Visiting Canada’s National Parks by Train (lol, lmao)

2,811 words · Hiking and backpacking "policy"

I am a train enthusiast who hates flying. If I can reasonably take the train, I shall, and if it’s not reasonable I might do it anyway. Especially when hiking: you can’t fly with stove gas or bear spray, never mind checking your backpack and wondering if it’ll meet you on the other end.

This is not a politics post, but it starts that way: the National Post‘s Chris Selley recently reposted a July 2022 article about Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s rash promise to “cross the country by rail listening to people’s ideas about climate change,” reminding us of the Liberals’ 2019 campaign promise to “partner with VIA Rail to make [camping at national parks] accessible and affordable for more families.”

Neither trains to national parks nor a whistle-stop eco-tour happened, because Quebec-Windsor elites don’t know what the rest of Canada is. 95% of Canada has less frequent, less reliable, and slower passenger service than before the First World War. The High-Frequency Rail plan is peeling off the parts of Canada’s passenger network that get attention into a public-private partnership and the rest of the country will do what it can with a roll of quarters and 70-year-old train cars. When a politician says “I’ll take the train to Banff, how long could it be, six hours?” he’s not even lying, but ignorant.

Which is funny, because the trains are responsible for the mountain parks. The Canadian Pacific Railway built many of the trails in Banff, constructed hotels and tea houses, and literally opened Yoho’s Twin Falls with dynamite, but you’re not taking the train to Yoho anymore unless you work on one. In 1991’s The World of Lake Louise, one of Don Beers’ iconic Canadian Rockies hiking guides, he laments that “passenger train service is confined to weekends in the summer months. The trains stop only at Calgary, Banff, Kamloops, and Vancouver; the rail station at Lake Louise is closed.” In 1991 this seemed like an unbearable cutback; in 2023 we shout “RETVRN!”

You can still get to national parks by train. The adventurous can do a little more. Here’s what there is.

National Parks You Can Reach By VIA Rail

Parks Canada offers many things besides national parks, of course. There are national historic sites, national marine whatevers, national whatever reserves, more types of entity than you can shake a stick at. This post considers only areas that might be interesting to outdoorsmen. I have mostly left out provincial parks: because I’m not as familiar with those outside of British Columbia, because they’re mostly not relevant, being made up of “spare land” far from rail-driven development, and because I have a deadline to keep.

That’s it. That’s the list. If you want to visit Jasper by train, do it soon: the Canadian was canceled entirely during COVID without any politicians kicking up a fuss on its behalf. Canadians make fun of Americans for being a “car culture” and not doing mass transit, but even in much-maligned flyover country Amtrak has more frequent, more rapid service to many more places with more modern equipment that has legal priority over freight trains: Canada is doing worse in every respect.

It’s not because VIA doesn’t do the best with what they have, though. The passenger cars really are 70 years old but they’re amazing, and are recently refurbished to standards that exceed any business-class flight. Service on the Canadian is generally very friendly, when the gear works. Even coach-class travel, while it requires spending a night sleeping in a seat, is comfortable and fun. A shortage of working equipment has been one of VIA’s woes on its long-haul routes, and the threat of high-frequency rail turning VIA into a stump of an organization that can be lopped off when convenient is real. It’s no exaggeration to say that one year soon rail service in most of Canada might just end and you’ll be stuck with the cattle-car treatment at the airport, or possibly the bus.

But there are non-VIA Rail options! Admittedly, they aren’t practical for everyone, but they’ll appeal to some.

National Parks You Can Reach by Trains Other than VIA Rail

National Parks You Can Reach by Train + Bus or Something Almost Reasonable

Interesting Parks You Can Reach Primarily by Train if You’re a Lunatic

If you need to think about whether you love trains enough to do this, you don’t.

Parks Trains Could Easily Be Run To, If the Government Wanted It…

Outside the Canadian Rockies, there are fewer of these than you might guess. National parks tend to be distinguished by not having ever had much industry or agriculture, whereas the train is associated with both. Canada’s also torn up thousands of miles of track, cutting off parks that once might have gotten service again. Still, there are still some cheap wins to be had, if anyone with power wanted them.

  1. You are definitely not allowed to hike out to the highway at Fraser along the train tracks. Definitely not allowed. People do it but you’re definitely not allowed.
  2. The train used to run to Whitehorse itself, and many of the tracks there still in place, but I think we can say that service is never coming back.

Like it? Share it!

Read all this? Sign up for more!

Ben will hike to your inbox! New posts and nothing else.

Leave a Reply · 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *