Luxury train travel is apparently how I was meant to see the world, and the Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff was a great introduction for me! Titled the First Passage to the West, this beautiful Canadian train trip is both high end and a very approachable way to see some of the most beautiful sights in western Canada. I’ve got all the details about what to expect on the Rocky Mountaineer, how to plan your complete Canadian dream trip and some bonus highlights from the train route.
Have you thought about taking the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff? If you’re looking for something to push you towards planning it, let me be the one to help you. We were so very impressed with the level of service and overall experience, that I’m happy to share it all. If you have any additional questions, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re all about helping others plan amazing trips!
About the Rocky Mountaineer Train
If you’re not familiar, the Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury train company that runs routes through the Canadian Rockies from Vancouver and in the American Rockies out of Denver. There are different levels of service you can book, from the top tier Gold Leaf Service to the more pared down but still amazing Silver Leaf Service.
Each train car has enormous windows that curve almost to the center of the car, providing breathtaking views of not just what’s beside you, but of the beautiful mountains, forests and eagles that fly above. You don’t sleep aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, but on each route stop in a town at your midway point and stay in a hotel, reboarding the train the next morning.
From incredible locally sourced meals, to wine and cocktails as you ride through the wilderness, it’s a pretty amazing way to travel.
Check out our article all about the Rocky Mountaineer Train Journey for complete details.
First Passage to the West Route: Train from Vancouver to Banff
For our first Rocky Mountaineer adventure we did the First Passage to the West (heading east). We started with a few days in Vancouver BC exploring the city and seeing some friends, and then we got to board the Rocky Mountaineer for our first day. Since the purpose is the journey as much as the destination, we went pretty slow on the way to Kamloops BC.
We spent the night in Kamloops and then continued up into the Rockies, with Lake Louise as our next stop. We stayed at the Chateau Lake Louise for a few nights while we enjoyed beautiful views, hikes and great food.
After Lake Louise we headed down to the town of Banff for a bit more exploring, including the Vermillion Lakes and the Bow River before ending our adventure in Calgary (not getting there via train).
Really, the Rocky Mountaineer is unlike any sort of trip I’ve been on before. This is all about relaxing and taking in the sights vs doing as much as possible. If you know me, that’s NOT how I roll, so having to relax and just take it in was a stretch for me, but the luxury of the train and traveling with cool people made it a breeze.
Starting in Vancouver BC
Because we did the First Passage to the West heading eastward, our port of origin was Vancouver, British Columbia. I’ve been to Vancouver many times, but usually just for the day or as a stop before taking the ferry to Victoria BC and Vancouver Island. Beginning in Vancouver for our Rocky Mountaineer trip was really starting us off on a high point.
Tip: if you’re planning your own Rocky Mountaineer experience leaving from Vancouver, you can arrive a few days early and explore the city, including side trips to Whistler BC or Vancouver Island.
For our time in Vancouver, we opted for the most British Columbia things to do possible. We rented bikes and rode through Stanley Park, went to art galleries, explored Granville Island and the public market, and even went on two different whale watching adventures (large catamaran and zodiac). Being out on the water before spending a few days on a train is a great way to get a varied experience of western Canada.
Before we even started on the Rocky Mountaineer First Passage to the West route we had a complete and epic vacation!
Hotel Options in Vancouver for Rocky Mountaineer Guests
One of the ways the Rocky Mountaineer is flexible for a variety of guests is by allowing them to choose their own accommodations for some of their travels. For us, since we boarded to head east for a journey from Vancouver to Banff on the train, we got to pick our Vancouver hotels before joining the Rocky Mountaineer.
We did a whole weekend in Vancouver before boarding, so we started at the Coast Coal Harbor Hotel for a few nights (good for the budget) and then had a night at the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel (perfect for the luxury elements). You’ll find a lot of guests of the Rocky Mountaineer book their prior nights at the Fairmont Vancouver, and in the morning there is a check-in desk and well organized exodus from the hotel leaving for the train depot.
And so begins the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West route.
Look for the right Vancouver BC hotel here:
Sights from Vancouver to Kamloops
Something I think is important to keep in mind if you’re starting your Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff is that you’re starting in the city. The first hour of your departure from Vancouver goes through the industrial part of the city and past a lot of the lumber and shipping areas, so it’s good to keep in mind that this is a part of the journey when you take the train from Vancouver to Banff.
