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Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff

BC Sunshine Coast


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A Grand Excursion into the Canadian RockiesVia Rail is the passenger arm of the Canadian public rail system. We followed it from Vancouver, British Columbia to Jasper, but many passengers continued straight through to Toronto and then on to destinations in the state of  New York.

By Pat and Rich Middleton

       ©   Photos and text may not be reproduced in any format without the express permission of Great River Publishing.


I think it has been 35 years since we have anticipated a travel adventure as much as this. Yes, we’ve cruised China's Yangtze River, and that was fascinating. We spent two weeks on the Amazon, and that was fascinating. We’ve criss-crossed the American National Parks in tent, lodge and motor home, immersing ourselves in one amazing biome of natural beauty after another. Rich had even “done” Canada’s Rocky Mountains 40 years ago with his Dad and uncle as they bumped across the unpaved Alcan Highway to Alaska.  

         This “grand excursion” into the Canadian Rockies promised storied destinations and traditions well beyond the usual interest of a “trip.” We would travel on trains and trams and excursion boats through choking wilderness, stumble over bone-chilling mountain glaciers, and hike to pristine alpine lakes. Rich had anticipated revisiting the Canadian Rockies ever since his non-stop road-trip to Alaska. Mt. Robson, the source of the Fraser River! The Fraser River flows out of the Rockies, across the flood plains to Vancouver.

             “Pat, the sharp-edged mountains are so abrupt, with snowcaps, and emerald lakes… I promise you that Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff… are the most beautiful places on earth,”  he enthused. At least that’s how he remembered them 40 years later. 

 Trains and Boats and Trams


We were not entirely unfamiliar with the modes of travel that we would encounter on our trip to the Canadian Rockies. Our first extensive train travel had been with a 2nd class Euro-rail Pass for 6 weeks in Europe.  Then, a pup tent was our only hotel. A 60-pound backpack our only luggage.

A cruise on the castle-studded Rhine River was included with our rail pass. And here and there in the Swiss Alps, there were trams that swept us up the mountain sides for a view of the vast horizons. Our only guide and itinerary on that first grand tour of Europe was drawn from Arthur Frommer’s  Europe on $5 a Day. (Now that does date us!)


 But what a difference 35 years makes!

    Lemonade and snacks while we waited for the train departure in the first class lounge.A little live entertainment in the First Class lounge at Central Station in Vancouver.


Our passage on this VIA RAIL journey read FIRST CLASS, and included snacks and entertaining live music as we waited for the train to arrive at the station. The musician, reminiscent of the Riverlorian on a steamboat, also provided a preview of what we could expect on our journey.




The via train station at Jasper, Alberta. The alpine motif is repeated throughout the area. Car rentals available here at the train station.


We left Central Station in Vancouver, British Columbia on VIA RAILs  Canadian at 5 p.m. sharp, to commence a journey on the silver tracks through a boundless wilderness of trees and waterways and mountain peaks that would deposit us at the Jasper train station at about 11 a.m. the next day.




After a modest Welcome Aboard party in the observation car, we Our First Class double suite result from removing the wall between two suites. Now that is luxury! Normally a suite will have a bathroom sink and two bunks. savored our first moments of settling into our double suite. By day there was a window table and comfortable chairs. The trains had been put into service in the 1950s and had been refurbished to reflect that 1950s decor. A sink and toilet on either side hinted at the relative luxury in which we traveled.

When we returned from a fine railway dinner of salmon and steak, wine and chocolate torte, the room had been transformed to a comfortable bedroom by our attentive French Canadian steward.


Our VIA RAIL trip promised a first view of what I had really longed to see in Canada, wilderness.

 The ViaRail tracks followed first the Fraser River and then the Thompson for most of our journey.






Moose at a mud lick! We were told to expect to see bear, elk, deer, goats, and moose. The bear we never did see.

Pyramid Falls seen along the track.








The mountains this time would not be the Swiss Alps, but the ragged, uplifted  “front ranges” of the Canadian Rockies. Our route would follow the Fraser River through the rich farmland of its flood plains, and through vast logging operations and almost to the foot of Mt. Robson, before veering off to follow the Thompson River. Forests logged inland are comprised of Lodgepole pine, White Spruce, a few Douglas Fir, and Aspen.

The observation car provide panoramic viewing along the route.About 8 p.m. we had a clear overhead view of Hell's Gate from the domed observation car. Here the broad and placid Fraser River is transformed into a roaring maelstrom of churning white water as it is forced through a narrow gorge. Trams near Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff would sweep us up high above the twisting Athabasca River, and myriad glacier-fed lakes.


TRAINS, Silver Rails to Canada’s West Coast.The view of glacial Lake Beauvert from our patio room at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. All the Fairmont lodges offer sumptuous breakfast buffets in addition to a la carte choices.


