Not long after my train puffed past the young bear climbing a tree, I spotted ghostly logs beneath the blue-green waters of a small alpine lake. The crystalline and glassy surface acted as both lens and mirror, reflecting the surrounding moody forest and stoic Rocky Mountains.
That bewitching moment captures the combination of wide-angle vistas and lingering close-ups you can experience when exploring the Canadian Rockies at the leisurely pace of rail. My own two-day, nearly 600-mile journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer took me from Vancouver across British Columbia and through the mountains into Banff National Park. We frequently went where cars could not, snaking beside sheer canyon walls, past slender waterfalls, and alongside tumbling rivers of milky glacier melt.
As a luxury excursion train, the Rocky Mountaineer offers observation cars and fine dining. But for me, the ultimate luxury was being able to stretch my legs, strolling from my seat to the outdoor vestibule to get a lungful of the forest’s piney fragrance. With passengers assigned to a specific car, an easy camaraderie developed among us and the staff, most of them young Canadians who added that distinctly north-of-the-border eh to the end of sentences. We swapped travel stories and craned our necks in unison to gawk at bighorn sheep balanced on mountain ledges.
My trip hit its climax near the end. Having made our way through the two Spiral Tunnels—1909 wonders of engineering that still astound—we crossed the Continental Divide in a flurry of snow and entered Banff. The sun emerged, revealing evergreens sweeping upward to snowy peaks and a bald eagle flying low overhead. Bewitching, eh?
By Christopher Hall
Tips for Traveling by Train Anywhere
The romance of train travel is more alluring than the logistics. But don’t let that deter you. “When you’re planning a trip by rail, you just need to pay attention to the details,” says AAA Travel counselor Sheela Khan, who offers these helpful ways to keep your plans on track.
Plan Well Ahead
Most European rail travel can be booked 60 to 90 days in advance, while domestic reservations can be made with a longer lead time. In both cases, booking early yields more affordable fare options and spares you the disappointment of a sold-out train.
Ponder the Pass
So much depends on where and when you’re going, but as a rule, Khan says, “If you’re planning on visiting three or more cities, a rail pass is the more economical choice.” Keep in mind that pass holders often need to pay an extra fee to secure a seat on a specific train.
Choose Your Class
Trains, like planes, sell different kinds of seating, so find out what class of car you’re booking and what services it includes. Luxury lines such as the Belmond Royal Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express provide amenities like sofa seating and refined dining.
When it comes to getting rest on a train trip, snoozing upright isn’t your only option, says AAA Travel counselor Wendy Anderson. Upgrade to a sleeper car, or book a line like the Rocky Mountaineer that stops at night for passengers to stay in hotels. However, you might be surprised at how soothing the rhythmic motion of a train can be. Says Anderson, “People tell me, ‘I felt like a baby being rocked to sleep.’”
Keep your eyes open for small regional lines, which offer a variety of affordable excursions. Among Khan’s favorites is the Skunk Train, a scenic railway that runs through the coast redwoods of California’s Mendocino County.
Big, heavy bags are hard on your body, and their bulk also burdens a train’s luggage compartments. “When you’re packing your case, remember that you’re going to be the one hauling it on board,” Khan says. “And then you’ll have to find a place to stow it.”
Scope the Scenery
Fall foliage in New England, snowdrifts on the Swiss Alps in winter, crashing waves along the California coast—train travel treats you to scenery you can’t always enjoy when you’re behind the wheel. Khan says she’ll never forget a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies. “There were no distractions—just some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen,” she says.
By Josh Sens
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This article was first published in Summer 2015 and updated in Fall 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.