Our complete overview of Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West train journey from Vancouver to Banff.
If you have ever seen a postcard from Canada, there’s a high chance that the picture will be of the stunning and inspiring Canadian Rockies, the jagged mountain range that sits between British Columbia and Alberta.
For years travellers have been flocking to this place in search of epic views and fun adventures in the heart of the planet’s most picturesque peaks.
There are numerous ways to travel through this part of Canada, but for many who are ticking off things from their travel bucket list, taking a train journey onboard Rocky Mountaineer is the ultimate dream.
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Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West Review
As Canada’s premier luxury train operator, Rocky Mountaineer takes guests on a number of various routes through the Great White North’s magnificent mountains, with the most popular one being the First Passage to the West.
Connecting Vancouver in BC with Banff in Alberta, this two-day tour travels right through some of the country’s most diverse scenery.
From the bustling metropolis of Vancouver through to the farmlands of the Fraser Valley, into the Selkirk Mountains and finally high into Canada’s Rockies, this may be the most spectacular train journey in the world.
We travelled on Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West in 2018 and were blown away by not only the views but also the level of service onboard.
Here’s our experience of what it is like to travel on the First Passage to the West.
Day 1 – Departing Vancouver
After 3 days in Vancouver exploring the incredible city, we were picked up from our hotel, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, at 6:30am and transferred by luxury coach to the train station just outside of the city centre.
Despite the early start we were already making friends with the other guests before we had even left the hotel. Everybody was of course extremely excited to be travelling on the legendary Rocky Mountaineer, and the conversations flowed easily.
Upon arrival at the station we were met with fresh juice and coffee, and a phenomenal pianist was setting the mood with classic versions of popular songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody.
We mingled with the other guests and snacked on pastries before one of the hosts stood up on stage to welcome us to the upcoming adventure.
The host gave a great introduction, and informed everybody how the boarding procedures would unfold. She then brought out a bell, which would be rung to announce the commencement of boarding.
Rather than her ringing it though, she called out someone’s name and asked if they would come to the stage. It was their 60th birthday that day, and the host gave them their honour of starting the trip with vigour and enthusiasm.
The doors to the platform opened, and we all spilled out to have our first up-close glimpse of the shining blue and gold of the Rocky Mountaineer coaches.
Armed with our boarding passes we headed to our corresponding coach and were greeted by the team who would be looking after us for the next few days.
Being in GoldLeaf Service we were lucky enough to be travelling in one of Rocky Mountaineer’s iconic double-decker coaches.
We wandered up the stairs and were immediately amazed by the glass dome ceiling that has been made famous in train aficionado circles for years.
Two rows of large, leather seats flocked either side of the coach, and the panoramic windows would offer uninterrupted views of the epic landscapes to come.
As we took our seats one of the hosts came by with a hot towel, and showed us the controls for the chair. It was fully automated, could recline a substantial way with the leg rests rising at the push of a button, and surprisingly had heaters built into it.
We kicked back and got ready for what would be an epic journey along Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West.
The train lurched out of Vancouver station, and we slowly made our way through the outskirts of the city and into the countryside.
Despite the early start everybody was eagerly chatting away, getting to know those around them and pointing out various highlights from the huge glass dome ceilings.
Aleisha, one of the hosts on our coach, jumped on the PA and explained how the meal timings would work. Our coach would be split into two so as not to crowd the dining room, with the groups alternating between first and second sittings each day.
We were in the first group today, and headed downstairs to enjoy breakfast.
The dining cart was bright and spacious, and we were directed to a booth set up for 4 guests. Part of what Rocky Mountaineer does for mealtimes is partner up different people so you can get to know the other guests onboard.
We sat down, and soon two ladies from New York City joined us. They were incredibly bubbly, and we instantly got along well with the two friends.
The breakfast menu had a variety of options, from large spreads of eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and bacons to healthier options such as granola and fresh fruit.
An unlimited amount of tea and coffee was flowing too, which was well received considering the early start we had.
As we dined, we watched the landscape slowly change from urban to rural, and industrial factories were replaced with barns and rolling farmland.
The marvellous vistas had already begun.
Into the Fraser Valley
After a satisfying breakfast we headed upstairs to our seats and settled in for the journey through the Fraser Valley.
The Fraser Valley is a huge basin around the Fraser River outside of Vancouver that is famous for its lush hills and deep canyons.
For those travelling on the First Passage to the West it is also the first glimpse of British Columbia’s stunning interior mountains.
The atmosphere was lively inside the coach, and the hosts kept things bubbling along with rounds of champagne, Caesars (Canada’s superior version of a Bloody Mary), and Baileys mixed with coffee.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from the comfort of our seats and headed downstairs to the outdoor viewing platform.
