WILLIAMS, Ariz. – The Grand Canyon has been a tourist destination for more than 100 years, with people from around the world coming to marvel at one of nature’s true wonders. For much of that time, people traveled to the canyon by train.
That option is still available to tourists who travel the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams to Grand Canyon Village. The train has a long history, and has hauled ordinary folks and presidents. After shutting down for a few decades, entrepreneurs revived the train in the late 1980s, and it’s been rolling through the 60-some miles of high desert between Williams and the canyon ever since.
Riding the train does take planning. There aren’t a lot of walk-up tickets available, even on a Tuesday in June, so advance tickets are a good idea. And, since the train boards at about 9 a.m., it’s a good idea to stay in Williams. There’s a hotel associated with the train, but our little family saved a few bucks staying at a motel near the town’s interstate interchange. There’s cheaper-still lodging in Flagstaff, 30-ish miles to the east on Interstate 40, but you’ll have to get up earlier, which can be difficult if you’re traveling with a teenager just out of school.
Arriving at the depot, there’s a cafe and other amenities, and the ticket clerks are all happy to answer whatever questions you might have.
After a brief “Wild West” show, it’s time to board. There’s assigned seating for most of the cars, and each car has its own host. Laura, the host on our car, kept up a running commentary about the history of Williams, the area outside town and kept passengers on the lookout for wildlife, which can include elk, javalinas, coyotes and more.
The car hosts have to be good at their jobs — it’s about a two-hour trip to the canyon. The hosts have help, from musicians who wander from car to car. We had a fiddler on the way up, and a banjo player on the way back. Both were very good.
But just gazing at the scenery has its own rewards. The automobile may be the most personally-liberating device ever created, but riding the train has its charms, too. Everyone in your party can gawk at the scenery to their heart’s content, and no one has to slowly fume while stuck behind a slow-moving camper or truck. You can just ride, as the scenery rolls by.
After a while, the high desert starts turning to the just-about-alpine scenery of the canyon, and soon you’re at the Grand Canyon’s rail depot, which, as the car hosts reminds us, is 47 stairs below the El Tovar lodge, the main hotel at Grand Canyon Village. A number of people take the train from Williams, then stay at the canyon for another night or two to take in the sights.
Those sights, of course, are remarkable. Even if you just spend the next three hours or so at Grand Canyon Village — there are some short hikes right outside the village, as well as a few good options for lunch — it’s hard to comprehend the sheer size and depth of the canyon, with millions of years of our planet’s history laid out in the countless layers between the top and the Colorado River far below.
It’s a little easier to comprehend the draw of the canyon for humans, from the first Indian tribes to the present time. The National Park Service helps explain that history, with help from a couple of members of the Navajo tribe, who every day hold an educational presentation, complete with an “eagle dance” in full tribal regalia.
Too soon, it’s time to board again for Williams. While the visit was relatively short, there were plenty of napping people, from one member of a quartet of retired tourists from England traveling old Route 66 to a little boy whose name, near as we could tell, was “Shhh!”
After rolling back into Williams, it was time to get in the car for the quick trip to Flagstaff. But riding the rails, just for the day, was a way to help get in touch with the history of one of the world’s true wonders.