All aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. Traveling to the Grand Canyon aboard the Grand Canyon Railway is like going back in time. But once you arrive at the South Rim (after a two-hour ride), the adventure truly begins.
Even though we were standing on the platform of the Williams Depot, a vintage diesel locomotive puffing away and waiting to transport us to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, it wasn’t the conductor shouting these highly anticipated words. It was my two-year old son.
“All aboard!” He called again, adding a jerk of his arm as if pulling on the train’s horn just for good measure. “Toot, toot!”
Was he excited about our upcoming ride on the Grand Canyon Railroad? Oh yeah. And considering it was his first “real” train ride and my first trip to the Grand Canyon in more than twenty years, I was excited too. But I didn’t realize what an adventure we were in for until we boarded the meticulously restored 1920s Pullman car.
Like most people riding the Grand Canyon Railway, my family was prepared for the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, but it was the grandeur of the train that took us by surprise. The Club Class car featured a beautiful mahogany bar and original upholstered bench-style seats. There were almost as many children on board as adults, all brimming with the same excitement that had overtaken my son.
I should diverge for a moment to explain just why we were so surprised by the lavishness of train. The Grand Canyon Railway is more than just a train. The company, located in the northern Arizona town of Williams, is actually a sprawling compound that includes a hotel, RV Park, Pet Resort, Starbucks, restaurant, store, and the Williams Depot. My family spent the weekend at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Okay enough, but definitely not the best bang for your buck. With its big stone fireplace and cushy chairs as a focal point, the lobby is everything you’d expect in a mountain getaway, but the hotel rooms left much to be desired. They were quite plain and in desperate need of updating, and when I called to request a rollaway bed I was informed that there was a $10 per day extra charge. (When I inquired about a rollaway bed at the time of our reservation, I was told they were available, but nobody mentioned a fee.)
Also a bit misleading: the indoor pool. Of course visiting in January we were excited about this amenity. Who wouldn’t want to luxuriate in a bubbly spa and play in the pool with their child while watching the snow drift down outside through a huge glass wall of windows? So we checked in, gathered up our swimsuits and robes, only to discover that you had to walk outside to get to the indoor pool. Suddenly those snowflakes weren’t sounding so appealing!
Okay, back to the train ride, because while the hotel proved to be decidedly unspectacular, the journey was anything but. After departing the Williams Depot, the train travels across 65 miles of classic Old West terrain, including high desert plains and portions of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest. Passengers travel in one of five distinct classes of service: Coach Class, Club Class, First Class, Deluxe Observation Class, and Luxury Parlor Class (the latter two are reserved for adults only).
Trip highlights include a daily Wild West shootout at the Williams Depot prior to departure, and roaming entertainment aboard the train. Complimentary coffee and soft drinks are served in Coach and Club Class cars; the others up the ante and offer passengers champagne, pastries, fresh fruit and snacks.
Experience The Grand Canyon
While the journey is an adventure in itself, it’s the destination we were there to see. President Theodore Roosevelt once called the Grand Canyon “the one great sight which every American should see.” He made this proclamation on May 6, 1903, after traveling to the South Rim aboard Grand Canyon Railway.
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is five million years in the making. The train arrives at the Grand Canyon Depot, located in the heart of the Grand Canyon Village and just a short walk away from the incredible vistas of the South Rim. Constructed in 1909, Grand Canyon Depot is part of the Grand Canyon National Park Historic District and is a National Historic Landmark.
Passengers have just over three hours to explore the village before boarding the return train to Williams. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but unless you are an avid hiker, it’s plenty. The Grand Canyon Railway offers motorcoach tours that will take you to breathtaking vantage points and drive down roads where private automobiles are not permitted, but we chose to explore the South Rim on our own.
There are numerous shops and restaurants to explore in the Grand Canyon Village, and the Bright Angel History Room is an educational spot not to be missed. There is also an easy walking path to enjoy the views and see a little more of the canyon. My son was a little nervous and overwhelmed by the sight of the Grand Canyon, plus the ground was icy, so we didn’t venture too far, but its definitely on our list for next time.
If you have a stroller or are traveling with a disabled person, don’t despair. Most areas of the Village are handicap accessible, and the Grand Canyon Railway even provides a courtesy shuttle to the Rim if requested in advance.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Back in Williams, take some time to explore this sleepy and historic Old West town. Stirring up images from the movie Cars (you can almost hear James Taylor singing in the background), Williams was the last town in America on Historic Route 66 to be bypassed by the freeway. Interstate 40 replaced the last surviving segment on Oct. 13, 1984.
Founded in 1874, the town’s current population is approximately 2,900. The downtown business district of Williams is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and many of the downtown buildings were constructed around 1900, after a huge fire wiped out most of the town.
This Historic Downtown District covers six square blocks including the Williams Depot and Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. There are an array of restaurants to choose from in the area, including the hotel’s restaurant Max & Thelma’s. Visitors can take a self-guided historic walking tour of this Historic District and famed Route 66 with the help of a brochure available at the visitor center.
When To Go
When is the best time of year to visit Williams and the Grand Canyon Railway? We were there on a weekend in the winter; the hotel itself was surprisingly sold out but the Grand Canyon was delightfully uncrowded. A summertime visit would of course be a likely choice, especially if you have school-aged children.
Your best bet, especially if you have older kids up for a little adventure, is to plan a visit in the spring or fall. The weather is still warm enough to enjoy all the outdoor activities, but hotel rates are typically lower and you won’t have to deal with those infamous summer vacation crowds.
“The Canyon is different every time of year,” says Heather Gearheart, Public Relations Manager for the Grand Canyon Railway. “In the wintertime its beautiful to see the white snow against the colors of the Canyon, and summer nice because of Northern Arizona’s moderate temperatures. But spring and fall are the best times to visit for a less crowded, personal experience.”
No matter what time of year you choose to ride the rails, you are guaranteed a memorable experience aboard this Old West gem.