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By John C. Turner

Recently my newlywed wife and I embarked on a three week journey which saw us engage a wealth of beauty amongst the Pacific Northwest, explore the untamed wonder of Southeast Alaska, and traverse the continent aboard Canada’s famed transcontinental train, the Canadian. As far as honeymoons go, in our somewhat biased opinion, it was perfect. However, the places and adventures described in this article are perfect not just for honeymooners, but anyone looking to explore one of the most beautiful, diverse, and captivating places on Earth.

Whether a seasoned rail-fan or someone who’s interested in gliding along the seamless steel rails for the first time, the Pacific Northwest offers several convenient rail options for arrival and/or travel amongst the region. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Empire Builder connect the northwestern United States with California and the Eastern United States, respectively, while VIA Rail’s flagship, the Canadian, links the western province of British Columbia with Toronto and points in between. For vacationers looking to travel throughout the region, or between the US and Canada, the Cascades trains operated jointly by Amtrak and VIA Rail provide regular service between Vancouver and western Washington and Oregon, including Seattle and Portland.

Following a couple day sabbatical after the wedding in our native state of Florida, Rachel and I arrived at SeaTac International Airport aboard a jetliner to begin our journey into the land of virgin timber and cascading waterfalls. After gathering our bags at the claim area, we drove about an hour and a half north to the Seattle suburb of Lynwood where our hotel was located. While navigating Seattle in a car is easy, heavy traffic is something to anticipate in the Emerald City and thus it is advisable to take proximity into account when selecting a place to stay. For us, the Homewood Suites in Lynwood provided the perfect base of operations from which to explore the many sights and attractions of northern Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula.

On our first full day in the area, we decided to visit Boeing’s Future of Flight Aviation Center. Only a ten minute drive from the hotel, the facility houses an interactive museum and is the staging site for tours of Boeing’s Everett factory which produces various passenger and commercial jets, including the newly minted 787 Dreamliner. Whether you enjoy flying or not, the plant is impressive to see and is on such a titan scale that few places on Earth can come close to rivaling it. After all, it is in fact the largest building by volume in the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there at the same time a new order is ready for delivery and get to watch as a brand new plane takes to the air for the very first time, right over a bustling I-5 only a few yards away. After an entertaining visit to the Boeing plant, we then took a leisurely afternoon drive to Stevens Pass about an hour and a half east. Nestled in the Cascades mountain range, Stevens Pass is a popular ski destination in the winter, but during the summer provides picturesque views of mountains and waterfalls with several hiking opportunities of various lengths and difficulties. For much of the drive, US 2 shares the winding topography with the former Great Northern mainline which is today owned and operated by BNSF. If the timing is right, you might even chance upon the Empire Builder as it makes its way through the pass, although this day offered no such occurrence for us.


Deception Falls near Stevens Pass

The next day we decided to venture a little farther and explore the majestic Olympic peninsula. A mere fifteen minute drive from our hotel took us to the city of Edmonds, from which the Washington Department of Transportation operates regularly scheduled ferry service to Kingston, located on the peninsula’s eastern shore. Besides being a quaint coastal community, Edmonds is also a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route and Cascades service running north of Seattle. Here the rail line hugs right along the water’s edge and as Rachel and I enjoyed our brief thirty minute passages across Puget Sound at the start and end of the day, we were treated to spectacular views not only of the Olympic mountain range, but also of BNSF freight trains winding along the picturesque coast. After arriving in Kingston we spent the rest of the day driving along scenic highway 101 with short side trips to Hurricane Ridge where the magnificent peaks of Olympic National Park surround visitors as they touch the sky and to the rugged beaches of La Push which look as if they were sculpted by an artist using the wild force of the Pacific. We even managed to briefly visit the small town of Forks on the peninsula’s west coast, which to Rachel was special because it’s where the popular book series Twilight was fictitiously set. While I certainly would recommend a longer visit to the Olympic peninsula to get a full experience of everything its charming towns and sylvan landscape have to offer, we found it to be a doable day journey and a great opportunity for anyone visiting the Seattle area.