 There is a long history of collaboration that ties Canada’s  railway system to historic luxury hotels in the Canadian National Parks. Canada’s commitment to tie the West Coast with Ottawa was established in 1871 in an effort to lure British Columbia into joining the new Canadian confederation.





Canada was eager to meet the BC demand for a trans-Canada railway, but it was far more challenging than could be imagined in government halls in Ottawa. And once built, the Canadian Pacific Railway would need to be self-financing. An American railway executive was brought in to finish the project, … Wm. C. Van Horne...  who took on the challenge of building and then paying for the trans-Canada railway. The construction was completed in 1881.

 There was no question in Van Horne’s mind about where the financial potential for the new railroad lay. For many of the wealthy, the Grand Tour of Europe… the Alps, the cathedrals, the great cities… was already checked off. They had, “Been there, done that.”

What lay beyond the prairies of Central Canada, however, was uncharted wilderness, undiscovered mountains, a vast private playground reachable only by wealthy train travelers.Spirit Island on Maligne Lake. One of the world's most beautiful vistas.

“If we can’t export the scenery,” Van Horne vowed, “we’ll import the tourists.”  

Maligne Lake canoes.






The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge harks back to the days of the luxury rustic lodge.






Van Horne, already General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway now founded the Canadian Pacific Hotels. The railroad hotels would provide accommodations and comfort for tourists brought in by the railway. Van Horne provided free transportation and lodging to writers and artists to help the railway describe the wonder of the Canadian Rockies and the waters flowing through and out of the pristine glacial snow-capped mountains….

 Agnes Lake.. near the Tea House above Lake Louise. All food and supplies for the Tea House are brought in by horseback. Garbage is carried out in the same manner.

  “You shall see mighty rivers, vast forests,  boundless plains, stupendous  mountains, and wonders innumerable….” declared the authors, "and you shall see it all in comfort, nay in luxury.”

Our mini-suite at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Luxurious accommodation not only in the room, but in the mineral baths and spa facilities within the hotel.The "Castle" at The Fairmont Banff Springs.l


The historic luxury hotels in Jasper, Banff, and Lake Louise all grew out of this grand plan to connect Canada from sea to sea by rail and at the same time open up the Canadian Rockies to the world’s wealthiest tourists.

The Via Rail we traveled today is the  passenger arm of the old Canadian Pacific Railway.


CANADA’S NATIONAL PARKS   Cave and Basin Historic Site preserves the site and interprets the history of the hot springs area, and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The development of Canada’s first national parks followed closely on the heels of the railroads as the Canadian Pacific filled their trains with tourists.

The first Canadian national park was Banff National Park, centered around the thermal springs discovered by two railroad workers near the town of Banff. The Upper Hot Springs in Banff is still open to the public. 


As national parks were developed to provide amenities and access for the wealthy, towns sprang up near the hotels. Once again, the railway and the park system developed a joint oversight arrangement. To this day, the National Parks have significant overview privileges as towns develop. As recently as 15 years ago, Banff was completely governed by the park system. One significant aspect, for example, has to do with a residency requirement for Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.  Only people who live and work in the area can purchase homes there.Today Upper Hot Springs is a public thermal bath open year around just above Banff.

Eventually Jasper and YoHo National Parks, along with Banff were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which affirms and protects the Canadian Rocky Mountains as an area of international cultural significance.



  “Seas of people, islands of wilderness…”

 The management philosophy of the national parks in Canada hA little alpine music on the boardwalk at The Fairmont Chateau Lake evolved somewhat from the turn of the 20th century, when the first national parks were thought of as small islands of humanity in a “sea of wilderness .” 

The first park was developed to protect the valuable thermal springs at what would soon become Banff, and to cooperate with the railway in luring to the mountains wealthy people who could then help develop the area.

Then evolved the policy that the parks belonged to the people and the system would help make the wilderness accessible to common travelers who were taking to the roads en masse with the introduction of the automobile. In the 1980s, as people began to crowd the native animals from their home ranges, a movement began to emphasize protecting both people and wilderness.

Today the emphasis is on protecting the wildlife, plants, all the wilderness area from an endless sea of visitors and development.

The Banff Park Museum at the bridge in Banff is interesting as a relic of the old park philosophy. It is Canada’s oldest natural history museum. While exhibits in the old museum are labeled, there is little interpretive information in the museum. To best appreciate the exhibits, try to join a tour or find a docent to show you around.

 To follow our itinerary through the Columbian Icefields, and our visits to Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff, please CLICK HERE.


 IF YOU GO......

VIA Rail Canada / Travel by train! Vacations, tours and tourism info
Visit the VIARAIL website at


Trip planning  in the Canadian National Parks   or   888-773-8888

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts


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