfast, lunch and snacks were served on the train each day. The train hosts shared the history of the area as we kept our eyes peeled for more wildlife.

We still cannot decide which of the train trips we enjoyed most. We are glad we did both. The Rocky Mountains are spectacular, the local cuisine delightful and Jasper is small enough that we were off the beaten track. It was a wonderful trip.

–Janet Nash


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