For many travellers, a train trip through the Rocky Mountains on the Rocky Mountaineer is high on their bucket list. Perhaps nostalgic for the days when pioneering steam trains first snaked their way through the Rockies, many crave a more relaxed form of travel enjoying views of desert, lakes and wildlife whilst being regaled by stories from the onboard carriage host. Visitors from around the world flock to the Rocky Mountaineer to sample fine wine and dining enticed by promises of luxury and sublime scenery. However, with a two-day trip costing over £1,000 a person, the Rocky Mountaineer is far from a budget trip. Although packages include overnight accommodation and all food and drink you need to be able to eat your own body weight to get your money’s worth on the face of it. So, the burning question for many is ‘is the Rocky Mountaineer worth the money?’
See what you think as we share our recent experience on the Rocky Mountaineer. For ease, we will rank each element with a star rating. 5 is the absolute best.
The Rocky Mountaineer offers three itineraries over two or three days through the Canadian Rockies. Each journey claims to ‘offer unique perspectives on incredible vistas’ as the train leisurely rumbles along tracks cut through swathes of otherwise inaccessible wilderness.
‘Journey Through the Clouds’ heads from Vancouver to Jasper via Kamloops over two days leaving on Tuesdays. It costs from £1,134 per person in SilverLeaf and £1,914 in GoldLeaf. We booked this trip in SilverLeaf for a June 2022 departure and paid £1248.32 each.
‘First Passage to the West’ travels from Vancouver to Banff over two days leaving on Mondays. It also costs from £1,134 per person for SilverLeaf and £1,914 in GoldLeaf. Finally, ‘The Rainforest to Gold Rush’ package is a three-day journey between Vancouver and Jasper with two overnight stays in Whistler and Quesnel. Seats cost from £1,844 per person in SilverLeaf and £2,540 in GoldLeaf.
Note, all journeys operate in both directions so you can take the trips in reverse from either Banff or Jasper to Vancouver.
The Rocky Mountaineer experience
Guests can check in online 48 hours prior to departure. However due to Covid, guests must complete a health questionnaire online within 24 hours of departure. Assuming the responses are satisfactory, guests receive clearance for boarding. Once cleared for boarding, guests can visit several downtown locations in Vancouver to pick up baggage tags. This seemed like a strange procedure until we witnessed the most impressive baggage check in I’ve ever witnessed.
On the morning of our departure, we arrive at the Rocky Mountaineer station to find two members of staff waiting by the door to greet us. Barely have we exited our taxi and they bustle towards us with a trolley, efficiently unload the car and whisk our luggage away before we even enter the terminal. Now it makes more sense why you need to collect baggage tags before arrival although it would be better still if you could print them and attach them yourself.
Nevertheless, check in gets a whopping 5 stars from us.
Despite the incredible welcome, the departure lounge is underwhelming. Seating is less luxury lounge and more airport terminal. There’s a stand serving refreshments but it feels more like a business meeting refreshment stand than a luxury train experience. Only standard filter coffee is on offer and for a trip that costs over £500 a day, I expected an arrival glass of champagne and speciality coffees.
For this reason, the departure lounge scores low.
Once it is time to board, a piper resplendent in traditional kilt pipes songs as he leads guests onto the platform. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, excited guests eagerly follow him towards the train, clamouring for photos. Clear markings on the platform and carriages help guide passengers to their designated carriage and a host warmly greets you at the door.
It certainly feels like a special experience as you walk the red carpet and pose by the Rocky Mountaineer flags.
Another 5 stars from us.
In a quirky gesture, as the train slowly rumbles out of the siding, staff line up along the side of the tracks and wave us off. A sweet and unique gesture which repeats on both days. I love this!! Another 5 stars!!
There are two service levels to choose from on the Rocky Mountaineer. Both offer magnificent scenery, exceptional service, fabulous narration, and complimentary meals, drinks and snacks. Check out the videos under the respective sections for GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf to decide which suits you best. In summary however, the principal differences are:
- There are a greater number of food selections in GoldLeaf. You can find sample menus for SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf by clicking on the links but scroll down the page to access them.
- Guests in GoldLeaf benefit from a fully domed glass ceiling compared to the partial glass ceiling of SilverLeaf. More to come on that…
- The carriages in GoldLeaf seat 72 people on the upper deck (with a dedicated dining car below) whilst those in SilverLeaf seat 56. In SilverLeaf carriage hosts serve your meals at your seat.
- GoldLeaf customers also have four carriage hosts compared to two in SilverLeaf. This works out at a ratio of 1:18 compared to 1:27 in SilverLeaf but honestly the service in SilverLeaf is excellent and prompt.
- GoldLeaf offers a much bigger viewing platform.
- Guests also enjoy a better class of overnight accommodation in GoldLeaf however note, the hotel may not be less central.
To travel in GoldLeaf adds around £800 per person and in my opinion it simply is not worth the additional cost. The following explains why in more detail.