As you continue, you get to follow the Fraser River for many miles. This is a great time to keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, all while getting accustomed to being on a moving train. It’s here during this unexciting part that you get acquainted with your onboard hosts, or train stewards. Morning coffee and pastries make way to breakfast service. By the time you’re settled in your journey really is under way.
I think what makes the first day of the train ride from Vancouver to Banff so interesting is how wildly different the scenery is at the start of the day versus the end. You begin in such an industrial area and then you smoothly transition to the countryside, and then that turns into valleys and canyons, and eventually into lake country. It’s just beautiful.
My favorite sights from day one of the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West Route included Hell’s Gate gorge (not to be confused with Hell’s Canyon to the south), the striking Rainbow Canyon and finally Kamloops Lake.
Overnight in Kamloops BC
Depending on the train traffic throughout the day, as the Rocky Mountaineer does share the tracks with freight trains too, you pull into Kamloops between 5:30 and 7:30 pm. You’ll leave the train via motorcoach (nice buses) for the short drive into downtown Kamloops. One of the cool things about this is the seamless portage of your luggage from Vancouver to your Kamloops hotel, as it’ll be waiting for you in your room.
There are a few options for where the Rocky Mountaineer’s guests may stay in Kamloops, but for our journey we were placed at the Delta Kamloops Hotel (with a rooftop hot tub!). We’ve stayed in Delta hotels before, specifically in Victoria BC, and enjoy them. If you aren’t placed at the Delta, you’ll be booked into very similar accommodations.
The fun part of being in Kamloops is going out for dinner in town. Remember, riding the Rocky Mountaineer is very much about the journey and then your starting and finishing destinations, so the short visit in Kamloops is just that: a short visit. It’s perfect for walking around, finding some dinner and delicious British Columbia wine from the Okanagan Valley, and just recharging for the next day’s train ride to Banff.
Sights from Kamloops to Banff
Wow. Day two of the train from Vancouver to Banff is just spectacular. Remember how I said that the scenery on day one changed so drastically from morning to night? Well, day two is even more incredible as you move from the river valleys of the Fraser and Shuswap past the headwaters of the Columbia River, the Kicking Horse River and up into the Rocky Mountains.
Traveling through Mount Revelstoke and Canada’s Glacier National Park, you see a very different side of British Columbia. Rolling through small towns and getting a history lesson along the way, day 2 is absolutely engaging. Also by now, you’ve started to socialize with others in your cabin, so the mood of this leg of the journey is quite up-beat. I love it.
If you’re into civil engineering (I know, totally niche interest), the sights along this part of the train route from Vancouver to Banff are awesome. Craigellachie, Canada’s version of Promontory Point in Utah, is where the railway across the country finally met. The Connaught Tunnel into Rogers Pass is five minutes+ of darkness as you travel straight through the mountain. The Stoney Creek Bridge is also amazing, being the highest bridge along the railroad lines. For this one you want to be sure to be outside on the platform to look down into the gorge below.
I’ve been to Banff many times and done the drive on the Trans Canada Highway more times than I can count. One stop we always make is at the roadside exhibit about the Spiral Tunnels. A fascinating feat of engineering, the Spiral Tunnels are two pigtail tunnels in the mountains that allow trains to safely gain or lose elevation over a short distance. It’s crazy to go through and then see how your elevation and relative position in the mountains changes. Super cool!
The last really stand-out sight you’ll see, and it’s completely different when you drive a car this way, is the Kicking Horse Canyon. Icy, glacial blue waters rage through this narrow, winding canyon and seeing it from the train is just astounding. For me, this was really one of the most beautiful sightseeing moments of the train from Vancouver to Banff.
Arrival and Time in Banff National Park
When you near the end of your journey on the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West you’ll either be disembarking at Lake Louise or the Banff train station. You’ll be making this decision when you first book your passage on the train to Banff. Whichever you choose, you’ll be able to experience each destination within Banff National Park on your own if you’re planning some time in the area after you’re done with your train trip.
On this specific Banff trip with the Rocky Mountaineer we started at Lake Louise for a few nights, doing hikes and just enjoying the beautiful hotel, and then we rented a car to see more of the National Park as we ended in the town of Banff. Having our own car was great to be able to stop where we wanted. We actually took a little side trip to pop over to Yoho National Park to visit the gorgeous Emerald Lake and Natural Bridge.
