October 2019 – We have spent a lot of time in the neighborhood of Grand Canyon National Park this year, and in recent days while traveling with our RV along I-40, we paid a visit to Williams, Arizona, the Gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Williams lies at the junction of I-40 and the road that leads to the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon, so its “gateway” claim is well deserved. But it is also a Route 66 town and was the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by I-40.
But perhaps it is most well known and beloved for the Grand Canyon Railway, a train ride that starts in Williams and goes through ponderosa pine forests before arriving at Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
Mark and I took this delightful train ride nearly 20 years ago as a weekend getaway and loved every minute of it. So, on this trip we wandered down to the train depot to see the train off one morning.
The trees were changing color and the daytime temps were pretty cool. Overnight temps in the area were in the low to mid 20s, and we were glad to have our trusty blue flame heater keeping us warm in our rig.
The Grand Canyon Railway ride is a great family outing, and the train trip is popular in every season. The ride is especially popular with kids, and there are tons of family amusements all around the depot to keep everyone entertained while waiting for the 9:30 departure each morning.
With Halloween around the corner, the whole area was decorated with pumpkins and ghoulish goodies.
We had fun taking photos of each other with the many props.
Buddy saw Mark posing as Mr. Pumpkinhead and he wanted to join in the fun too. He spotted a circus lion cutout and wanted to poke his nose through!
Suddenly we heard the distant rumble of a train and we looked up to see a Grand Canyon Railway train rumbling down the tracks.
The train essentially backed into place with the conductor at one end and the engineer at the other. The engineer gave us a wave and then climbed down out of the train.
The Grand Canyon Railway has been in operation for all but 20 years since 1901. Back when it opened, the fare was $3.95 which was a whole lot cheaper than the alternative $15 stagecoach ride to the South Rim from Flagstaff. It was probably a whole lot more comfortable too!
We walked along the train cars and were astonished to count twelve of them. Could that many people be taking the train to the Grand Canyon on a Tuesday morning in October? We sure didn’t see that many people around.
There were lots of fun references to train travel around the depot grounds, and we noticed a park bench made from two train wheels. After staring at the park bench we had to check out the real wheels on the train cars. Who’d ever think of recycling old train wheels to be park benches? Very cool!
Suddenly we heard a loud train horn blast. Buddy jumped and so did we!
As we walked along the train platform we noticed a large group of people gathered at the far end. As we got closer we realized they were gathered on the edge of an old western town.
We stood on our tiptoes and peeked between everyone. To our surprise a midget cowboy was expertly twirling a rope getting ready to lasso someone or something.
Then we heard a shot, and the midget was on the ground!
We noticed a cowboy reaching for his gun and then there were some more shots and some more cowboys fell to the ground.
The crowd laughed and applauded and then slowly made its way to the waiting train. A gal walking next to me said, “That was fun to see here, but I hope they don’t do it on the train!”
I just smiled. Back when Mark and I had taken this train all those years ago there was a holdup in the middle of the woods, complete with horseback riders rushing the train and forcing it to stop. The cowboys had jumped off their horses and run through the train cars making quite a commotion!
As the passengers filed onto the train we chatted a little bit with the conductor, Bernie. He said today’s train was a small one with only about 500 or so passengers on it. On busy summer days the train would be about twice as long with 1,000 passengers on it.
During the holidays, from November 8th to January 4th this year, the Grand Canyon Railway runs the Polar Express train. Bernie said about 100,000 people, mostly kids of course, take that ride each year. Wow!!
In no time the train was full. As it pulled away from the depot, a small group of us on the platform waved and the people on the train waved back. We were all grinning. It might all sound a little hokey, but it was all a lot of fun even though we didn’t get on the train this time around.
As we walked through the Grand Canyon Railway yard back into town we noticed a funny looking little train car on display. It was a Cog Railway train car that was used on the Pike’s Peak cog railway in Colorado.
It was tilted forward because it was designed to crawl straight up the mountain.
A few years ago we took the Mt. Washington Cog Railway train ride in New Hampshire up to the blustery tippy top of Mt. Washington in the White Mountains. It was a blast. Ever since then, the Pike’s Peak cog railway ride has been on our bucket list!
After all this train excitement, Buddy said he wanted to go to the coffee shop. We’d been going to a really nice place on the main drag called Brewed Awakenings during our stay, and he excitedly led us right up to the back door.
Before my latte order had even been made, Buddy was quickly devouring his puppaccino (whipped cream in a bowl). Yum!
If you are traveling to the Grand Canyon and want to go to the heart of the South Rim’s historic Grand Canyon Village, the Grand Canyon Railway is a great way to go. Revived in 1989 after shutting down in 1968, the train has reduced the number of cars visiting the Grand Canyon by some 50,000 since it reopened!
Even if you don’t take the train ride, if your RV travels take you along I-40 in Arizona and you have a hankering to walk the pretty main street of a Route 66 town and join the excitement of the train’s daily departure, Williams makes a great stop!
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More info about Williams and the Grand Canyon Railway:
- Grand Canyon Railway
- History of the Grand Canyon Railway
- RV parks in Williams, Arizona
- Location of Williams, Arizona
Related posts featuring trains and railways:
- Joseph Branch Railriders – What a ride!
- Mt. Washington Cog Railway – The Little Engine That Could!
- On the road to Baker City, Oregon
- Train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi – A Ride Through Thailand’s Countryside
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- Petrified Forest National Park RV Trip – Magic in Jasper Forest
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