The Rocky Mountaineer – Vancouver to Banff
I've wanted to take an epic train journey ever since watching Meg Ryan scarf down cheese in a luxury car in the movie French Kiss in 1995. It took me 24 years to get on my own train trip, but I fulfilled my dream of eating gourmet cheese while sipping fine wine on a train!
A journey across the Canadian Rocky Mountains tops many a person's bucket list.
Our fellow passengers were celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and some were simply fulfilling their dream of witnessing the Canadian Rockies from the luxurious dome cars of the one of a kind Rocky Mountaineer luxury train.
When we told people we were going on a Canadian Rockies train journey many replied, “That is my dream trip!”
So, if you are considering taking a dream trip of your own through the Rocky Mountains, here is what you can expect.
A limo picked us up at the Vancouver airport and whisked us off to the Sutton Place in downtown Vancouver. I remember being a Production Assistant in the Vancouver film industry in the 90s where I picked up many an actor at this exact hotel.
Here we are 20 years later staying at the place where some of my favorite movie stars spent their time in Vancouver.
The view was outstanding from our room.
If you have the time, we suggest spending a couple of days exploring Vancouver. Having lived there in the past, we only flew in the night before our trip to be ready for our 6:30 am pick up.
Well Oiled Machine
The Rocky Mountaineer has been in operation since 1990, so everything goes off without a hitch. At 6:00 am the bellhop was at our door to pick up our luggage.
While enjoying a coffee in the lobby, we were given our bag tags and told that our luggage would be in our rooms waiting for us when we arrive for our overnight in Kamloops.
All we needed for the day was our cameras, a windproof jacket, a light sweater, and our sunglasses.
Watch our video of the Rockky Mountaineer Experience
What to pack for on the Rocky Mountaineer Train:
There are no overhead compartments so you only have the space below you at your seat. It is enough for a small backpack. Here is what we suggest.
- light sweater
- outer windproof jacket
- camera and phone
- camera and phone chargers – there are outlets in the seats
We were good to go!
The Train Station
When we arrived at the train station, we could feel the excitement and energy in the room. A musician sat at a grand piano pounding out lively standards (like the Chattanooga Choo Choo) as the crowd buzzed with conversation while sipping fresh orange juice.
30 minutes later, the bagpipes started piping and we all boarded our cars.
This was home for the next two days.
On the Train
Like many journeys, the company you keep can make or break a trip. Lucky for us, we were surrounded by the coolest people on the train.
It was an international mix of Australians, Canadians and well-traveled Americans having conversations about Patagonia, China and other exotic destinations around the world.
These people have been everywhere, and they chose to come to the Canadian Rockies next!
We felt so proud of our country.
Our departure from Vancouver was typical of the city. We left in a haze of grey clouds and light rain. It reminded us of our three years in Vancouver and why we decided to move back to Toronto. It's a lovely town, but there is a lot of rain.
So instead of spending too much time looking out the window and roof of our car, we set off for breakfast.
The cars are separated into two sections.
Upstairs is for sightseeing out the dome windows, relaxing and enjoying the complimentary bar.
Meals are served downstairs and they are the main event.
Our car was split up into two sections, the back and the front.
While one half went downstairs for their meals, the other relaxed and were entertained by the top-notch staff. While we waited, we were served delicious cinnamon scones and morning coffee and tea.
Breakfast and lunch are two-hour marathon events where the food just keeps on coming.
It was all a little rich for me, and I learned by day two to order the lighter fare on the menu.
Instead of the rich Eggs Benedict for breakfast and the Grade A Alberta Beef for lunch, it was a yogurt parfait in the AM with sauteed shrimp and vegetables in the PM.
Downstairs is also the spot on the train with the outdoor viewing platform.
Outdoor Viewing Platform
It can get very crowded down there, so if you really want to grab photos that are not taken through glass, we suggest heading down ahead of the views to park yourself in the best position for the upcoming scenery.
Leaving from Vancouver to Banff, we sat on the left-hand side of the train.
In our opinion, the right side of the train from Vancouver to Banff has better views. So we suggest getting to know your neighbours well, so you can share with them.
We had a great time with the couple across the aisle and took turns taking photos out of our window and theirs.
The great thing is that you can move to the other side during meals. We sat on the left when eating to mix up our views of the mountains.
The Rocky Mountaineer encourages people to get to know their neighbors and that helped us out a lot.
In truth, the scenery really doesn't ramp up until day two. So take this first day from Vancouver, to sit back and relax, enjoy a cocktail and get to know your travel companions.
Champagne, wine, and spirits are flowing and the large seats are comfortable to enjoy the view while listening to the stories and facts of your car servers.
- Cool tip: the seats are heated and they recline like a business class seat on a short haul flight.
The Rocky Mountaineer Staff
Speaking of the staff, we were extremely lucky to have Kiki, May, and Tyler upstairs keeping us occupied while never letting our drinks go empty.
Sarah and Darren served our meals downstairs and did an outstanding job.
They all had a super sense of humor and were very informative.
As we wheeled our way through wilderness and villages, they told us of the history of the Rocky Mountains and of the towns lining the railway.
Canada was built by the railway and we have Prime Minister John A McDonald to thank for it.
Our first day flew by and by 7 pm we were in Kamloops; a picturesque town that was a strategic point being at the intersection of both the CP and CN Railways.
True to their word, our luggage was sitting in our rooms waiting for us. We didn't even have to check in to the hotel, our keys were handed to us by the staff and we made a b-line directly to our room to drop off our day bags.
The town is filled with dining options but we opted for takeaway.
We popped into Subway (yes, we said Subway) and took our meals down to the river for a picnic on the water as we watched the sun go down.
Locals seem to love the trains coming in. More than one person stopped for a friendly chat asking where we were from and how we were enjoying our journey.
It was the perfect pit stop on the Rocky Mountaineer itinerary.
Today is the day, the day when the epic views come into play. Finger's crossed the weather holds off.
It was another bright and early departure, but Dave and I were armed with Vente Lattes from Starbucks downstairs in our hotel and had a good amount of caffeine pumped into our veins.
Day two is where you get the Wow views of the Rockies, with scenic lakes, tunnels and glacier rivers lining our route.
We even saw a bear! Our neighbour saw two!
There are plenty of bald eagles and deer to spy as well.
By the afternoon, we were into the Rockies and Dave and I spent all our time on the platform.
I do think this was a mistake. The platform is a great addition, but you do see a lot of trees and instead, relaxing in the dome allows you to see more.
The Dome Views
Since the dome is an entire train car higher, you see over the trees.
The glass is clear and you get a great panoramic view with the dome and the side windows.
Even though you have to take photos through glass, being higher gets you above the treeline and you can see the peaks much better.
The platform is a great place to pop down into, but I feel we should have stayed inside a bit more.
I think we missed some great opportunities to spy peaks jutting out from the trees.
Layer, Layer, Layer
Even though it is summer, the mountains are still very brisk and if you aren't properly layered you'll feel the chill on the platform, so we sure to pack a sweater and jacket when you go outside.
When pulling into Banff, the views just kept getting better and better.
We saw many snow-capped peaks and the view of Castle Mountain on the way into Banff was the best we had.
The sun was perfect. It lit up the mountains with an amber hue.
Arriving in Banff
It was a long day today and we pulled into Banff at 8pm.
I found it a bit too long after lunch to be on the train.
We finished eating at about 2 pm and had 6 hours without food. Believe it or not, I could have used an extra meal.
By the time we got our rental car and to our hotel, it was well after 9 pm!
Options after the Train Journey
The Rocky Mountaineer is only a two-day train journey, so you definitely should spend more time afterward to see the Rockies.
The Rock Mountaineer offers several options after the journey to continue your Rocky Mountain adventure.
From organized tours to hotel stays of your choice or a self-drive package that lets you explore on your own.
Self Drive Rocky Mountain Adventure
You know how much we love a road trip, so we chose the self-drive.
We said our goodbyes and everyone branched off to their respective hotels. The Rocky Mountaineer offers plenty of choices for hotels once you arrive in Banff.
And once again, they have your luggage delivered and ready and waiting for you in your room when you arrive!
Our seatmates had the good fortune of staying at the Banff Springs Hotel for a couple of nights before going to Lake Louise to stay at the Chateau Lake Louise; These are two stellar choices for accommodation.
Dave and I travel a little more modestly and spent. our time in Banff at the Elk + Avenue which is the perfect location for exploring downtown Banff. It is located in the heart of downtown Banff and has parking which is a must.
We spent the next two days exploring Banff and the surrounding area.
Having spent a lot of time in Banff and Alberta, we knew exactly what we wanted to do, and you too can see a lot with two days in Banff.
Day 1 in Banff
Our first day started at sunrise (beware in the summer it is 4:30 am) at Lake Louise. You must get to Lake Louise early in the summertime or else you can't park there. It fills up by 6:00 am and the crowds are outrageous.