Olympic National Park


The view from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park


The view from the highway climbing Hurricane Ridge


Forks, WA where the Twilight series is set


The beach at LaPush, WA


A coast view near La Push, WA

The subsequent morning Rachel and I followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who boarded steamers from Seattle bound for the Great White North over one hundred years ago in search of wealth untold. Unlike those turn of the century stampeders however, we were not sailing north in search of gold but rather the priceless natural beauty of Alaska and the Yukon. Along with Vancouver, Seattle is a gateway for cruise ship passengers vacationing to Alaska and as we steamed away from the harbor, Mt. Rainier was visible hovering over the skyline like a great white wizard’s hat amongst a crystal blue sky. The shore astern, life quickly settled into the rhythm of a cruise and all throughout the evening and the next day Rachel and I enjoyed the many amenities Crown Princess afforded us as we peered out towards the passing British Columbian coastline.


Our mini-suite on Crown Princess


The Seattle skyline from our cruise ship

A day at sea brought us to our first stop in Southeast Alaska, Juneau. Besides long holding the record for being the largest American city by land area (only being passed by Jacksonville, FL a couple years back), Juneau also has the distinction of being the only state capital in the continental United States not connected with the rest of North America by road. In fact, the only way to arrive in Juneau is by sea or air, although there have long been debates about establishing a highway connection. Our time in the state capital was highlighted by a personal tour of the city by some family friends who happen to be native Juneau residents. We all enjoyed a drive out to Mendenhall Glacier, one of the area’s top attractions, as well as a visit to the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery before chowing down on some freshly caught salmon of our own back at our friends’ homestead. After being dropped off back at the ship, Rachel and I then strolled along the many storefronts which line downtown Juneau and are easily accessible from the docks, before finally returning to the ship and getting a good night’s rest in preparation for our rail adventure in the morning.


Our family friends Cody and Tracy at home in Juneau


Rachel outside our friends’ home in Juneau


Mendenhall Glacier


Downtown Juneau


Departing Juneau’s harbor

Perhaps no other name is more synonymous with the colorful, ruffian past of Alaska’s territorial days than Skagway. Indeed, if one was to take the shootouts of the Wild West, romanticized tales of gold and riches, and the breathtaking beauty of the Arctic north and somehow merge it all into one, this tiny, yet legendary town of just 900 permanent residents is what would emerge. Skagway was the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, but unlike her sister city of Dyea and other turn of the century boomtowns, her fate was not sealed when the rush was over, thanks in large part to the White Pass & Yukon Route. A railroad isn’t the first thing most people think of when they think about Alaska, but the WP&YR is more than just a railroad, it’s an engineering marvel and listed as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark along with such projects as the Eiffel Tower and the Panama Canal. It was spurned out of the dream of ferrying wonder-lust prospectors towards the Klondike goldfields, saved by the necessities of World War II, and revived by a fledgling Alaska tourist industry which exploded with the arrival of the cruise ship. The WP&YR proclaims itself as the “Scenic Railway of the World” and after riding its narrow gauge tracks along the sides of towering cliffs thousands of feet in the air, past innumerable waterfalls, and along a wildflower-laden lakeshore, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. For the typical visitor to Skagway arriving by cruise and spending one day, the WP&YR has several departure times and excursions of various lengths to fit any itinerary.


A panorama of a White Pass excursion train standing next to our cruise ship

The last time I had ridden the White Pass & Yukon Route, about 15 years ago, passenger service on the line had only been restored as far as Fraser, BC. Today, visitors have the option to ride more than twice as far on the “Bennett Scenic Journey” excursion which travels all the way to the small town of Carcross located in the Yukon Territory. Selecting this option, Rachel and I boarded the train at about 7:30 in the morning at the WP&YR depot just a couple of blocks from the docks and peered out the windows with anticipation as we quickly began our ascent after leaving town. The view became increasingly spectacular over the course of the next couple hours as we rose ever higher passing through tunnels and over towering trestles. It’s hard not to think about the perilous journey so many people undertook to reach the goldfields as you wind along the mountain ledges and peer into the gorge where somewhere down below thousands of sun-bleached bones serve as a cautionary reminder of all the pack animals that were driven to their death along this treacherous pass. Near the summit, we entered Canada and not long afterwards were boarded by customs officials to gain clearance. An important note for travelers on the railroad is that all excursions to Fraser, BC and farther require a passport both to enter Canada and to return. After a quick stop at customs, the train continued and the topography drastically changed into an icy lunar landscape surrounded by mountains which was something like a cross between the moors of Great Britain and the highlands featured in the Lord of the Rings. At this altitude, ice still covered many of the ponds and streams which cut through the rocky ground and in many places lichen was the only thing to grow. Staring out into this land, I couldn’t help but think about what a foreboding place this must be during the colder months and how determined anyone must have been to endure it for the prospect of riches.


