By Sally Tippett Rains
A trip to the Grand Canyon is on many people’s bucket list but there is something you may not have known about—but you might want to add: A trip to the Grand Canyon on the Grand Canyon Railway.
The Grand Canyon Railroad takes off from Williams, Arizona and is a great way to make the visit. It actually makes the trip very easy because you can sit back and relax—and be entertained—on the two hour train ride up. No traffic hassles, just looking out the window for anteloipe, free-range cattle, horses, javelina and other wildlife. You will pay the $35 park fee to the railroad and then once you get there, there is no problem of paying the park fee and finding parking. They drop you off right at the “Village” on the South Rim and everything is right there.
There is a company named Xanterra Travel Collection that owns the train, the hotel and restaurant attached and it can all be packaged together to make for a very memorable trip. AAA Auto Club of Missouri members can get a discount.
The train ride and everything included takes you back to a time you may have read about in books or seen in the movies…Back in the late 1800s, the Grand Canyon was a far-off distant land that only the most adventurous of explorers could tackle, due to its remote location in northern Arizona, which was still a territory at the time. But Americans were on the move and going west. American ingenuity was hard at work in the form of the railroads, being built and tying the nation together. In 1901 , the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe completed the track to Grand Canyon.
Since the Grand Canyon Railway ran it’s first trip in 1902, many famous people have ridden it, including Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates.
In 1904, the railroad hired the Fred Harvey Company to manage the hotels and restaurants at the Grand Canyon for the Santa Fe, and in 1905, Santa Fe built its flagship hotel, the El Tovar, which became the finest lodging at the rim and arguably in the Southwest at the time. The El Tovar is still there and tourists can walk through it and eat there. It is still in the décor it had when it first opened. Fred Harvey is shown with a group of the famous “Harvey Girls” who worked at his railroad restaurants.
Once the automobile took over, the need for trains became less and less and in 1968 the Grand Canyon Railway closed—for a time. The Railway was reopened for passenger service on September 17, 1989 by a couple of entrepreneurs.
Today, Grand Canyon Railway provides a historic and fun journey to the canyon with the help of authentic western characters who bring the Old West to life. T
Here’s a sample trip:
Fly into Flagstaff or Phoenix and drive down. There is a Drury Hotel in both cities and the one at the Phoenix Airport is newly renovated. Las Vegas is also three hours away, so there are several alternatives one can take.
The drive from Phoenix by way of I-17 and then though Flagstaff, which is fairly close to Williams is scenic with different landscape formations around every corner.
Interstate 17 was closed due to a car accident the day we went and we were re-routed to the backroads, but it was cleared up and the highway was open. It turned out to be a great stroke of luck, and we would recommend getting off the interstate and going the backroads because the scenery was outstanding—so much that it did not seem any longer. Going that way we went through Sedona and then Flagstaff. We started on I-17 and exited at 260 and then hig 89A North to Sedona.
We started in Phoenix and stopped for lunch in Flagstaff. The restaurant we chose was Salsa Brava, which is a place that Guy Fieri has visited and featured as well as it is the restaurant featured on the TV show, Sister Wives. Besides all the television hoopla the food is delicious and we recommend the Navajo Tacos. It’s basically a taco but made on Navajo Fry Bread, which is native to the area most of Arizona as it is a genuine food made by Navajo Indians.
The photo, left, shows the Navajo Fry Bread with the taco ingredients including chicken and refried beans on top.
Another restaurant along the route is in Sedona, Mariposa. Chef Lisa Dahl is one of the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs and has pioneered the culinary scene in Sedona, for more than 27 years. Dahl is the executive chef and owner of six outstanding restaurants including Mariposa which is a fine-dining restaurant.
Once you hit Williams, you have reached. your destination. Williams is known as a gateway to Grand Canyon National Park via the Grand Canyon Railway.
A large sign greets you as you pull in to the town.
Check into the hotel. No, not that hotel.
We used the GPS to find our hotel and there is actually a hotel called the “Grand Canyon Hotel” so don’t be confused as we were. We pulled in and wondered what we were getting ourselves into as the rooms were advertised for $3.50 a night.
We asked at one of the art shops and were told our hotel, “The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel” was two blocks further.
The lobby of the hotel has a huge fireplace and since they were getting ready for the Polar Express there was a large Christmas tree in one corner. The ambiance of the lobby, which looks similar to a state park lodge lobby and partly like the hotel lobbies of yesteryear. Dark wood, brass kickplates on the doors and Remington statues everywhere.
There must be a lot invested in the Remingtons as some were in mirrored areas and some just out by the fireplace and large comfy couches. Having been raised by a father who grew up on a ranch in Oklahoma in the 1930’s and ‘40’s this writer was brought up on Remington statues and had them pointed out in every museum on travels.
For those who aren’t familiar with Frederic Remington (1861-1909), he is best known for his art depicting the cowboys, soldiers and Native Americans of the Old West. He was from New York but often traveled out west. His career took off in the mid-1880s when he began making western illustrations for Harper’s Weekly. His most popular works are the black statues of wild west figures most including horses in them.
The hotel lobby also has pitchers of ice water. There is a swimming pool and a hot tub. They are both inside so can be used in any weather.
There is a workout room for those who like to stay physically fit on trips, however there is also a lot of opportunity to do some hiking so outdoor physical activity is easy to achieve. It gets cooler in the evenings so a sweater or light jacket would be helpful.
Once checked into the hotel it is time for dinner.
The Fred Harvey Restaurant is right across the parking lot. If the name Harvey and restaurants rings a bell maybe you saw the Judy Garland movie “The Harvey Girls.” The movie description on ImDB says, “On a train trip West to become a mail-order bride, Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) meets a cheery crew of young women travelling out to open a “Harvey House” restaurant at a remote whistle-stop.”
