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Canadian Rockies by rail

History Colorado explores the West, up north

In a column about the Southwest, why write about Canada? Because I just visited the Southwest – southwestern Alberta.

We were there for one of History Colorado’s famous Tours & Treks and their first international trip outside of the United States. I was honored to be the tour’s historian. I’d spent months reading up on Canadian history and writing talks to compare the Canadian and American West.

We flew into Calgary, spent time in that bustling city, took a private coach to Banff National Park then on to Yoho National Park via Gold Leaf service on the Rocky Mountaineer, which is western Canada’s premiere tourist train. We finished with two nights in Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the fastest-growing and most environmentally-conscious cities on the planet.

“The Tours & Treks program is designed to get folks out of Denver to see the state and region,” says Director Michael Vincent, sporting his trademark Buffalo Bill mustache. He designs all the tours and test-runs them in advance to be sure the experiences are flawless, from the companionable group meals to transportation via helicopter, train, coach and trolley. Vincent does all the planning, and History Colorado members save substantially by traveling in a group.


History Colorado is one of the few state historical societies that offers its members such lavish benefits, and this year alone, Tours & Treks has 62 single- and multi-day trips planned. “I love the Treks & Trails program and keep signing up for trips. It only costs a few more pounds to go first class,” jokes frequent traveler Edward W. Hurry, commenting on how well we eat on these vacations. Of course, we also sample local libations like Calgary’s own Caesar cocktail with vodka, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, Clamato juice, and instead of olives – two breaded prairie oysters, courtesy of local cattle roundups. Our welcome dinner began at the rowdy restaurant Bottlescrew Bill’s.

On the Canadian Rockies trip, we started with a day at the famous Calgary Stampede, which is part rodeo, part exhibition and part state and county fair for agricultural producers from across North America. Everyone “cowboys up,” wearing jeans, boots, hats, belts with big buckles and luminous smiles. High in the grandstand bleachers for “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” we watched the chuckwagon races and women’s side-saddle horse racing. Earlier in the day, I met large fiberglass cows, fresh-hatched chicks and saw a tiny sample wetlands growing in a galvanized stock tank.

I liked the excessively groomed Clydesdales, saw the immaculate Morgan draft horses and scratched the backs of miniature donkeys. I learned that though our American horses “neigh,” in Canada the horses speak through their noses and say, “Aye!” From our hotel windows we saw the local Calgary bird “cranus constructus,” or the huge building cranes signaling another boom in the town’s oil and gas fortunes with skyscrapers bursting forth.

We stayed in the posh historic Canadian Pacific Railway hotel the Fairmont Palliser and visited the Glenbow Museum with its outstanding anthropological and historical collections as well as contemporary art. Canada’s indigenous groups are called First Nations, and the country has a formal reconciliation process to attempt to remedy past wrongs.

At the Stampede, I visited the Elbow River Camp of 26 teepees erected by families from the Siksika, Piikani, Kanai, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations and then left the quiet of the camp for the roar and put-put-put of vintage diesel tractors re-painted and restored for the competitive tractor pull. I saw so many tractors I wonder whether a single rusty tractor remains in all the wheat and hayfields of Alberta.


We took the Trans-Canada Highway west to Banff National Park and learned that the park has recently re-introduced 33 bison. To protect migrating antlered animals, the highway has six overpasses and 36 tunnels – wildlife protection innovations so needed on Colorado’s Interstate 70. Though the park has 65 grizzlies, three wolf packs, elk, moose and sasquatch (according to one brochure), the animal most dangerous to tourists is the cute Columbian ground squirrel that visitors feed – at least until their fingers get bitten.

Everywhere, the rivers and lakes are an astounding turquoise blue because of rock flour or rock silt dust being ground out of glaciers. The suspended silt reflects light that hits water surfaces and bounces back in a true robin’s egg blue color. A panoramic helicopter tour at the edge of the park and a ride up the Banff gondola led to our night in Banff with well-appointed accommodations at the Rimrock Resort Hotel. Then, it was on to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with afternoon hikes toward the receding Victoria Glacier. Climate change affects all of us, but it is pure drama in Canada.

From my hotel room with its view of Lake Louise, I could see the glacier’s edge. On a bookshelf, I found a framed historic postcard with the same view, and it was easy to see how much the glacier had shrunk, yet no interpretive signs around the lake brought the glacier’s decline to public attention.


We rose early for the much-anticipated two-day train ride across the Canadian Rockies in the gleaming Rocky Mountaineer. Our tickets included Gold Leaf service or breakfast and lunch served on the train complete with linen tablecloths, silver cutlery, fine china and huge mountain views. No fences. No billboards. Instead we followed the Bow River the Kicking Horse River, the Thompson and eventually the Fraser River. On just the first day, we crossed seven rivers.

The tourist package included free drinks and an upper level with a vistadome ceiling, an open sky above and fully adjustable leather heated seats below. One of the great engineering feats of railroading is the Canadian Pacific Railway’s spiral tunnels designed to drop hundreds of feet in elevation without losing speed for standard gauge trains. After the tunnels, we left Alberta, and under a light rain, we entered British Columbia and Yoho National Park on our route over the Continental Divide. “This is great,” Laura Carrasco told me. “I’ve never been disappointed in a History Colorado trip.”

Off the Rocky Mountaineer, we stayed in Kamloops, and the next morning on the vast shore of Kamloops Lake saw a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorns and nesting eagles. We passed the towns of Revelstoke, Canoe, Salmon Arm and the mining towns of Boston Bar and Hope, part of the Caribou Gold Rush. Knowledgeable interpreters spoke into microphones narrating Canadian history, and I talked at our group dinners. We learned about famous Canadians like Simon Fraser, who hired on with the Hudson’s Bay Co. at 16. He was so industrious he made full partner at age 24 because of his work with Native peoples and his help in determining the railroad route for the Canadian Pacific Railway to unite Canada from east to west, the dream of Canada’s first prime ministers.


Our last two nights in Vancouver exposed the 20 members of our group to one of the most vital, energetic and diverse cities on the globe. The immigrant energy is palpable with more than half of the city’s 750,000 residents not original English speakers. Trade from China, Japan and South Korea annually generates $24 billion Canadian dollars. From our hotel, we could walk to Coal Harbor to see seaplanes, private yachts and tour boats. The next day we had a trolley tour of the town, including Stanley Park, larger than New York’s Central Park, with its distinctive totem poles and ancient, old-growth cedar trees 700 to 1,000 years old.

After eight days, we returned to Denver. Guests raved about the itinerary. One wrote about the trip, “I think you hit the bull’s-eye with this one.” I agree. I spent the winter researching and comparing the Canadian and American West and discovered many more stories to tell. Hopefully in two years, Coloradans will once again board the Rocky Mountaineer.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Email him at andy@agulliford.com.