WP&Y depot in Skagway and the train bound for Carcross


Crossing over a gulch on the White Pass route


A train following us as seen across the valley


Our train has climbed from sea level to a high elevation


The iconic trestle and tunnel that all WP&Y trains traverse


An old trestle once used by the railway


Looking down at an icy river


A sign marks the White Pass Trail


Land of ice seen from our train window


This stretch looks like the moors of Scotland

Around 10:45 we arrived at the historic site of Bennett, BC which exploded during the Klondike Gold Rush with prospectors and businesses and then died almost overnight when the railroad was completed all the way to Whitehorse. Today the entire town has receded into the wild landscape and all that remains of the once bustling frontier community is an ornate Anglican church constructed of driftwood. At Bennett, the train stops for about 50 minutes, providing ample time for passengers to disembark and explore the area which is preserved by Parks Canada. Next to the track is a large dining hall where the WP&YR provides all passengers a complimentary prospector-inspired lunch of house salad, hot stew, coleslaw, bread, and tasty apple pie. After a hearty lunch and a stroll, we reboarded the train and continued north towards our final destination of Carcross in the Yukon Territory. The final leg of the journey took about an hour and a half and was dominated by panoramic scenes of Lake Bennett as we hugged the shoreline. Once in Carcross, we disembarked and had about twenty minutes to get some ice cream and explore the town before boarding our return charter bus.


The shores of Lake Bennett


Passengers enjoy a hearty lunch at the dining hall beside Lake Bennett


Our train stopped by the dining hall at Lake Bennett


A panorama of the Lake Bennett stop


Another view of our train at Lake Bennett


The railway hugs the lake’s shoreline


A panorama of the train beside Lake Bennett


A freight car behind our engine seen during the stop beside Lake Bennett


Bennett church, the only surviving structure from Bennett


The lunch stop provided enough time for a hike


The tail end of our train


Lake Bennett


Arriving Carcross


The end of our rail journey in Carcross


Carcross, BC is where passengers transfer to buses for the return to Skagway


Carcross desert, smallest desert in the world


A Skagway to Fraser train seen from the bus at Fraser, BC


Mountain views dominate the return bus trip


The White Pass route can be detected on the mountain sides from the bus


A waterfall tumbles beside the highway

Alaska legend and regional folklore run deep in Skagway and there’s no better way to tap into this palpable history than to climb aboard one of the many vintage touring cars operated by the Skagway Street Car Company and live out the story of the frontier. The tour takes visitors throughout the town and awes riders with the rich history of Skagway: from the rise and fall of local legend and notorious conman, Soapy Smith, to the Klondike Gold Rush to the early days of the WP&YR. Founder Steve Hites is quick to admit that he’s not a local, yet, he’s “only” lived in Skagway for 40+ years, but in a way he has become part of the very folklore he sings about and which runs so deep here. In addition to the vibrant and enthralling tour his company operates, Mr. Hites can also be found performing his show “North to Alaska” on several cruise ships while they’re in port.


Interesting storefronts line the streets of Skagway


The Arctic Brotherhood Lodge in Skagway


The WP&Y owns the oldest snowplow in continuous operation


Departing Skagway in the evening aboard Crown Princess


Another evening view after sailing out of Skagway


The evening  views en route to Glacier Bay are peaceful

After an adventurous visit to Skagway, we continued aboard the Crown Princess and spent the next day cruising through Glacier Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world, before making port in Ketchikan where Rachel and I enjoyed the high energy Lumberjack Show. The following evening we made port in Victoria, where we disembarked and took a bus downtown. Victoria has long been regarded as Canada’s most “British” city and indeed for a long time it was not just the provincial capital, but also a beacon of western civilization in a largely wild and uninhabited British Columbia. When the Canadian Pacific Railroad finally reached the Pacific at Vancouver, their path of empire building did not stop there. Instead, they reached across the Juan de Fuca Straight to construct one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels in all of North America: The Empress. While our ship arrived too late to partake in the hotel’s famous tradition of high tea, Rachel and I still enjoyed walking amongst its ornate lobby and budding front lawn as we explored downtown Victoria with its provincial parliament and totem park.


