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A look at the various cars and classes of travel on the Grand Canyon Railway day trip that takes you not only from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon, but back in time complete with shootouts, horse chases, US Marshals, guitar sing-alongs, and more…
Aah, The Rites of Spring. Hope springs eternal as Earth turns its northern hemisphere back toward the warming and growing rays of the sun. Fifteen Major League baseball teams converge on Arizona to loosen arms, sharpen skills and refocus attention to the season ahead. As an aspiring baseball player, I once hoped to be in such a scenario. So I was all in when my young wife suggested we go do some spring training. The list of cities hosting Cactus League activities sounds like the stops on a train or subway, Glendale, Peoria, Sun City, Surprise, Mesa, Tempe, and Avondale. I asked which city would we be going to?
Williams, she replied. They have the Grand Canyon Express. I had never heard of that team, but the name sure sounded cool. Back in our neck of the woods, the famous Texas flamethrower, Nolan Ryan, was nicknamed The Ryan Express and a minor league team near Austin is called The Round Rock Express. So, with all these connectors, I was expressly interested.
Now, for those of you readers who are younger than us, let me explain that hearing loss can become an issue as you age. Sometimes, what you hear is not actually what was spoken, and your interpretation of what was said can be hilariously detached from reality. And then there is the Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars thing that can create some perpendicular conversations in a parallel universe. Having said that, let me say my visions of sitting in the bleachers watching players compete for a spot on the coveted opening day 25 man roster soon were deRAILed and sideTRACKed when I was confronted with two round trip tickets on The Grand Canyon Railway.
So, as I soon figured out, there are indeed two versions of Arizona Spring TRAINing. Goodbye, “Play Ball” and hello, “All Aboard!”
All Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway
The Grand Canyon Railway is a year around operation that not only transports passengers from Williams, Arizona to The South Rim of The Grand Canyon, but does so while turning back the clock to an era when the Iron Horse was the king of the road.
The rail line uses refurbished and restored vintage passenger cars with modern, comfortable and updated amenities served with an appropriate amount of nostalgia and perspective. You do get the feel of yesteryear throughout this experience and this is not a casual and accidental occurrence. This is the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes, the lifeblood of the Grand Canyon Railway.
The train offers six levels of travel for every budget and for every need. The options begin at $32.50 (each way) for adults with The Pullman Car that offers windows that open and basic seating. The fares top out at $109.50 (each way) for the Luxury Parlor Car with its living room type comforts that include access to the open air rear platform. The option exists to mix and match your travel levels coming and going to let you sample the different experiences available. This is a frequent tact used by many, and is the approach that we took.
I opted for the Coach going and the Luxury Parlor on the return and my wife rode First Class on the outbound and the Luxury Parlor on the inbound. Now we are not ones known to splurge or opt for premium over regular, but in this instance we did as we wanted to report on most of the travel choices offered. And, goshdarnit, we wanted to ride on that open air rear platform!
After we left our vehicle in the parking lot, we traded the 21st century for the late 19th century. I put the estimated date of 1880 into the equation as a reference guide. As we neared boarding time, a crowd gathered in the street just south of the station and some yelling was heard. It seems as though a band of outlaws were up to no good and a U.S. Marshall had come to restore law and order to the dusty streets of Williams, Arizona.
A shootout ensued and a threat of a train robbery echoed through the crowd as the train signaled to board.
We gathered our belongings and went to our separate cars and we were both relieved to see the U.S. Marshall climb aboard as the train left the station. The Coach Car had seating much like a school bus, comfortable and adequate.
Large windows run the length of the car so visibility and light were not problems. The Coach Car is a quite popular choice of travel on The Grand Canyon Railway. My wife enjoyed her time in The First Class Car ($76.00 each way) and its large reclining seats, free snacks, climate controlled environment and spacious windows.
She did take a peak into the Dome Class ($90.50 each way), which is in essence a glass enclosed second floor that offers an almost 360 degree field of view. The seats had high backs and were quite comfortable and snacks were also complimentary.
