In our recent two-part feature on road trips from Las Vegas we drove along the Arizona section of historic Route 66, passing through the old railway town of Williams.
Apart from being an atmospheric little town in its own right, Williams is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway; a fleet of gleaming steamliner-era vintage trains which run to and from the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The line – which was an offshoot from the main Chicago to Los Angeles railroad – first opened in 1901, carrying intrepid passengers to the canyon a whole 18 years before it was established as a national park and several years before the existence of any permanent structures at the south rim. The journey cost $3.95 and offered visitors an alternative to the eight-hour stagecoach ride from nearby Flagstaff, eventually fuelling a boom in visitor numbers which led to the development of Grand Canyon Village, including the flagship El Tovar hotel.
After decades of service, the railway ceased running to the canyon in 1968, when the rise of the road trip and the completion of the Interstate system lured the majority of passengers onto the highway. But in 1989 – after an intensive renovation process – the historic depots at both ends of the line were restored and the route was re-opened to passengers. Today, the railway credits itself with keeping roughly 50,000 cars outside of the park’s boundaries every year.
What to expect
The journey departs Williams daily at 9.30am, taking about two hours and 15 minutes to reach the South Rim depot at 11.45am. The return journey departs at 3.30pm, arriving back at Williams at 5.45pm. The almost-four hours at the canyon is enough time for a decent hike and exploration of various trails (or to take the park shuttle to several other highlights) – or stay overnight to witness a legendary Grand Canyon sunset and/or sunrise, and return the following day.
Riding the 65-mile Grand Canyon Railway is a tourist excursion in the true sense of the word. The spirit of the Old West is brought to life by banjo-wielding, chaps-clad “˜cowboys’ performing mock shoot-outs and western songs, along with knowledgeable guards who add context to the ever-changing landscape of the Colorado Plateau. We spotted elk and eagles on our ride; look out for skunks, pronghorn, condors, and the elusive mountain lion as you pass from Ponderosa pine forest and Juniper woodlands to the semi-arid high desert beyond.
Tickets are available in five different classes of railway car, with prices ranging from $75 (£49) return for Coach class to $199 (£132) return for Luxury Dome or Luxury Parlour class. We travelled in the Luxury Dome car for the extra-large, panoramic windows and the chance to stand out on the rear deck of the train (from where we spotted the elk), not to mention the full bar, plush reclining seats and surprisingly high quality buffet. Visit the reservations page for a full description of all ticket classes.
As trains depart relatively early (and there’s a full scale western-themed show before you even board) it makes sense to consider an overnight stay in Williams the night before your trip. The town has plenty of good value hotel and motel options, including places directly on old Route 66, but for the most authentic railway experience it’s hard to beat the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel directly next door to the depot. The hotel is operated by the railway itself and despite being built in 1995, it does a really good job of evoking the classic western railroad era, with a double-height lobby lounge centred around a huge flagstone fireplace with real fire, large oil paintings of the canyon and plenty of clubby leather sofas. Rooms are fairly functional but large and extremely comfortable, and there’s free wifi, an indoor pool and hot tub to boot. Doubles start from $169 (£112).
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily, direct flight to Las Vegas from London Gatwick.