One of the most impressive glaciers seen in Glacier Bay


Glacier Bay National Park


Glacier Bay


Waterfalls abound in Glacier Bay


One of many glaciers spotted in Glacier Bay


Downtown Ketchikan


Creek Street in Ketchikan, one of the city’s best known sights


The lumberjack show in Ketchikan


Log rolling during the lumberjack show


Performers from the lumberjack show in Ketchikan


The Empress Hotel in Victoria, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway


A totem park in Victoria


The British Columbia parliament building in Victoria

Our cruise at an end, the next morning we awoke early and disembarked in Seattle where it all began. We were sad to leave the ship, but our journey was not yet over, for now we were to rent a car and drive to Vancouver, BC to explore the city for a day before boarding Canada’s legendary train, The Canadian. Vancouver will always have a special place in our hearts because Rachel and I met due to a television show we both enjoy that’s actually filmed in the city. In fact, in recent years the film scene has exploded there as more and more people have come to realize the city’s beauty and unique cultural offerings. Exploring Vancouver is easy to do by car or by public transportation and there is so much to see and experience it’s impossible to fully take in, with just a brief visit. After checking into our hotel, the Residence Inn by Marriott in downtown, we headed out to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory located in the shopping district known as “Gas Town” which is famous for having one of the only steam-powered clocks in the world.


The view from our room at Residence Inn, Vancouver


The iconic Gastown steam clock in Vancouver


The evening view of Vancouver from our hotel room

Arising early the next morning, we made our way to the crown jewel of Vancouver, Stanley Park. While there we enjoyed a relaxing ride with Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours, with highlights of the hour-long tour including scenic vistas of the city skyline and harbor, a trot through the park’s blooming rose garden, and an opportunity to explore a grove of totem poles. After the hour-long tour, we visited the Vancouver Aquarium which is one of the largest in North America and fascinates visitors with its thousands of aquatic species, many of which inhabit the coastal waters off the Pacific Northwest. Later we visited Burnaby Village Museum, which houses a collection of early 20th century buildings and businesses including a blacksmith shop, ice cream parlor, print shop, general store and other mainstays of a community of that era. A carousel dating to 1912 offers rides and a restored interurban streetcar which used to run throughout the southwestern BC region is also featured. This open air museum, located in the eastern suburbs of Vancouver, is well worth visiting and is a family friendly attraction.


Downtown Vancouver view from Stanley Park


Totem poles in Stanley Park


Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours provides a great way to tour Stanley Park


The harbor and Lions Gate Bridge seen from the horse drawn carriage in Stanley Park


The Stanley Park carriage tour passes through a beautiful rose garden


The author and his wife at the Vancouver Aquarium located in Stanley Park


A sea lion at Vancouver Aquarium


The general store at Burnaby Village Museum


Burnaby Village Museum blacksmith shop


Burnaby Village Museum trolley car

There are so many things to see and do in Vancouver that one could center an entire vacation around a stay in that beautiful city. An excellent interactive website for anyone planning a visit is which includes information about attractions in surrounding communities as well as metro Vancouver. From the United States, Amtrak operates twice daily service between Seattle and Vancouver as well as Thruway bus service and there are VIA Rail connections to the east as well as ferry boats linking the area with Vancouver Island.

With great anticipation we boarded VIA Rail Canada train #2 The Canadian in the evening to begin the four night journey to Toronto. Settling into Bedroom E in the sleeper Drummond Manor, we found the accommodations and car attendant to be most hospitable. But herein lay a major disappointment with VIA Rail.  Having traveled on this train on a few occasions in the past, I was aware that car 222 was located near the rear of the consist, just one or two cars from the Park dome observation car. Wanting to be close to this favorite location, this standard arrangement was confirmed during the booking process and car 222 was specifically selected to ensure close proximity. Then a couple of weeks before the wedding my father noticed mention on a VIA Rail discussion forum that the sleeping car order was being flipped.  Indeed when we boarded at Vancouver car 222, represented by Drummond Manor, we were in the farthest sleeper from the Park car which was now an astronomical 16 cars away. We later learned from VIA agents that the sleeper order had been reversed to better serve tour groups, at the expense of customers who had booked their trips up to a year in advance.  A VIA supervisor was able to prearrange for us to move closer to the Park car at Winnipeg, but not until well after the beautiful mountain scenery between Vancouver and Jasper, and even this became a nuisance ordeal due to the train’s lateness.  Fortunately we were able to make the best of it and the skyline car adjacent to our first sleeper proved acceptable for the first half of the journey despite the bad taste left by VIA’s last minute rearranging.

