In this article, we will tell you about our discovery of the most fascinating ways to journey to the Grand Canyon: on the train! Probably the Grand Canyon Railway Tour won’t be the fastest option but it’s definitely one of the most fascinating because it will literally take you back in time to the Far West.
Arrival in Williams
We’re in Arizona, in Williams, along the legendary Route 66. We decided to invest a couple of days and some money to try something new. We found a way to combine the vintage charm of the city with the undisputed charm of the Grand Canyon. There is a train that travels from Williams to the masterpiece created by the Colorado River. After having reached and visited the Grand Canyon by car other times, this time we opted for another kind of adventure. Before we get on the train, we want to enjoy sight-seeing on the so-called Mother Road since the town of Williams is an integral part of it.
Things To Do in Williams
There’s so much to see and do here in Williams, but you can’t visit everything. We don’t know where to start, so we just stroll around, captivated by the buildings, historic motels, signs and shops full of memorabilia from the days when the street was bustling.
We walk by murals and local cafés such as the Cruisers (233 Historic Route 66) with its curious red car on the canopy of the building, then we enter Addicted to Route 66 (124 Historic Route 66) that can be easily identified by the four-door Oldsmobile of 1954 parked in front of the entrance. The shop is a paradise for lovers of the “roaring” 50s and for all those who are curious like us. Don’t underestimate Pete’s Rt 66 Gas Station (101 E Route 66, Williams), a museum that you can’t miss walking along the main road.
During the walk a restaurant catches our attention, or rather, we are attracted by the window display of homemade pies. How tempting! Why should we resist? We enjoy two delicious slices of pie, one with apples and the other with lemon-meringue. We don’t go for seconds, because the portions are abundant by our standards and above all because we had promised ourselves to return to Pine Country Restaurant (107 N.Grand Canyon Blvd.) before leaving the city. As the sun goes down, the restaurants get crowded, the bright signs are turned on, Williams’ downtown comes to life and the charm of historic Route 66 is even more evident. The shadows of the past no longer seem to exist.
For now, we have to leave the pleasant atmosphere of the Mother Road because tomorrow we go on the train tour that will take us to the Grand Canyon. And so, before retiring to the hotel, let’s take a quick look at the train station at night to familiarize ourselves with the parking lot in order to avoid being late to the ticket office. We have to arrive around 8:15 am; they are strict about punctuality here.
We spend the night on the outskirts of Williams at the Grand Canyon Travelodge (430 E. Route 66), an unpretentious but clean hotel in a quiet area. Breakfast is included. It would have been possible to stay overnight at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, adjacent to the station, and take advantage of a package that includes the hotel reservation and train tickets, but we did not consider it necessary to invest in that option.
The Train Ride to the Grand Canyon
The big day arrived and early in the morning, just after 8:00 am, we arrived at the station and went to the ticket office of the Grand Canyon Railway (235 N.Grand Canyon Blvd.) to turn our email confirmation into actual tickets and receive further instructions for the tour. The complete tour that we booked from home included riding first-class, return transportation, onboard entertainment, snacks, drinks, a guided bus tour to the Grand Canyon, and lunch.
Today we are doubly happy and are excited like children. This train ride feels like a mixture of reality and fiction, and, later, we will arrive in one of the most enchanting and unique places in the world. When it comes to visiting the Grand Canyon, it doesn’t matter if it is the first or the twentieth time. It is a breath-taking experience every time.
The station is a replica of a twentieth-century Western station. As we stand on the platform, we like to imagine that we are stepping into the shoes of two travelers of the last century. As you know, here in the U.S. there are incredible historical replicas. Then we are called upon to follow a group leader. Together with all the other passengers, we go to an arena where there is a stage designed to resemble the Wild West, a sort of a small film studio. Some gunmen perform for us a funny and impressive performance. Of course, it’s almost a must to take a souvenir photo with the gang, so when we go home, we’ll be happy to say to everyone, “See, I was there too!”
A few minutes before 9:30 am, the typical train whistles punctually, inviting us to get on board assisted by uniformed staff. Everything is perfect; the colors of our surroundings, the vintage train, the clear sky and the fresh morning air. Right now we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We are pleased to have chosen to ride in first-class (Anasazi), because we like the design that includes damask velvet wall coverings, large windows, reclining seats and plenty of legroom. We can enjoy fresh fruit, sweets, coffee and juice in a specially equipped carriage.
