Ride the rails to snowy bliss in the Canadian Rockies and beyond
As the lights of Vancouver, British Columbia's eastern suburbs slid away across the wide, placid Fraser River, the woman seated in front of me in the domed viewing car put her arm around her husband and gently leaned on his shoulder. I took a sip of my sparkling wine, nibbled on a filo-wrapped savory, and thought, this must be what is meant by "the romance of the rails."
I was traveling east to Edmonton, Alberta, on VIA Rail Canada's Canadian line, whose refurbished 1950s coaches evoke the heyday of railway travel. After crossing the Fraser, we would head north and east, deep into British Columbia, before picking up the river again at its Moose Lake headwaters and then entering Jasper National Park in Alberta. The 24-hour one-way journey is beautiful any time of year but especially now, when the Rockies are mantled with snow.
The Canadian line is not the only inviting winter train excursion in the West. Other trips ― both multiday and less expensive one-day excursions ― lead into the Cascade Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Rockies. Seeing the West's great mountain ranges in their white coats, from the comfort of a dining or observation car, is an experience you owe to yourself at least once.
FROM RECKLESSNESS TO REALITY
Like most of the West's great rail routes, the one the Canadian travels has a riveting history. When, in the late 1800s, Canadian Prime Minister John A. McDonald proposed that a Canadian transcontinental railway stretch west from Ottawa to entice distant British Columbia to join the fledgling union, the plan was called "an act of insane recklessness." And looking at the geography involved, the plan still seems crazy. The government sought to construct a railroad almost 1,000 miles longer than any yet built, through land still largely unsettled by white people, and wanted it completed within 10 years.
In the end, they built two transcontinental routes: a government-funded, more southerly one through Banff, Alberta, and a privately built northern one through Edmonton ― the route I took.
The years of work were worth it, I decided after a dinner of wild salmon and British Columbia wine. In the dome car later, while a movie played in the lounge below, I pondered the scenery yet to come. I watched the locomotive's beam highlighting craggy rock walls and dark conifers, mesmerized as the vintage stainless steel cars ahead glinted periodically in the glow of the signal lights.
It was hard to rouse myself from the down duvet-covered bed in the morning, but a 7:30 breakfast proved to be perfect timing. I caught a glimpse of the angular peaks of the Monashee Mountain Range out the west windows of the dining car, just before the river canyon below us filled with misty clouds pumping out snow.
So that eastbound riders can savor the scenery during daylight before arriving in the town of Jasper, Alberta, the train intentionally adopts a slower speed in the mountains. After breakfast, the majority of the 15 or so passengers in the posh Silver and Blue sleeping class staked out seats in the dome, where the unique pop-up design provides 360° views, or in the lower-level bullet car, which offers wraparound vistas out the back of the train.
The cloudy weather meant I missed 12,969-foot Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. But since that mountain is only completely visible about 14 days a year, I instead held out hope that the clouds would part in time to spot Seven Sisters Mountain. About 30 miles away, after Moose Lake, its uneven, spiny top came into view out the train's west side. Fortunately, I thought to look back in time to see the morning sunlight dappling its northern face.
Before I knew it, we had traversed Yellowhead Pass, one of the lowest in the Continental Divide, yet, at 3,718 feet, the highest point the train crosses. Nearing Jasper on the descent, one couple had their noses glued to the glass. As we chugged by the prairie, they caught a rare glimpse of a moose, standing next to the tracks. The rest of us had to be satisfied spying elk grazing farther off in a nearly frozen marsh.
After a weekend of snowshoeing and ice-skating in Jasper, I got back aboard the Canadian and continued east. Now I had a chance to spot wildlife in the Athabasca River Valley. The area is called the Elk Range for the large herd that grazes there. Beyond the valley, I could see the Canadian Rockies rising on all sides.
A pair of snowboarders in front of me played Scrabble and the train guide tried to entice us into a hole of golf on his roll-out putting green, but I was content with the view of the bold, 1,000-foot limestone cliff that stood out to the south as Roche Miette. When the tracks curved as we left the peaks and descended into the winter-white plains around Edmonton, I craned around in my plush seat, holding onto the perfect panorama of the Front Range circling frozen Lac Brûlé, and I thought that, at least on a train, winter was my favorite season of all.