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Unplugged, active: Rockies by rail

Bicycles parked in a rack in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
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The train rolled past snow-capped peaks, through pitch-black tunnels and over bridges spanning deep gorges with names like Hell's Gate and Jaws of Death as we made our way toward the dramatic peaks of the Canadian Rockies.

I was riding through British Columbia on a luxurious two-day train ride starting in Vancouver and ending in the stunning Jasper National Park.

I had come west as a guest of Rocky Mountaineer, a Canadian tour company, on a five-day trip that included one of their signature train journeys as well as activities in Vancouver and the Rocky Mountain Parks.

My adventures started in Vancouver with a boat ride out into the Howe Sound fjord just outside the city, where my group was lucky enough to spot a pod of young orcas, along with an adult orca, presumably the mother, trailing close behind, her massive dorsal fin knifing through the water.

After the boat ride, we were transported on the highway running alongside the deep, blue waters of the fjord to visit the Sea to Sky gondola, which rapidly ascends nearly 3,000 feet and offers incredible views of the surrounding peaks and the Howe Sound below.

The view from a Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf service dome coach.
The view from a Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf service dome coach.

The next two full days I spent aboard the train, stopping for a night in the town of Kamloops. Ambling through the countryside at an average pace of 35 mph, the relaxed pace gives passengers ample time to take in the scenery or snap some pictures from the outdoor vestibule. The GoldLeaf service offers a delicious breakfast and lunch served in the dining area of the car's first floor, with seating and views through the glass-domed roof on the second story. Friendly staff were quick to bring a cold beer or glass of British Columbian wine in between meals, while regaling us with history and facts about the surrounding region.

Rocky Mountaineer intentionally does not provide WiFi service so that passengers can fully appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside.

"At the end of the day, we want our guests to be looking out the window and seeing what nature here truly has to offer," said longtime train manager Sean Gurniak.

After two relaxing days of somewhat decadent eating and drinking, I was ready to get out and experience the outdoors, and Jasper was the perfect place to do it, an outdoor-lover's paradise if there ever was one. I was a guest of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, an establishment more than a century old that comprises luxurious log cabins and has played host to notables such as Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe and the Queen of England over the years.

Lac Beauvert (French for “Beautiful Green Lake”) in Alberta’s Jasper National Park.
Lac Beauvert (French for “Beautiful Green Lake”) in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson

The hotel is set just outside of town on the shores of the aptly named "Beautiful Green Lake" (Lac Beauvert) and features a scenic, award-winning golf course. Not wanting to waste any time in such a beautiful setting, I started my day there with a run around the lake, stopping briefly to admire an elk in the woods just off the trail, and then took a ride on the Jasper Skytram to take in the truly breathtaking views.

I ended the day with a mountain bike ride on some of the myriad trails around the hotel, followed by a very cold and quick dip in a pristine, turquoise lake. I only wished I had more time to experience some of the other activities offered, from hiking and kayaking to fishing and whitewater rafting.

My trip was rapidly coming to a close, but Rocky Mountaineer had saved the best for last: a bus trip from Jasper to Banff along the spectacular Icefields Parkway. This was the most dramatic scenery yet, the heart of the Canadian Rockies, passing by towering, snow-capped peaks, dozens of glaciers, and emerald-colored lakes. Along the way, my group was lucky to spot both a black bear and a grizzly bear, and we were even able to catch sight of a lone wolf — a fairly rare sight in the area — padding down the banks of the Athabasca River. We were also able to make a quick stop for a ride in the Ice Explorer, a massive all-terrain vehicle that takes groups out onto one of the Columbia Icefield glaciers.

My last stop of the trip was an overnight stay at the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs. With incredible views from my room, it gave me one last chance to take in the splendor of the Rockies before heading home.

For more information, visit www.rockymountaineer.com.

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