No matter what window you were using, the scenery changed dramatically from the treeless and flat, to the elevated forest of pinion pines and fields of snow. The ride is very smooth at its 25 to 30 mph pace, and the roadbed offers a nice blend of straightaways, long graceful turns, and a few rhythmical “S” turns. The 65 mile trip went by quickly as we were absorbed in the uniqueness of the adventure, and before we knew it we had arrived at the Depot at The South Rim.
We all disembarked…
…and headed our own way up the hill to a paved sidewalk on the rim edge that allows visitors easy access to different sight lines into and across The Canyon, as well as providing a path to the various hotels, restaurants, shops and information centers.
We made full use of our allotted rim time and found it to be sufficient, ample, and well thought out. We headed back to the nearby depot about 15 minutes prior to departure and climbed on the train’s last car, The Luxury Parlor. My, we felt like one of the Astors, or Hearsts, or Vanderbilts. We had our photo taken on the rear platform to properly frame for posterity our temporary, brief and faux social status.
The train soon let out its whistle signaling it was time to pull out, and we settled into our elegant surrounds. A small herd of elk saw us off as we slowly picked up speed and headed back down to Williams.
It didn’t take long before we were out on the open air rear platform enjoying the uninterrupted view, the smell of the pine forests, the conversation among good people, and the gentle sway of a train in motion. Life was good.
We spent about half of the return trip on that back platform with the rest of the time relaxing on our “sofa” and exploring the train. We visited each car and spent time in each. The train was not full on the mid February day we rode so there were empty seats and space available for our wanderings. The Luxury Dome ($109.50 each way) is an observation car with a full length dome that has extra large windows and very nice seating.
The Luxury Dome has a lounge below that was empty when we were there.
There is a Cafe Car on the train that sells snacks and drinks and is accessible to all the train’s passengers and offers a few tables for your comfort. An attendant is attached to each car to answer any questions, provide commentary and insight, and to assist with any passenger’s needs. There are also entertainers on board that visit each car with their guitar, fiddle, voice and humor.
Tips are allowed to these period dressed and era appropriate musicians. After our independent tour of the train, we returned to the rear platform to watch the rails gracefully turn and bend into our past and to watch what the scenery had to offer.
Trees whizzed by and the nearby San Francisco Peak seemed to follow as a silent sentry…
…and men on horses with guns raced alongside the train.
Wait, what? MEN ON HORSES WITH GUNS?! It must be the outlaws and train robbers we had been warned about. The train squealed and screeched as its brakes brought it to an unscheduled stop and the bandana masked bad guys climbed aboard to do their dastardly deed. They went from car to car in search of larcenous loot (spelled T-I-P-S).
I was able to save our hides by giving up $3.00, which in 1880 would be worth nearly $75.00, so I thought I was being most generous. After the cowboy crooks got what they needed, or after the U.S. Marshall took control of the situation, the train headed peacefully the last few miles to the Williams Depot.
Final Thoughts on the Grand Canyon Railway
The rail adventure leaves Williams daily at 9:30 AM and returns at 5:45 PM. The train arrives at The South Rim of The Grand Canyon at 11:45 and passengers have 3 hours and 45 minutes to explore, eat, shop, relax and visually absorb one of the seven great natural wonders on our planet. It is certainly an option to stay overnight at one of the hotels at the rim and return to Williams the next day. One of the advantages of this choice is that it allows the viewing of The Canyon at the magnificent and magical hours of sunset and sunrise when The Canyon goes from one or two dimensions to three or four.
It comes alive with color and depth and contrast and saturation that is generally missed with only a midday viewing experience. During the peak summer season, a second train runs one hour behind the first. As we left the train but before we returned to the parking lot and 2017, we reflected on the day.
It was fun, well done, well run and it was just the right amount of everything. I believe no matter what class of travel is chosen, the end result will be the same….worth it! Now my wife and I may have had to share one dinner order that night due to the train robbery and the Luxury Coach, but dagnabit it was a good day. A really good day.
Know before you go.
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