May 24, 2019
If you’re considering a Route 66 road trip from your base in Las Vegas, you might find yourself travelling through the old railway settlement of Williams in Arizona.
Apart from being an atmospheric Route 66 town in its own right, Williams is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway, a fleet of gleaming streamliner-era vintage trains that 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 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.
The train departs Williams daily at 9.30 a.m, taking about two hours and 15 minutes to reach the South Rim depot. The return leg leaves at 3.30 p.m, arriving back at Williams at 5.45 p.m. A second train departing at 10.30 a.m is available during peak season. The almost-four hours at the canyon is enough time for a decent hike along various trails (or to take the park shuttle to several other highlights). Or stay overnight to witness a legendary Grand Canyon sunset and sunrise, and return the following day.
Riding the 65-mile Grand Canyon Railway is a tourist excursion in its truest sense. 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. With a bit of luck, you might spot elk and eagles on your ride. Look out for skunks, pronghorn, condors, and the elusive mountain lion too, as you pass from ponderosa pine forest and juniper woodlands to the semi-arid high desert beyond.
Tickets are available in six different classes of service, with 2019 prices ranging from $67 return in the Pullman Car to $226 return for Luxury Dome or Luxury Parlour class. The Luxury Dome car features extra-large, panoramic windows and the chance to stand out on the rear deck of the train, not to mention a full bar, plush reclining seats and a 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 great job of evoking the classic western railroad era, with a double-height lobby lounge set around a huge flagstone fireplace, large oil paintings of the canyon and plenty of clubby leather sofas. Rooms are fairly functional but comfortable and large, and there’s free Wi-Fi, a hot tub and an indoor pool to boot. Doubles start from $219, or choose a package combining train tickets, overnight stay and meals.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Las Vegas from London Heathrow.