Grand Canyon Railroad Revisited

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It had been a while since I had last traveled on the Grand Canyon Railroad, so a few days ago we drove to Williams, Ariz. for the experience. Getting there is easy, with good roads all the way.

The railroad first opened in 1901 when the first steam train took passengers from the small town of Williams to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This line was a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railway Company.

The Grand Canyon, 100 years ago, was a very remote attraction, and the Santa Fe had great vision in building the 65-mile line from its main line up to the South Rim. It provided an easy way for tourists from all over the United States to travel by train to Williams, then board the special train to the canyon.

Following the opening of the rail line, the Fred Harvey Company built the famous El Tovar Hotel perched on the rim of the canyon to house tourists. More than 100 years later, the rail line is still operating and the El Tovar is better than ever.

A little history of the railroad would find that after it opened in 1901, it ran until 1968 when passenger service was discontinued.

In 1989, entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert purchased the rail line along with the Williams depot and it was re-opened that same year under the ownership of the Grand Canyon Railway. The new owners redeveloped the depot, the hotel and the entire rail line to the canyon.

The railroad in Williams now contains not only the attractive depot with fantastic gift shop, but also a very fine hotel and restaurant.

The Xanterra Corporation purchased the railway in 2007. This company operates parks and resorts in major national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Buying the Grand Canyon Railway was a logical addition to the company's holdings.

I found the Grand Canyon Railway experience is even better since Xanterra took over its operation.

You can purchase a package that includes one or two nights at the railroad's hotel in Williams, all meals, your rail travel, plus sightseeing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Or simply pick and choose the segments you desire. You may also wish to stay one or two nights at the El Tovar Hotel facing the canyon.

Since we live in Arizona, we chose to drive to Williams early Saturday, arriving at 9 a.m. We picked up our train tickets at the depot, along with meal vouchers in the hotel's restaurant, and then checked into the hotel.

After putting our bags in the room, we walked backed to the depot just in time to board the train. It departs promptly at 10 a.m.

If you travel with children, you will want to include the free western shootout performance given in a mock-up western town adjacent to the depot. This show begins at 9:30 a.m.

There are five classes of service: coach, club class, first class, deluxe observation and luxury parlor car. All priced fairly.

The train takes two hours and 15 minutes getting to the canyon depot, arriving at 12:15 p.m. The station is located just a 3-minute walk from the El Tovar Hotel. Here, you can walk the paved paths at the very rim of the canyon, with a good supply of benches to enjoy the spectacular views.

We had lunch in the main dining room of the hotel and were extra lucky to be assigned a table at the glass facing the canyon. We took our time here to feast on fine food and the view. Later, there were Indian dances to enjoy and photograph.

Many of the train passengers took one of three sightseeing tours of the area. We had done this in the past, but if you have not been to the canyon, be sure to take one of these.

The train departs the canyon at 4 p.m. for the return to Williams, arriving at 6:15 p.m. This allows just enough time to take in the sights of the canyon and to enjoy lunch.

During the train ride to and from the canyon, you'll enjoy the information imparted by the very friendly passenger service representatives assigned to each rail, along with country singers and other entertainment that travel through the train. There is never a dull moment. On the return to Williams, robbers on horseback stop the train, board and "rob" passengers. It's all in fun and the kids love it.

We spent Saturday night at the hotel and enjoyed dinner as well as a fine breakfast Sunday morning.

You'll find everyone very friendly and wanting to impart information. This is a good, clean family experience.

You can find out more information from your favorite travel professional or visit the Web site, www.thetrain.com or call (800) 843-8724.

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