Park the car and visit the Grand Canyon by rail

Grand Canyon Railway

photo uncredited APGRAND CANYON, Ariz. — The drive to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is easy enough. Get to Flagstaff and it’s only about 90 miles across Arizona’s high country.

But why drive when you can ride a train, especially one like the Grand Canyon Railway?

Traveling down the same tracks as the pre-automobile original, the Grand Canyon Railway is like a two-hour trip through history, a scenic, informative and entertaining ride from a historic Route 66 town to one of world’s greatest natural wonders.

“One of our customers described it as more than just a train ride,” said John Lovely, conductor for the Grand Canyon Railway. “We give you an experience coming to the Grand Canyon, then going home.”

Established in 1901

When the Grand Canyon Railway was established in 1901, it immediately became the most popular route to the canyon’s South Rim, smoother and less dusty than rickety stagecoaches.

The railway opened the canyon to the world, ushering millions of tourists to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The railway carried countless dignitaries through the years, including U.S. presidents Taft, Eisenhower and both Roosevelts.

Once the automobile era began, interest in the train waned. It shut down in 1968.

In 1989, Max and Thelma Biegert sunk their life savings into resurrecting the railway and restoring depots at the starting point in Williams and at the Grand Canyon village.

Carrying 225,000 riders a year, the Grand Canyon Railway is once again a popular route to the South Rim, a throwback to a bygone era and accentuated by Wild West characters and musicians who tell stories and sing songs during the ride.

photo by Guy Noffsinger AP“It’s a much more entertaining ride than just driving in your car,” said Bruce Brossman, Arizona regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks and Resorts.

Starting in Williams, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by Interstate 40, the train travels 65 miles to the village of Grand Canyon, with about 2,000 people at the South Rim of the canyon.

The train has a variety of cars, from the 1923 Harriman-style coach cars to glass-domed cars and a luxury parlor with private bar. The fare includes fruit, pastries and coffee in the morning, and snacks and a champagne toast on the way back. A cafe car has food and drinks for sale.

The train travels from the forests surrounding Williams across the high desert plains, then climbs to the pines of Grand Canyon National Park. Along the way, there are views of the 12,000-foot San Francisco Peaks, the highest point in Arizona, and often wildlife, including antelope, wild turkey, bald eagles, coyotes, skunks, bobcats and mountain lions.

Before boarding in Williams, riders are treated to a Wild West shootout in a corral next to the depot. Once the train starts rolling, the conductor and attendants tell stories about the train, the canyon and towns at both ends of the line. Wild West and American Indian musicians stop in each car to perform, and just so you’re prepared: There’s a train robbery on the way back to Williams.

Seasonal rides

There also are seasonal rides. The Polar Express during the holidays is the most popular trip, featuring hot chocolate, Christmas characters and songs, along with a stop at the North Pole to see Santa.

The train runs daily, leaving Williams at 9:30 a.m. and returning at 3:30 p.m. That’s enough time to get a few hours at the South Rim, but if you want to spend more time, you can stay at one of four hotels in Grand Canyon Village and return by train on a different day.

photo by Scott Johnson The Associated PressAttractions near the village include 100-year-old historic structures called Hermits Rest and Lookout Studio, both designed by Mary Colter. Free shuttles and guided bus tours are available from the village.

The canyon is one of those places you truly can’t appreciate until you’ve been there, and the Grand Canyon Railway offers a great way to get there.

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