Photograph by Susan Seubert

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The Rocky Mountaineer passenger train as seen at dawn near Exshaw, Alberta, Canada, with Heart Mountain reflected in the Bow River

Photograph by Susan Seubert

Travel by Train: Canada's Rocky Mountaineer

This Seattle-to-Banff journey cuts through the heart of the Rockies, and explores how a country came to be.

From the November 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

The next step up Mount Norquay requires a lunge of faith. Looking over my sunglasses, slipping in sweat, I see I must now go left and out, across an outcrop of rock that juts some 200 feet above nothingness. I look at my red knuckles, gripping the tiny iron rungs bolted on the face of the cliff, and utter an expletive. (My mind knows I'm safely harnessed and tethered, but my body doesn't believe a word of it.) I swing my left foot across the brittle rock, landing it on an inch-shallow ledge. I stay like that, hanging on, straddling a mountain face outside Banff in the Canadian Rockies, as close to spread-eagle as my 47-year-old frame gets.

Wait, wasn't I supposed to be on a train trip?

It started that way. In three days, I got to Banff from my home in Portland, Oregon, partly by rail. It's not only a gorgeous ride, cutting across the snow-capped Rockies and river gorges, but also a historic one.

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's beloved first prime minister, built the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s to turn Canada into a unified, transcontinental nation. Eventually it spawned the country's national park system, opened up the mountains to tourism, and led to the development of Canada's first luxury hotels. The only way to traverse the historic railway's most rugged stretches is the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury excursion train from Seattle to Banff (with overnight stops in Vancouver and Kamloops). That gives plenty of opportunity to consider the essence of Canada. Oh, yes, and dine on three-course meals while sipping Okanagan Valley wines.

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Peyto Lake's turquoise waters make it a popular stop-off on the Icefield Parkway.

U.S. and Canadian flags stand on either side of the Rocky Mountaineer's eight cars in Seattle, as I—and about 150 others—board the train. Soon the rails take us alongside Puget Sound, where we pass stacks of crab pots on the water and barns labeled "APPLE" and "CIDER." By the time we pass the "Peace Arch," built on the two nations' border, passengers have loosened up. When we chug toward Vancouver's glittering glass skyline, a father of a family from Mumbai breaks into a lullaby. The 60-something couple from Boston across the aisle asks what it says.

"It means, 'I love you, but don't make me wait.' "

I check into the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Opened as a members-only club for (male) Canadian Pacific railway workers in 1931, the Railway Club is now a music venue with worn wood floors, a small stage area, a nook for darts, and a hidden lounge. It's Friday, it's busy. And not everyone is sober.

I'm listening to an indie music band playing from the bar. "Did you know this is where k.d. lang got her break?" a woman next to me asks. I didn't. Samantha Kuryliak, an Ontario expat and off-duty bartender, says new bands begin here, and she loves it because all sorts of people come. "I have one regular who has come three times a week for 30 years. He's 75."

We have a full day to explore Vancouver, so in the morning, I hop on a free shuttle to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver's most popular attraction. It was built from hemp rope and cedar shortly after the railway reached town. First Nations groups called it the "laughing bridge" for the sounds the wind made whipping through its loose planks. It's sturdier now, running 450 feet above a canyon and leading to elevated walkways between 250-year-old Douglas firs.

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The train's Gold Leaf service offers a domed car with outstanding views of the surrounding terrain.

Later, from the former CPR train station, a neoclassic building now serving as a SeaBus ferry terminal, I cab it to Yaletown. It's there I find a 19th-century roundhouse, constructed to service trains. It's home to Engine 374, the first train to pull into town (in 1887).

Inside, Craig McDowall, a gray-haired volunteer with a handlebar mustache, has been a train spotter since he was five. He played on the 374 as a kid when it was stationed in Kitsilano Park. Misreading me as a fellow train aficionado, McDowall calls up some steam engine videos on his laptop, then points me to the steps of the steam engine cab to pull the whistle. "Go on," he says with a nod. I don't think I have a choice, so I step forward, pull a cord, and reward myself—and a couple of Texan visitors loitering nearby—with a bellow that echoes across the brick floor.

Early the next morning, the Rocky Mountaineer has expanded into a 23-car train for more than 600 passengers. A bagpiper, dutifully kilted, offers a brief sign-off, as we all board and head east into a scene that looks like an ending shot of an early Lord of the Rings film: an impossible barrier of rocky peaks. Over the next two days, we will take them, and many more, as we cross the girth of British Columbia's canyons, cliffs, snowy summits, and green meadows of sedge where, we're told, black bears like to dine in full view of the passing train.

A half hour out of Vancouver, the sun streams through the clear roof of the top-deck panorama car. I watch as we pass cranberry farms and raw logs stored on rivers, while the vista gradually narrows, with spruce and pine trees and exposed rock walls edging closer to our windows. At Yale, I search for—and miss—a diminutive memorial to the thousands of Chinese workers who helped build the railway.

For most of the morning we've been following the "Mighty Fraser," watching the river transform from a peaceful, frosty green into, as Hugh MacLennan describes it in Seven Rivers of Canada, the "most savage river of the continent." In its 854 miles, it drains an area of 85,000 square miles with melting snow and debris from seemingly lifeless peaks. The Fraser rumbles down the canyons, pouring through the tight Hell's Gate and swallowing whole rivers that join it. I don't want to kayak that thing.

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A climber takes on Mount Norquay's via ferrata in Banff National Park.

After an overnight stop in Kamloops, a historic trading town on the Thompson River, we're off again. At Craigellachie, I spot the marker for the last spike, marking the end of the CPR construction in 1885.

But it's the last five hours of the three-day ride that steal the show. Wide patches of woods climb in green waves up rocky bluffs whose mountaintops are coated in snow. Soon we enter a tunnel, looping on a dark path shaped like a cursive L, then pop out again to find the familiar mountain landmarks have been inverted. We enter another tunnel and reappear in British Columbia, near the Continental Divide. Rolling under mountain peaks, the train cuddles up alongside the delicious banks of the blue-green Bow River. I join others in the open-air vestibule, snapping photos, until we pull into Banff. It's been a 28-hour ride from Seattle.

The Banff Springs Hotel is a castle-style hotel that dates to 1888, when rail execs set up railway hotels like this. The next day, visiting Banff's Whyte Museum, I read that the second CPR president, William Cornelius Van Horne, said, "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists."

Photos there also show early surveyors with pickaxes who climbed peaks to plot the future course of the CPR. Eventually they discovered the springs that made Banff Springs famous and spawned the Alpine Club of Canada, founded in 1906 and run by Swiss guides. So, all of this started with bearded men in suspenders climbing mountains. I hate heights, but I had to try. Chucky Gerard, wearing a sprout of red hair dangling off his chin, teaches mountaineering classes and leads first-timers like me up Mount Norquay, a ski mountain that opened the via ferrata (a course of bolted steel cables) last summer. He's also something of a psychologist, with his words of affirmation and encouragement.

Whatever. They work, and he gets me to cross the feared chasm. At the top, the wind whips around in a refreshing way. I hear a long, distant whistle. I look down to spot a 100-car freight train passing through.

It takes a lot to build a railway, I'm realizing. Or a Canada.

Follow Robert Reid on Twitter at @Reidontravel. Follower photographer Susan Seubert on Instagram at @susanseubert.
See more photos of Rocky Mountaineer 's cross-Canada route.