Tidewater Traveler - December 2008
Grand Canyon Railway
George W. Sellers
“I can still picture it in my head like it was when I was standing there. The colors seemed to change as I watched. I don’t think I will ever forget what it looked like.” It surprised me when I heard her speak those words, but it pleases me greatly to realize that the eyes of memory have not been compromised by macular degeneration and glaucoma. At ninety-five and a half, (I think you are supposed to count the “halves” if you are under age five or over age ninety-five), Mom is reminiscing about a brief visit she made to the Grand Canyon nearly fifty years ago.
Sitting here with her on the front porch of the Vienna house she has called home for over seventy years, her vision is such that she can barely see large vehicles pass by on the street; people, even at close range, are just indistinctive shapes. Yet in her head are crystal-clear images of the great chasm carved by the Colorado River over the course of thousands of years. Her imagery recall was triggered when I began to describe to her my own recent re-visit to the South Rim of the incredible gorge, and her recollection was astonishingly accurate and similar to what I had just seen a few days earlier.
All-aboarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd! Just as Mom had slipped back in time for a few minutes there on the front porch, I felt that I had done the same when I arrived at the train terminal in Williams, Arizona. After receiving tickets through the bars from a caged-in ticket clerk, I proceeded to a modest open-air seating area to await arrival on the northbound track of diesel powerhouse number 6773 and her entourage of parlor coaches.
Wandering aimlessly around the mini-stadium waiting area were half a dozen gun-slinging cow-pokes, each attempting to engage the arriving tourists in his own entertaining manner. One evoked laughter from the group by following someone closely, mimicking their walking style. Occasionally, two of the cowboys teamed up; the first distracted a husband to the left while the second slipped his hand under the wife’s arm and walked away with her in the opposite direction. The impromptu entertainment continued until the bleacher seats were nearly full. And then the actors continued their humor with a more organized skit on the street of the Old Western village set. Not Broadway-quality entertainment to be sure; but it was an amusing way to pass the time until the Grand Canyon Railway was ready for boarding.
About a dozen vintage rail cars lined the loading platform, each car bearing a different Native American tribal name. Throughout the train are found five different travel classes from the very basic Pullman coach class, through several upgraded classes leading to luxurious surroundings.
Once passengers are aboard and comfortably seated, the train slides smoothly away from the platform to follow the 65-mile course north. Over the span of two and a quarter hours, the iron snake slips along the rails through high desert, prairie and the largest stand of Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. Each car of the train has a host who provides interesting folklore and history of the Grand Canyon region and the Railway. Strolling musicians pass from car to car, entertaining and chatting as they go. There is even an old-fashioned shootout and a train robbery – corny, but fun. We were told of all the animals we might see along the tracks. I did see a few mule deer.
If you do just the day trip from Williams to the Canyon and back there will be a layover of about three and half hours, long enough to walk to a canyon observation area just across the street from the train depot, or to climb aboard a waiting motor coach for a narrated, escorted tour that includes a meal and stops at three overlook points.
If time is not pressing it would be better to spend a night or two in one of the canyon-rim hotels, also within walking distance of the train depot. Staying for two nights at the South Rim allows ample time to engage in a mule ride into the canyon. But be aware - the mules are very popular and reservations should be made about a year in advance.
The Grand Canyon Railway is a wonderful way to reach the very popular South Rim area. Using the train to reach the South Rim can easily become a one-, two-, or three-day segment in a self-drive tour through America’s desert Southwest. There are several ways to work the train trip from Williams into an itinerary. The 180 mile drive from Phoenix to Williams takes about two and a half hours at the posted Interstate speed limit of 75 miles per hour. A more leisurely trip from Phoenix will include a stopover at the quaint village of Carefree, Arizona (more about that later); and perhaps an overnight stay in Sedona to appreciate the incredible outcrops of red rock and scores of gift shops and art galleries.
A comfortable itinerary will incorporate a pre-train ride stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel just a few steps from rail station in Williams. America’s Main Street, Route 66, runs through the heart of Williams. Cowboys and pickup trucks are everywhere. As an alternative to Phoenix, or to continue a road trip in a different direction, the drive from Williams to Las Vegas takes only about three and half hours and passes across the famous Hoover Dam.
If vacations are intended to be relaxing, consider adding the Grand Canyon Railway as a segment of your self-drive trip.
May all of your travels be happy and safe!
George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.