For our sightseeing within Banff National Park, we did the hike to the Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon, which is always a favorite of mine, and if you’ve got kids with you, it’s a very kid-friendly hike. From there, we took our time driving the Bow Valley Parkways stopping to watch wildlife (lots of bighorn sheep!) and just enjoy the beautiful blue Bow River.
Other stops in Banff National Park before checking into our hotel downtown included the Vermillion Lakes (where we saw a moose), Lake Minnewanka (more bighorn sheep), Two Jack Lake, the Hoodoos and the Cascade Ponds. It’s such a beautiful park, and if you’re taking the train from Vancouver to Banff it would be a shame to not try to see as much as you can in a day or two after your train journey.
Staying at the Chateau Lake Louise
As I mentioned, for our time doing the First Passage to the West on the Rocky Mountaineer we ended the train portion at the Lake Louise depot. We were fortunate enough to get to spend two nights at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. While all the rooms are very much top-shelf and immaculate, we were treated to the Fairmont Gold service for our stay. These rooms are on the top floors and have their own lounge with reception and services throughout the day. Whether you want to have a simple breakfast here or are stopping in for appetizers and wine in the afternoon, this added bonus really does elevate the luxury of the experience.
While at the Chateau Lake Louise we took advantage of the gym, the hot tub and pool, the daily hotel history presentation and so much more. I really enjoyed the guided hike along the shore of Lake Louise, which then inspired us to check out ice cleats from the concierge (complimentary) and go exploring on the trails on our own.
Please visit our article all about staying at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for much, much more information, including the scoop on the unforgettable dining at the hotel.
Banff Options for Rocky Mountaineer Guests
If you’re taking the train from Vancouver to Banff and ending in the town itself, you’ll find that it’s a really fun place to stay. Banff isn’t just a resort town, but a thriving mountain community. Elk and deer wander the streets, there is no shortage of great dining, and everywhere you look there is a great view of the Canadian Rockies.
When it comes to where to stay in Banff, if you’re booking this extension through the Rocky Mountaineer they’ll have a variety of accommodations at different price points to choose from. If you want to keep with the premium luxury, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, also known as the Castle in the Mountains, is beautiful and is a must visit even if you’re not staying there.
Another option in the town of Banff is the Peaks Resort. It’s directly downtown and is wonderfully modern and perfect for the outdoorsy Banff visitor. We had friends stay there and they had great feedback.
I, personally, love our stay at the Mount Royal Hotel on Banff Avenue. Occupying several historic buildings directly downtown, the Mount Royal Hotel has the coolest lobby and restaurant, easy (and inexpensive) parking, and very nice, refreshed rooms. The real winner of the Mount Royal Hotel is the rooftop deck. As you head toward the Columbia Lounge, a fun rec-room and happy hour space for guests, you’ll see there are two large rooftop hot tubs! Is there anything better than relaxing in a hot tub staring at the towering Canadian Rockies all around you?
Look for a hotel in the town of Banff here:
Extra Days Added on for Calgary, Alberta
Coming from an American point of view, traveling to Canada is very much an international experience and we like to maximize our time. Calgary is a great add-on to a Rocky Mountaineer trip. If you’ve already taken the train from Vancouver to Banff, you might as well continue on just that bit further, getting there by rental car or motorcoach. Calgary is absolutely worth taking time to visit.
After spending several days on the train and then a few days hiking and wildlife watching in Banff, having city time really is ideal. We enjoyed everything from art to shopping, eating our way around Calgary to relaxing in the many city parks (High Park is really cool!). One of the highlights was cocktails and dinner 40 stories above the street at Major Tom, which is one of the most enjoyable restaurant environments I’ve been to.
For our stay in Calgary, we got to continue our Fairmont journey with a few days at the Fairmont Palliser in downtown, directly next door to Calgary Tower. For being an older building AND a downtown hotel, our room was huge and beautiful. An amazing Romanesque pool and several dining experiences at the Hawthorne (the hotel restaurant) and it was the most perfect way to end this amazing Canadian train adventure.
Find a great Calgary hotel here:
Tips for the Train from Vancouver to Banff Journey
So, what can you do to make sure you really do have the best time on the train trip from Vancouver to Banff? I think to start, you need to have a plan that allows you to experience the Canadian Rockies and the British Columbia Coast. The Rocky Mountaineer is itself unforgettable, but it would be a shame to make the trek to western Canada and not explore beyond the train route. Having said that, here’s what I recommend for enjoying the actual time on the train.
