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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Grand Canyon Railway’s train depot entrance. (Xanterra Travel Collection)

How to see the Grand Canyon by train

The Grand Canyon Railway is a lesser-known way to see one of the seven natural Wonders of the World

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Standing on a small rear train platform appreciating the Southwest scenery, I’m thankful I took Grand Canyon Railway to visit one of the seven natural Wonders of the World. It’s the first time I’d taken the train to the Grand Canyon since I was a kid. When I was younger, my family would take trips to a sleepy Williams, Ariz., which is about 120 miles from Phoenix, where I live.

The Grand Canyon Railway, which runs daily from Williams to the Grand Canyon, is a less common mode of transportation to see the national park. My parents and I would take the train instead of driving, and I saw it as an adventure. They even took me on the train during the winter when it magically transformed into the Polar Express. At 6 years old, I was filled with wonder when we ended up at the North Pole and Santa came on the train to give out little presents. The Grand Canyon Railway still keeps up this Christmas tradition.

The first passengers traveled on the Grand Canyon Railway in 1901, and the train became the most innovative mode of travel to the Grand Canyon. It’s had various purposes throughout the years, including transporting supplies to build the Grand Canyon Village’s restaurants, hotels and shops. The railway also had ties to local lumberjacks and ranchers who used it to move livestock.

The train leaves Williams every day (except Christmas) at 9:30 a.m. and arrives at the canyon’s South Rim at 11:45 a.m. It allows visitors three hours to explore the canyon and exhibits before departing, with an arrival back in Williams at 5:45 p.m. In November and December, the schedule moves an hour earlier.

It’s unique because it lets you relax on the journey and take in parts of Arizona beyond the Sonoran Desert, such as high desert, prairie and pine forests. Also, by taking the train to the historical landmark, tourists keep approximately 50,000 cars away from the Canyon.

Here’s what to know to plan your own Grand Canyon Railway trip.

How to book

The Grand Canyon Railway is separated into six car classes. They range from the Pullman class (starting at $67 for adults; $32 for kids), with bench-style seating and windows that open to take in the fresh air, to the Luxury Parlor, which features couches, carpeted floors, a private bar, and makes you feel like you’re a baron in the Old West ($226; children are not permitted).

If you choose to stay overnight near the Grand Canyon, the railway has made it easy to combine hotels and trains with discount packages. Some include a night at a hotel just steps away from the rim. They also come with an itinerary if you want to take planning out of the equation.

The train experience

The train depot in Williams is easy to navigate, with a ticket booth and gift and coffee shop. Because I was traveling in the winter, I waited for the train in the warmth of the indoors and sat down with a fresh cup of coffee. There’s a Wild West shootout show before the train ride that I opted out of, but would be fun for kids and families.

Before the 9:30 a.m. departure, a whistle signaled that it was time to board. There were plenty of staff to help me find which train car I was riding in; I was in coach on the way to the Grand Canyon, but was riding back in the Luxury Dome. The coach class had mostly families who wanted the best value. The seating is cramped, but manageable. Meanwhile, the Luxury Dome on the way back was all adults. The seating was spacious with extra-cushioned seats and a mini table next to the window.

The train car hostesses appeared at the front of the train to provide necessary information, like where the bathrooms were and how long the ride would be. The hosts and hostesses are essential parts of the train because they provide not only vital information while riding, but point out wildlife and share history about the railway and the Grand Canyon. The ride itself is smooth with transitional views of the landscape during the two-hour trip.

The different car classes offer different experiences, such as complimentary snacks and beverages in the luxury cars along with alcoholic drinks for purchase. The Observation Dome had a Champagne toast on the way back to Williams. I also bought a signature cocktail.

One of the perks of being in one of the luxury cars is you can move between the different cars if you want to stretch your legs. You can also step outside on the platform at the end of the moving train to take in the view rushing past you. It’s definitely a thrill, although I was nervous I was going to drop my phone as I snapped photos.

There’s entertainment on the train ride, including singing cowboys, a state marshal and “robbers.” Cliff Hall, who played the state marshal, explained, “I think it [the train] is great because you get to meet people from across the country and outside the country. You got some from Alberta, England, El Salvador, just in this little space of the train.”

Curious about what international visitors thought about the Grand Canyon Railway, I asked British traveler Sarah Morton about what motivated her and her partner to ride the train.

“I was looking up cool ways to do the Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyon Railway came up. I loved the idea of traveling in an old-fashioned way.” Morton said.

Where to go from the train

I traveled on the Grand Canyon Railway in February so there was plenty of snow on the ground at the Grand Canyon, as well as Williams. Once you arrive near the park, it’s a straight route to the Grand Canyon, dropping passengers about a three-minute walk from the South Rim of the canyon.

There’s a three-hour stay at the Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim after the train reaches its destination. This is enough time to explore the shops, restaurants, lodges and views around the village. There are bus routes, but I recommend staying in the area since there is plenty to do. The walking path in the village follows the rim of the Grand Canyon so you can see different views of it while exploring. Some highlights include the Hopi House, a shop selling Indigenous-made gifts; Bright Angel Lodge; and Lookout Studio, which offers one of the best views of the South Rim.

Sarah Chavera Edwards is a writer based in Phoenix. You can follow her on Twitter: @chaveraedwards.