If you are middle aged or younger, chances are you have never ridden on a train in the United States. Outside of Amtrak, the only way you can enjoy a "land cruise" today in Arizona is on the Verde Canyon private train or the Grand Canyon Railway.
Let's enjoy the Grand Canyon Railroad experience this time.
From Payson, take a two-and-a-half-hour drive through the beautiful Northern Arizona country to Williams, which is located just 30 miles west of Flagstaff on Interstate 40. Williams has come to life again with the railway's success. The town's population is just under 2,000 today. It once survived by being on Route 66. But, when the interstate came into being, Williams was by-passed.
The Grand Canyon Railroad is based here and is the town's principal employer. The train station was built by the Santa Fe railroad in 1901. Trains came from Chicago and Los Angeles on the Santa Fe main line. Passengers bound for the Grand Canyon transferred at Williams for the 69-mile run to the South Rim of the Canyon. Santa Fe built two main lodges for its tourist passengers, with the most notable being El Tovar, situated on the rim of the Canyon next to the rail station.
Today, one can enjoy the same comforts provided passengers many years ago by the Santa Fe.
The now privately-owned Grand Canyon Railroad is comprised of a number of rail cars built in the so-called streamlined era of the 1940s and ‘50s. The basic coach cars were built in the 1920s. All have been completely refurbished. There are five classes of service. I recommend sitting in one of the Vista Dome cars. Views are spectacular.
The station area in Williams features the Fray Marcos Hotel, owned by the railroad, and recently enlarged and redecorated. The hotel has a restaurant, bar/lounge, gift shops and plenty of parking. There are several packages one can purchase. I would recommend a two-night hotel stay (the night before the train trip and the night after) with the rail adventure.
The train trip begins with a Wild West shoot-out (great for the kids) next to the station beginning at 9:30 a.m. Boarding begins at 9:50 a.m. and departs the Williams station sharply at 10 a.m. The hotel employees line the track in front of the station and wave a "goodbye" as the train departs. Most of the year, the train is pulled by a diesel. During the summer, a steam engine is positioned at the head of the train. The rails head north through flat, open, high plains until the train nears the Canyon's South Rim, where the scenery changes to mostly pine trees. Looking east, you have a wonderful view of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest in Arizona.
During the scenic ride, Western-themed strolling musicians move through the rail cars taking song requests. You will probably get into the mood and sing along with the musicians as well as those in your rail car.
The train arrives at the South Rim station at 12:15 p.m. A short walk from the station to the Canyon's rim brings the breath-taking sights of the Grand Canyon. Bus tours, which include lunch, can be purchased in advance, which I recommend. The coach driver is your host. After lunch, you visit several lookout points and are provided with an informative narrative. Or, you may wish to make a lunch reservation in advance for the main dining room at the El Tovar Hotel overlooking the canyon. The food is great and the service is very good.
At 3:30 p.m., the train departs the Grand Canyon station and returns to Williams, arriving at 5:45 p.m. During the return rail trip, you'll enjoy more live music as you "cruise" through the high plains. And, be prepared for train robbers to ride along the side of the train with guns drawn, forcing the train to slow so they can board. The "robbers" are masked and move through the train asking you to give them your watches and wallets. All is in good fun, of course. Take the children or grandchildren. They will get a big kick out of the train, the canyon and the true Western feeling of the experience.
Available also with the train experience is a stay overnight at El Tovar lodge at the canyon's rim. Several packages can be purchased along with railroad reservations by calling (928) 773-1976. Enjoy this special experience close to Payson.