The drive to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is easy enough. Get to Flagstaff and it’s only about 145 kilometres across Arizona’s high country.
But why take a car when you can ride a train, especially one like the Grand Canyon Railway?
Travelling down the same tracks as the pre-car original, the Grand Canyon Railway is like a two-hour trip through history – a scenic, informative and entertaining ride from a historic Route 66 town to one of world’s greatest natural wonders.
“One of our customers described it as more than just a train ride,” said John Lovely, conductor for the Grand Canyon Railway. “We give you an experience coming to the Grand Canyon, then going home.”
When the Grand Canyon Railway was established in 1901, it immediately became the most popular route to the canyon’s South Rim, smoother and less dusty than rickety stagecoaches.
The railway opened the canyon to the entire world, ushering in millions of tourists to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The railway carried countless dignitaries through the years, including US presidents Taft, Eisenhower and both Roosevelts, along with kings and queens, actors and actresses.
Once the automobile era began, interest in the train waned. It shut down in 1968.
In 1989, Max and Thelma Biegert sunk their life savings into resurrecting the railway and restoring depots at the starting point in Williams and at the Grand Canyon village.
Carrying 225,000 riders a year, the Grand Canyon Railway is once again a popular route to the South Rim, a throwback to a bygone era accentuated by Wild West characters and musicians who tell stories and sing songs during the ride.
“It’s a much more entertaining ride than just driving in your car,” said Bruce Brossman, Arizona regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
Starting in Williams, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by Interstate 40, the train travels 105km to the village of Grand Canyon, with about 2000 people at the South Rim of the canyon.
The train has a variety of cars, from the 1923 Harriman-style coach cars to glass-domed cars and a luxury parlour with private bar. The fare includes fruit, pastries and coffee in the morning, and snacks and a champagne toast on the way back. A cafe car has food and drinks for purchase.
The train travels from the Ponderosa pine forests surrounding Williams across the high desert plains, then climbs to the pinion pines of Grand Canyon National Park. Along the way, there are views of the 3660m San Francisco Peaks, the highest point in Arizona, and wildlife, including antelope, wild turkey, bald eagles, coyotes, skunks, bobcats and mountain lions.
Before boarding in Williams, riders are treated to a Wild West shootout in a corral next to the depot. Once the train starts rolling, the conductor and attendants tell stories and provide facts about the train, the canyon and towns at both ends of the line. Wild West and Native American musicians stop into each car to perform, and just so you’re prepared, there’s a train robbery on the way back to Williams.
There also are seasonal themed rides. The train stops at a pumpkin patch leading up to Halloween; the Polar Express during the holidays is the most popular trip, featuring hot chocolate, Christmas characters and songs, along with a stop at the North Pole to see Santa.
The train runs daily, leaving Williams at 9.30am and returning at 3.30pm. That’s enough time to get a few hours at the South Rim, but if you want to spend more time sightseeing, you can stay at one of four hotels in Grand Canyon Village and return by train on a different day.
Attractions near the village include 100-year-old historic structures called Hermits Rest and Lookout Studio, both designed by Mary Coulter. Free shuttles and guided bus tours are available from the village to different parts of the canyon.
The canyon is one of those places you truly can’t appreciate until you’ve been there, and the Grand Canyon Railway offers a great way to get there.
If you go to the Grand Canyon:
GRAND CANYON RAILWAY: thetrain.com. Departs Williams, Arizona, for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon daily at 9.30am, returning at 3.30pm.
GETTING THERE: Williams, Arizona, is about three hours northwest of Phoenix, 9km west of Flagstaff on Interstate 40.
COST: Round trip train tickets start at $US62 ($A67.08) for Pullman Class up to $US209 for a luxury parlour. Hotel and train packages start at $US206.
WHERE TO STAY: The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams is at the railway depot, allowing guests to walk to the train. The South Rim has four hotels, from the historical El Tovar Hotel on the upscale end to cabins and rooms with shared bathrooms at Bright Angel Lodge. Rates range from $US75 a night at Bright Angel to $US25 at El Tovar. Reservations in summer are essential.
WHERE TO EAT: Williams has numerous restaurants downtown, walking distance from the depot, and the railway hotel features a pub and a buffet-style restaurant. At the South Rim, there’s a food court at Maswik Lodge, a fine dining/steakhouse restaurant at Bright Angel Lodge and upscale dining at El Tovar.