Le Chic En Rose

Diaries of an independent traveller

Heading back along the Trans-Canada Highway towards Vancouver we stopped off for a break at the Spiral Tunnels look-out point west of Lake Louise. Now back across the border in British Colombia (clocks go back an hour to Pacific Time) we were retracing some of the journey we had made on the Rocky Mountaineer (see here and here).

One memorable part of the rail journey passes through a series of tunnels that twist and switch back on themselves as they wend their way under the appropriately named Big Hill.Β The Canadian Pacific Railway wanted to cut through Kicking Horse Pass in the Yoho National Park en route to the west coast. The “hill”, near the tiny settlement of Field, was by far the most difficult and treacherous part of the track and a decision was made to upgrade to a tunnel system in the early 20th century.

Why did the pass get its unusual name? Originally the area was explored by the Palliser Expedition between 1857 and 1860. An unfortunate incident occurred when Dr James Hector, the surgeon to the expedition, was out and about and somehow got himself kicked by his horse. Believing him to be dead his fellow adventurers dug a grave for him but he regained consciousness at the 11th hour (well that’s what he told everyone later)! Maybe the horse had got totally fed up with having to ride through the dense and mountainous terrain and vented its frustration on its master. Anyway the moniker stuck and it remains Kicking Horse Pass to this day.

Journeying in the train it reminded us of the switchback system used on many of the Swiss railways we’ve travelled on where you go into a tunnel in one direction and come out again going the opposite way – somewhat disorientating! From what our guides told us on the Rocky Mountaineer, the Swiss engineering system was indeed the inspiration. You get a sense of the achievement when you look out across the pass that appears almost impassable when viewed from above.


Despite the improvements the Kicking Horse Pass area remains a challenging route for trains till this day. I was quite shocked to read the following whilst researching this post (taken from the Wikipedia article on the Big Hill and Spiral Tunnels that I’ve linked previously).

The most recent derailment occurred on February 4, 2019, when Canadian Pacific train 301 was proceeding westward to Vancouver. 99 cars and 2 locomotives derailed at Mile 130.6, just outside of the western portal of Upper Spiral Tunnel. The train crew consisted of a locomotive engineer, a conductor and a conductor trainee. The three crew members were killed.

One can only admire the efforts and sacrifices made by the pioneering rail engineers all those years ago.


Copyright Β© 2019 Rosemary Thomas Le Chic En Rose. All rights reserved

7 thoughts on “Yoho National Park – Kicking Horse Pass and the Spiral Tunnels

  1. We observed the tunnels on our first visit back in the 90s – it looks as though they have hugely increased the amount of information, which is good. Not sure how keen i’d be on the train after reading about the derailment 😟.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We found the information signs very useful in explaining the background Anabel – it was really well done. We’d already had some of the history explained to us on the train ride a few days earlier. I must say it was a very steep gradient to cover in a relatively short time for a train – you really got a sense of the incline. We were going east, which was uphill. The accident occurred going downhill. I also read the recent news reports and it was quite horrific – the huge freight train just went completely out of control down the hill, derailed and ended up in the Kicking Horse River. Very shocking 😦 Am sure they will be mindful of putting as many safety precautions in place as possible especially with the start of the 2019 Rocky Mountaineer season next month.


        1. Yes tragic for those involved.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Good story. The origin of names is nearly always fascinating. We went on one of those corkscrew trains in the Black Forest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love trains and have been on quite a few in the Alps. The Black Forest one sounds lovely too. The sheer drops down the side are breathtaking – sometimes it’s best not to look down though! Very shocked by the derailment, just not what you expect 😟

      Liked by 1 person

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