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Why Everyone Should Cross Canada By Train

Sunset View of Canadian Rockies and Railway Track at Lake Louise

See wildlife, savour gourmet cuisine, and slumber peacefully in a private cabin on a train bound from Toronto to Jasper.

A dreamy view of boreal forest slides into golden grasslands and blue sky as VIA Rail’s flagship Canadian chugs west toward the prairies. And presently, the Canadian Rockies’ snow-tipped teeth bite into the horizon as the train rolls into Jasper National Park. The country’s majestic and ever-changing landscape is but one reason to embrace this historic means of conveyance on a classic rail journey between Toronto and Vancouver that includes three nights on a sleeper train.

Crossing the country’s vast expanse by rail is just as magical now as it was a century ago—perhaps even more so, in this hurry-up world.

Long before air travel was commonplace, or a network of freeways made road trips possible, Canadians went on tour by train. Crossing the country’s vast expanse by rail is just as magical now as it was a century ago—perhaps even more so, in this hurry-up world. The luxurious pace of getting from A to B offers ample time to relax, meet new friends, savour gourmet food and wine, and appreciate the magnitude of this wide land—all from the cozy safety of a carriage car.

Read on for all the right reasons to plan this bucket list trip.

You traverse nearly every landscape on Earth

Canada, home to nine of the world’s 12 climatic regions, is possessed of a staggering diversity of geography. Aboard the Canadian you’ll trundle past the Great Lakes, over the granite outcrops of the Canadian Shield, through dense boreal forest, across undulating grasslands, and into the high alpine of the Canadian Rockies, which are crowned by a glacial ice cap. (The only landscape you’ll not see? Tundra.)

Via Rail

“What a wonderful way to see Canada,” said Ellie Haimsohn, of Cleveland, Ohio. “The Canadian Rockies are unbelievably beautiful, with majestic peaks and glaciers. The diversity is inspiring as you leave the mountains for the prairies.”

You relive history and recapture the romance of the rails

It’s fair to say that the railways built Canada, the world’s second largest country. They connected Toronto and Ottawa in the east with the western frontier, which became a tourist draw after Banff National Park was established in 1877.

“Four days and three nights of breathtaking scenery, leisurely meals, and the nightly ‘chug-a chug-a’ lullaby rocking you to sleep in a snug cabin.”

The only way for pioneering tourists to explore this new wonder was to travel there by sleeper train, a mode of transportation whose practicality, viewed through modern eyes, now seems romantic. What would be a today’s four-hour flight stretches into four days and three nights of breathtaking scenery, leisurely meals (more on that below), and the nightly “chug-a chug-a” lullaby rocking you to sleep in a snug cabin.

“Travelling across Canada by train was everything we thought it would be,” said Suzy and Wayne Freeman, of Texas.

Prestige luxury train cabin with double bed facing a window

Because the onboard service is unreal

The food! The wine! Since this is train travel, there’s no need to rush through a meal. Breakfast and lunch are served on board, and for your three-course dinner, choose between braised rack of lamb or citrus-glazed salmon, for example, paired with Canadian wine, and served atop white a tablecloth in the dining car.

“The onboard meals were excellent and presented beautifully. Every expectation was exceeded,” continued Fresh Tracker Ellie Haimsohn.

A table set with a fine dining meal with wine in a train dining car

Because it’s basically a safari train

You're almost guaranteed to see wildlife from your carriage window, whether it’s moose in Ontario, antelope on the plains, or bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies. Sightings of deer and elk are also common in the mountains. And if you don’t see any of Canada’s Big 5 from the train’s ample domed viewing areas, it’s a good bet you’ll see our country’s famous mammals when you get to Jasper.

“For me the best part was all the wildlife — elk, just walking down the street in Jasper,” effused Australian Hazel Prosser, who travelled from Toronto to Vancouver, with stops in Jasper, Lake Louise, and Banff along the way.

Two big horn sheep sitting a hill with a mountain in the background

Because slow travel is trending

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we’d all been infected by the virus of hurry. For nearly a year, we’ve been forced to slow down and appreciate everything local, including domestic destinations. In fact, even before the coronavirus emerged, publications like Forbes were predicting slow travel as a trend for 2020 and beyond.

Defined as journeying at a relaxed pace, without a jam-packed itinerary, travel by train really captures what this trend is all about. With the landscape slowly rolling by (blink and you probably won’t miss it), there’s plenty of time to read, play cards, meet and converse with other passengers, or even take a nap! What’s more, this style of travel is as easy as it is exciting.

“The ease of travel made things easy for us as senior citizens,” said American Mary Rauch.

A couple seated in one of VIA Rail's panorama train cars

It’s a bucket list experience bookended by bucket list experiences

Consider this: you can kick off your once-in-a-lifetime Toronto to Jasper train trip with a visit to Niagara Falls, a natural wonder, and end it with a boat trip on Maligne Lake, one of the world’s prettiest bodies of water.

A birds eye view of a Hornblower Cruise boat approaching the Niagara Falls

Because it’s something to look forward to

Need more incentive? A recent study found that booking travel increases happiness and can alleviate stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 97 percent of those surveyed said that having a trip to look forward to makes them happier.

A black bear stands beside a passing train
Lisa Kadane
Lisa Kadane
Lisa Kadane is a travel journalist based in Kelowna, BC.