One of the highlights was crossing by Hell’s Gate, the narrowest point of the Fraser River at only 34m wide. Here the outdoor viewing platform filled with the guests, all eager to set their sights on the natural formation.
The hours started to pass by casually, and the guests continued to chat amongst each other on the top deck of the coach.
The outside landscape continuously changed, with the rolling pastures being broken up with long runs of pine forest.
There was never a dull moment, with the hosts walking around cracking jokes, topping up glasses of wine and taking the time to get to know each guest onboard.
When it came time for lunch we headed downstairs and joined another lovely couple from Canada, who were finally ticking off the Rocky Mountaineer from their on personal travel bucket list.
The menu was something to behold. We had heard amazing things about the food onboard Rocky Mountaineer, but to see gourmet delicacies like merlot-braised beef short ribs and mustard seed steelhead salmon being served on a train was pretty sensational.
While we dined and chatted with our new friends the wine seemed to never stop pouring, and once dessert was finished we headed back upstairs to relax in our seats feeling quite content.
A Night In Kamloops
The terrain outside of Kamloops is quite unique, and after the lush pastures of the Fraser Valley the landscape around Kamloops almost has a desert feel to it.
The sandstone formations are peculiar with interesting shapes twisting upwards from the rails, and the Black Canyon is lovely to see as the train passes beneath its shale.
Our timing into Kamloops was perfect, and as we crossed the river to enter this interior BC town the sun started to set over the horizon.
Soon enough our magnificent first day onboard Rocky Mountaineer had come to an end, and it was here that we would be spending the night.
Kamloops has been growing in popularity over the last few years, and today it is a buzzing and vibrant place with street art, excellent restaurants and funky bars.
Once we disembarked from the train we jumped on the waiting buses to take us to our hotel. We were staying at the Four Points by Sheraton, which was a superb accommodation with a central location.
The sky started to turn to fire, so we dropped our backpacks off into the room and bolted down to the river, where we found ourselves down at the pier with a few other people from the train.
Afterwards we swung by the Noble Pig for a craft beer and deep-fried pickles – something that all of the hosts had been raving about. And boy did it live up the expectations.
Kamloops is a great stop during the train journey, and gives a brilliant view into what a picturesque working Canadian town is like, away from the tourist hotspots of Vancouver and Banff.
Day 2 – Into the Mountains on the First Passage to the West
It was an early start today, and we loaded up the buses to take us back to the station while the sky was still dark.
The plan was to get onboard the train and depart Kamloops before sunrise. The boarding went smoothly and we were soon relaxing in our seats with a coffee in hand, chugging westward towards the mountains.
Our hosts came through the coach and checked how everyone was doing after our lovely stopover in Kamloops. Despite the early morning we were all doing great, and excited to enter the Canadian Rockies later in the day.
As we travelled further from town the sun started to rise, and we were treated to a kaleidoscope of pastel colours painted across the sky.
The huge glass dome ceilings allowed the vivid sunrise to completely surround us, and everybody had their cameras out snapping pictures.
The first group was called down to breakfast, which meant Alesha and I had more time to relax in our chairs sipping on coffee and watching the world pass us by.
Occasionally we would head out to the open air viewing platform at the back of the carriage, but the chilly temperatures kept driving us back in to our heated seats.
It wasn’t long before it was our time to enjoy breakfast though, and we were joined by another lovely couple from Australia. We absolutely loved the opportunity to get to know the other passengers onboard during these mealtimes.
The scenery quickly changes outside of Kamloops, and we began to enter the interior mountains British Columbia is famous for.
Here the farmland made way for dense forests, and high above the train we started to catch glimpses of jagged peaks.
The views from the top floor of GoldLeaf Service really are on another level in figuratively and literally. Being this high allowed us to see over the trees that lined the side of the railway, and the glass dome ceiling gave unobstructed views skyward.
The hours started to pass by, and we were all mesmerised by the views rising above us as the train twisted into the Monashee ranges.
Revelstoke and the Last Spike
The hosts soon made an announcement that we’d be passing Craigellachie and the Last Spike, the most important part of Canada’s entire railways.
It was here in 1885 that Canada’s east and west were finally fully connected by rail, and a ceremonial spike was driven into the ground to mark this historical position.
Today it is home to a small outdoor museum, and we were piled around the outdoor viewing platform to watch as we crossed the Last Spike.
The mountains got higher as we neared Revelstoke, however low-lying clouds and mist started to occupy the sky which gave the entire place a mysterious atmosphere.
