Taking a day trip on the Grand Canyon Railway in Arizona USA
Updated: Jan 18
Once upon a time…. Well, that is how all good stories start, and my spontaneous day trip to the Grand Canyon is a really good tale!
I had spent a New Year's holiday with friends in Arizona and it was time to farewell them at the Las Vegas airport. Just as they were about to board their plane, a text came through to say their destination airport was shut due to massive snowfalls and they would not be able to fly back for at least two nights.
So, what did we do…. We drove to Williams in Arizona, why not? It was only three and a half hours away. Let’s go to the Grand Canyon! As it had snowed here too, we made the smartest decision – to take the Grand Canyon Railway train, rather than drive through the snow ourselves. What a fabulous choice it was. The train trip is a true adventure.
The departure from Williams was at 9.30am, and it is best to arrive there around an hour early. There is a café in the depot, and a staged shootout is performed outside around 9.00am.
Boarding started at 9.15am and as one of my friends was handicapped, a lift was organised to enable them to board the train. There are 3 steps up for able bodied passengers. The staff were very helpful and said that the lift is used almost every day. There is a lift at the Canyon end to enable easy access on and off the train there as well.
Once onboard we were welcomed by our fabulous PSA (Passenger Service Attendant) Dennis. Dennis has worked for the railway for around eleven years and was an enthusiastic host. He kept us entertained with facts throughout the journey. He also handed out information brochures and papers, including a scavenger hunt list that adults enjoyed as well as the children aboard. If anyone had a birthday or anniversary, they were given a card to celebrate the occasion. On our return journey, Dennis handed out “thank you for your service” cards to veterans, service personnel, first responders, nurses and teachers. These thoughtful gifts were a really nice touch of appreciation.
We were entertained throughout the trip, there and back, by guitar playing musicians who encouraged singalongs as they strolled through the carriages.
At the Grand Canyon depot, wheelchairs are available for people who need to use them.
This is a great service as people who would not be able to get around by themselves can still enjoy the views and facilities here. To get from the train depot to the El Tovar hotel and back, people needing assistance can get a lift in one of the complimentary vans on site. The El Tovar is about a hundred steps or so from the station.
The train trip takes around one and a half hours each way. Some people stay at the Grand Canyon hotels and take the train back another day. My friends and I did the day trip, so we were able to enjoy four hours at the east rim before the train departed at 3.30pm.
The El Tovar is a mix of Swiss chalet with its dark stained timbers and Norwegian villa with its stonework and wide verandas. Built in 1905, it was exceptional at its time with hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing and electric lights. It was rated as the most luxurious hotel west of the Mississippi River. The hotel was part of the Fred Harvey Company, well known for first class hotels and restaurants along the railway route.
Today, guests can stay overnight or longer here. They can also enjoy the dining rooms with large glass windows overlooking the Canyon. Gift shops stock a range of souvenirs and clothing, which was much needed by me. I hadn’t planned on a visit to the snow, so the purchase of a new set of gloves was a necessity.
The beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the foyer was a heartwarming sight.
I have visited the Grand Canyon at various times in my life and each time is like the first, my breath is taken away with the sheer beauty and magnitude of this incredible natural phenomenon.
Bus tours are available at an extra charge to show visitors more of the Canyon that the Village area, yet there is still much to see in the Village. As the day progresses, the vista of the Canyon changes. The colors shift from browns to reds as the sun moves across the sky. Clouds and mist came in on the day I visited in the snow, allowing occasional clear glimpses to the ground far below. And yet, it was romantic in a way to watch the swirling clouds hide and then reveal the rock faces.
At El Tovar, porch chairs are positioned perfectly to while away hours admiring the view. Although, nobody was taking advantage on this cold snowy winter's day!
A two-minute walk from El Tovar, brings you to the Hopi House. This is a must visit for the admiration of Native American produced jewelry, art, pottery and handcrafts, as well as the actual building itself.
This two storey structure was the work of architect Mary Colter and opened in 1905. Made of red sandstone in the tradition of the Hopi Indian homes, it has thatched ceilings and wooden beams. People were shorter back then, so the doorways and ceilings are quite low. This building is right on the rim of the Grand Canyon and a wonderful example of a Hopi pueblo. The fact that it was designed by a woman in a male dominated field, over 100 years ago, is notable. Mary also designed and decorated many other buildings at the Grand Canyon.
150 metres (500ft) from the Hopi House is the Verkamp’s Visitor Centre. For over one hundred years, from 1906 to 2008, this store was operated by the Verkamp family.
Another walk, this one ten minutes from Verkamps, will bring you to the Bright Angel Lodge. Built in 1935 by the Fred Harvey Company, this was also designed by Mary Colter. The lodge was built to provide more affordable accommodation compared to El Tovar. American Indian decorations can be seen on the doors and panels. A fireplace here features Mary Colters geographical representation of the Grand Canyon rock layers. At ten foot high, it is impressive with smooth river stones at the bottom and limestone at the top.
Sightseeing is always slow in the snow and cold, so it was with great reluctance that I boarded the train back, knowing that there was so much more to see and do at the Grand Canyon. Therefore, I fully intend to come back and stay longer to do all the things I didn’t get time for on this quick trip.
The train trip back was just as wonderful as the one earlier in the day. The dense pine trees coated with snow outside the windows looked like a scene from a Christmas card. Some people expected to see the Grand Canyon from the train. The trip takes travellers through the countryside, and into the park where they can then walk to the Canyon and its edge.
Inside the heated carriage, our PSA Dennis was as informative and friendly as before. Guitar playing singers entertained us again. On our return visit, the train stopped for a few moments, and some “outlaws” boarded the train. They mock held up the passengers, taking donations instead of valuables. It was fun to watch the children onboard get into the whole spirit of adventure.
Taking the train was a better option than driving. Being able to fully look at the surroundings and changing landscape, giving it my full attention, I was able to see more of the glorious countryside than being focused on the road.
The bistro carriage offers snacks and drinks for sale. An alternative is to bring your own food and drinks and have a picnic aboard. For those travelling in the first class or luxury carriages, food is provided.
Arriving back at the Williams train depot as the sun was setting behind the mountains was picturesque, and just in time at 5pm to start thinking about which restaurant to enjoy an evening meal at. Williams offers a variety of choices along the main street. The Railway Hotel is located just outside the train depot and a good place to start and finish your train trip! I look forward to returning and exploring that option as well.
The Grand Canyon is one of those magical places that once you have seen it, you will always want to return.