UPDATE May 2016: The “there-and-back-again” service from Vancouver to Whistler described in this story is no longer available, but if you love trains as much as the author there are still options for getting your fix. The Rocky Mountaineer now offers the Rainforest to Gold Rush Route, a three-day journey starting in Vancouver that winds through the Coast Mountains, along the gold rush trail into the BC Interior and through the Rocky Mountains to Jasper, with an overnight stop in Whistler. The folks at Whistler.com can give you more information about the new service and help you book your ride.
“I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend…”
If you hang around the West Coast/yoga crowd long enough (like four seconds) you’ll likely hear someone say something about how “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And that is totally true. Whistler is a destination however– one of the best destinations on the planet– but that doesn’t mean you should neglect the journey to get there. Last week, Whistler Insider editor Feet Banks hopped aboard the Rocky Mountaineer with his son for a day of riding the rails on the Whistler Sea to Sky Climb. After a trip from Vancouver up into the Coast Mountains and back again Feet has decided the train is the only way to roll and he’s got a Top 5 list to prove it. All Aboard!!
All photos by Lauren Joan Photography
Top 5 Reasons the Rocky Mountaineer Train Is Awesome
1. Stress Free
As soon as you step aboard the Rocky Mountaineer your worries melt away— no traffic, no snow tires, no stoplights, no problems. Rail travel is all about style, comfort and class so all there is to do is sit back and enjoy the ride— especially if you book the Rocky Mountaineer “Dome Service” which includes hot meals and cool beverages served in-seat in the upper level of the dining car. The extra height and domed glass ceiling offers first-class views the entire journey (except in the almost 1 KM-long Horseshoe Bay tunnel, where the darkness beyond the windows is so thick it’s hard to know if you’re even moving). Happy hour anyone?
2. Lots of Scenery
All that time spent not staring at the road translates into ample opportunity to enjoy the stunning wilderness of the Sea to Sky corridor. Starting with the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver the entire 115 KM ride to Whistler is essentially one fantastic viewpoint after another and the engineer kindly slows down at key locations so everyone has a good chance to enjoy the sights. From the ocean vistas of Anvil Island and Howe Sound to the looming granite of Squamish’s Stawamus Chief to a glimpse over the edge of 70-meter Brandywine falls the Rocky Mountaineer is basically an unrelenting photo op all the way to Whistler.
Plus, as the train twists through the steep walls Cheakamus Canyon travelers get views of the rapids and waterfalls that are invisible from the highway–it’s a fresh perspective on the true magnificence and power of the river. A longtime Whistler tour operator once told me if his guests take five photos on their trip that means it’s a good tour. I took 147 photos while aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.
3. A Ride Through History
People have been riding the rails in passenger cars for over 300 years and the railways played an instrumental role in building and connecting Canada. The Rocky Mountaineer follows an old Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) rail line that dates back to 1912 and they keep that era alive with the historical “Henry Pickering” open-air observation car. Built in 1914, the Henry Pickering is beautifully restored and gives travelers a taste of railway history as well as a chance to get some wind in their hair.
In every car, on-board hosts provide great historical anecdotes and commentary about significant waypoints along the line. Learn about the history of the Britannia Beach old copper mine or the farming pioneers of Brackendale. Ever wonder how Brandywine Falls got its name? How about Whistler’s early days as a fishing camp? The Rocky Mountaineer is a ride through history.
4. The Human Connection
People love to wave at trains. So much of the ride aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is spent watching the world wave at you, with smiles on their faces. In West Vancouver there’s an elderly lady named Nina who’s been waving at every Rocky Mountaineer that passes her apartment for the past 8 years. It’s a tiny, simple detail but there are very few other instances in life where total strangers will be so happy to see you that they’ll take the time to smile and wave. This doesn’t happen on the highway, or in the airport, or even walking down the street (except in Whistler where the locals have been known to high-five just about anyone after an epic powder or bike park day). There’s just something special about being on a train– people wave, you wave back, and everyone becomes a part of something larger. It’s called humanity.
5. Kids Love Trains
Kids are people too but they seem to love trains way more than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the sheer size and mass of a string of linked railcars or maybe it’s the unmistakably unique sound of a train whistle but kids, especially mine, adore “choo choos.” And while it saddens me that my son will grow up in a world without cabooses I am lucky enough to live near the tracks so whenever the Rocky Mountaineer rolls past it’s a highlight of my kid’s day.
“That’s the Rocky Mountaineer Dad,” he explains. “Not a freight train.”
And so no one had a better time on our journey to Whistler than my four-year-old son. We explored every car and spent hours staring out the windows of the Henry Pickering. We saw the sights and smelled the smells and I can’t count the number of times I heard, “whooahhhh.” At the end of it all, I asked him what was his favourite part of the ride was. The tunnels? No. The waterfalls? No. The pancake breakfast? Seeing the salmon spawning in the rivers? The ice cream cone in Whistler? Nope, none of those.
“It was when we passed the other Rocky Mountaineer!” He said. I was surprised at first– we had passed another Rocky Mountaineer train at the Squamish rail yard awaiting use on one of the other tour routes. It was just an empty train sitting there quietly doing nothing. But my son insisted, “That was so cool”.
It took me a while to understand but I think I figured it out. He didn’t see an empty train in a maintenance yard, he saw another adventure just about to begin.