In GoldLeaf, the top deck is entirely glass giving uninterrupted views of the mountains. By contrast, in SilverLeaf, large panoramic windows extend from the seat up and over to give partial views overhead. Upon arrival at the station, I almost regretted the decision to book SilverLeaf when I saw the GoldLeaf carriages. However, do not let the lack of glass ceiling put you off. The windows in SilverLeaf are huge and you still get fantastic views.
As the food service in GoldLeaf is in a dedicated dining car it means that service is over two sittings. I personally don’t like this as those on the second sitting eat really late. They eat breakfast around 9.30 to 10 and lunch between 2 and 4pm. In SilverLeaf everyone receive service at the same time which I prefer.
Clearly Rocky Mountaineer do an exceptional job of encouraging guests to book GoldLeaf as our train comprises 21 carriages of 450 guests and 70 staff. Trains vary in length depending on the demand for each trip but on our train only two carriages are SilverLeaf which turns out to be a huge blessing.
I have scored GoldLeaf four stars purely because of the dining arrangements.
By a stroke of luck, both SilverLeaf carriages are under occupied. There are too many bookings to fit everyone in one SilverLeaf carriage. This means we have only 32 guests in a carriage that seats 56 people. By contrast, every GoldLeaf carriage is full. I was delighted that we opted for Silver as Jason and I had two seats each with space to spread out. This also meant that we did not need to argue about who took the window seat.
That’s not to say that space is limited if the carriage is full. Far from it. Our seats of beige leather are spacious and recline comfortably. There are two on each side of a wide aisle with plenty of floor space for small bags. All other luggage goes in a dedicated luggage car.
Whilst there is no guarantee that you will have the same luck if you opt for SilverLeaf, as most people seem to opt for GoldLeaf, I would argue it is more likely.
I have also scored the SilverLeaf carriage four stars because of the viewing platform. If this was a little bigger, SilverLeaf would have received the coveted five stars.
The viewing platforms onboard are a big disappointment. In SilverLeaf, it is little more than a galley, barely a metre wide. Only a few passengers can comfortably access the windows on the platform which may be an issue with up to 56 people per carriage. In GoldLeaf, the platform is much bigger and will comfortably allow a group of people to enjoy uninterrupted views.
Thankfully we rarely found more than a few guests on the platform at the same time. Admittedly with the panoramic windows in the carriage there is little need to unless you want professional standard photos.
I am scoring the platforms a lowly two as there is no way that they can comfortably hold all passengers who might wish to use them.
Our onboard hosts are the only source of entertainment but to be honest who needs it when you have such varied scenery to admire? Nevertheless, they weave together stories from history with modern day tales to regale passengers as the days pass.
Both our hosts were excellent and well deserving of five stars.
Food and drink
The food onboard is truly excellent. The hosts serve food on super-sized trays so there is plenty of room for both food and drink. I dine on fruit and spinach frittata for breakfast which is delicious.
Snacks are also plentiful with peanuts and other dried snacks served with drink service. In the afternoon, guests can also feast on yummy afternoon cookies.
The food looks and tastes great. Five stars from me.
Contrary to what you might expect of many luxury train journeys, you do not sleep overnight on the train. Instead, coaches pick you up from the station and whisk you to a downtown hotel for the night. Early the following morning, they retrace their steps to collect passengers and continue onwards to the final destination
Our hotel in Kamloops is in downtown is in a convenient location close to many bars and restaurants. The hotel is somewhat dated however with a rickety elevator and noisy air conditioning. Although it is a large room it is far from luxurious so only earns a mediocre three stars.
The luggage transfer to the hotel is incredibly impressive however. Train staff clearly offload luggage before passengers so that when you arrive at your hotel, the bags are waiting in reception. Likewise on the morning of departure, you simply dump your bags in reception and board the coach. Your bags miraculously make it onto the train and to your destination with little effort on your part.
Maximum five stars.
We arrive at our destination in Jasper to be greeted by a moose (I think this is a moose) and an army of staff to point arrivals in the right direction. Our bags await us on the platform in true Rocky Mountaineer efficiency and we waltz off to new adventures.
A great way to end the trip with another five stars.
There is no denying that the scenery that you leisurely rumble past on the Rocky Mountaineer is stunning. As you leave the civilisation of the west coast behind, you head into the fertile valley of the Fraser River. Later, as you leave behind coastal rainforest you enter a moon-like desert landscape of barren multi-coloured canyons before you finally reach rugged highlands and jagged untamed mountain peaks. The scenery is surprisingly varied and carriage hosts entertain guests with stories of the towns and regions that the train passes through.
Day one scenic highlights
The first day on the train is a day of contrasting scenery from rainforest to barren moonscapes in shades of pink and grey. The tracks slowly climb up into the foothills of Kamloops passing rapids, fertile floodplains and dairy and crop farms.
The ‘Journey Through the Clouds’ itinerary follows the Thompson and Fraser rivers for most of the journey. As we settle into our reclining seats and leave behind the bright lights of the city, we enter the Fraser Valley where the tides allegedly dictate the time. We pass sleepy villages and huge swathes of farmland dotted with colourful barns which border the river, a wide swathe of muddy water which looks precariously close to overflowing.
