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Great Rail Journeys from Vancouver

by Anthony Lambert on 11 February 2014, 14:02PM


First-time visitors to British Columbia normally choose one of the two routes between Vancouver and either Jasper – ‘Journey through the Clouds’ – or Banff – ‘First Passage to the West’. Both are a complete contrast to the Coastal Passage journey and both options take the same route from Vancouver as far as the overnight stop at Kamloops where the tracks of the Canadian Pacific take the southerly route to Banff while the Canadian National turns north east towards Jasper. There’s a great air of anticipation in Rocky Mountaineer’s own large station in Vancouver, as passengers meet one another and start the inevitable sharing of travel experiences.


With much sounding of the distinctive, haunting locomotive whistle so evocative of North American train travel, the Rocky Mountaineer eases through the suburbs and the market gardening area that straddles the Fraser River. At Hope the Fraser and Coquihalla rivers meet and the hills start to look more like mountains. For the rest of the journey the landscape forms a constantly changing series of spectacular mountain views. At Yale the railway clings to a shelf on the side of the V-shaped valley above the Fraser River to squeeze past its narrowest point at Hell’s Gate, named by the North West Company explorer who gave his name to the river, Simon Fraser.


At Lytton you look down on the confluence of the clear Thompson River and the muddy Fraser, and you may see whitewater rafters pitting their courage – or fear –¬ against the churning waters. After Spences Bridge the country becomes more arid, the land sprouting pale sagebrush and bunchgrass with the only vivid greens to be seen alongside the river. The train skirts the empty shores of Kamloops Lake before arriving at the important regional centre of Kamloops where buses wait to take passengers to the hotel.


Next morning ‘Journey through the Clouds’ sets off along the valley of the North Thompson River and through the gap between the Cariboo and Monashee mountains, passing such sights as the 300-foot drop of Pyramid Falls and the glacier that descends from Mount Albreda before a spectacular view of Canada’s tallest mountain in the Rockies, Mount Robson, at 12,972 feet. Soon after the train reaches the Continental Divide and drops down to the idyllically sited resort of Jasper, where one of the goliaths of the steam age is plinthed by the station.


Guests on ‘First Passage to the West’ leave Kamloops beside the South Thompson River, following it to the confusingly shaped Shuswap Lake with its tentacle-like arms ringed by mountains; it’s a favourite place for houseboat holidays – there is even a waterborne pizza delivery service. The on-board hosts will prepare you to look out for Craigellachie, where one of the most historic of all Canadian photographs was taken, when in 1885 Prime Minister Donald A. Smith hammered in the last spike of the Canadian Pacific, symbolising the tying together of the country. 


After the ski centre of Revelstoke the railway runs right beside the thunderous waters of the Illecillewaet River through a canyon so narrow there is room only for water and rails. After the long climb to the Connaught Tunnel, there is a breathtaking panorama of mountains as the train leaves the northern portal. Another commonly photographed sight on the line is the graceful steel arc that leaps across Stoney Creek Bridge and the chasm beneath.


Admiration for the early railway engineers grows as the line climbs towards the Continental Divide through spiral tunnels in Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain to reach the summit at Stephen. Lake Louise is famed for its beauty and the now huge railway-built hotel overlooking it, so a stop was recently introduced at the station for those wanting to stay at Chateau Lake Louise. But an equally splendid and historic hotel awaits those continuing to Banff; the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel started to take its present form in the late 1920s and its location in the World Heritage Site of Banff National Park is a perfect place to end this mountain odyssey.


For more information about holidays to Canada visit travelbag.co.uk or your local shop.

To find out more about British Columbia visit www.hellobc.com

Author bio: Anthony Lambert is an award-winning travel writer specialising in Canada & Rail Travel. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and regularly writes for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and Wanderlust Magazine

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