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A Northern Arizona Grand Canyon Railways Vacation Trip: What's in Store

John is a retired math teacher who is involved in many activities. He writes, builds model ships, gardens, reads, and prospects for gold.

View of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon.

View of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon History

The third natural wonder of the world lies in Northern Arizona. Access to the Grand Canyon can be by car or train. If you aren't interested in traffic congestion, and you would like a great experience pulled by an FPA-4 or F-40PH diesel locomotive, then the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona is the way to go.

At the beginning of the 20th century, steam locomotives provided the power to go from Williams, AZ to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Passenger trains ran until 1968. Cars were the preferred mode of travel, but service was started again in 1989. The Grand Canyon Railway is an integral part of the history of the Grand Canyon having hauled tourists, supplies, and even ore to and from the South Rim.

Grand Canyon Railway and Williams, Arizona

On arriving at the Grand Canyon railway, my first thought was that the area we were in was worthy of a family vacation tour. Coming up from Phoenix, AZ, my wife and I were impressed with how much the temperature had dropped (25 degrees) and the beautiful ponderosa pine forests as we approached Flagstaff, AZ. Those thick, gorgeous forests continue to the South Rim.

You can't get lost. When you enter Williams from the east or west on Interstate 40, head south a few blocks off the exits and there are signs to show the way to the GCR train depot. A very large parking lot is on the east side of the GCR property with plenty of available parking. To the west of the parking is the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. This 297-room two-story hotel is absolutely beautiful! The lobby sports custom leather furniture, wood accents, and restored Victorian chairs. The round trip price for tickets to and from the South Rim for one adult was $70. There are many, many different Grand Canyon packages that range anywhere from very modest prices to expensive. This is the least expensive fare and is for coach class on a Budd car (named for the manufacturer of the car).

The Grand Canyon Railway Depot — with a 2-8-0 Grand Canyon Railway steam locomotive.The southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, in Williams, Arizona.

The Grand Canyon Railway Depot — with a 2-8-0 Grand Canyon Railway steam locomotive.The southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, in Williams, Arizona.

Our Old West Adventure Begins

The day after our arrival we headed to the Williams Depot for the train ride. At the far end of the depot area, there was a portrayal of an old west gunfight. It turned out that this was a comedy involving three or four cowboys and the sheriff. For a short presentation, it provided a lot of laughs.

Then it was departure time for the Grand Canyon. We boarded the C car, with aid of a stool placed on the ground by our hostess. It appeared to be a car added to the usual train because the other cars had proper names written across them. The others had names like the Colorado River, the Coconino, the Grand View, etc. Nevertheless, it was air-conditioned and immaculately clean!! There were baggage racks above the seats similar to a bus. There was plenty of room between seats and they were comfortable.

The Train Makes Way

With the toots of the locomotive's horn and costumed people waving goodbye from the platform, we were off. The train would move toward the Grand Canyon National Park at no more than 40 miles an hour on a standard gauge track. Because this mountainous area has some rather sharp curves, the GCR has a speed limit to guarantee passenger safety. From January 10, 1989, to July 1990 the Grand Canyon Railway refurbished the train cars and locomotives and refurbished the tracks, ties, and bridges the entire way. The scenery is so untouched by the human hand that one cannot but imagine early travelers on horseback viewing the place in utter awe. Why would you want to go faster? There were a few small structures along the way, but aside from that, it was pristine.

As we snaked along the way to the Grand Canyon, our hostess at the front of the car gave us information about all sorts of things; a very good guide. We learned about the history, specification of the train's cars and locomotives, plant and animal life, archaeology, and information about the Grand Canyon. In fact, the last part of the trip found most passengers taking advantage of a question and answer period by making a plan for touring the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. Our hostess used a big map included in the Territorial Times (a newspaper we all got focusing on the railway) to familiarize ourselves with distances between sites and structures so that our 3 1/2 hours at the canyon would be full of activity. This was extremely helpful and guaranteed our arrival back at the train for our 3:30 PM departure. The ride up to the canyon passed in no time at all and it was delightful (69 miles taking 2 hours and 15 minutes).

Main entrance to the El Tovar Hotel

Main entrance to the El Tovar Hotel

Grand Canyon Village Sites

1. Grand Canyon Village: The town was planned by the park system and half the buildings were designed by architect Mary E. J. Colter.

2. Train Depot: This is the end of the line at the Grand Canyon. The depot is two stories high and was constructed in 1909-1910 by a California architect, Francis W. Wilson. It is one of only three log depots remaining in the United States. The downstairs was designed for train services, while the upstairs was for railroad agents' quarters.

3. El Tovar: This is a very famous hotel in the village. It opened in 1905 and was a Harvey House. The Fred Harvey Company ran it originally for the Santa Fe railway. It was a destination resort with a reputation for luxury. The hotel was named after the Spanish explorer Pedro de Tovar.

4. Hopi House: This was another Harvey House-inspired building. It was built to house Native American crafts. A concession that houses crafts, native artists produce their art and craft on site. It is beautiful, almost resembling a museum. The stepped sandstone structure is its standout feature.

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5. Verkamp's Visitor Center: This center is situated east of the Hopi House, on the rim trail, and was started by John G. Verkamp, an early businessman who started selling curios at the Grand Canyon in 1898 and later built a store. In 2008, the store closed, but the National Park Service converted it into a visitor center because of its status on the National Register of Historic Places.

