Come aboard the historic Grand Canyon Railway for a comfortable trip through time between the Old West town of Williams, Arizona and the rim of the majestic Grand Canyon.
Until I met my husband, I had never heard of anyone riding a train. I don’t mean riding a train to get somewhere, but riding it for the sheer pleasure; such as taking a weekend trip to Chicago and never going to The Art Institute, or stopping for Chicago-style pizza. Needless to say, this came as quite a surprise to me.
The Secret World of Railfans
He introduced me to the world of the “Railfans,” train enthusiasts who run model layouts, collect memorabilia such as timetables and menus, pour over history and lore in books and magazines, and ride and photograph trains as often as they can. When my son was a toddler, he took up the mantle. He sat happily on his daddy’s lap pouring over such children’s classics as “Steel Rails to the Sunrise,” and explaining all about “cab forwards” (locomotives whose engineer’s cabin is at the extreme front) to his very patient grandmother.
I’m still not sure I understand the passion, but I know it’s very real. Now that my adult son has moved on to interests of his own, he still loves to ride a train, especially with his dad, who entertains him with tidbits of esoteric information. Even if your family doesn’t include “Railfans,” riding behind powerful, steam-spouting locomotives, listening to signal-blowing horns and feeling the rhythm of the rails holds a tremendous allure for most young children, and many of their dads.
If you’re planning a trip to the Arizona’s Grand Canyon, a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway is a must-do. In addition to tasting the good old days of railroading, your family will have the chance to connect with America’s “Wild West” history and experience the awesome beauty of The Grand Canyon from the comfort of a rail seat.
A Railway is Reborn
Offering an alternative to the difficult eight-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff, Arizona to the canyon, the train made its maiden trip from Williams, Arizona, to the canyon’s South Rim in 1901. As a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, the Grand Canyon Railway ran steam locomotive passenger service until 1953, and it continued running, using diesel power and hosting guests at the famous “Harvey Houses” under the same owners, until 1968.
Over the years, it hosted many movie stars, dignitaries and US Presidents on its route. In 1927, 70,382 passengers traveled the train to the canyon, but, due to the establishment of better roadways and the rise of automobile travel, it made its final trip in 1968 with three passengers on board… Fast forward to 1989, when 88 years to the day of its first journey, The Grand Canyon Railway was re-inaugurated and reborn.
Extraordinary care has been employed to restore, refurbish and, in some cases, completely rebuild all of the antique locomotives, cars, tracks and depots by a team of skilled mechanics and craftsmen (many of whom are probably Railfans). The railway’s impressive equipment has been rescued from the scrap yards of many former railroads such as the Pennsylvania, the Southern Pacific and the Great Northern.
All Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway
The Railway now welcomes almost 200,000 passengers a year on its round-trip service between its depot near the South Rim of the canyon, and its station in the town of Williams. The 2½-hour journey covers 65 miles of changing scenery and offers the chance to see wildlife such as elk, mule deer and mountain lions outside of your window. You can board the train in either direction, and make plans to spend the night at either end. Since the national park’s concessionaire, Xanterra, operates the railroad, there’s a Railway Hotel, Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, a Pet Resort and several other lodges for the family. If you choose to return to Williams the same day, you will have three to four hours to explore the canyon on your own, or through the add-on Motorcoach Rim Tour.
The train crew is well versed in local history and is happy to answer your questions and, while on board, your family will also be treated to entertainment. A “gee-tar” player strolls through the cars singing songs of the Old West, and there is a staged train robbery and shoot-out. Be careful that your child doesn’t hand over his allowance to the “thieves,” as some children have been known to do!
Winter Holiday Excursions on Grand Canyon Railroad
There are lots of way to enjoy this train trip, with one-way fares as well as several well-priced packages that include round-trip transportation, lodging and meals.
The train offers six classes of service ranging from Coach Class to First Class, a Deluxe Observation Car with an upper-level glass-enclosed dome, a Luxury Dome Car and a Luxury Parlor Car with an open-air rear platform and plush seating. The newest offering is Pullman Class – an opportunity to ride in an original 1923 Harriman style coach car, where the seats flip so families can face each other. Snacks, depending on class of service, range from soft drinks to Continental breakfast service, to sparkling white wine and appetizers in the afternoons. For many years, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the cars were pulled by early 20th century steam engines, but that was discontinued for environmental reasons and vintage 1950s diesel locomotives were used year round. In really big news for railfans, a 1906 and a 1923 steam engine has returned for limited service – check the website for their schedule. To reduce air polution, one (and soon both) of them are running on recycled waste vegetable oil, so the train might smell of french fries!
Winter vacation packages and short stays are available through the Railway. Check the website to view the schedule (from mid-November to early January) of the themed Polar Express trains, which are always a sell-out. These evening train rides basically follow “The Polar Expresss” by Chris Van Allsburg with appearances by elves and others prior to a visit from you-know-who in his red hat. Along the route, passengers may enjoy a delivery of fresh baked cookies and hot chocolate, storytelling and singing, and myriad Christmas decorations. It’s very popular with grandparents so be sure to plan anhead and book their hotel rooms package early.
Disembarking in Williams, Arizona
The historic Williams Depot and former Fray Marcos Hotel, an original “Harvey House” were built by the Achison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and date from 1908. While the hotel no longer houses guests, the adjoining buildings are currently the site of a complex which house a ticket counter, the Depot Gift Shop, snackbar and, outdoors, the display of an historic caboose and steam engine.
Nearby the Depot, the modern Grand Canyon Railway Hotel has 298 rooms (doubles can sleep up to two kids), plus some with kitchenettes. Families will appreciate the indoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, kids’ game room and outside play area, and other amenities which make for an affordable, overnight stay as part of the available packages. Your family pet will really appreciate their Pet Resort, which has 28 spacious rooms for dogs and 16 comfortable custom-made condos for cats.
While in Williams, also known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, walk along Historic Route 66, which is its main street, and visit the downtown district where preserved turn-of-the-century buildings now house a myriad of restaurants, soda fountains and interesting shops. You can experience the “Old West” flavor by walking in the footsteps of cowboys, miners, lumberjacks and other interesting characters who drank in the local saloons, shopped in the General Store and relaxed with a game of poker. Special events in Williams include wild rodeos, motorcycle rallys and vintage automobile shows.
Disembarking at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim
The Grand Canyon Depot, also constructed by the A,T and SF Railroad and finished in 1910, greets you as you step off the train right near the edge of the Grand Canyon. A unique building, it is one of three remaining log depots, and the only one currently being used for its original purpose. After being closed in 1969, it was re-opened in 1990 and underwent restoration of its platform and various systems. It offers an extensive cafe. Overnight accommodations at the Maswik Lodge inside the Park can be arranged as part of the Railway’s packages and the Railway can also help arrange other activities such as guided hikes, mule rides, and thrilling helicopter flights.
When you climb the staircase located a short walk from the depot you will be face to face with an astounding sight. The Grand Canyon, a vast chasm cut through the earth by the flow of the Colorado River, took my breath away.
My words cannot do it justice, so I urge you to see it for yourself and share it with your sons and daughters.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.