Old West Gunfights on Route 66: Williams, ArizonaJanuary 29, 2012 No Comments
Williams, Arizona, is often known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is just an hour from Williams by car, or two hours on the elegant Grand Canyon Railway. A thriving tourist town, Williams is also home to roughly 3,000 year-round residents. Dad and I visited twice during the summer of 2011, once as part of our Grand Canyon Railway package and again on our own to further explore the Canyon.
The town of Williams was settled in 1881 and incorporated in 1901. It is named for “Old Bill” Williams, a local trapper and explorer, for whom nearby Williams Mountain is also named. Historic Route 66, established in 1926 and fully paved by 1938, ran directly through downtown Williams. Bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1984, one year before Route 66 was officially decommissioned, Williams has the distinction of being the last town bypassed by the interstate highway system.
Although Route 66 has been officially off the books since 1985, historic preservationists have worked tirelessly to preserve what remains. In 1999, preservationists got a huge boost from then-President Bill Clinton, who provided $10 million in matching grants through the National Route 66 Preservation Bill. Many towns celebrate their Route 66 heritage, and Williams is no exception. A well-maintained two-mile loop still serves as Williams’ version of Main Street.
Despite its love for Route 66, Williams never forgets that it is also part of the Old West. Cowboys and gunslingers played an important role in the area’s early history, and they are celebrated with equal fervor in Williams today. Williams is the only town we’ve seen where nightly Wild West gunfights take place outside 1950s diners!
Williams sits well over a mile high, at an elevation of 6,770 feet. Those with breathing problems or other health conditions might have difficulty acclimating to the height. Take it easy and plan for plenty of rest breaks, particularly during your first day or two in town. Assuming that you have no problems with the elevation, however, Williams is an eminently walkable small town.
What to Do in Williams
The Grand Canyon is the major draw for visitors to Williams Arizona, and it can easily take two or three days to scratch the surface of all that the Canyon has to offer. Like any tourist town, though, Williams offers plenty of excitement to add an extra day or two to your Grand Canyon experience. Horseback riding, the Planes of Fame museum and the Bearizona drive-through wildlife park are all highly recommended, but we simply ran out of time. Instead, we turned our attention to the shops and restaurants of downtown Williams.
Our first stop was the Visitor Center. In addition to the normal maps and vacation planning materials, the Visitor Center is also home to a small but surprisingly well-done museum. The displays trace the history of Williams from the earliest peoples through today, with a decided focus on the glory days of Route 66. If you’ve ever wanted to see the last Route 66 stoplight or peruse old maps and tourist brochures, this free museum is a definite must-see.
The Grand Canyon Railway depot is also worth seeing, even if you do not take the train ride. Opened in 1908 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the depot once included a Harvey House Hotel with 43 guest rooms. Founded by Fred Harvey in 1870, the Harvey House chain was well-known throughout the American Southwest for impeccable cleanliness, excellent food and top-notch service provided by the charming and wholesome Harvey Girls. Today the train depot has been meticulously restored. A large, well-stocked gift shop offers a wide variety of local souvenirs.
By far, our favorite activity in Williams was the nightly gunfight. The fights occur in the early evening at various spots along Route 66, so pick up a list of places and times at your hotel or campground. The free show is decidedly silly, but a lot of fun.
The streets of Williams are lined with kitschy shops and roadside diners, so be sure to leave ample time in your schedule to simply explore. We enjoyed dining at Twisters so much that we had dinner there during both visits. The family-owned diner is sure to take you back to the 1950s. Gleaming red and white accented by neon signage made me feel like I was in the Shake Shop from The Patty Duke Show. The menu is largely traditional diner fare such as hamburgers, hot dogs and onion rings, as well as an extensive list of ice cream options. But vegetarians and those who prefer a more substantial dinner will not be disappointed. The food was fresh and tasty and prices were reasonable.
Tips for Parents
Williams is a tourist town and priced accordingly. Gas, in particular, is extremely expensive. If possible, fill your tank before you arrive. The shops sell a mind-boggling array of souvenirs from kitschy to collectable, so set a budget in advance and try to stick with it.
Despite the plethora of tourists, Williams is a clean, safe small town. Keep an eye on your kids as you would in any tourist destination, but allow them the freedom to play and explore. If you have time, amble down to the railroad tracks to experience the “Williams traffic jam” in the morning or afternoon–when the Grand Canyon Railway rolls through, three or four cars get backed up at the tracks! Slow down, relax, and enjoy the laid-back way of life.