With the great road west debunked by an interstate highway in 1978, the town of Williams found itself bypassed by time, languishing in the hot sun — the ruins of a boomtown that went bust.
How did a town of 3,000 reinvent itself when it didn’t have the red rocks of Sedona or the attractions of Flagstaff? Well, Williams didn’t have much once the cars were gone and the copper long ago mined. What it did have was history, spunk and one of the greatest natural wonders at its doorstep.
A visit to Williams today is an unexpected treat.
While Payson, Sedona and Prescott are sure bets for an event-filled weekend, Williams offers something quaint and all-American that you can’t find anywhere else in the state.
However, venturing somewhere new always comes with an element of risk. Will there be enough to fill the attention spans of a screaming van full of children or enough quiet for a couple looking for a romantic weekend?
The early travelers of Route 66 were full of the same trepidation and wonder at what the great Southwest held. What they found along the way was more than gas stations and dusty truck stops; they found freedom, a chance to explore and the possibility to start a new life.
Williams has gone through several identities through its lifetime, from lawless country, to logging and mining town, ghost town and today, tourist town — Route 66 has kept this town alive and continues to spur its change.
On my first visit to Williams, I sprinted across Interstate 40, bypassing any signs of early America.
There were no quaint shops or diners to stop at, just miles and miles of open country, semis and billboards.
This all changed when I hit exit 163. The small town of Williams sprung up before me.
Driving through Williams at first glance, I was not overly impressed. Greeted by old buildings, I started to write Williams off as a ghost town worth driving through, but not stopping in.
After parking my car in front of a curio shop outfitted with wooden cowboys and Indians and neighboring a gas station decorated with every metal road sign, I decided to give it a shot. I was here after all, and I heard there was an awesome café and brewery just down the street.
Williams was not always so kitschy, in the late 1870s Williams was still wild, untamed country.
Trapper William Sherley Williams — “Old Bill” — first explored the area. Atlantic and Pacific Railroad crews later paid homage to Old Bill by naming the town after him in 1881. The neighboring Bill Williams Mountain also bears his name.
While trappers first explored it, Williams officially opened its doors to the rest of the country when the railroad passed through town in 1882. For the next decade, Williams was truly a Wild West town with prostitution, drinking, drugs and gambling rampant.
You can still see a small hint of this at one hotel in downtown today. A “lady of the night” manikin sits in an inn’s balcony over Railroad Avenue.
It wasn’t until a lumber company came to town that things settled down in 1893. Later in the 1890s, copper was found and miners came from all around to strike it rich. The town exploded with growth and excitement. This went bust, however, when the copper ran out.
Luckily, the Santa Fe Railway came in and built a line to the Grand Canyon, hooking Williams up with one of the world’s largest tourist attractions.
This railway line would prove to be the redeeming feature for Williams when Route 66 was bypassed by the interstate and the logging and livestock industries died off.
But Williams didn’t let go of Route 66 so easily. Williams was the last town to be bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1984. Residents knew once it went, so would the tourists.
Luckily, with the Grand Canyon Railway and a resurgent in Route 66 enthusiasts, Williams survived and today offers a slice of Americana charm. Between November and December, the Grand Canyon Railway draws some 100,000 visitors.
You can see this charm by strolling Route 66 and Railroad Avenue, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Souvenir shop windows display Route 66 memorabilia and true Western keepsakes, including a few signs that warn trespassers to stay away.
Railroad Avenue, which was once known as “Saloon Row” for its sizeable number of bars, is now filled with restaurants and inns. On Route 66, more restaurants including the Red Raven are open.
My roommate and I ate at the Red Raven after receiving recommendations and we weren’t disappointed. Bessie had a char-broiled steak wrap with melted havarti cheese and potato wedges while I had Baja tacos with creamy chipotle sauce. Both entrees exceeded our expectations and we tip our cowboy hats to chef and owner David Haines.
While the food is delicious, the ambiance of the Red Raven captures Williams’ lure — a vibrant red ceiling, exposed bricks and simple decorations are an ode to simpler times.
It was Williams’ brick buildings that survived half a dozen devastating fires. The oldest remaining building today is the Grand Canyon Hotel on Route 66 and Second Street, built in 1892 by C.E. Boyce, who also built a number of other buildings around town.
The newest attraction in Williams is Bearizona, a drive-through wildlife park that will leave you wondering, “Did I really just drive that close to an unrestrained black bear?”
Bearizona opened in May under Sean and Dennis Casey, whose parents own Bear Country USA in Rapid City, S.D.
The park is home to bears, wolves, bison, mountain goats, mountain lions and javelinas. Most are either orphaned or confiscated wildlife.
Upon entrance at the 160-acre park, large metal fences, security cameras and a security officer greet you. If you ever wanted to feel like you were entering Jurassic Park, this is it. Luckily, once you cross over the electrified crossings and pass the barbed wire, open forest greets you, as well as docile animals who are more interested in their food than you.
“Bearizona’s mission is to promote conservation and preservation through safe, affordable, memorable and educational encounters with North American wildlife in a natural environment. The park is another opportunity for Grand Canyon visitors to spend more quality time in scenic Northern Arizona,” a press release states.
After Bearizona, if you are itching for untamed wilderness, head up Bill Williams Mountain. At 9,256 feet, the vantage from the top is exquisite epically from the Forest Service fire lookout tower, which is normally open. The wide valley stretches out below, spreading out for miles. Although the drive is a little bumpy, travelers are rewarded with lady-bug-covered bushes (if you’re lucky), wildflowers, aspens and probably, no one else around.
When venturing to the Williams area, expect to find more than just gas stations and diners. Come with an open mind and you’ll find adventure, history and a taste of a bygone time worth reliving.