We captured that postcard perfect view of Victoria Glacier towering over the stunning turquoise lake.
We really wanted to include Moraine Lake, but by the time we left Lake Louise, the parking lots were already full and we'd have to park in the highway parking lots and get a shuttle to the next lake.
Knowing we had limited time, we decided to make our way up the Icefields Parkway instead.
You think you have just done the train journey of a lifetime, well, this is the drive of a lifetime.
National Geographic ranks it as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the world, but Dave and Deb rank it as #1!
Trust me, we've done a lot of scenic drives on six continents, this one takes the cake.
While Exploring Banff in summer, it is important to stay ahead of the crowds. And stay ahead we did!
By the time we left Lake Louise, it was 7:00 am, so we were staring at all the scenic lookouts of the parkway free and clear of tour buses.
The most striking stop on the drive is Bow Lake. We stayed here a few years ago at the historic Num ti Ja Lodge, so we knew exactly where to go.
To see this incredible view, watch for the signs for the Bow Lake pull off. Park on the side of the road and walk down to the water's edge for the most incredible reflection shot of a mountain range you will ever see!
It's a great place to go for a short hike and take in the surrounding area.
There are several pull-offs on the parkway and here are a few that you cannot miss if you have the time:
Best Stops on the Icefields Parkway
- Herbert Lake
- Crowfoot Mountain
- Peyto Lake
- Saskatchewan River Basin
- Athabasca Glacier
Jasper National Park
We are now in Jasper National Park!
For this leg of our trip, we stopped at the Athabasca Glacier and Colombia Icefields.
The parkway takes you all the way to the town of Jasper, but that is a couple of days worth of sightseeing so we suggest going as far as the Colombia Icefields.
If you get off the Rocky Mountaineer in Banff, this is as far as you need to go if you have limited time. If you have the time though, please to go to Jasper, it's amazing!
If you haven't booked a tour of the Athabasca Glacier you probably won't get the chance to go on it. When we arrived, at about 11 am, they were already booking for 2 pm slots. It would have been a 3-hour wait!
Lucky for us, we've already walked on the glacier before and we highly recommend booking this in advance as it is worth it.
The Athabasca Glacier is one of the coolest glaciers on earth.
Instead, we went on the Colombia Icefield Skywalk. This is a new attraction that opened in 2014. This incredible feat of engineering reaches out over the Colombia Icefields.
You can book both excursions through Pursuit Adventures
Columbia Icefields Skywalk
Since busses leave every 15 minutes from the Athabasca Glacier, we didn't have to wait at all and were on the next shuttle up to the lookout.
Walk along the glass floor arching over a 280 m (918-foot) drop if you dare. It offers unobstructed views of the mountains and gives you an amazing thrill.
Some people were petrified and commented on how they could feel the platform moving in the wind.
It was pouring rain by the time we arrived, but we waited it out and after about 30 minutes, the sun was shining.
Since people weren't booking shuttles during the rain, we had a short window of having the skywalk all to ourselves!
Once we finished, we felt great that we had accomplished and seen everything we've ever wanted on the Icefields Parkway.
- If you want to witness the top spots, but don't want to drive, Pursuit Adventures offers package tours where you can take a bus, stop at the top scenic lookouts and take a snowcat to the glacier before ending at the skywalk.
This is a good opportunity to see everything at once.
The weather came in and we made our way back to Banff but we managed to see so much, we were ready for bed after our epic day on the road.
Moraine Lake – Foiled Again!
We set our alarms for 4:30 am to make our way to Moraine Lake. Dave has always wanted to photograph this lake. It is famous for being the lake on our Canadian $20 bill.
When we awoke, we heard the sound of raindrops pouring down outside.
When traveling the Rocky Mountains, the weather changes quickly, so even though it was a downpour at 4:30 that morning, we decided to give it a shot and make our way to Morain Lake, located near Lake Louise.
As we drove out of Banff, the rain was relentless. We could barely see. A car cut us off and then we drove through train tracks, only to have the barriers go down as we were crossing.
We took these two incidents as a sign that “maybe we shouldn't be on the road.” So we put our dream of photographing Moraine Lake at sunrise on hold and went back to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep.
Moraine Lake will have to wait another day as if you miss the sunrise, it is too crowded to try again.
So we spent the morning exploring Banff.
There are so many things to do in Banff, it can be difficult to choose.
1. Banff Upper Hot Springs
For more than 100 years Banff Hot Springs have been attracting visitors to soak in its healing minerals.