There wouldn’t have been Harvey Girls without Fred Harvey, the visionary entrepreneur who paved the way for civilized travel when the West was still wild. He set up some restaurants along the train routes—one being at the Grand Canyon in the El Tovar. The “girls” were young women of high moral characters who agreed to one-year contracts, but many left their jobs early to get married as a lot of the men out West were looking for a wife.
Who were the Harvey Girls? In the words of humorist Will Rogers, they were women who “kept the West in food – and wives.”
The Fred Harvey Restaurant does not have Harvey Girls but it does have train décor. There is even a battery-operated train that runs around the restaurant on a shelf built with the track on it.
One of the fun things about the restaurant is the live music. They don’t make you wait until 9 p.m. when it’s just the bar, they start the music during dinner. It might be 6 p.m. but the restaurant is full of people singing along with the guitar players.
There is a large buffet which has great food.
After dinner, stroll around the grounds or check out the gift shops. The price ranges were all over the place for apparel but we found a grey Grand Canyon Railway tee-shirt for $19.99. It was soft and comfortable and the shirts ran true to size. It was fun having matching shirts for the photos at the Grand Canyon, and the shirt serves as a nice souvenir.
For being in a remote spot, we were pleasantly surprised at the good choice of cable channels and access to Wifi. Even when on a short getaway, a Cardinals trade could happen and we need to know about it so Wifi is important to us.
There is an indoor and an outdoor bar just off the lobby for visitors enjoyment in the evening.
The next morning we had the buffet breakfast at the Fred Harvey Restaurant and it was just as good as the previous dinner menu.
It was easily one of the biggest and best breakfast buffets around.
The morning of the train trip, passengers assemble on the “Old West Set.” The “Marshall” is there and the ner-do-well outlaws are there with their guns and horses. It is an authentic rootin’ tootin’ wild-west show with fake guns that go off. The Marshall tells the bad guys to leave the passengers alone. He calls the “all clear” for everyone to board the train– but that won’t be the last time they will run into those crooks.
“All Aboard!” calls the conductor and the train is off. The inside is very plush, yet old-looking. It feels like the elegant train rides often shown in the movies. The workers were all in costume adding to the ambiance.
By car the Grand Canyon is about 55 miles away, which takes about an hour and 17 minutes to drive. The ride is longer by train, and is usually about three hours and 21 minutes.
The Grand Canyon Railway Train only goes 40 miles per hour due to the many turns and hills. The relaxed pace provides time for passengers to gaze out the windows and look at the terrain.
For a little more—the First Class ticket—you get food and drinks, and a host like the guy shown here. He does everything from tend bar and serve food to pointing out the wildlife and telling stories. On the trip out it starts at 9 a.m. so there is coffee and sweet rolls, but also a bar with Bloody Marys and Mimosas.
The cars are comfortable and entertainers come in and out with the host of each car keeping the guests up to date on what is going on and if there are any antelope sightings.
About halfway through the trip the bad guys make it on the train and “rob” the customers. The guide has given the heads up so those who want to be “robbed” can have a dollar bill hanging out of their hat or be holding some money. It’s a little hokey but fun for all and not at all scary for the passengers.
Once the train arrives at the Grand Canyon it is up to the individuals what they will do. There are bus tours that can be set up ahead of time, but we were advised that if we did not take the tour we would have more flexibility of how long to stay at each thing.
Everyone who has ever seen pictures of the Grand Canyon or seen it in movies knows it is awe-inspiring.
According to the National Parks Department, there are more than 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammal, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. One Park ranger said the two main sources of injuries are the “slip-and-falls” and animal bites—specifically from squirrels. They warn not to feed the squirrels or eat anywhere they are as they are known to come right up to people and steal their sandwiches.
There are benches to sit on all around the village area, but we were surprised to note there really are not fences to keep one from falling into the canyon, so keep children and people who are unsteady on their feet, under a good watch. There are little two-feet rock dividers around much of the canyon in this area.
There are many great photo opportunities and it really does look as amazing as it does in the pictures.
The best time to go would be the fall because they are setting up for the Polar Express so starting in late October you get the added bonus of having the Christmas decorations up.
For families who want to stay in Williams a few days, it is a quaint little town with shops. For more information on Williams, contact their Conention and Visiotrs Bureau. https://experiencewilliams.com/
The tour guide on the train recommended going to nearby Bearazona, which is an animal park. The first part is a drive through for deer, wolves,etc. Bearizona Wildlife Park is located on approximately 160 acres right in Williams.
It is a zoo that says it is dedicated to responsible wildlife management, conservation, and education. Everyday, visitors can drive through over three miles of Ponderosa Pine Forest viewing North American animals in their natural habitats.
After driving through, park the car for the animals exhibited in Fort Bearizona, a beautiful 20-acre walk-thru zoo area. For more information on Bearazona: https://bearizona.com/
There is also the Grand Canyon Deer Farm. Located on a section of old Route 66, the Deer Farm is 10 acres of animal wonderland. Walk a path around the park to view wallabies, llamas, coatimundi, bison, peacocks, & much more. Walk with deer, feed the deer right from your hands. For more information on the Grand Canyon Deer Farm: https://deerfarm.com/
The same company that owns and runs the Grand Canyon Railway has other fun trips at National Parks including Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain.
For more information: https://www.xanterra.com/
A FEW NATIONAL PARKS & HOTELS WITH SPECIAL PACKAGES:
Photo credits: Sally Tippett Rains, STLSportsPage.com
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