A pair of F40 engines led the 24-car Canadian as we departed Vancouver at 8:30pm. Heading east along the Fraser River Canyon, Rachel and I socialized with the other sleeper passengers in the Skyline dome as we enjoyed a complimentary champagne tasting before heading to bed. The next morning we awoke to beautiful scenes near Clearwater, BC and enjoyed an excellent breakfast in the forward dining car Fairholme. We were running reasonably close to schedule until we reached the Yellowhead Pass area where our train came to a halt due to a disabled Canadian National freight which blocked the way and forced us to wait for approximately two and a half hours.  Once we finally made it into Jasper, we were over three hours late but the scheduled 90 minute stop would still be required to service the train and switch out three Chateau sleepers.  This left us time to stroll about the lovely alpine village and to enjoy some delicious ice cream from an ice cream parlor called Grandma’s located just across the street from the station.  Later the panorama single level dome was dropped at Edmonton.


The Canadian prepares for its evening departure from Vancouver


A roaring waterfall seen from The Canadian in eastern British Columbia


Mountain views dominate Day 2 of the eastward Canadian journey


    Mount Robson, highest point in the Canadian Rockies


West of Jasper the Canadian follows the shores of Moose Lake and Yellowhead Lake


Delicious ice cream is available at Grandma’s across the street from the Jasper station


A panorama single level dome car operates between Vancouver and Edmonton

The next day we awoke to find the train over four and a half hours late at Wainwright, AB; a deficit which grew to five hours by Saskatoon. The delays kept on coming and by the time we arrived at Winnipeg where we were to switch cars, the train was over 6 1/2 hours late.  This resulted in Rachel and I having to wake up, disembark, and drag our suitcases the quarter mile length of the train at 3:15am to our new accommodations in Bedroom F in car 211, Osler Manor.  The positive: there were now only two cars between us and Kootenay Park on the tail end of the train. The negative: other than having to make the switch in the middle of the night and already being past the most scenic portion of the journey, we would now have to endure an extremely loud incessant banging sound which emanated from immediately below our floor whenever the train rocked to any degree.


The station in Saskatoon is located well outside of the central city

We made up no time during our scheduled 90 minute stop in Winnipeg and throughout the third day the train continued to lose time for various reasons until we finally arrived in Toronto at 4:20pm, nearly seven hours late. All in all, the trip from Vancouver was enjoyable due to the beautiful scenery, friendly on board service, cruise-ship level cuisine, and classic train cars. Terrible delays, the ordeal with the flipped consist, and equipment issues really did impact the overall experience however, which in the end was extremely disappointing given the ‘specialness’ of the trip and the hefty expense. Given the spectacular scenery and onboard service, I would still recommend riding the Canadian to anyone, but it is becoming increasingly undeniable that passenger rail in Canada is at a crossroads. Here’s hoping that they choose to reinvest in and prioritize what is one of the most special rail networks in the world. Otherwise, the days of stainless steel trains glistening across the Canadian countryside could be numbered.


New leather seats in Kootenay Park


The redesigned Park car Bullet Lounge


The hallway in Kootenay Park shows off a new design

Our anticipated day of sightseeing in Toronto evaporated thanks to the train’s lateness. The Doubletree Hotel located downtown a few blocks from Union Station proved an excellent lodging choice. This allowed us a morning visit at Toronto’s number one attraction, the Royal Ontario Museum, which contains an amazing collection of jewels, medieval body armor, and even preserved Egyptian mummies.  This is a museum that should be on every visitor’s itinerary. Like Vancouver, Toronto is a burgeoning market in the film industry and has been featured in several movies over the years, including as a stand-in for Chicago in the rail-action/comedy classic Silver Streak. While Rachel and I were visiting, much of the city was abuzz over the filming of the Suicide Squad which was taking place and involved the demolition of an entire building. Toronto is a metropolis that is alive with energy and there are multiple other terrific sights to see ranging from the CN Tower to the harbor to the Hockey Hall of Fame, all of which are deserving of a visit. Additional information can be found online at


Royal Ontario Museum


Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto


ROM displays an excellent geologic collection


Another feature of ROM is an extensive collection of medieval armor

The flights home were uneventful and we have been left with many wonderful memories.  Certainly the cruise and the entire Alaska experience were the highlights, but the visits to three major cities and the trans-Canada trip by rail were special experiences to store in our memories.  Riding the entire White Pass & Yukon Route was a thrill and it was great to catch up with our friends Tracy and Cody in Juneau and the talented Steve Hites in Skagway.  Indeed the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is a frontier which will never be tamed, but one which is entirely worth exploring.


White Pass & Yukon Route:

Skagway Street Car Tour:

Tourism Vancouver:

Burnaby Village Museum:

Toronto Tourism:

Royal Ontario Museum:

Visits since 10/27/2015