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Riding the rails through the Canadian Rockies

“Bear on the left!” “Moose on the right!” were the cries I heard over and over on my two-day train journey through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Eventually I spotted not only a bear on the left, but also several bald eagles, as well as First Nation totem poles and a spectacular view of the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Throughout the ride, I also saw gorgeous fall foliage, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and coastal mountains (but no moose).

Spectacular views of wildlife and scenery are what draw travelers to VIA Rail’s Skeena train journey, along with its low price tag for economy-class and senior discounts. After embarking on the journey myself, I can safely say that it is better suited to those who don’t mind taking things slow, and may not be for everyone.

The trip

VIA Rail operates Canada’s passenger train service, with trains running all over the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Rockies to the Appalachians. It runs more than a dozen trips, including the Skeena.

The Skeena journey covers 725 miles in two days beginning in Jasper, Alberta, and ending in Prince Rupert, British Columbia (or vice versa). Passengers can begin the trip on either end, and both eastbound and westbound trips overnight in Prince George, so most sightseeing is done in daylight. Overall, passengers will spend roughly 19 hours total on the train. (Accommodations in Prince George are not included in the ticket price.)

The train travels through the Canadian Rockies in Alberta and British Columbia, with views of Mount Robson, the range’s highest peak, and Yellowhead Pass (the continental divide) and passes plains, rivers, lakes, canyons, and small villages along the way. In addition to bears, moose, and bald eagles, you may also see coyotes, deer, elk, wolves, or hawks.

Jasper, home to Canada’s largest national park, has loads of adventure activities. Spring, summer, and fall offer river-rafting, kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking, while winter brings skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and dog-sledding. Wildlife viewing is possible (and practically unavoidable) year-round.

Prince Rupert is a small costal city, up-and-coming cruise port, and gateway to Alaska, Vancouver Island, and the Queen Charlotte Islands. More than 10,000 years of First Nations history is represented in Prince Rupert, and is close to a hundred-year-old fishing village and cannery. Highlights include visits to Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary, Khutzeymateen Valley, whale-watching cruises, and sport fishing.

The details

The Skeena has three classes of service, Comfort (economy), Totem, and Totem Deluxe (first class). Comfort-class is available all year, but the Totem cars are only available during peak season (mid-May to mid-October). The main perk of Totem Deluxe is the glass-enclosed “Panorama” car, with windows on each side, of course, and above. Both Totem and Totem Deluxe have access to the domed observatory car known as the “Park Car.” Comfort-class travelers do not have access to the observatory car in peak season, but can use it during the off-peak months.

Comfort fares are the least expensive, starting at $103 CAD, not including taxes or meals. (Comfort-class passengers can purchase food onboard.) Totem fares start at $533 CAD, and Totem Deluxe fares are start at $633 CAD; both include meals but not taxes. VIA Rail offers two-for-one companion fares for seniors in Comfort class, as well as student and child discounts for all classes.

Skeena journeys depart Jasper and Prince Rupert on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays throughout the year.

Is it for you?

A trip on the Skeena is an affordable (in economy, at least) way to tour Canada, and experience two very different cities while soaking in the scenery between. But, to enjoy the Skeena, you must appreciate traveling at a leisurely pace.

As the train departed from Jasper, I was apprehensive about the idea of two long days on a train—about seven hours one day, followed by 12 the next (and that’s without any delays). Ordinarily, the Skeena is geared towards mature travelers (hence the hefty senior discount), and my journey was composed mostly of seniors on a tour from the U.K. To my surprise, however, the time passed enjoyably, if not quickly.

In Totem Deluxe, we were a lively bunch, and when not peering out the windows for wildlife, chatting, and snapping photos, I spent the time reading, doing crosswords, and playing travel Scrabble. My traveling companions, who ranged from 25 to 60-something, enjoyed spending two days “unplugged,” away from Internet and cell phones. That being said, an iPod and portable DVD player would have helped pass the time.

The staff onboard the Skeena made the experience pleasant as well. Every person I encountered was friendly and knowledgeable about the areas we passed while on the train. Perhaps most importantly, they were also adept at pointing out wildlife along the way that otherwise we may have missed.

If you can turn off your cell phone and computer for a few days, and are eager to sit back and relax while soaking in western Canada, the Skeena is an economical, unique way to travel.

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