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Riding the Grand Canyon Railroad

May 20, 2011 by  

Grand Canyon Railroad departs from Williams, AZ

Imagine stepping back in time and arriving at the Grand Canyon the same way travelers did more than 100 years ago- on the iron horse.

I recently experienced this journey starting in the heart of downtown Williams, Arizona, a frontier “Main Street” town along the legendary Route 66.  Williams retains much original architecture and road-side appeal from the era when car travel was king and roadside cafes dotted the rural towns along fabled Route 66.

In Williams, every morning begins with a Wild West shootout. Of course, I expected a lot of cheesy humor from a scripted show, but the costumed actors were surprisingly good and the banter was honestly fun. The audience got into the moment.

Shoot-Out in Williams, AZ

Afterward, the crowd walks to the diesel-powered train as the conductor barks out, “All-aboard!” My first-class ticket provided entree to the “luxury” cars with sofas and tables, an attendant, food, drinks and even a strolling banjo player. What a relaxing and stress-free journey. During the two and half hour ride, I walked from car to car and stood on the rear platform to capture some incredibly exotic “Kodak” moments with my camera.

Before the railroad opened for business in 1901, visitors arrived at the magnificently chiseled Canyon via four-horse-team stagecoach. Tickets cost $20 for that arduous bumpy ride compared to $3.95 for the new-fangled choo-choo. No wonder steam powered trains instantly became the desired choice of public transport. However, as automobiles grew in popularity, rail travel slowly dwindled. In 1968, the tracks went quiet and lay dormant for twenty more years. Then, in 1989, the line was renovated, providing children and adults an opportunity to savor a most romantic mode of travel.

Grand Canyon Depot

Banjo player on the Grand Canyon Railroad

My sojourn ended in front of the massive, yet cozy Grand Canyon Depot, an incredibly  picturesque log-framed station. Back in 1905, the Santa Fe Railway built the El Tovar Hotel across the tracks. The El Tovar reigned as one of the most luxurious hotels of its day featuring hot and cold running water, electric lights, art galleries and plush dining rooms. The original dark timbered structure still beckons and I walked in to take a peek.  Moose, deer and buffalo heads adorn the lobby along with large paintings of the Canyon. Most US Presidents through the 20th Century have stayed there. Sadly, I did not.

My first look at the Grand Canyon truly overwhelmed me- it’s stunning, awesome, terrifying– yet glorious. My heart raced and tears formed in my eyes. Grand is not the right word; there simply are no apt words to capture this national treasure should be high on everyone’s bucket list. It does not disappoint.

Ample and safe parking for autos is available in Williams near the train station. Riding the rail relieves the Grand Canyon of some 50,000 cars annually. In addition, arrival by train bypasses tollbooth backups and eliminates the need to utilize shuttle bus transfers from remote parking to the Grand Canyon Village and South Rim.

View upon arrival at the Canyon- The South Rim

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