Covid-19 Editor's Note: We took this beautiful train trip before the global pandemic hit. Train travel in Canada is slowly returning to service with a reduced schedule still in affect and new protocols on board. Air travel to Canada remains strict with mandatory 14-day quarantines and negative testing requirements.
ALBERTA, Canada — It's 7:22 a.m. on a cold Tuesday morning. The moon is still up, illuminating the snow-capped pine trees and royal blue sky. My iTunes somehow knows to cue up Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" as I stare through frosted windows at the landscape I'm streaming through. I am on a train in northwest Canada in absolute winter wonderland heaven.
I've always been enamored of train travel. The promise of a romantic, off-the-grid adventure. The anticipation of what lies beyond the next windy bend. The open, untarnished landscapes impossible to reach by other means.
So when I was invited to spend the night on a sleeper car on VIA Rail's The Canadian, traveling from Vancouver to Jasper National Park and beyond to Banff, it was an effortless yes. The Banff and Jasper Winter Magic trip, organized by Vacations By Rail, a tour operator specializing in luxury rail journeys around the world, would take me deep into the Canadian Rockies, through high-altitude glaciers, frozen waterfalls, and sub-Alpine forests, winding along the Continental Divide through the scenic Ice Field Parkway.
VIA Rail's Canadian was built in the 1950s and modeled on the iconic, streamlined, stainless steel California Zephyr. Its route runs coast-to-coast from Vancouver to Toronto, the second longest train journey in the world, spanning five provinces and more than its fair share of striking scenery. Aesthetics abound, in spacious sleeper cabins, a nostalgic dining room, and glass-domed lounge cars that are elevated above the train for unobstructed views. While Canada shows off its beauty in every season — charming mountain towns, cerulean blue glacier lakes, incredible hiking trails, and active wildlife — there's something about seeing the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains frozen and dressed in winter whites. It's just magical.
All Aboard! A Night on the Magical Polar Express
I make my way to the VIA Rail Vancouver train station and send my last essential emails and texts in the departure lounge. Frankly, I am excited to unplug for 24 hours of limited WiFi and cell service. Once it is time to board, I am escorted to a Sleeper Plus Cabin built for two, with leather lounge chairs that convert into Murphy-style beds, a small closet, and a sink and toilet. After settling into my room, I make my way to the departure lounge, where I am greeted with champagne before the train breaks from the station.
The dining car wouldn't be out of place in a Wes Anderson film with its lime green walls, rounded etched-glass windows, sweetheart booths, and near perfect symmetry. The service is exceptional, and the food is better than I had anticipated: a simple vegetable soup to start, followed by wild Canadian salmon and roasted veggies. I heard an older couple within earshot rave about the cheesecake. They are right.
After playing a lively round of Scattergories in the lounge with others passengers, I head back to my cabin to find my room turned down for nighttime, reading lights at the ready, with ear plugs and a chocolate on my pillow. The bed is more spacious than it looks, and I am quickly rocked to sleep by the train.
I wake up feeling rested, and the anticipation of sunrise views makes me spring out of bed. While the train is heated, I can feel the sub-zero temperatures between the frosted train doors as I make my way from the cabin to the dome car. I've been dreaming of watching the sunrise over the mountains for weeks, and I sneak up to the front of the car to watch the silver bullet tearing through the snowy forest. I order a "shot in the dark" from the bar, a train specialty of fresh coffee with a shot of espresso and whipped cream. It's delicious. I hear murmurs from the onboard attendants that, given the clear skies and frigid temperatures (-20 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping), there's a good chance we will see Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet.
The sun begins to break through the frosty peaks, and I make my way back to the dining car for breakfast. I order a warming tofu scramble bowl and a second shot in the dark. The large windows of the dining car have no blind spots. I see nothing but picture-perfect scenes in the wintry no man's land.
Five hours of windy twists and turns takes us past a series of peaks — each more beautiful than the last, as if that is possible. The train is approaching its first stop and my final destination, Jasper National Park. The conductor has informed all passengers that temperatures continue to drop (we're now at -34 degrees) and to bundle up before departing the train. At this point, I'm a little nervous for such an extreme cold shock, but also excited for that first frozen breath. (I'm a California girl, and this is a novelty.) As I collect my bags on the approach to the train station, I decide that I could easily spend the rest of the winter winding through the mountains from sunrise to sundown.
Plan Your Trip
Choose Your Route
Vacations By Rail's nine-day Banff and Jasper Winter Magic tour includes one night in a Sleeper Plus cabin on VIA Rail's The Canadian, seven nights of hotel accommodations, including stays at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and Fairmont Banff Springs, wildlife tours, transfers to and from the station, and the majestic Maligne Canyon ice walk in Jasper (rates start at $2,582). (You can read more about it here.)
Travelers who want to start their journey from the West Coast can board in Vancouver on Tuesday departures for the overnight journey to Jasper, with dinner and lunch included in the Sleeper Plus and Prestige cabin fares.Travelers from the East Coast can start their train journey in Toronto, spending two nights aboard and arriving in Jasper on day three. Once in the cozy mountain town of Jasper, visitors can lose a few happy days exploring Jasper National Park spending time with the healthy population of elk, moose, wolves, and deer, skiing at Marmot Basin, and snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing through the countryside. From Jasper, head four hours north to Lake Louise and then on to Banff National Park. The road trip is a stunner, even if the journey is one of unpaved roads and unpredictable wildlife. (Read: Don't skimp on the insurance when renting a car.) Vacations By Rail can assist with any itinerary in the area.
Choose Your Class
The overnight train has several different accommodations.
Economy cabins, the most affordable option, include standard seating but no sleeper cars, access to the train's dome cars, and a la carte meals for an additional cost. Rates from $110.
Sleeper Plus cabins offer single or double rooms with twin beds, a private sink and toilet, a small closet, and meals in the fine dining car. The private dome car and bar that's reserved for Prestige passengers in the summer high season is available to Sleeper Plus passengers in the winter. Rates begin at $597.
The train's highest service, Prestige class, offers cabins that are 60 percent larger than the Sleeper Plus with a full-sized bed, plush linens, private shower with heated bathroom floors, TV, personal bar, and room service. The ticket also includes unlimited drinks at the train's only full-service bar, pre-dinner appetizers, and exclusive access to the Prestige lounge and dome car. Attendants point out the upcoming landmarks and sites along the way. Double cabins begin at $2816 or $1408 per person.
When to Go
January and February are the ideal months to travel as the rates are lower, the trains are less crowded, and the staff has more time to share their "tales of the rails."
What to Pack
The cold snap that I experience of -40 degrees was unusual, but less extreme sub-zero temperatures are typical for January and February. Bring insulated layers, a covering for your face, warm boots, and multiple packs of hand and toe warmers.