If you are looking for Arizona train rides that immerse you in history, deliver a unique experience, and entertain the entire family, climb aboard the Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railroad. Both located in Northern Arizona, these railroad adventures are similar in that they employ restored rail cars and vintage trains.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers immersive live entertainment with its cowboy shows, train bandits, and musicians. The Verde Canyon Railroad, meanwhile, offers a passive educational experience with sizeable and numerous storyboards at the Depot and recorded narration on the train.
Let’s explore the key differences to know.
Note: I was hosted by the Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railroad on each train ride. However, these opinions are my own.
1. Entertainment Styles
Rousing family entertainment begins in the corral, where The Cataract Creek Gang performs before departure at the historic Grand Canyon Railway Depot. The realistic antics of the Gang and their fake gunshots had me jumping with surprise and laughing heartily along with the other guests in the audience.
The passenger service attendants on the Grand Canyon Railway share exciting facts about the area and the canyon. Dressed in period costumes, the PSAs delivered bottled water to passengers in the coach car and reminded us how important staying hydrated is at the nearly 7,000-foot elevation.
Editor’s Note: TravelAwaits‘ own Judy Karnia took the family on the Grand Canyon Railway. If you’re curious how it went, read her account here.
Meanwhile, Verde Canyon is a pristine landscape without developments like homes, hotels, resorts, and roads, and the entertainment on the Verde Canyon Railroad is inspired by nature.
The Verde Canyon Railroad boasts Arizona’s longest-running nature show. The canyons are the definitive feature when referring to this section of the desert Southwest. Visible from the open-air cars and large windows of the train cars are unforgettable towering red rock buttes, rugged terrain, and high-desert foliage.
Even though it rained during my train ride, the cover over the open-air car afforded some protection from the raindrops. The rain added to the drama of the landscape and emphasized the burnished red-orange of the rock pinnacles.
Verde Canyon Railroad provides recorded narration and rousing sing-along songs, beverages, and snacks to go with the stunning scenery as we rode alongside the Verde River. I sang heartily to several of the recognizable tunes.
The Grand Canyon Railway excursion is a 65-mile-long journey and takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to get from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim. You have about 3 hours at the destination. Because the historic buildings are close to the Depot, there is plenty of time to visit Verkamp’s Visitor Center and the Hopi House, look for the condors, see historic national landmarks, eat a nice meal at El Tovar, and soak in the beauty of the Canyon. The return trip drops you back in Williams in time for dinner.
Pro Tips: If you decide to eat at El Tovar, make a reservation as soon as you descend from the train. Your wait time, which might be an hour or more, can be filled with exploration at the South Rim. You may opt for a hike instead of a delicious meal. The Bright Angel Trailhead is a few steps away from the Lookout Studio.
The Verde Canyon Railroad, on the other hand, is a 4-hour, 20-mile journey through awe-inspiring scenery. All from the relaxed atmosphere of the train cars with premium beverage service.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers family entertainment at its best. It’s relaxed, casual, and fun.
While the Verde Canyon Railroad promotes seasonal and special programs for families with children, the living-room-style décor in the Pullman train cars seems better suited for adults wanting relaxation and sightseeing accompanied by adult beverages.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the view of the Painted Desert is breathtaking, is the destination for the Grand Canyon Railway. It is one of the natural wonders of the world and is also an International Dark Sky Park.
You might observe the rare and critically endangered California Condor soaring on the thermals if you are lucky. It was windy and chilly when I was there, so all I saw were blackbirds roosting in the trees from my perch at Lookout Studio, a national historic landmark.
On the Verde Canyon Railroad, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey. Passengers remain on the train for the entire trip through awesome Southwest scenery in Verde Canyon.
5. Cost And Cars
Five classes of service on the Grand Canyon Railway offer transportation for all budgets. From my simple crimson leather bench seat in coach class to the easy chairs and couches I experienced in other cars, I realized that every level of service and passenger comfort is considered. I enjoyed the entertainment as much in coach as I did in the Luxury Parlor and the Dome car.
In all categories, we arrived and departed at the same time and enjoyed good service.
The living room style on the Verde Canyon Railroad calls for a single price around $100 per person. All seating is premium, assigned, and charged per person. As a single traveler, I was seated by a window and shared a table with another passenger.
The open-air cars on the Verde Canyon Railroad give the passenger two seats for the price of one.
6. Special Programs
Grand Canyon Railway offers the Ultimate Polar Express Experience (a “private train car to the North Pole”) or the standard Polar Express Train Ride. Santa Claus and his reindeer greet passengers, serve hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, and you can listen to timeless stories. Both experiences make a great holiday family tradition.
Verde Canyon Railroad offers special programs on the train or at the depot. Seasonal train rides include Chocolate Lovers’ Special, the family-style Ring in the New Year, the Magical Christmas Journey, Fall Colors, Spring Bloom, Summer Starlight and Moonlight Rides, the Phantom Train Experience for kids, as well as wine tasting and beer festival rail trips.
7. The Route
The Grand Canyon Railway journey begins at the Williams Depot, located in historic Williams, Arizona, along famous Route 66. Taking the train from Williams to Grand Canyon, we ride on the same rails that the first steam train did in 1901. The scenery changed from high desert to prairie and prairie to pines as we changed 1,500 feet in elevation.
On the return trip, assigned to the Parlor Car, I stepped outside on the caboose balcony and enjoyed watching the rails disappear behind me and viewed the Cataract Creek Gang riding their horses at breakneck speed to catch and rob the train. They made it, by the way, and “robbed” us of tips.
The Verde Canyon train departs from the depot in Clarkdale, about 67 miles southwest of Flagstaff and 23 miles southwest of Sedona. The massive pile of tailings and slag from the mines near town serves to remind the viewer of the mining activities for which the Verde Canyon was famous.
The historic route of the Verde Canyon Railroad is only accessible by rail and traverses the untouched and unspoiled Verde Canyon and runs alongside the Verde River. The river is sandwiched between two protected sanctuaries, the Coconino Forest and the Prescott National Forest.
Towering red rock pinnacles, fortified bridges, and ancient Native American ruins are part of the scenery from Clarkdale to the ghost town of Perkinsville and back. A magnificent 734-foot tunnel, carved through the solid rock over a century ago, pitches the train into total darkness only to escape into daylight on the other end.
Pro Tip: If you’re in for a thrill, make sure you are in the open-air car when going through the tunnel. The clearance between the rail car and the rocks is minimal.
Similarities Between The Train Journeys
The Grand Canyon Railway and Verde Canyon Railroad are two Arizona train rides with lots in common and yet offer different experiences.
For example, both trains have the means to turn around with the passengers still aboard. The Grand Canyon Railway employs a wye — a triangle of track that allows 180-degree turns — to turn the entire train around; the Verde Canyon Railroad disconnects its engine upon arrival at Perkinsville, runs around the train on the track to the right, hooks onto the other end of the train, and pulls the return trip to Clarkdale.
Both Grand Canyon Railway and Verde Canyon Railroad use Pullman coaches for their Arizona train rides, and both are ADA compliant.
Historic depots and towns are the core of Arizona train rides. The Williams Depot and the Grand Canyon Depot were built over 100 years ago and are national historic treasures. Clarkdale — the town Verde Canyon Railroad departs from and returns to — is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its train museum holds 100+ years of history.
Both depots have gift shops for souvenirs and memorabilia and dining accommodations so that you won’t go hungry or thirsty, and petsitting services are available at both depots because pets are not allowed on either train.
The Iron Horse tamed the West, and both the Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railroad work to keep history alive with the rail cars, tracks, and historic locomotives a part of the living history of northern Arizona.