From the door that separates the wagons outcomes a character with a friendly face; he is a storyteller-artist in period clothing ready to brighten up our journey of about 130 miles that we will travel in 2 hours and 15 minutes. In spite of this pleasant distraction, you can still see from the glass windows the following panoramas: the San Francisco Peaks, valleys with wildflowers, pine forests, plains and small canyons. All of a sudden, a herd along the track forces the train to stop and makes our adventure even more real.
Arrival at the Grand Canyon
At 11:45 am we arrive at the Grand Canyon Railway Depot, on the South Rim (south bank). Near the train station are hotels, El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge and the Hopi House, an old stone building from 1904 where Indian handicrafts are now sold. If you are interested in more information you can consult our article on where to stay at the Grand Canyon.
A bus is already ready to take us to lunch at Maswik Lodge (202 Village Loop Drive, Grand Canyon Village), where an abundant buffet awaits us. At the conclusion of this pleasant formality, we are ready to enjoy the main event of the day. The bus passes a barrier and enters into an area that we have never visited before, because from March to November you can only access Hermit Road if you have a permit. We are looking forward to discovering new places that we have never seen before.
Along the way, we stop at Mohave Point, Pima Point, the Abyss and Hermits Rest. It’s a perfect day, the sky is clear and the view is breathtaking, but the thing that never ceases to amaze us is the sense of peace that we feel as we simply contemplate the canyon and feel a deep connection with it that is hard to detach yourself from and even the crowds around us do not feel like a disturbance.
We feel a sense of calm. It’s just us and “the canyon”. We are detached from everything else around us. Inevitably our moment of peace is interrupted when the guide calls everyone over to give some information, but to tell the truth, we are more interested in the story of the guide of another group next to ours who is pointing out a large number 7, a bizarre phenomenon of nature, visible in a rock of the canyon right in front of us. It can easily be seen and photographed! Of course, the Grand Canyon is one of the seven wonders of the world. The tour comes to an end and we head towards the train station, but before we get on the train we still have some time to walk and do some shopping in the shops of the hotels around.
During the return trip, we take a break to have snacks, sodas and other drinks while still enjoying the company of our “entertaining friends”. Then fiction becomes reality and we take a journey into the past. We sensed that before our departure, there would be a twist and maybe this is the moment. From the windows, we can see a group of men on horseback approaching the train. They are bandits with their faces covered and one of them is holding up a gun!
Shortly after they get into the train cars and after a tense moment because of the guns, it doesn’t take long to understand from the demeanor, the clothes, the hats and the voices of these men that they’re the gang of gunmen who that same morning had performed in the show at the station in Williams. All in all, it was a very quiet “assault“, but now we can say that we have also experienced this thrill.
Back to Williams
Once back in Williams, after another nice walk along the illuminated Route 66, we treat ourselves, as we had planned, to a pleasant dinner at the Pine Country Restaurant where we had already enjoyed the slices of pie the previous evening.
We say “see you later” to Williams, a town that deserves to be appreciated more deeply and where interesting events take place year round, for example, the craft fair (Arts & Crafts Fair) in May, the Cowpunchers Reunion Rodeo in mid-June, the 4th of July parade, the barrel horse race (Olsen’s Barrel Races) also in July, the exhibition with a vintage car parade along Route 66 East (Cool Country Cruise-In Classic Car Show) in August and the suggestive parade of lights and tree lighting (Parade of Lights and Tree Lighting) at the end of November.
Some of these events are repeated at other times of the year, but if the date of your visit does not coincide with an event you are interested in, there is a place in Williams open daily that deserves a visit. It is the Bearizona Wildlife Park (1500 E Route 66). In this wildlife theme park, with a very attractive natural setting, you will find mammals, reptiles and wild birds, and you can watch shows, demonstrations and see brown bears up close by driving through their habitat, observing, of course, all the rules and recommendations provided before entering the area.
We recommend that you consider the tips from our journal and include them in a tour of Arizona covering a wider area, that may include other charming towns along Route 66, such as Oatman, Kingman and Seligman along with other wonders of the state from which to choose. There are multiple itineraries you can follow, so we want to point out two reference airports: Las Vegas-McCarran (NV) and Phoenix-Sky Harbor (AZ), 3 hours and 20 minutes and 2 hours and 45 minutes from Williams respectively. Our trip took us to Arizona, a magnificent state. Be ready for continuous excitement and to “travel back” in time!