Taking a Day Trip Back in Time on the Grand Canyon Railway!

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This is a guest post from my dad, Grandpa Points. He and my mom are in their 60’s, are (mostly) retired,DSCN4512 and are ticking off “bucket list” destinations quicker than they ever thought possible thanks to miles, points, and travel deals. They have an intense love of this country, of its National Parks and treasures, and have no problem with a clean budget hotel room and an economy airline seat on a budget airline as long as it gets them where they want to be. A photographer by trade, his adventures are usually captured not just in his mind, but in his camera. He shares his thoughts and travels here from time to time, and I’m excited to share another one of their adventures.

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Arizona Spring Training or Spring TRAIN-ing?

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.DSCN0224 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.

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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.

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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.

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A shootout ensued and a threat of a train robbery echoed through the crowd as the train signaled to board.

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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. DSCN0044

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.

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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.

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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.

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We all disembarked…

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…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. DSCN0076

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Luxury Dome has a lounge below that was empty when we were there.

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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.

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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.

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Trees whizzed by and the nearby San Francisco Peak seemed to follow as a silent sentry…

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…and men on horses with guns raced alongside the train.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. Wow, that looks amazing. We are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon for the first time later this summer. My kids would love that train ride!

    • It was a trip worth taking. We hope you and your kids are able to catch a ride and enjoy it as much as we did. Thanks for taking the time to read the report and for commenting on it.

  2. We did this with our 4 children about 10 years ago, and it was money well spent. You’re fifth, the time at the rim is plenty, and not having to worry about parking is wonderful. I would say that if you do it in the Summer, it’s worth the extra for a car with A/C. The fumes can be pretty powerful. We were happy that we opted for that upgrade! We also saved about 25% by going through AAA.

    • It is an investment but considering it consumes virtually an entire day, the cost seems quite fair. I think all the cars have A/C except the Pullmans and they are the only ones with windows that open. Thanks for mentioning the AAA discount. I intended to reference that savings possibility but failed to do so. Those with National Park passes can also save the Park Entrance Fee the train has to pass along by using the card at the time of the ticket purchase. Thanks so much for adding your insight.

  3. That is a fun adventure to plan, the train is so unique! We live in Arizona and rode the train 23 years ago. That was a day I will never forget as my husband proposed to me at the Grand Canyon. I still have miniature Coke bottles from the train as souvenirs. Glad you enjoyed your train ride, hopefully you did stay in the valley long enough to catch some Spring Training games after that.

    • Well, congratulations 23 years later. It sounds as though your marriage and the train trip were both successful. The coke bottles are a neat memory of that day. No Spring Training baseball this year but that’s okay. We will go in to Houston to see the World Series bound Houston Astros a few times this season. Thanks for your story and for being a follower of this blog.

  4. We did this last year with the kids, they had an option to ride behind a steam locomotive on the first Saturday of the month (this year it’s first Saturday from March-October) which was really unique and was great fun. Rode upstairs in the dome car both ways. It’s a pretty well run operation, and very customer service oriented. I’d agree that an overnight option is a good idea, so you get to see the canyon in late day colors and early morning colors as well.

    • We had heard that occasionally the steam engines were used to pull the train. Their sound is so impressive and would certainly add to the experience. The Dome Cars do give you a different perspective as you can visually see the train as it glides through the scenery. I agree about the customer service. Everyone we came in contact with was pleasant and customer friendly. The light is so different at dawn and dusk at The Canyon and is worth the effort to be able to see it if you can. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I did this last year with friends. While I had visited the GC several other times before, I never had a chance to use the GCRR. It was not that I was unaware of it, i just never had the chance because of time constraints.

    I was very pleased. You can use their package and stay at the hotel as well. One thing you need to understand is that it is about 60 miles from Williams to the GC. If you take the train or if you drive, there is NOTHING along those 60 miles. The train may give you a few more distractions and is fun.

    I would suggest you do not give them your primary email. I probably 2 or 3 emails from them each week and now they are meaningless to me since I am in Illinois

  6. We so appreciate you adding to this comment section with your personal observations. As you noted, a hotel and restaurant associated with The Railway are adjacent to the Depot in Williams for passengers consideration. Thanks for reading MommyPoints and go Illini!

  7. Grandpa Points, I so enjoy reading of your adventures, and this post is no
    exception. I always learn something new from them. My only complaint? Not
    enough posts!! Seriously, I would love to read more of you and Grandma Points
    wanderings. Happy Trails!!

    • Thanks so much for the kind sentiments and the generous comments. We love to hear when our blog contributions find a receptive audience. As long as MommyPoints has an occasional need for our reports, we will try to continue to provide trip summaries when we think they have some relevancy to the good readers of this site. Thanks again for the nice words. And, Happy Trails to you!

  8. Glad you had such a good time! I went to the GCR in 2007 with AAA. Loved the luxury car and all of the entertainers. I want to go back to the Grand Canyon but when the kids are older and I’m not so stressed about them being near the edge. 😉 Liked your review of the dome class, that would be my next choice.

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