As we climb, the river narrows and squeezes through the Fraser Canyon in a ferocious torrent of water only navigable on rafts or kayaks (and you’d have to be pretty damn brave!). The river descends rapidly through narrow rock gorges, and churns and froths as it is forced through narrow gullies. It rages over rocks and other obstacles, creating swirling eddies in its path and great scenes for guests to admire.
Hell’s Gate (Mile Marker 7)
At Hell’s Gate, the canyon walls rise 1,000 metres above the rapids. This is the narrowest section of canyon, and up to 200 million gallons of water every minute surge through a tiny sliver of canyon. The train slows to a crawl to allow onboard guests to snap pictures before resuming normal speed of around 30 mph.
Harrison Bridge (Mile marker 68.1)
As we pass Harrison bridge, I smile to myself, recalling our trip to Harrison hot springs in 2019. Reminiscent of Kellermans (Clue, Dirty Dancing if you have no idea what I mean) we bathed in hot springs before dining in a ballroom where a couple took to the floor to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Sweet memories!
Rainbow Canyon (Mile Marker 95-98)
As we leave the rainforest and plains behind, we enter a desert landscape in Rainbow Canyon. Reminiscent of the Painted Desert in Arizona, it resembles a rainbow cake with layers of pink, green and purple. Dusty shrub covered slopes rise on either side of the Thompson River and the train hugs the base of sheer cliffs in Avalanche Alley. Watch out for rafters in the ‘Jaws of Death Gorge’ (mile marker 90 – 87) or water spirits in the pool beneath Murray Falls (mile marker 73).
We roll into the Kamloops in the early evening, disembark the train and jump onto a coach waiting alongside. Kamloops is British Columbia’s second sunniest City and the gateway to the mountains. It brims with restaurants and is a smorgasbord of cuisines from around the world. Sports lovers should head to the Shark Club Sports Bar and Grill where giant TV screens line the walls allowing diners to watch multiple games whilst enjoying a cold beer.
Day two scenic highlights
After an evening exploring the excesses of Kamloops, we return to the train early the next day to continue our journey into the Rockies. As we climb further into the mountains steep gullies and small glaciers dot the ridges. Lower down, emerald forest blankets the valley in swathes of green beneath wisps of moody clouds. The train weaves through dense forest towards dramatic snow-covered mountains, the occasional peak peeping above the tree line.
As we ascend, we pass through several settlements that have been scorched by wildfires. The devastation is shocking and cuts through huge tracts of land. These forest fires emphasize how important it is to be cautious as damage caused in 2003 is still evident almost twenty years on.
Pyramid Falls (Mile marker 113.8)
Pyramid Falls cascade 91.5 metres down the hillside by the side of the track. These falls are only visible from the train unless you want to risk life and limb. This would involve a swim across the fast-flowing Thompson River, a climb up a steep hillside and then risking death on the train tracks. I think the train is a better option!
As we approach the falls, mist rises upwards dousing the forest in light spray. We enter a clearing and the falls reveal themselves in their full glory. If you head to the viewing platform you can enjoy a refreshing shower!
Mount Robson (Mile marker 52)
Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies towering 3,954 metres above the forest. It has its own weather system due to its huge height which sadly means that for much of the year, it hides behind deep cloud cover.
Moose Lake (Mile market 42-36)
Moose Lake is a spellbinding lake of blues and greens smouldering beneath the rugged peaks of the Rockies. The surrounding mountains reflect in its surface and raging waterfalls tumble down their slopes.
We rate the Rocky Mountaineer five stars for scenery. Despite spending ten hours a day on the train, the variety of landscape is fascinating. Between feeding, drinking, chatting to fellow guests and soaking in the views time flies.
Of course, you should also keep your eyes peeled for wildlife including birds of prey, bears and other animals native to this area. We saw cubs, osprey, bighorn sheep and elk during our two-day trip.
Clearly there are no guarantees that you will see wildlife, so I have not scored this element.
The Rocky Mountaineer Covid policy is abysmal unless you book at a time when enhanced flexibility is available. This applies for new 2022 bookings but does not apply for 2023.
If enhanced flexibility does not apply and you need to cancel within 45 days of travel you will lose your entire payment. It appears to be possible to make a change albeit with a fee. Please check the small print before you book as we all know that Covid hasn’t gone away. If you still wish to book you will need to ensure you have adequate coverage on your travel policy to cover the cost.
As much as we really enjoyed our trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, it is quite difficult to say whether it is worth the money. Our verdict was that it will depend on your prior travel experience – if you have never ventured into the mountains before or been on any other luxury trains, as a once in a lifetime opportunity I would say it is worth the cost. Even if you have travelled extensively in the mountains, as we have, as a once in a lifetime trip, I am glad we took the plunge and booked tickets.
However, I absolutely do not think the upgrade to GoldLeaf is worthwhile. Whilst you benefit from the panoramic roof the inconvenience of the two dining sittings far outweighs the benefit in my opinion. If you take the plunge and make the trip, do check back and let me know what you think.