Churchill is known as “The polar bear capital of the world” and I wanted to go there in late summer. My parents live just south of Manitoba in Minnesota so I asked if they would like to road trip to Churchill and they joined me for the adventure. There are not many ways to get to Churchill…the only ways to get there are by expensive flight, or by much cheaper train ride on Canada’s VIA rail. The Train to Churchill starts in the capital of Winnipeg and takes almost 48 hours of riding but I found a hot tip on the internet that you can do a much shorter trip – about 17 hours, if you get to the city of Thompson, MB in the center of the province.
The Drive to Thompson
We took close to 2 days to drive to Thompson from Minnesota. There is a very low population between Winnipeg and Thompson. There are many, many trees and a few bodies of water. The first night we stopped in a dumpy motel in the town of Grand Rapids, MB. It was a depressing city and the motel was more depressing. The biggest excitement came in the morning when I went to load the luggage in the car and scared a black bear that was rummaging thru the garbage nearby.
There was some beautiful scenery north of here – a few beautiful ponds, interesting statues that people put by the road, and some wildlife (a fox and sandhill cranes).
The one must-stop between Winnipeg & Thompson is the powerful Pisew Falls, the 2nd tallest falls in Manitoba. The tallest falls are only a hike away but we didn’t have time to do the walk. It’s well worth the stop at this provincial park – the falls are only a few minutes drive + few minutes walk from the main road.
Visiting Thompson, Manitoba
We arrived in Thompson a few hours before our train would depart so we checked out the little museum and did a short walk to see the multi-story wolf mural on the side of the tallest building in town. There were lots of wolf statues around town, as the town symbol.
We had lunch at the A&W and shopped at Walmart to stock up on snacks for the train ride and for our 5 days in Churchill.
The Train to Churchill
The overnight trip to Churchill by train was pleasant. There was enough room that my parents could stretch out over 4 chairs facing each other, and I grabbed 4 chairs for myself. We snacked for dinner and watched the sunset over the many water ways in northern Manitoba.
Late at night, the train stops in some of the First Nations villages that are only accessible by train. Because this is tundra area, there are no roads during the spring to fall as the area is too marshy. The only way they can get from town to town is by boat or by winter roads on frozen tundra.
There was a spectacular sunrise over the tundra trees as we got closer to Churchill in the morning, eventually arriving around 9am on schedule. We were lucky – in the past the train has been a day or more late due to buckling train tracks in the heat.
The trip Back to Winnipeg
The trip from Churchill back to Thompson was uneventful. The train was fuller so we couldn’t stretch out as much. We arrived by noon and spent the rest of the day driving back to Winnipeg. We had seen a Tim Horton’s at a remote Shell Gas station on the way up and had talked about making a stop for donuts only to discover the Tim Horton’s had been closed for over 6 months. The biggest treat of the drive was the amazing pink sunset. First it dropped over the Manitoba grasslands, then we discovered a gravel road just north of St. Laurent, MB where we could access a beach on Lake Manitoba for one of the most amazing sunsets ever.
How to Take the Train to Churchill:
- Reserve your train tickets at VIA rail.
- If driving to Thompson it’s better to do the full drive from Winnipeg to Thompson in one day. The motel choices between these two cities is dire. However, this would require a night stay in Thompson the night before the train or a very early start from Winnipeg.
- Important Note: As of 2017, this train is not running due to damage to the tracks. I hope this will running soon as it’s the only economical way to Churchill.