By Tim Johnson
Not all road trips must be taken on rubber wheels. After all, a ride on a train takes you along a railroad—Canada’s original mode of long-distance travel. And, winding from British Columbia’s picturesque Pacific Coastal Range, past quirky, cool places in the BC interior, all the way to the soaring Rockies and across the Alberta border to Jasper, VIA Rail’s “Skeena” (Prince Rupert–Jasper train) provides a railroad trip you won’t soon forget.
Just a few kilometers from the Alaska border, Prince Rupert provides wild, wonderful Northern adventures—without the cruise-ship kitsch that found in ports-of-call along Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Plan to spend a couple of days here, spotting breaching humpbacks on a whale-watching tour, taking a step back in time at the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site and—a highlight—touring Pike Island, home to five First Nations archeological sites, places of great significance to the Tsimshian people, who have called this area home for thousands of years. Follow this up with a visit to the excellent Museum of Northern BC and taking its Tsimshian Winter Feast Tour.
En Route: North and Central BC to Jasper
It’s a two-day journey from Rupert to Jasper, with an overnight stop in Prince George. Half the fun is the characters you meet—don’t be surprised if you find yourself sitting next to an honest-to-goodness gold miner or if the train stops in the middle of nowhere to let him off to attend to his claims (or whatever). The conductors double as excellent tour guides, giving history and highlighting points of interest along the way.
Each stop has its own feel. On day one are the stations in Terrace, with a great little gift shop, and Smithers, with a nice Mexican cantina where chips and salsa are laid out for those in a rush. That night you have a layover in Prince George, northern BC’s largest city: an urban centre surrounded by wilderness. On day two, the train makes a stop in Penny, BC, the only place in Canada that still depends on the train to deliver the mail—buying a postcard from the slightly ramshackle post office there is a must.
The best attraction along the way, however, is the scenery: snow-capped peaks, a sea of evergreens and—when the weather cooperates—crisp, wide blue skies. Toward the end of the trip, you get a nice view of Mount Robson, the highest peak in Canada, on clear days.
For those who love the outdoors, Jasper is a wonderful destination. Take some time to explore the charming townsite in the heart of the national park, visit the nearby Columbia Icefield and take a hike by the glacier at the foot of the hulking flanks of Mount Edith Cavell.
Where to Eat
In Prince Rupert, head to the unpretentious Cow Bay Café for what could possibly be the best meal you’ll ever have—a handful of mains are listed on a whiteboard inside and wiped away as they sell out. (Reservations here are a must.)
The Hummus Brothers Tapas Bar, in Prince George, is clearly the coolest place in town, a funky spot that delivers the small plate tradition of the Mediterranean to the BC Interior.
Jasper’s, Evil Dave’s Grill is a great spot for dinner. While the backstory behind the name seems like an inside joke that outsiders can never quite get, the steaming hot deliciousness make it worthwhile (also: all dishes have a slightly evil name, like Malevolent Meatloaf or Fiendish Falafel). In the morning, the Bear’s Paw may have the run on the baked goods, but laid-back Coco’s Cafe has top-notch 49th Parallel coffee and a variety of savoury breakfast options.
Where to Sleep
The Coast Hotel Prince Rupert provides comfortable accommodations right in the heart of town.
In Prince George—the halfway point where all passengers must disembark for the night—the Ramada Hotel Downtown, which has recently undergone a nice sprucing up, is convenient to both the train station and some of the city’s best restaurants.
In Jasper, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge combines five-star luxury with woodsy charm.
Riding the rails requires at least a decent playlist of railroad songs—Johnny Cash, of course, but also “All Down the Line” by the Rolling Stones, and maybe some James Taylor “Riding on a Railroad” when it’s time to chill. And while Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” isn’t quite on target, it’s still recommended.
Travellers connect to Prince Rupert via frequent Hawkair flights, which depart from the Vancouver International Airport. The journey begins with a ferry trip right after touching down—Rupert’s airport is on Digby Island, and only accessible to the city by boat. A shuttle (read: school bus) from the ferry dock is provided, free of charge, and bags are delivered all the way to the drop-off point downtown.