Exploring the Grand Canyon in Style: Grand Canyon RailwayAugust 26, 2011 No Comments
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is served by one major highway–US 64 from Williams, Arizona, an hour to the south. Although the road is well maintained and served by several tiny towns with gas and food, it can get quite crowded during the major tourist seasons. While we made the drive later in our trip and it was fine, for our initial visit we decided to skip the traffic and travel in style. The Grand Canyon Railway offers a scenic and relaxing alternative.
About the Grand Canyon Railway
Until the late 1800s, traveling to the Grand Canyon meant spending roughly 8 hours each way in an uncomfortable stagecoach from Flagstaff. The ride was expensive and difficult, making it impractical for most travelers. In 1901, a spur line of the cross-country Santa Fe Railroad was built from Williams to the Grand Canyon, opening the canyon as a mass tourist destination for the first time.
The train trip was significantly less expensive than the stagecoach ride, priced at $3.95 instead of $15. In today’s money, that equals $114 rather than $423. Quite a difference in affordability! The train was also much more comfortable, and could complete the trip in only three hours.+
Automobile travel to the canyon was first attempted in 1902, but did not become practical for decades. By the 1960s, however, the interstate system was complete and America was in love with the car. The Grand Canyon Railway closed due to lack of ridership in 1968.
In 1989, nostalgia for a simpler era was at an all-time high. Entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert rescued the railroad from another company which, having failed in an effort to restore it, had already begun salvaging materials. The Grand Canyon Railway reopened on September 17, 1989, exactly 88 years after its initial run.
Besides the train, today the Grand Canyon Railway offers a full-service hotel and RV park in Williams, and a hotel at the Grand Canyon. You can purchase individual train tickets or create a customized package with accommodations.
We decided on a two-night stay at the official Grand Canyon Railway RV park in Williams and a same-day roundtrip train ride to the canyon. We checked in at the RV park at around 6 p.m., leaving plenty of time to explore Williams that night. The park is entirely paved and reasonably level. Oversized pull-through sites offer full hookups, including both 50 and 30 amp electric service. Amenities include WiFi, cable TV and a common fire pit. RV park guests are welcome to use the swimming pool and hot tub at the connected hotel. The hotel is reminiscent of an old-fashioned lodge, but packed with modern amenities. Take time to explore the historic pub and the comfortable fireplace seating area even if you do not stay.
Our day on the railroad began early. A free Wild West show takes place by the railroad depot at 9 a.m. The show involves members of the audience and is surprisingly well done. The actors are quite good at what they do, and are happy to pose for pictures and sign autographs after the show. Boarding starts immediately after the show, so arrive early to look around the historic depot, built in 1908.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers four classes of service. Coach class uses traditional 1950s Pullman cars with comfortable bench seating. Snacks and beverages are available for sale in the café cars. As of 2011, Coach class tickets cost $70 roundtrip for adults and $40 roundtrip for children aged 2 to 15. Under age 2 is free.
First class provides a significantly upgraded experience. Individual oversized, padded seats recline, offering the chance to stretch out a bit. On the way to the canyon, a light breakfast buffet consists of pastries, doughnuts and fresh fruit. Orange juice, coffee and sodas are also provided. On the return trip, snacks include an assortment of crackers, cheeses and fresh vegetables, along with sodas and coffee. Full bar service is available at reasonable prices. As of 2011, First class costs $140 roundtrip for adults and $110 roundtrip for children. Under age 2 is free.
If your kids are older, you might consider upgrading to Observation Dome or Parlor Car seating. Both require children to be at least 16 years old. The Observation Domes are located on the second level of the First class cars. In addition to the First class amenities, they offer panoramic viewing and, for those over 21, a champagne toast in the afternoon. The Parlor Car is modeled on the private cars of the old rail barons. Seating is on comfortable sofas and chairs, giving the car the feeling of a lounge. In addition to Observation Dome amenities, the Parlor Car offers a private bar and access to an open-air platform. As of 2011, Observation Dome tickets cost $170 roundtrip, while Parlor Car tickets are $190 roundtrip.
The National Park entrance fee of $8 is added to the cost of each ticket when purchasing online. If you have a National Parks pass, you can receive a refund by showing it at the window when you pick up your tickets.
Dad and I were seated in First class, as it is the highest level of service open to all ages. Our car attendant showed us to our seats, where a printed Grand Canyon guide was waiting for us. The ride is fully narrated, but our attendant took advantage of downtime to make personalized recommendations for things to do at the canyon.