Revelstoke is a town that was built by the logging and rail industries, and a huge rail yard occupies the edge of town where Rocky Mountaineer passes.
It is also the place where we personally spent an incredible 18 months living, and having been away from here for 7 years we were absolutely ecstatic to be passing by on the train that we had seen come through town so many times before.
Outside of Revelstoke the rails join up with the turbulent Illecillewaet River, and we followed its snaking path right through the Selkirk Mountains.
This area is known for the massive amounts of snowfall it receives every year, sometimes over 18m, and on either side of the tracks are huge avalanche paths that have cut down the mountains.
Because of this, special tunnels have been constructed in the most at-risk points, allowing the snow to slide right over the top of the rail line.
The clouds sunk lower the higher we got, but once we went over Roger’s Pass, one of the highest points in the entire train journey, we started to get more views of the mountains around us.
Coming through Golden, another one of British Columbia’s picturesque towns, we joined up with the legendary Kicking Horse River.
This snaking waterway got its name in 1858 when a doctor called James Hector was attempting cross the wild river during an expedition, and his horse kicked him in the chest.
It was dubbed Kicking Horse River, and today it is one of the best rivers for white-water rafting in the entire country.
We weren’t going to be diving into its glacial-fed waters though, and instead we could admire the beautiful, twisting rapids from the comfort of the coach.
The Spiral Tunnels
Our group was called for lunch and we enjoyed our final delicious meal onboard while the Kicking Horse River passed by beneath us and the precipitous peaks of the Canadian Rockies started to drift into sight.
We felt as though every few minutes we would step way from our meals and head onto the viewing platform to take more pictures or video – it was that stunning, and we couldn’t help ourselves.
Past Golden lies the tiny town of Field, and the start of one of Canada’s most spectacular feats of rail engineering, the Spiral Tunnels.
When British Columbia agreed to join the rest of Canada back in 1871 it was on the condition that they be connected via rail to the east.
The formidable Canadian Rockies were of course the biggest obstacle in this challenge, and after months of surveying the best passage through, they settled on the Kicking Horse Pass near Field.
Unfortunately the ‘Big Hill’ proved to be a dangerous choice, and after a fatal derailment and years of complications another solution was eventually developed.
Rather than go over the mountains, the railways would go through them in two long, winding tunnels. This had worked elsewhere in Europe, but never attempted in Canada.
1000 workers constructed two tunnels that turned 270 degrees at a safe gradient inside two hills on either side of the Kicking Horse River and spanned between by a bridge.
With the trains now able to climb the mountain pass at a steady pace, larger freight were able to be sent across the country and the rail age entered a new era.
These tunnels are still in use today, and Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West passes right through them.
As the Spiral Tunnels are only wide enough for one train at a time, and passenger trains are given the lowest priority on the rails in Canada, we had to spend some time waiting in Field for a clearing before we could start the climb.
We had finished our lunch before we started moving, and for those onboard who are fascinated with construction and engineering, or just have a love of train travel, going through the Spiral Tunnels was a tremendous moment.
Into The Rockies
The train exited the second tunnel at a much higher elevation and we began our final cruise through the Rockies towards Banff.
At this point the weather had turned, with rain pattering the outside of our glass dome ceilings, but despite the solemn clouds around us we could still see many of the Rockies’ legendary mountains and lakes.
The hosts made an announcement saying that around this part of the journey would be a good chance to spot wildlife, and even though the sun was starting to set, many of the passengers headed out to the viewing platforms to see what the could find.
We passed many rivers and lakes, and sure enough as if on cue we managed to spot a female moose standing in one of the rivers off in the distance.
Soon we came into Lake Louise, and some of the guests disembarked here to end their journey. We had chosen to go right through to Banff, and after only a few minutes we were on our way again.
The hosts came around with a manifest to confirm the hotels we were heading to in Banff. Rocky Mountaineer had already taken care of the check-ins again, and our bags would be waiting for us in our hotel rooms.
It was dark by the time we rolled our way into Banff, one of the most spectacular mountain towns on the planet, and we sadly gathered our things to disembark.
The crew helped everybody off the train and led us to the waiting buses that would take us the short drive to the hotels Rocky Mountaineer had organised for us when we booked the trip.
We loaded the buses and drove off, glancing back at the last views of the Rocky Mountaineer coaches and glistening train carriage.
The First Passage to the West route was one of the most visually stunning transport journeys we had ever undertaken, and the quality of service, food, comfort and luxury was on another level.
Even after three years living in Canada, having travelled all over the country, this trip became one of the best experiences we have ever had in the country.
If you’re looking for the ultimate journey to add to your Canadian travel bucket list, Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West will be hard to beat.