Travel: On track to the Canadian Rockies

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

This year, Canada’s iconic Rocky Mountaineer train celebrates its 25th anniversary

Dangling only metres above a grizzly bear, whose gaze has locked directly with mine, is not an entirely comfortable experience.

As the bear ambles along a rough track, I look down from the safety of my gondola at one of western Canada’s premier ski resorts.

This beautiful wilderness east of Vancouver in the Rocky Mountains attracts up to four million visitors a year.

The area opened up to tourism more than a century ago with the railway line from the east, and I’m retracing the most scenic part of the route in style, on full-service train The Rocky Mountaineer.

My bear encounter takes place in Banff, Canada’s first national park, and is one of the highlights of the trip.

Banff National Park is a World Heritage site covering more than 6,600sq km of Rocky Mountain territory.

Founded in 1883, after workers went looking for gold and instead found hot springs at what is now The Cave and Basin National Historic Site, it became a magnet for tourists and explorers.

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, who oversaw the building of the spectacular railway line, said: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

My two-day trip begins when I board the First Passage to the West service in Vancouver. My luggage is transported separately to overnight hotel accommodation, so I can comfortably settle into my carriage.

The Scottish bagpiper send-off reminds me that this railway was founded by a Scotsman and part-financed by Britain’s Barings Bank.

The train, newly decked out in dark blue and gold paint, traverses “avalanche alley”, where numerous rock shed tunnels protect the line from falling boulders. Pine trees cling to dry slopes forming a stubbly line along ridges.

The train makes its way leisurely around long sweeping bends while big horned sheep scamper away, and it coasts through the isolated ghost town of Walhacin, populated by English gentry and then abandoned at the onset of the Great War.

We skirt a former quarantine centre for tuberculosis victims, now just a few wooden agricultural sheds.

We approach the city of Kamloops, high on a desert plateau and with a small town feel, where we break up our journey by staying the night, an integral part of passengers’ trip, at the Thompson Hotel.

The second leg of our adventure proves to be even more dramatic.

The train enters spiral tunnels, corkscrewing dramatically through the mountains.

Near the Continental Divide, the highest point in North America, the serrated edges of the Rockies protrude, leading to great peaks like Castle Mountain.

We finally arrive at Banff, where I check into the Caribou Lodge & Spa for a few days.

An engineer who helped build the train line wrote of Banff: “It will be a great resort for tourists and madmen who like climbing mountains at the risk of breaking their necks.”

I shun the daredevil treks for a more leisurely route, admiring the fragile alpine flowers bursting through the melting snow.

I’m told Lake Louise Ski Resort, where the Prince and Duchess of Cambridge honeymooned, offers my best chance of a bear close encounter.

“You’re on your own watch if you go out there without a guide,” my host warns.

I think of the grizzlies below the gondola and decided to sit back and have another beer.