6. Kachina Lodge: A 49-room lodge with many rooms having at least a partial view of the Grand Canyon. It was built in the late 1960s with a contemporary feel and is centrally located.

7. Thunderbird Lodge: Located on Village Loop Drive, Thunderbird Lodge is located between Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar. It is the site of an 1896 trading post with a cafeteria occupying the same space. Draping the walls of the dining area are Navajo rugs. A central portion is the site of the trading post jail. Another 1960's contemporary lodge, Thunderbird sits right on the south rim. Top restaurants are on either side of the lodge.

8. Bright Angel Lodge: This lodge is touted as a place devoted to the middle-class vacationer, and rooms are very reasonably priced. The main building has a stone facade with Southwestern adornments on the front door and window placements. There are also cabins. The lobby is vaulted with breathtaking log construction and Southwestern artifacts.

9. Lookout Studio: A gift shop and observation platform. Telescopes provide amazing panoramic detail. It is constructed of ragged stones in the Native American tradition. Architect Mary Colter gave the building a fake ruin look that adds to its rustic flare. It was built in 1914. It was originally a photography studio.

10. Kolb Studio: This building was originally built in 1904 and renovated in 2014. It began as the home of Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, pioneer photographers of the Grand Canyon. The original home built by the two brothers has had two additions over time. It now houses a bookstore, art gallery, and information center. The prominent drawing card of the house is photographs of mule riders in the Grand Canyon. It is built into the side and top of the south rim.

11. South Rim Trail to Bright Angel Trailhead: This is generally referred to as the Rim Trail. Some of the trail is paved and it is claimed to be a more modest trail for hiking than the other South Rim Trails. Some locations can hold water after a rain. It also features a shuttle bus service that can take you to a specific venue along the trail that is of high interest.

12. We had lunch at the Bright Angel Coffee Shop. Ask for the deluxe hot dog and fries! The Coffee Shop is located next to the Mather Point visitor center. They offer lots of sandwiches and drinks, including espresso. Many sustainable food options are on the menu. Bikes and strollers are for rent, and shuttle packages and bike tours are available. I particularly enjoyed the Firecreek Coffee Company brew!

Bright Angel Lodge Cabin 6160-63 at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA

Bright Angel Lodge Cabin 6160-63 at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA

An Exciting Trip Back

When you get back to the train for your departure to Williams, you will have hiked around to various places, but it is easy walking. You board the train at the precise time designated and the train leaves precisely on time—kinda like the "old days."

The ride back to Williams is filled with historical highlights, puzzles, riddles, and a hold-up by railroad thieves on horseback. It's all good fun. At one point, we were boarded by a motley crew with guns drawn. We were ordered to raise our hands and some silly conversation with the "thief" ensued. One man stayed behind to hold the would-be bandits' horses. It was good fun, especially for the kids.

Then we were off again entertained by at least 3 musical groups. One group especially noteworthy was a team of brothers (no more than teenagers) who sang and played the guitar and small acoustic guitar.

Then, as we approached the Williams Depot, we heard the ever-present toots of the horn and we disembarked at the platform. It had been a complete day of entertainment and sightseeing, worth more than the price of the tickets. Keep Grand Canyon Railway in mind if you want to see "the third natural wonder of the world."

On the edge of the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The historic building is within the Grand Canyon Village Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places in Grand Canyon National Park.

On the edge of the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The historic building is within the Grand Canyon Village Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places in Grand Canyon National Park.

The Future

Geologic time is huge. The Grand Canyon is so big that even 10,000 years is too short to notice any outstanding change to this geologic wonder. With wind, rain, and any human or animal activity, geologic downcutting, erosion, and weathering go on continuously. Give it a million years or more and all of the small changes accumulate to a decipherable calculus and changes can at that time be measured and evaluated. Widening is the primary change that can be predicted—and that is a certainty.

Thunderbird Lodge, Grand Canyon Village, Arizona

Thunderbird Lodge, Grand Canyon Village, Arizona

Grand Canyon Preparations

You probably will want to fly into Las Vegas (McCarran International, LAS) or Sky Harbor International in Phoenix. There are several air commuters to the canyon. The canyon is 4.5 hours from Phoenix and 5 hours from Las Vegas.

Hiking lets you feel the expanse that is the Grand Canyon. You will also get amazing views. Understand that hiking down is easier than getting back up. You will double the downtime on the return trip. Arizona is dry and especially hot in the summer. Any employee can recommend how much water to bring when you visit.

Spring and fall are the best times weather-wise. Summer is very crowded and much warmer. Hotel discounts are offered between February and November. Don't be surprised if there is snow in the winter.

Book reservations at canyon hotels (there are six) early! There are at least four communities no more than two hours away that can provide alternative accommodation.

There are many activities provided on tours. You can take a hike, raft, go on a jeep tour, hitch a train ride or go on a tour with a ranger.

I only spent one day at the Grand Canyon and one day in Williams. But if your trip to Arizona involves multiple days, check out areas not far from the canyon that are of great interest. For instance, Tusayan, Flagstaff, Williams, and Sedona have many opportunities for sightseeing activities. Google any of these and see all the options.

During peak seasons, the Grand Canyon can be booked 6 months in advance. If you need a car rental or a room, get it booked early. Campground lodging is usually not as booked. Confirm your reservations.

And last but not least, don't forget your camera! The landscape in the Grand Canyon is as beautiful as any place on Earth. The colors of the canyon change with the light given hues that emphasize the peace of the place. Enjoy.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 John R Wilsdon

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