Southern Traveler
h Home h Features h Departments h Web Bonus h Media Info h Reader Resources h Archives h space

All Aboard

Make tracks to Arizona for rail adventures
to experience the Grand Canyon and beyond.

The ride from Phoenix to Williams, Ariz., on the way to the Grand Canyon passed through acres of cacti and blooms of the Southwest. Along Interstates 17 and 40, cattle grazed peacefully on grasslands in mountain foothills. Around the bend was barren desert that looked as if it came from another world.

domed car

Above and below: The train trip to the canyon passes through pine forests and wide-open prairies, offering stunning views. Musicians play Western tunes as passengers enjoy the scenery on the train adventures. Grand Canyon Railway photos

through trees

The terrain climbs to 5,000 feet, drops to a valley, and then shoots up to 7,000 feet in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Williams in anticipation of the adventure of a lifetime that lies ahead. I was going to travel by rail to see the Grand Canyon.


Part of legendary Route 66, Williams is the gateway to Grand Canyon National Park. Strolling the town, its thoroughfare Route 66 aglow in neon gives one a vintage taste of the West. Old saloons are transformed into Western-style boutiques and gift shops. Authentic Route 66 memorabilia is found at shops like Addicted to Route 66, noted for its blue and white 1950s convertible in front of the store and its massive steel Route 66 sign.

Station 66 Italian Bistro, a one-time filling station, has three vintage gasoline pumps on the patio. Waitresses wear shirts saying, “Medical Marinara” while serving delicious wood-fired pizza.

The lovely Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, located on the site of an original Harvey House, has almost 300 rooms to accommodate guests. The railway also offers an RV park and a pet resort.


The railway dates from l901 when the arrival of the train forever changed how tourists traveled to Grand Canyon National Park. Today, the train takes thousands of passengers on a nostalgic round-trip journey from Williams into the park on restored, historical locomotives and passenger cars. The vintage train steams through vast Ponderosa pine forests and wide-open prairies as musicians play Western tunes.

Families see history come alive expressed by the romance of the railroad. The excitement builds with the rumble of the ground, the sound of the whistle blowing, and the conductor’s call of “all aboard.” A new luxury dome car combines scenic views of the observation car and the opulence of the parlor class.

Before boarding the train, visitors experience an exciting Wild West show outside the hotel, including a “robbery” and “shootout.” The mayor of Williams often portrays the marshal and interacts with the audience. Children–and the young at heart–love this show.

The fully narrated tour is handicapped accessible, and refreshments are available. The two-hour trip to the canyon covers 65 miles. The return trip can be taken the same day or a later time. Narrated bus tours of amazing canyon vantage points and scenic overlooks can be pre-arranged at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.


The spectacular Grand Canyon National Park is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is a traveler’s dream destination, an adventurer’s paradise, and a geological wonderland. Stretching 277 miles from end to end, the canyon is as much as l8 miles wide. Steep, rocky walls descend a mile to the canyon’s floor where the wild Colorado River traces a swift course southwest.

The river carved out this magnificent gorge over the course of millions of years. The Grand Canyon is also a World Heritage site preserving unique examples of America’s natural and cultural history. It is unsurpassed in form, size, color, and geological significance.

There’s plenty to do at the South Rim, the most popular destination at the park. Grand Canyon Village is teeming with lodging, shops, and restaurants and is the station stop for the railway from Williams. Guided bus tours can be arranged at the lodges. Sunset tours showcase the canyon at its most colorful, with streaks of purple, violet, orange, and grays contrasted with evening shadows.

The National Park Service also offers free shuttles. Maps are available to access easy hiking around the rim.

Mule, horse, air, rafting, and boat tours require advance reservations. Educational ranger programs for children also attract adults, notably the stargazing expedition in the fall leading from the visitors’ center.

Children enjoy visiting the mule pen, where these well-groomed animals are in demand. Mules are considered the “NFL of the canyon’s animal kingdom,” said our guide. Mules take visitors to the bottom of the canyon, a daylong trip ending at Phantom Ranch.


Bright Angel Lodge and dining room are the starting point for the Bright Angel Hiking Trail. The lodge’s history room has an immense fireplace that reflects a typical cross section of the canyon’s geology.

Nearby, the l00-year-old El Tovar Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, offers gourmet dining in a historical atmosphere. The French onion soup is from a secret recipe of the sous chef who has been with the lodge for 40 years. Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, and Maswick Lodge also offer lodging inside the national park.

Other lodgings options include the Canyon Plaza Resort (AAA Three Diamonds) and the Grand Hotel. Both are a mile from the South Rim’s entrance.


En route to Flagstaff from Williams, Navajo gaming resorts are in full swing east of the city. Twin Arrows Casino Resort (AAA Four Diamonds) is located just east of Flagstaff, while others can be found in New Mexico.

Meander through town for another view of Route 66. Two dining choices near the train station are Altitudes Bar and Grill and Beaver Street Brewery and Whistlestop Café, the latter being a great option for homemade soups, sandwiches, and pizza.

Make time for a visit to the shop and bookstore at the Museum of Northern Arizona, one of the country’s finest regional museums. Fine art, jewelry, Navajo rugs, and pottery reflect the rich customs and diversity of Native American culture. It’s located on North Fort Valley Road in town.

Bountiful Mesa

The agritourism experience is huge in Mesa, Ariz. The city is the culinary gateway to the greater Phoenix area, as the region’s farms provide a continuous bounty. The Queen Creek Olive Mill, about 25 miles southeast of Mesa, is the state’s only family-owned and operated working olive mill and farm where olives are grown and pressed for production of extra virgin olive oil. Tours and tastings are available for visitors. Lunch is served at the mill’s Tuscan-inspired eatery.

Peach pie is the standout at Schnepf Farms, a traditional American family farm and 300-acre peach orchard also in the town of Queen Creek. Try the freshly baked pies, homemade fudge, and a variety of jams and preserves.

Don’t miss the Mesa Arts Center, the largest performing arts, visual arts, and arts education facility in the Southwest. Families love Organ Stop Pizza, which features a massive Wurlitzer organ that emerges from a pit at one end of the restaurant.

Baseball fans love the Chicago Cubs’ spring training complex. The first home game at Cubs Park will be March 5.

The Grand Canyon may be the initial reason visitors come to Arizona, but after experiencing this natural wonder, discover more wonderful places in The Grand Canyon State.

Marci DeWolf is a contributor from Greer, S.C.

January/February 2015 Issue


For more details, contact Arizona Tourism at
(866) 275-5816 or See your AAA Travel Agent for information about AAA pricing on Grand Canyon Railway packages.

To visit Arizona, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. .

Order free information about Arizona through the Free Travel Information Card

^ to top | previous page