I think it’s good to keep in mind that the train journey is very calm and peaceful, at times slow. While a lot of passengers are perfectly content to just enjoy the endless views on the train ride from Vancouver to Banff, some people may need more engagement or stimulation. We took advantage of the long ride across the Canadian landscape to get to know the others in our train car, as there was plenty of time for quiet conversation, both during meals and general passage time. And this included getting to talk with our onboard hosts, who were awesome.
Other ideas to help pass the time besides watching for wildlife and enjoying the mountain views include:
- Reading books and magazines (the Rocky Mountaineer magazine onboard is great)
- Cribbage and other easily portable games
- Journaling and writing (I did a lot of great writing onboard)
- Photography and reviewing photos of the journey so far
- Spending time on the outdoor platform, as it’s a very different view and train experience
There is no wifi aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, and cell service on the train from Vancouver to Banff is quite spotty, so relying on the internet for entertainment or engagement is NOT a good idea. I think this may impact those traveling with kids who like tablets more than most adults, but it’s good to keep in mind.
Wildlife to Watch From the Train from Vancouver to Banff
My only regret about riding the train across western Canada was that I wasn’t able to control the stops to watch wildlife. While the train does slow down as best as it can for wildlife spotting and watching, they cannot stop the train outright, as there is a schedule to keep and other trains are on the same tracks. That doesn’t mean you don’t see wildlife though, because there is lots to see!
On our train from Vancouver to Banff we saw countless bald eagles and osprey, swans, Canada geese, falcons and many more birds. When it comes to mammals we saw from the train, there were lots of deer, elk and bighorn sheep. I think my favorite wildlife moment was seeing a flock of bighorn sheep relaxing on the shore of Kamloops Lake.
Once in Banff we saw even more wildlife including magpies, loons, muskrats and even a bull moose. The moose we saw still hadn’t grown back his antlers for the season, but he was very big and ready for an awesome summer in a beautiful place.
If you’re a photographer and want to capture wildlife from the moving train, I recommend a simple lens, wide angle to 50mm, maxing out at 250mm. I used my 600mm lens only a few times and it was while the train was going very slowly. The motion is just too much for large lens shooting.
Dining on the Rocky Mountaineer
Dining aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is the most common question I’ve gotten. Everyone wants to know how the menus work and what items are available. I have the answers, but take the specifics to what we ate with a grain of salt, as the menu aboard the Rocky Mountaineer changes with the availability of locally sourced produce and products.
To start the day, morning pastries and coffee service begin soon after leaving the Rocky Mountaineer station This is followed by breakfast on the dining level for Gold Leaf and at your seat for Silver Leaf passage. There are more options on the menu for Gold Leaf passengers than Silver Leaf. We enjoyed eggs benedict, lemon pancakes, beautiful avocado toast and salmon lox.
For lunch, we ate some pretty delicious meals, including glazed pork tenderloin, locally sourced steelhead, steak and dungeness crab ravioli. And the desserts matched the creativity and deliciousness of the main courses.
Note: if you’re traveling on the Rocky Mountaineer with a food allergy or sensitivity, tell your stewards ASAP. They are well equipped to provide the same high quality meals to guests with limitations as guests that are able to just order from the provided train dining menu.
We enjoyed taking the train from Vancouver to Banff so very much. The Rocky Mountaineer is its own class of service and experience. Our added time in both Vancouver and Calgary made it one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and, without a doubt, my favorite trip through Canada in my whole life.
If you have any questions I didn’t answer or want to share your own experience, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re happy to share more and to help others plan amazing train travel experiences!
Tuesday 23rd of May 2023
Hi We are based in the UK and I've just enjoyed reading your experience on the Rocky Mountaineer trip. Out of interest, are the train journeys an early start from Vancouver & Kamloops? We are planning of doing this trip, but it won't be for a year or two. Many thanks, kind regards Trevor.
Wednesday 24th of May 2023
Great question! From Vancouver our start wasn't too early (I think we departed our hotel at 7:00 am and then had time at the station for coffee and tea and such). Our morning departing Kamloops was earlier, maybe 6:00 am, but it's very smooth and they take care of your luggage, so as long as you can get dressed and out your door you'll be fine.