The breakfast buffet opened as soon as we departed, and we spent the first half-hour watching the scenery and enjoying the food. Soon a strolling musician appeared, followed by a Wild West gunfighter. The entertainers make their way through the train; each is assigned to cover several cars. In the First class cars, they go to the Observation Dome before the First class seats, so you may hear some the act before they reach you. However, the entertainers are highly skilled and this in no way detracted from the experience.
The two hour and fifteen minute ride passed surprisingly quickly. There was a lot to see as the terrain changed from pine forest to desert and back again. Our car attendant pointed out animals along the way, supplementing the general narration. There are restrooms in every car.
At the Grand Canyon
The train arrives at the canyon promptly at 11:45 a.m. The historic depot was built in 1910. It was one of only 14 depots constructed of logs and is one of only three that are still standing. It is the only log cabin depot that still serves an active railroad.
The depot is located at the base of Grand Canyon Village, a town of roughly 1,460 people dedicated to Grand Canyon tourism. The earliest settlers were entrepreneurs interested in making a quick buck off tourists arriving at the depot. They offered tents, food and souvenirs, and lived in whatever space they could find. Gradually the tourist industry became more regulated, permanent housing structures were built, and hotels replaced the tents. Today the village is an eclectic mix of interesting historic sites, sweeping views of the canyon, high-end restaurants, snack stands, elegant hotels and fascinating shops. A visitor center provides more information on this quaint area.
Since we were returning to Williams on the afternoon train, we had only three hours and fifteen minutes at the canyon. Rather than striking out for more distant parts of the South Rim and risking missing the train, we opted to spend the afternoon in the village. Pick up a free walking tour brochure at the visitor center if you choose to explore the village. The area is less than two miles long, but there is quite a lot to see. Just make sure you leave time to actually enjoy the canyon views!
There are steep steps from the train depot to the village. However, a free shuttle van for guests with disabilities runs frequently throughout the day. Although it is primarily used for those traveling in a wheelchair, Dad was offered a ride due to his using a cane. Although he declined, we thought the gesture was wonderful.
The Return Trip
Boarding for the return trip begins at 3:15, and the train leaves promptly at 3:30. The snack buffet was ready to go as soon as we departed. Although it would not replace a meal, it was quite welcome after a long afternoon!
There was significantly less narration on the return journey, although the car attendants remained available to answer questions. Another strolling musician, equally talented, came along partway through the trip to serenade us. Everyone relaxed, chatting quietly or even catching a short nap.
But don’t get too comfortable! Before we knew it, the train slowed to a stop. Normally at this point, you can see outlaws on horseback out the train windows. This portion was cancelled on the day of our trip, though, due to unusually heavy rains that created dangerously slippery mud.
Soon we heard an announcement that the outlaws had boarded the train! They would soon be making their way through the cars taking “donations.” Of course, modern society being what it is, the narrator was careful to stress that this was not a real train robbery and participation was entirely optional. “Please don’t take out your cell phones and call Homeland Security. We’ve actually had that happen before!”
As the outlaws neared our train car, our attendant encouraged us to play it up a bit. At his suggestion, various people in our car placed dollar bills behind their ears, tucked them into their glasses, or nestled them in their suspenders. Part of the game is for the outlaws to locate the cash.
The outlaws were great, playing up the robbery to the hilt, but keeping it light and fun rather than scary. Have your camera ready, as there were several wonderful photo opportunities!
Tips for Parents
The Grand Canyon Railway experience is well worth the cost. The professional staff and highly skilled entertainers created an atmosphere of fun, rather than the stress associated with driving. With so much to see, there is no time for kids (or adults) to get bored. You are permitted to walk through the train, allowing everyone the chance to stretch their legs. The train is wheelchair-accessible via a lift, but you must make arrangements in advance.
Three hours is not enough time to see the Grand Canyon. Either book a package with an overnight stay at the canyon, or take the train solely for the experience of the train itself. We opted to return to the canyon on our own at a later date, which worked out well. On the day of your train trip, stick close to Grand Canyon Village. Although there are free shuttle buses throughout the park, seeing one area in depth is much more fun than constantly looking at your watch and wondering whether you can get back on time.
Keep a close eye on your children at the canyon. While some overlooks have guard rails, others do not. The terrain is often uneven and rocky, and some areas have steep steps. Although accidents are rare, it is best to err on the side of caution.