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A Northern Arizona Grand Canyon Railways Vacation Trip: What's In Store

Updated on February 20, 2017
GoldenRod LM profile image

John is a retired math teacher who is involved in many activities. He writes, builds model ships, gardens, reads, and prospects for gold.

Grand Canyon Railway
Grand Canyon Railway | Source

The third natural wonder of the world lies in Northern Arizona. Access to the Grand Canyon can be by car or train. If you aren't interested in traffic congestion, and you would like a great experience pulled by an FPA-4 or F-40PH diesel locomotive, then the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona is the way to go.

At the beginning of the 20th century, steam locomotives provided the power to go from Williams, AZ to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Passenger trains ran until 1968. Cars were the preferred mode of travel, but service was started again in 1989. The Grand Canyon Railway is an integral part of the history of the Grand Canyon having hauled tourists, supplies, and even ore to and from the South Rim.

On arriving at the Grand Canyon railway, my first thought was that the area we were in was worthy of a family vacation tour. Coming up from Phoenix, AZ, my wife and I were impressed with how much the temperature had dropped (25 degrees) and the beautiful ponderosa pine forests as we approached Flagstaff, AZ. Those thick, gorgeous forests continue to the South Rim.

You can't get lost. When you enter Williams from the east or west on Interstate 40, head south a few blocks off the exits and there are signs to show the way to the GCR train depot. A very large parking lot is on the east side of the GCR property with plenty of available parking. To the west of the parking is the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. This 297 room 2-story hotel is absolutely beautiful! The lobby sports custom leather furniture, wood accents, and restored Victorian chairs. The round trip price for tickets to and from the South Rim for one adult was $70. There are many, many different Grand Canyon packages that range anywhere from very modest prices to expensive. This is the least expensive fare and is for coach class on a Budd car (named for the manufacturer of the car).

Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona Depot
Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona Depot | Source

The day after our arrival we headed to the Williams Depot for the train ride. At the far end of the depot area there was portrayal of an old west gunfight. It turned out that this was a comedy involving 3 or 4 cowboys and the sheriff. For a short presentation it provided a lot of laughs.

Then it was departure time for the Grand Canyon. We boarded the C car, with aid of a stool placed on the ground by our hostess. It appeared to be a car added to the usual train because the other cars had proper names written across them. The others had names like the Colorado River, the Coconino, the Grand View, etc. Nevertheless, it was air-conditioned and immaculately clean!! There were baggage racks above the seats similar to a bus. There was plenty of room between seats and they were comfortable.

With the toots of the locomotive's horn and costumed people waving goodbye from the platform, we were off. The train would move toward the Grand Canyon National Park at no more than 40 miles an hour on a standard gauge track. Because this mountainous area has some rather sharp curves, the GCR has a speed limit to guarantee passenger safety. From January 10, 1989 to July of 1990 the Grand Canyon Railway refurbished the train cars and locomotives, and refurbished the tracks, ties, and bridges the entire way. The scenery is so untouched by human hand that one cannot but imagine early travelers on horseback viewing the place in utter awe. Why would you want to go faster? There were a few small structures along the way, but aside from that it was pristine.

As we snaked along the way to the Grand Canyon, our hostess at the front of the car gave us information about all sorts of things; a very good guide. We learned about the history, specification of the train's cars and locomotives, plant and animal life, archaeology, and information about the Grand Canyon. In fact, the last part of the trip found most passengers taking advantage of a question and answer period by making a plan for touring the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. Our hostess used a big map included in the Territorial Times (newspaper we all got focusing on the railway) to familiarize ourselves with distances between sites and structures so that our 3 1/2 hours at the canyon would be full of activity. This was extremely helpful and guaranteed our arrival back at the train for our 3:30 PM departure. The ride up to the canyon passed in no time at all and it was delightful (69 miles taking 2 hours and 15 minutes).

1. The developed area is referred to as Grand Canyon Village.

2. Train Depot

3. El Tovar

4. Hopi HouseHopi House

5. Verkamp's Visitor CenterVercamp's Visitor Center

6. Kachina Lodge

7. Thunderbird Lodge

8. Bright Angel Lodge

9. Lookout Studio

10. Kolb Studio

11. South Rim Trail to Bright Angel Trailhead

12. We had lunch at the Bright Angel Coffee Shop. Ask for the deluxe hot dog and fries!

El Tovar Grand Canyon panoramic
El Tovar Grand Canyon panoramic | Source
Lookout  Studio
Lookout Studio | Source
Bright Angel Lodge
Bright Angel Lodge | Source

When you get back to the train for your departure to Williams, you will have hiked around to various places, but it is easy walking. You board the train at the precise time designated and the train leaves precisely on time - kinda like the "old days".

The ride back to Williams is filled with historical highlights, puzzles, riddles, and a hold up by railroad thieves on horseback. It's all good fun. We were boarded by a motley crew with our hands up and some silly conversation with the "thief".

Then we were off again entertained by at least 3 musical groups. One group especially noteworthy was a team of brothers (no more than teenagers) who sang and played on guitar and small acoustic guitar.

Then, as we approached the Williams Depot, we heard the ever-present toots of the horn and we disembarked at the platform. It had been a complete day of entertainment and sightseeing, worth more than the price of the tickets. Keep Grand Canyon Railway in mind if you want to see "the third natural wonder of the world."

The Future

Geologic time is huge. The Grand Canyon is so big that even 10,000 years is too short to notice any outstanding change to this geologic wonder. With wind, rain, and any human or animal activity, geologic downcutting, erosion, and weathering go on continuously. Give it a million years or more and all of the small changes accumulate to a decipherable calculus and changes can at that time be measured and evaluated. Widening is the primary change that can be predicted - and that is a certainty.

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© 2015 John R Wilsdon


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    • GoldenRod LM profile image

      John R Wilsdon 23 months ago from Superior, Arizona USA

      Thanks for the read. Lots to do in Arizona.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 23 months ago

      What a great adventure. Enjoyed reading this.