Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Rocky Mountaineer

Rocky Mountaineer Canada Train Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Picturesque

A few high-end scenic rail journeys around the world have achieved icon status, but not all of them are easily attainable by travelers. South Africa's Blue Train can be arduous to reach, and the on-again, off-again Orient Express lives in the shrunken shadow of its former glory.  

But there's an upscale pleasure train trip, one that has been earning plaudits since it began running in 1990, that strikes an inviting balance for North Americans who crave an epic scenic railway journey that's closer to their own turf. 

The Rocky Mountaineer is well-established as one of the great rail trips in both Canada and the United States. What started as an experimental excursion on the historic rustic rail lines that connected pioneer Canadians in the late 1800s has since expanded into a luxury scenic rail empire with four different routes—three in Western Canada and one in the desert of the American Southwest—that notched their two-millionth passenger in 2017.

At the invitation of the Rocky Mountaineer, I joined the original itinerary to see what the fuss has been about. On a morning early in the Rocky Mountaineer's April-to-October season, I boarded one of the custom train carriages to head east on a two-day adventure from Vancouver, British Columbia, to explore the Rocky Mountains and the sublime wilderness around Banff and Lake Louise in western Alberta.

Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Rocky Mountaineer

My route, First Passage to the West, is considered the classic Rocky Mountaineer itinerary. It started in Vancouver, followed rivers through hundreds of miles of forests and valleys, and ended in the Banff National Park/Lake Louise region, a journey of two days with one overnight in Kamloops, British Columbia, on the way. 

The trains are specially designed with huge observation windows—almost like a rolling, climate-controlled greenhouse. Cars have no sleeping berths for passengers. Instead, everyone spends the night in a land-based hotel before reboarding the train in the morning to continue the journey.

Passengers don't have to carry anything more than a day bag because the Rocky Mountaineer transfers luggage separately. Your heavy bags will be waiting for you in your hotel room whenever you arrive somewhere, and you leave them behind again when you get back on the train. The Rocky Mountaineer company, which proved flawless in handling our trip's complex logistics while preserving a sense of order and comfort, checks in and out for you. So much friction is removed from the traveling process that the hardest thing you'll have to do is wake up at the crack of dawn to start each day. 

Many people also add optional tours and excursions onto either end of their trips to have more time to explore. You can choose hotels of various swank levels—Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts is a notable partner.

The trip begins around 8am with coffee and a bagpipe send-off on a railway siding in Vancouver. From there, the train trundles along at an average speed of 30 mph, a speed dictated by the fact that in Canada, just like in the United States, passenger trains share the rails with freight trains (in this case, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific). That arrangement frequently causes slowdowns and delays. 

If you're going to endure delays, though, it's a good thing the sights are so gorgeous and the accommodations are this agreeable. This is not an ordinary train. It was custom-built for this. 

There are two classes of service. This is GoldLeaf Service, the most plentiful class (maximum passengers: 72 per car), and it's tricked out. Seats recline, the overhead windows can be tinted on command to limit direct sunlight in the heat of the day, and, because the seating is on the upper level of each two-story carriage, the views are up off the ground. The glass is specially coated so that there will be almost no glare in your photos.

These observation cars are also accessible—each carriage in GoldLeaf has a mini elevator large enough for a wheelchair or ECV. (But people with balance issues should be careful on board; the trains are almost always in motion.)

Like all Rocky Mountaineer trips, this one was all-inclusive, and that's what gives this adventure its luxury edge. Meals are included and prepared fresh on board. Beverages are also covered, including wine and simple cocktails (don't miss the Caesar, a Canadian twist on the Bloody Mary that's made with Clamato). Your foldout tray table can be stocked with champagne and nibbles every minute of the trip if that's what you want. Service is attentive and upscale casual, but not snobbishly white glove.

Pictured above: a view through the glass dome toward the end of Day Two, after the train crossed into Alberta

GoldLeaf's lower level is where you'll find the two lavatories and, in the main section, the dining area (pictured above) and its attached galley. 

Thoughtfully, mealtimes are planned for periods when there are fewer scenic highlights to photograph—although if we're being honest, the pretty views never fully quit. 

Rather than serving prepackaged meals as airlines do, the Rocky Mountaineer employs an onboard culinary team to prepare fresh, multicourse meals and cater to dietary requests. The head of cuisine places a priority on sourcing local ingredients such as Canada-raised beef and crisp cracker snacks bought from a baker located along the line.

There's a new menu each day. This was a crab ravioli that, perhaps coincidentally, flaunted the red and white of the Canadian flag. 

All in all, the food was delicious but not too heavy. Despite the lulling motion of the train, I never saw any passengers slip into a food-induced nap after mealtimes. 

Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Rocky Mountaineer

The last component of the lower level of a GoldLeaf car is the sheltered outdoor platform. Although hemmed in by the adjoining train carriage, this space supplies a chance to get fresh air, inhale those primal forest scents, and take photos unobstructed by even the optimal windows on the upper deck.

