Canadian Rockies Highlights and the British Columbia and Alberta Landscapes That Will Take Your Breath Away
Produced by BBC StoryWorks - February 26, 2019
Discover British Columbia and Alberta’s Scenic Highlights Best Seen by Train
Pyramid Falls, a 300-foot, three-tiered cascade, tumbles toward the North Thompson River not far from the British Columbia (B.C.)-Alberta border. After its rollicking descent, it rushes directly under a trestle bridge. The vantage point of this magnificent cataract is impossible to access by car and a difficult bushwhack hike, but rail tracks do pass by here and train passengers on our Journey through the Clouds rail route are treated to a remarkable view. Like Pyramid Creek itself, Pyramid Falls was born of a glacier. The tandem are two of myriad natural spectacles in British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies that illustrate the splendor of glaciation.
Shifting tectonic plates shoved the earth around for over 200 million years, pushing up now-familiar mountain ranges bookending broad plateaus. These massive movements drove the continent farther north while simultaneously blocking warmer currents and opening polar ones. The Pleistocene Epoch had arrived, a series of cooling and warming trends that would span more than 2.5 million years. Roughshod tectonic maneuvering was replaced with the glacier’s scalpel. Growing more than a mile thick at its peak about 14,000 years ago, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet sculpted the topography that will take your breath away.
Glaciation is also responsible for B.C.’s astounding fjords, including 26-mile long Howe Sound, the southernmost fjord in North America. Originating in the Pemberton Icefield outside of Whistler, the Squamish River drains into Howe Sound, having collected several notable tributaries such as the Cheakamus and Elaho Rivers.
Whistler’s Green Lake, located just north of the world-renowned ski and summer resort town, presents another visual phenomenon born of glaciers: the surreal teal water color caused by tiny particles within the glacial runoff. Called “rock flour,” this glacial till contains a pale-colored surface and absorbs much of the blue light in the spectrum, leaving just the green light reflection. This chalky green can be seen in many of B.C.’s and the Canadian Rockies’ most majestic lakes.
When considering glaciers, we naturally think of snow and icefields. However, the warm periods during glaciation prove as important as the cold spells, if not more so. The climate often warmed rapidly, resulting in rapid glacial retreats that redirected rivers, shallowed out valleys and scattered heaps of sediment throughout their reach. The resulting moraines cast many of the alpine lakes. B.C.’s wild Cariboo Plateau leads into the Rocky Mountain Trench, the vast “Valley of a Thousand Peaks.” Densely forested and largely uninhabited, this textbook example of volcanic-glacial topography is home to grizzlies and black bears, caribou, moose, elk and wolves, among many other forms of wildlife.
It’s no wonder that exploring Western Canada and its unique terrain is on many must-do travel lists. There are ways you can experience it that that don’t require hiking boots, crampons or backwoods adventuring, either. Our luxury train offers you a unique view of the landscape along our rail routes journeys into or from celebrated Rockies destinations like Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. In fact, our Rainforest to Gold Rush route (which begins or ends in Vancouver and takes in Howe Sound, Whistler, Green Lake and B.C.’s gold rush territory) also travels between Rocky Mountain Trench communities McBride and Tête Jaune Cache.
Another route, Journey through the Clouds, travels north from Kamloops through central B.C., slows down to take in the sublime Pyramid Falls, passes Trench community Valemount, and joins the same route as Rainforest to Gold Rush into Jasper.
After Tête Jaune Cache, the transition zone’s magnitude comes into full view when you first spy Mt. Robson looming over Robson Glacier. At 12,972 feet, Mt. Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, dominating the vista for a part of the final passage toward Jasper.
Further south, you’ll find the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains. Most famous among its extant glaciers, the 2.3 square-mile Athabasca Glacier spills toward the Icefields Parkway, the historic route surrounded by a magnificent string of other glaciers that link Jasper and Banff National Parks. Sitting on top of the Continental Divide, the Icefield runoff flows into the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
The most accessible regional glacier, Athabasca is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall. Thousands of visitors touch a glacier for the first time when they step off a customized Ice Explorer vehicle onto this 3.7-mile long field of ice and snow. The Sunwapta Valley yawns almost 1,000 feet below the Glacier Skywalk, a long, glass walkway that has quickly become one of the most popular attractions in the Canadian Rockies.
Lakes sparkle like turquoise gems along the Icefields Parkway, including Bow Lake, source of the 365-mile Bow River that chortles through Banff en route to Calgary and beyond. Not far away, Peyto Lake cuts a wolf’s profile, best viewed after a short walk to an elevated vista point, into the larch forest and against the cirque, a steep valley side formed by a receding glacier. Back at Bow Lake, a longer hike unveils yet another cirque characteristic, the Bow Glacier Falls, a cascade formed from the Wapta Icefield meltwater high above.
To the south, resplendent Victoria Glacier feeds Lake Louise, one of the most photographed lakes in the world, and upon visiting it’s easy to see why. Rock flour is responsible for its unique coloring here, too. Nine miles from here, Moraine Lake shares Lake Louise’s brilliant jade hues and its reputation as a paddler’s paradise. Boating on these verdant lakes can feel otherworldly.
Our most historic route, First Passage to the West, reveals some of Western Canada’s other chiseled features. The route follows the Fraser River, the province’s longest, into the Fraser Canyon. Formed between five and 23-million years ago during the Miocene Period, the canyon broadened only slightly when the last glaciers receded. The canyon’s walls climb severely as the train enters Hell's Gate, rising 3,300 feet above the river rapids!
Geologic and western Canadian history merge when entering Glacier National Park, home to ancient forests located about an hour east of Craigellachie, the spot where the “Last Spike” was driven in 1885, marking the Canadian Pacific Railway’s expansion to the Pacific. Canada’s second-ever national park (after Banff), Glacier National Park was established in 1886 and is home to 131 glaciers. It’s equally famous for the five-mile-long Connaught Tunnel that conveys the train under Mount MacDonald and the infamous Rogers Pass.
Whether traveling along a fjord’s rim, canyon wall or alpine ascent, these radical biogeoclimatic zones share one indisputable characteristic: they will take your breath away. Why negotiate the challenge of gasping at this landscape while driving serpentine roads when you can sit back, enjoy a leisurely train journey and gaze upon views that will take your breath away? And since our trains travel exclusively during daytime hours, at a photo-friendly average speed of 30 mph, it is a truly unique way to experience so much of Western Canada’s awe-inspiring landscape, honed from volcanoes and chiseled by glaciers.