The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is definitely worth the effort it takes to travel there. But why not make the trip itself enjoyable by riding the Grand Canyon Railway out of Williams, Arizona?
In March 2019, my parents-in-law came to visit our home in Scottsdale with a request to visit the Grand Canyon. Instead of dealing with the traffic and parking at the national park, we decided to stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and make an adventure out of the trip.
The railway and hotel provide a perfect experience for a family, especially families with children or people with limited mobility. The following encompasses the many ways we enjoyed the journey.
1. The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
We checked into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel for two nights so we could have a stress-free day for the Grand Canyon trip. The accommodations were comfortable and clean, and the lobby had the feel of Old West luxury with a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and landscape paintings.
The on-site Fred Harvey restaurant offered breakfast and dinner in a spacious hall. We reserved the package that included meals, which was very convenient, especially traveling in a group. However, I wish we had left a couple of meals open for trying restaurants in Williams. The town perches a short walk away along Route 66, and we were only able to explore it briefly and stop for a beer.
The hotel was built in 1995 and renovated and enlarged in 2000 and 2004. It emulates the standards and feel of the Fray Marcus Hotel, one of the original Harvey House hotels, which still rests across the lawn. Harvey House hotels and restaurants, established in the early 1900s by entrepreneur Fred Harvey, were dedicated to high-quality food and service to railroad travelers.
2. The Morning Starts With A Wild West Shootout
After a hearty breakfast, we strolled to the wooden bleachers next to the depot for a show. A few local cowboys started a humorous altercation with the Marshall over a card game. The Old West facades, horses tied to posts, and authentic costumes complete with cowboy hats, bandanas around their necks, and leather chaps set the mood. The actors even involved one of the audience members in their shenanigans. Of course, the argument escalated and guns were drawn. I won’t ruin the ending for you.
Pro Tip: If you have small children with you, warn them that there will be loud noises and the actors will fall to the ground.
3. Depart From The Memorable Williams Depot
Built in 1908, the Williams Depot transported us to a time when people traveled along this route between Chicago and Los Angeles. The building is a restored station of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Back in the day, the depot included one of the Harvey hotels, a bar, a dining room, and a newsroom. We picked up our tickets at the forest green wooden booth and perused the souvenirs. Out on the platform, friendly attendants lined the track to assist us in finding the correct car and seats.
4. Ride The Rails On A Historic Train
The Grand Canyon Railway offered several classes of cars, from the classic Pullman style of 1923 to more modern cars with expanded views. We choose the coach class with simple but cushioned bench seats and large windows for viewing the passing landscape. The seats could be reversed so we could chat in a foursome. They also offered the Observation Dome class for panoramic views, Luxury Dome class with plush seats, couches for gathering, and a full bar, and Luxury Parlor class which also had an outdoor platform.
5. Beautiful Scenery Along The Route
As the train traveled north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it moved from the ponderosa pine forests of the Williams area down into the open prairie and then up in elevation through the pinion pine forests of the Grand Canyon. It was interesting to watch the change in scenery and try to catch a glimpse of wildlife. Being able to sit back and relax provided the opportunity to gaze at the passing scenery rather than at a map.
6. Musicians And Storytellers
Along the route, an attendant hosted each train car with his or her own style of entertainment. Ours told amusing stories and held little quizzes on local knowledge. He carried around his “wild pets” for us to meet. The fact that they were actually stuffed animals added to the humor.
Various musicians passed intermittently through our car. They sang traditional Western and camp songs and invited us to sing along. The ride lasts a little over 2 hours, and we were never bored.
Pro Tip: Much of the humor is quite cheesy, but play along to have a great time.
7. Disembark Right In Historic Village Of Grand Canyon
Of course, the main event was the national park with a canyon a mile deep and 18 miles wide at some points. Designated a national historic landmark, the Grand Canyon Depot has been welcoming train passengers to this natural wonder of the world since 1910.
The depot sits next to Grand Canyon Village and is a short walk from the Verkamp’s Visitor Center, a good place to learn some history of the canyon and plan our 3-hour stay at the rim. It also provided another option to load up on souvenirs of our trip.
Restaurants at Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar offered various types of food, from sit-down meals to grab-and-go. Sitting along the rim and enjoying an ice cream cone is always a treat even when it is cold outside.
Pro Tip: The train will head back to Williams with or without you so do not lose track of the time. Confirm the time you need to be ready to board before you start your wandering.
8. Plenty Of Time To Explore The Rim
The first thing most people will do when they disembark from the train is to make a beeline for the rim. The first glimpse of the Grand Canyon does not disappoint. It just goes on and on. The distance between the top of either rim averages 10 miles. It is difficult to wrap your mind around how far that really is. The Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon can be seen in spots in the distance. The river eroded the Colorado Plateau over millions of years to create the mile-deep canyon.
The irregular shapes of the canyon contain horizontal strata of sandstone, shale, and limestone. Each layer was deposited in a different time period. The various colors of the stone vary from tan to red, creating a wonderful pattern. When we visited, the foliage was greener than I had seen before, which added another hue to the scene.
Shuttle buses carry visitors along the rim to various vantage points. When we went in March, we chose the tour offered by Grand Canyon Railway, which included a comfortable coach bus. The weather was cold and windy. The warm bus provided a nice respite between stops. We had plenty of time to explore each stop, take many photos, and use the facilities as needed. This was perfect for my in-laws, who are mobile but couldn’t have walked very far along the rim. The bus driver took a lovely family photo of us as well.
Pro Tip: The Grand Canyon is immense, and your photo will not be any better if you stand right on the edge of the rim. An average of one person per month dies from falling at the canyon. Stand and walk far enough from the rim that you are not in danger. Never walk backward when taking a selfie. On our last trip, a mother kept staging her two daughters right at the edge of the rim. I couldn’t bear to watch and had to walk far away from them. It is not worth it, really. Your photos will be incredible no matter where you stand.
9. Experience A Train Robbery
As we rumbled along the rails, happily recounting our Grand Canyon experience, we spotted two cowboys atop speedy horses alongside the train. A short time later, the train ominously came to a stop. An announcement came that robbers had boarded the train. Two of the actors from the morning show sauntered through the car and we threw our hands up in the air. My teenager and her grandfather stage-screamed as we laughed. The sheriff followed closely and reassured us that the robbers had been apprehended and the train set off again.
Pro Tip: Have a few dollars ready to hand over when the robbers come through your train car so your “robbery” will feel more authentic.
The Grand Canyon should be on everyone’s list during their Arizona vacation. Riding the Grand Canyon Railway removed the hassle of driving and provided a fun, relaxing trip to a very popular tourist site; the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel was comfortable and convenient to the train depot. The historic feel and friendly service at both ensured an authentic Arizona experience for the whole family.
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