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Canada holiday: Scenic train trip through Jasper and Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountaineer is undoubtedly Canada’s most famous railway, but there are plenty of surprises in store for train-loving Australians.

It’s a great day to be catching a train from Jasper, high in the Rocky Mountains, on one of Canada’s least-known scenic rail journeys: the Jasper-Prince Rupert railway. The VIA Rail route winds westward past mountains, rivers and a glacier to the northern coast of British Columbia.

The sun is shining, which bodes well for views. The mood here at Jasper Station is upbeat and cheerful, as would-be passengers mill about inside the atmospheric 1926 structure with its high ceiling, timber beams and decorative chandeliers.

Jasper has been a fun place to hang for a couple of days, a holiday town which offers a mix of scenery and culture. While waiting for my train I’ve enjoyed highlights such as taking the SkyTram cable car up to the top of Whistler’s Mountain.

Taking the Jasper SkyTram cable car to the top of Whistler’s Mountain is a real highlight. Source: Tourism Jasper.

The most fun activity, however, was a ride with Jasper Motorcycle Tours. Dressed in provided bikers’ leathers, I slotted myself into a sidecar and took a tour to the Mount Athabasca lookout. My driver Rod told me to keep an eye out for bears, but I didn’t spot any; I was happy with the spectacular mountain views.

I’m leaving town on a train that will take me from Alberta through northern British Columbia, along 1160 kilometres of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Opened in 1914 to haul goods to the Pacific Ocean port of Prince Rupert, it’s still a busy freight route. It’s also a public transport lifeline for locals, including remote Indigenous communities without road access.

It’ll take two days to reach Prince Rupert. However, rather than this being a sleeper train, the journey is broken at the city of Prince George where passengers stay overnight. From the sightseer’s point of view, this ensures not a scenic moment is lost to darkness.

In addition to regular seating, selected departures in summer offer Touring Class. Passengers in this section have access to two carriages: one with seating beneath a transparent roof, the other an observation car with comfortable armchairs and refreshments, and a raised area which enables a view from above the train’s roofline.

Given that we’re starting in the Canadian Rockies, it doesn’t take long for remarkable scenery to appear. A couple of hours in we pass Mount Robson, the highest peak in the range. An announcement tells us there’s only twelve days in the year when you can see the whole mountain – and we can see it today. It seems a good omen.

We’re soon running between two great mountain ranges – the Rockies to our right, the Cariboos to our left. As we progress, there’s the occasional small settlement to contrast with the lofty vista, such as Dunster with its distinctive heritage station and old-fashioned general store, surrounded by forest.

There’s an evening to pass when we reach Prince George, and it’s good to get out of the train and see the town. Top choices include Italian for dinner at Cimo, and a drink with live music or comedy at the popular pub Nancy O’s. After sampling the city’s nightlife, I reach my comfortable bed at the Ramada Hotel in the centre of town and get a good night’s sleep.

Refreshed, I’m back on the train the following morning as we head west through more open farming land, though there are still plenty of trees and waterways to admire.

Canada's train network runs through beautiful and remote parts of the country. Source: VIA Rail Canada.

Canada’s train network runs through beautiful and remote parts of the country. Source: VIA Rail Canada.

In the second half of the day, the landscape once more becomes dramatic and thinly populated, and we all have our cameras out as the highlights slide past. One of the best is Hudson Bay Mountain, on whose flanks can be seen the Kathlyn Glacier. Such a good view of a glacier from a train is rare, and we all feel buoyed by the sight.

Soon we meet the Skeena River, which will accompany us down to Prince Rupert, and roll past Indigenous villages such as Kitwanga, whose traditional totem poles are visible from the train. Directly after this we pass the Seven Sisters range, illuminated sharply by sunlight: a series of jagged snow-flecked peaks framed by sky above, and forest and river below.

At the town of Terrace, our train has to wait for a freight train to pass, so we’re able to disembark and have a wander. The beautiful railway station is a relocated 1914 timber residence, which contains a shop selling souvenirs.

We’re soon back on the move. Though we’re running behind schedule this produces an unexpected benefit: the train ends up rolling through twilight as we approach Prince Rupert, a radiant full moon emerging to hover above the rocky peaks, and glint in reflection on the Skeena River beside us.

It’s been a marvellous journey, and we passengers have bonded over the beautiful sights and onboard meals as we’ve progressed through our wild surrounds. I’m looking forward to experiencing Prince Rupert’s attractions, including the Museum of Northern British Columbia and the Northwest Coast First Nations Artists’ Studio, and tours to spot whales or grizzly bears.

But for the moment, I’m savouring the moonlight on the rails.

Tim Richards travelled as a guest of Destination Canada. Canada is home to many wild and wonderful rail adventures, including the Maritime Way through the country’s east, the Great Western Way through the heart of the Rockies and The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. Book now.

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