Friday, April 14, 2023

Four Great Train Trips In Canada!

What is it like to travel by train in Canada? What are the best train trips in Canada? Long-distance train travel in Canada is unique, scenic, and rewarding for those who enjoy an unhurried vacation. It appeals to those who appreciate conversations over dining hours or space around you as you read a book or work on your computer. It is especially welcoming for those who can be lulled to sleep by the gentle motion of the train car over the rails.

It is not about getting between destinations quickly, but about the views that you pass along the way, often in remote regions where lakes, forests, big sky, and small settlements greet you.

We often get asked if train travel is expensive in Canada? Commuter prices exist for economy seats between short-haul cities, but fares do rise when you add the comforts of sleeper cabins and all-inclusive dining. There are non-peak periods and discounted periods that help make the journey more affordable. Tours of Exploration will take the work out of it for you, by researching the best times to book and giving access to exclusive discounts. With this in mind, we present our four best rail journeys in Canada.

Four best rail journeys in Canada using Via Rail

The Rockies by rail – Vancouver to Jasper

Vancouver to Jasper by rail is undeniably one of the world’s most scenic trips as it includes the corridor through the heart of the great Rocky Mountains. In addition to the stunning landscape are frequent wildlife encounters viewed from the observation car. I recall on one trip being rewarded with sightings of a herd of elk almost camouflaged by the forest, some big horned sheep and a black bear ambling up a rocky ledge. This trip is enjoyable in any season. For true train lovers, there is The Canadian that continues to Toronto. This 4-night journey is best when done in Sleeper plus where slumber at night is in the comfort of a private cabin, then enjoy all meals in the dining lounge, as well as snacks in the observation car.

Schedule: Two times a week in each direction. Westbound departures are Saturdays and Wednesdays at 9:30 AM and arrive at 8:00 AM the next day. Eastbound departures are Mondays and Fridays at 3:00 PM and arrive at 11:00 AM the next day. Schedules may change.

The Skeena – Jasper to Prince Rupert

The Skeena journey travels 1,160 km between the Alberta Rockies and the North Pacific British Columbia Coast. This route once carried forest or mining products, agriculture, and settlers. Now it also connects beautiful sights to adventure travellers. It crosses from western Alberta and traverses the entirety of Northern British Columbia. It tunnels through mountains, crosses bridges over rivers, and you see historical frontier towns as you rail past. The scenery is dramatic, with vast stretches of wilderness between the smaller settlements. This train travels only during the daytime and once a week with an overnight hotel stop halfway in Prince George.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Yellowhead Pass, which is the highest part of the Skeena route!
  • Mt Robson, which is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies!
  • The mighty Fraser River and a few tributaries including Bowron and Nechako Rivers!

For those who are wanting more uniqueness, consider the BC Ferries Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy (approx. 16-20 hours). When I did this ferry trip in 2020, I booked myself a cabin (CAD 125) and a seat in the Aurora lounge (CAD $ 35), which made the trip super comfortable and even more special.
Schedule: Westbound departs Jasper once a week on Sundays and eastbound on Wednesdays.

The Hudson Bay route – Winnipeg to Churchill

The Hudson Bay Route is one of our most popular rail offerings as it coincides with our birds (June), belugas (July/August) or polar bear (October/November) tours in Churchill, Manitoba. I have personally taken the route on three occasions. One of my fondest was when my son Brandon was thirteen. I told him I would like to take him on a rail trip that would traverse 1700 kilometres (over 1,000 miles) of track over 2 days/nights from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Churchill on the shores of Hudson’s Bay. The big draw was a visit to the Polar Bear Capital of the world, and all the nature that comes from a visit to the sub-Arctic. We each had our sleeper compartments that converted to single seats across the aisle from each other during the day. There was no WIFI to remove one from the moment, and so meals in the dining car and conversations with other travellers became purposeful. Prairie fields and Boreal forests are interrupted by small lakes under a big sky and many small rural stations where commuters boarded or disembarked. It was during the second of the two nights onboard that my sleep was cut short by an excited voice outside my cabin – “Mom, come and see the Northern lights.” Indeed, the sky, ablaze with colour, was visible from his side of the train car. We both lay on his bed with our heads looking out the big window, amazed at the unbelievably beautiful hues dancing in the night sky. As we neared Churchill, the train slowed to a crawl, noticing the transition of landscape from Boreal Forest to Taiga with its stunted trees. An arrival bonus was a flock of ptarmigan.

Schedule: The northbound train leaves Winnipeg at 12:05 on Tuesdays and Sundays and is scheduled to arrive in Churchill two days later at 09:00 however delays can occur, and one should always be prepared to miss out on a few hours of Churchill time, hence don’t schedule any non-refundable tours for the morning! Southbound leaves on Thursdays and Saturdays departing at 7:30 pm and arriving at 4:45 pm.

The Ocean – Montreal to Halifax

The Ocean Journey is 1346 kilometres over one night and one day and crosses three Eastern Canadian Provinces (Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia). I have great memories of this route as it was my first overnight journey when I was just twelve. I had been invited by my grandmother who wanted to visit two naval sons and seven grandchildren, they being my cousins who I had never met. The disembarkation point was the Eastern terminus of the Transnational rail network. We had a lower and upper berth sleeper that converted to seats in the day. At night a thick curtain offered privacy. Seat sleeper plus cabin upgrades include meals and for those on a budget – economy seats still provide seating comfort and large windows to view the passing scenes. As this is a commercial route there are fewer scenic sections than trains in the West and North, but the experience is still lovely. You can also start the trip in Toronto, or add experiences in French-speaking Canada or the Maritimes.

Schedule: Three times a week in each direction. Westbound departs Montreal Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 1:00 pm arriving at 10:03 am the next day. Eastbound departs Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 7:00 pm arriving at 5:51 pm the next day.

Tips for travel in Canada on VIA Rail

  1. Check the cawebsite for routes and dates.
  2. We have contract rates for VIA rail so contact us for availability or discounted travel available for long haul sleeper berths and cabins.
  3. Plan your journey well in advance and obtain travel information from the Provincial Tourism departments to get a sense of what to do to complement the rail journey before you go.
  4. Consider stopping enroute to explore one of the National Parks the railway passes nearby. Several of our tour operators can assist with transportation and tours. Car rental companies are also available. Consider purchasing one or both National Geographic guide books that showcase Canada’s National Parks(42 of them), or our National Historic Sites (236 of them are represented in the book).
  5. Consider staying in one of the historic former Canadian Pacific Hotels that lie along the TransCanada rail route.
  6. Have a pair of binoculars handy for wildlife spotting enroute.
  7. Be prepared for delays. Many of the trains can be delayed for a variety of reasons. Bring a journal, good book, deck of playing cards or brush up on interesting topics for conversation with travel mates or those or meet in the dining or lounge cars.

Put these tips into action, and experience one of Tours of Exploration’s very own curated train-travel tours through the Canadian Rockies or to Churchill. 

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Catherine Evans
Catherine Evans is the owner of Tours of Exploration, a licensed agency in British Columbia, and an instructor in the School of Tourism & Hospitality at Royal Roads University.


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