2. Cave and Basin
Home to the original hot springs in Banff, it's Canada's Oldest National Park and the third oldest National park in the entire world! There is a very cool cave to walk through to look at the original entrance that was discovered in 1885.
3. Explore the Bow Valley Parkway
This is a beautiful scenic drive that is off the highway. Johnston Canyon is located along here and is an excellent spot for a hike. You will also see Castle Mountain Lookout.
4. Post Card View of Banff
Park behind the Buffalo Nations Museum and walk up to the Cascade of Time Garden for the perfect view of downtown Banff flanked by the rocky mountains.
Located just a few minutes outside of Banff, The Vermilion Lakes are perfect for hiking and capturing an iconic view of Mount Rundle.
Lake Minnewanka Cruise
It's always good to get an early start and spend as much time as you can outside during the summer months. Weather can change in the Rockies in a heartbeat.
A cruise on Lake Minnewanka is a very popular thing to do in Banff. Thanks to Pursuit Adventures we had the chance to hop on board.
It was a fun tour and our guide was hilarious. The clouds lifted a bit so we could see the lower mountains, but we know from experience, that this lake is breathtaking when it is clear.
It's also one of the top spots in Banff for star trails and northern lights photography.
Being our last day in Banff, we stuck to our schedule went up the Banff Gondola. We had tickets booked in advance and our time had come at 1pm.
This place is so busy, you have to book your slots in advance. So, up we went into the clouds.
The good news was, that it was so quiet up there, we could park in the parking lot (as opposed to parking halfway down the mountain and walking up to the ticket office like it is on a usual summer's day) and we could browse the museum at the top free from crowds.
We also enjoyed a lunch up above Banff with excellent service.
But alas, the clouds never lifted and we made our way down without that epic Banff view.
It was time to move on.
Kananaskis Mountain Lodge
Saying Sayonara to Banff, we went to Kananaskis Mountain Lodge on our way back to Calgary.
This is a fantastic option that the Rocky Mountaineer offers for a stay.
It is a luxury lodge attached to a Nordic Spa. We love Nordic Spas, but the one complaint we've always had was that they should have a hotel attached so you can go back to your room to relax after your thermal treatments. Well, the Kananaskis Lodge has just that!
We spent a couple of hours going through the thermal cycle of “hot, cold, relax” while we tested out the different saunas, steam rooms, and plunge pools.
Note: photos were not allowed in the spa, but Kananaskis Nordic Spa generously gave us this image to give you an idea. Photo Credit: Janice Lee for Dote Magazine
If you haven't done a Nordik Spa, you are missing out. There are so many choices of saunas and hot pools, you feel overwhelmed when you start wanting to check out them all. But then as you settle in, you realize, “I have all the time in the world” as you melt and relax into the experience.
Our spa was followed by a good old Alberta meal at the Cedar Room (one of six restaurants at the resort)
When in Alberta, you cannot go without having Alberta beef, and we both had amazing cuts of our steaks cooked to perfection.
The service was the best as our server “Serge” had the perfect balance of humour and information while giving us our privacy to enjoy a romantic meal.
Beautiful Views of Kananasis
If you think that you can only get epic views in Banff, think again. Our morning walk offered a spectacular sunrise over the valley lighting up the Kananaskis Mountain Range.
This lodge is the perfect place to end your time on the Rocky Mountaineer. If you want to work out the aches and pains from sitting on a train for two days, this is the place to do it.
The resort makes for a great vacation destination. There's a world-class golf course in the valley below, the Nordik Spa, swimming pools, hiking trails, and several dining options.
We could have spent two nights here for sure.
The Rocky Mountaineer offered an excellent balance of relaxation and adventure. Spending two days on the train gave an amazing overview of the Rocky Mountains and helped us learn about the history of Western Canada. It is a train journey like the Orient Express or the Trans Siberian. If you love trains, this is a must!
To book your trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, check out their website.
If you are planning a Rocky Mountaineer train journey, why not save it to Pinterest for future reference
Followed by a tour of Banff, gives the Rocky Mountaineer that extra edge over other train journeys in the world.
Baff, Lake Louise and Jasper truly are some of the most photogenic places on earth and to witness the Rocky Mountains is an experiwnce you will never forget.
We will never forget our time on the Rocky Mountaineer. The people we met and the views we saw will stick with us for the rest of our lives!
To book your trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, check out their website.
Journeys go to and from Banff, Vancouver and Jasper