Travelling to Churchill: How to reach northern Manitoba on a budget

Posted February 28, 2023 | Author Stephanie Woltman

When people hear about travelling to Churchill, their first reaction is “I would love to go one day but it’s so expensive to fly there”. And that’s true. Flights are not cheap. But there is a far more reasonable way to get to the polar bear capital of the world: by train.

While you can take the train right from Union Station in downtown Winnipeg (this is a popular approach for out-of-towners), the easiest and most enjoyable way for Manitobans to take the train involves driving to Thompson. We set out early on a Monday morning in summer with an eight-hour drive ahead of us. We knew we wanted to break up the drive a bit so we gave ourselves ample time before when we needed to be at the VIA rail station in Thompson.

Places to stop along the way

Provincial Trunk Highway (PTH) 6 is one of my favourite drives in the summer because of the unique stops along the way. The wide-open Interlake skies also treated us to a beautiful sunrise on the way out and an equally stunning sunset on the drive home. PTH 6 is also one of the only drives in Manitoba that truly treats you to magical colour-changing larches in the fall - something people travel to the Rocky Mountains to experience.

Located in Treaty 5 Territory and Mosakahiken Cree Nation land, Little Limestone Lake is a must-stop for any Manitoban travelling north. It’s about 5.5 hours from Winnipeg and the perfect place to take a lunch break if you started your drive first thing in the morning. Little Limestone Lake is unique because it’s noted as the largest marl lake in the world. On hot summer days, an increase in water temperature and pH can trigger this reaction which results in a change in the colour of the water. There are many marl lakes located around the world but it has been documented that Little Limestone Lake has the most dramatic colour changes. Please ensure that you respect leave no trace principles and pack out any garbage you have. The beauty of this lake needs to be preserved.

Another great stop is getting out for a short hike at Pisew Falls Provincial Park. There are a number of trails and boardwalk lookouts that give you a stunning view of the Grass River which plummets in elevation and creates a beautiful waterfall - something we don’t see much of in Manitoba! Manitoba Parks also recently decommissioned the old boardwalk stairs and added a gravel pathway to the main falls which makes this location much more accessible!

Fuel and amenities

Services can be limited along PTH 6 so make sure that you’re watching out for the “no services” signs warning you about long stretches of the highway without gas stations. We stopped for gas in Ashern and Grand Rapids and had no problem making our way to Thompson on a full tank of gas in our SUV. We’ve done this drive before in a smaller vehicle and had to be really cautious about our fueling-up spots.

If you’re in a similar driving scenario and end up in a pinch, there are a few locations south of Pisew Falls where you can grab gas. There is a card lock on the highway near Wabowden (just make sure you follow the written instructions on the machine to get a code), Sasagiu Rapids Lodge, or Paint Lake. We brought typical road trip snacks for the drive up (grocery store sandwiches, veggie tray, chips, and candy) but the restaurant at Pelican Landing Gas Station & Restaurant in Grand Rapids has never failed us in the past - we’ve enjoyed their chicken fingers a handful of times over the years. Cell reception along PTH 6 has also improved significantly so we were rarely without service.

Parking and shuttle services

All aboard

The VIA rail train departs from Thompson on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and returns from Churchill on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. They start boarding the train 30 minutes before departure so make sure you’re on time.

We rode Economy Plus on the way out and had a Lower and Upper Berth (the most affordable sleepers) on the way back. The seats in Economy comfortably reclined, everyone was quiet at night, and the train rocking lulled me to sleep. We had some of our own tips and tricks and picked up a few others from our fellow riders which we will definitely implement the next time we ride the train to Churchill.

  • Bring pillows and blankets to make things comfy! There’s lots of room on the train so there’s no need to worry about bringing too much.
  • Sit in a section where the seats in front of you can turn around. Even though our train was sold out, there were quite a few extra seats and people were able to organize some pretty comfortable-looking sleeping arrangements
  • Download Netflix or Amazon Prime movies to watch once it gets dark. We loved looking out at the surrounding scenic views but it was nice to curl up and watch a movie together once the night set in. If you’re not into movies, bring a book or cards!
  • Grab dinner in Thompson and bring it on the train. We were sold on this idea after smelling everyone's delicious food and picked up a pizza from the Dancing Bear Restaurant for our ride home from Churchill
  • Hang out in the Skyline dome car. The seats are located on a second level with expansive windows on all sides. A perfect place for taking in the views.

Dining on the train

The food and beverage service was up and running on our trip so we treated ourselves to hot coffee and breakfast in the dining cart both mornings. There were three breakfast options: classic eggs and bacon, pancakes, and a tofu scramble. We tried all three and were continuously impressed with the quality of food - but not surprising with a chef on board. Your breakfast also comes with complementary bottomless coffee and at $13 a plate, that’s a pretty good deal. The dining cart also sold alcohol and snacks for an evening treat.

Sleeping in luxury

The ride between Thompson and Churchill is 16 hours one way but with a night of sleep in between, it felt pretty quick in my opinion! It was also quite the experience to fall asleep in the boreal forest and wake up on the tundra.

Without any windows, the upper berth is the place you want to be for a heavy night’s sleep, whereas the lower berth is quite the scenic ride. I was able to fall asleep while watching the Northern Lights dance across the sky and woke up to a misty sunrise - pretty idyllic.

Arriving in Churchill

We arrived in Churchill right on time on Tuesday morning. The train station in Churchill is located fairly centrally in town and near most of the main hotels. However, most hotels offer a complimentary shuttle service and we were quickly picked up by the Tundra Inn staff.

Taking the train was such a unique experience and made our vacation feel like three separate trips in one (the ride out, our time in the Town of Churchill, and the ride back). And if you ride Economy both ways, you can make your way to Northern Manitoba for as little as $300 round trip. We cannot wait to experience the train ride through all the seasons - we will most definitely be back!

About The Author

Hey! I’m Stephanie Woltman, a content creator and photographer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I’m passionate about living adventurously on the trail, seeking calm moments on the water and cooking gourmet meals in the backcountry.