Don't expect much of a mobile phone signal out here, though. For much of every day, you'll be traveling through wilderness miles from even the smallest hamlets, and there's no Wi-Fi on the train. That's your cue to unwind and live in the moment while you're aboard.

Rocky Mountaineer has a second class, too. SilverLeaf Service carriages hold a maximum of 56 passengers.

SilverLeaf's observational windows, while generous, aren't as huge or as elevated as in GoldLeaf. The seating is comfortable but older, reclining with a standard, not-very-loungey slide mechanism.

SilverLeaf dining is less elaborate as well. Instead of adjourning to a dedicated dining area, which doesn't exist in this class of service, you receive meals at your seat from trolleys, like on an airline. Dishes can still cater to dietary requirements, but the menu and cocktail list are shorter than in the higher class of service.

GoldLeaf Service costs 20–30% more than SilverLeaf Service, but to me, the upgrade is unquestionably worth it. When you're on a train for 10–12 hours a day, as I was on First Passage to the West, you need periodic moments for stretching, and SilverLeaf can't offer you that space. While GoldLeaf has the dining area and outdoor platform to change the scene and get your blood moving, SilverLeaf has none of those, and there's no common lounge area in standard SilverLeaf Service where you can give your body a break and mingle with your fellow guests.

GoldLeaf is simply much better suited both to socializing and long travel days than SilverLeaf is, so make the splurge.

If you're looking at Rocky Mountaineer's sole American route, Rockies to the Red Rocks, SilverLeaf is the only class of service available, because clearances on the U.S. line can't accommodate the taller GoldLeaf carriages. That may not present a big problem because days on the U.S. itinerary are shorter than on the Canadian lines. For the American route, if you want that extra space to stretch and mingle, you need to upgrade to SilverLeaf Plus, which is not available on the Canadian routes.

The beauty and quirkiness of Western Canada and its pioneer settlements parade past your windows, hour after hour. The first day of First Passage to the West, which plies floodplains, forests, and river rapids in mountain valleys, covers some 285 miles. The second day, which requires three locomotives to push into the peaks of the Rockies and through the engineering marvels known as the Spiral Tunnels that mark the highest point between Vancouver and Banff, travels a bit over 300 miles.

Keep your camera charged (there are plugs on board) and clear the device's memory. Between the vertiginous Hells Gate rapids, the rugged Fraser Canyon that scoops through semi-arid wilderness, and the seemingly endless panorama of green rivers under gray limestone peaks, there's so much beauty to photograph that eventually you have to learn to stop trying to capture everything, relax, and embrace the vibe of pressing through remote lands you could never otherwise navigate on your own.

Where spine-straight pines sprout like weeds and ravines churn with snowmelt, now and then an adorable village scrolls by, and you'll wish the train was able to stop. Pictured above is the Kilby Historic Site, which you'll pass on Day One. The preserved general store here once provisioned the logging towns where the Harrison and Fraser rivers meet in southern British Columbia.

On Day Two, in the tiny village of Canoe on Shuswap Lake, look left for a woman named Doris. For years, she has emerged from her yellow house to wave at every passing Rocky Mountaineer train—apparently she's alerted by her dog, who can detect when it's coming.

Don't worry about having to keep your eyes peeled at every moment for these things. Each car comes with a narrator guide or two who'll get on a microphone to signal you with plenty of advance warning whenever there's something remarkable coming. 

Impromptu sightings can include wildlife such as deer, mountain sheep, and, if you're lucky, the occasional bear.

Just don't expect to see a moose. The Rocky Mountaineer's onboard guides say they can work for entire seasons without spotting the shy creatures. "The elusive moose," my guide called them.

As First Passage to the West finally arrives at its apex in the Rockies, you have the option of ending the rail portion of your journey at Lake Louise or at Banff, about an hour farther east. Either one makes an excellent gateway to the area's splendid national parks.

Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Shutterstock / Klara_Steffkova

As mentioned before, there are many experiences travelers can tack onto either end of the trip. Because the Rocky Mountaineer's once-in-a-lifetime factor attracts lots of guests celebrating honeymoons and other milestones, a good number of passengers cap their journeys with stays at the five-star Fairmont Banff Springs or at the equally idyllic Fairmont Château Lake Louise, pictured above on its vibrantly blue lake. (That vibrant color will only emerge when the lake is unfrozen, so if you want to see that sight, schedule your Rocky Mountaineer journey for the summer months).

Once you're ready to go home, which you won't be, you'll be booked on a coach and driven to Calgary, two hours away, for your homeward flight.

Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Rocky Mountaineer

Here's a route map of the Rocky Mountaineer's Canadian itineraries in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. 

If you're really into trains, you could always turn around and take another Rocky Mountaineer route back the other way to Vancouver, but most people find that one-way passage is plenty. 

Rocky Mountaineer Canada train: review
Rocky Mountaineer

After all, when your environment looks like this for 12 hours a day, your camera can only handle so many photographs.

Rocky Mountaineer's First Passage to the West starts around $1,600 per person and can be booked at