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Take the train to Grand Canyon National Park! With Backroad Planet’s guide to the historic Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel in Williams, Arizona, you can make your national park visit an adventure.

Take the Train to Grand Canyon National Park: An Insider's Guide 1

Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

I was a guest of Visit Arizona and Experience Williams, but all thoughts and opinions are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to our our Disclosure/Disclaimer page for more information.

Take the Train to Grand Canyon National Park

Take the Train to Grand Canyon National Park: An Insider's Guide 2

Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

Taking the train to Grand Canyon National Park brings to mind romantic visions of travel in days gone by. But traveling by rail to the Grand Canyon is not just a thing of the past. It is a real and current way to access this natural wonder of the world and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Grand Canyon Railway is a 65-mile railroad that connects the town of Williams, Arizona, with the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, and worth considering as a mode of travel for your Grand Canyon adventure.

The Historic Grand Canyon Railway

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Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

The Grand Canyon Railway began operation in 1901, transporting passengers and freight with two scheduled daily arrivals and up to six special trains per day. It was the easiest way for travelers to reach the South Rim of the canyon.

In the 1920s and 30s, roads between the Grand Canyon and Williams and Flagstaff reached completion, allowing visitors to drive to the park. The railway’s popularity began a decline, eventually to the point that it was forced to end service in 1968.

Twenty years later, investors purchased the railway, and in 1989 the silent rails hummed back to life and have been in service ever since. With more than 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park, the railway is once again a viable alternative to access the park. Today, more than 225,000 visitors choose to travel by rail to the South Rim each year.

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel

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The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel, based in Williams, Arizona, is owned and operated by Xanterra Travel Collection, a national parks and resort management company with roots in the 19th century Fred Harvey Company.

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Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

With the rebirth of the railway, a modern hotel was constructed in 1995 to accommodate rail passengers and other visitors to Williams. The hotel has been renovated and expanded twice since then, bringing the room and suite count to 298.

Due to a full day of road adventures between Phoenix and Flagstaff, we arrived at the hotel after dark. But our train tickets for the next day were waiting for us at the front desk when we checked in.

Our hotel stay was two nights, the nights immediately before and after our rail journey to the Grand Canyon.

Insider Tip: The hotel’s proximity to the train depot made it the obvious lodging option for our itinerary, but the hotel is not for rail passengers only. Anyone traveling Route 66 or I-40 through Williams or en route to the Grand Canyon can find overnight accommodations at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

Click here to book rooms at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel on TripAdvisor!

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel Grounds & Amenities

Although it is situated in downtown Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel grounds have the look and feel of a resort.

I explored the property in the morning hours before our train’s departure, and enjoyed touring the vintage locomotives and railcars on display.

The complex also features an indoor swimming pool and fitness center, pet resort, and RV park.

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The newly rebranded buffet-only Fred Harvey Restaurant recognizes the historic “Harvey House” chain of restaurants and hotels located at Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway depots beginning in 1876.

The Wild West Show

Prior to boarding the train, guests are invited to attend a Wild West Show featuring the curious antics of the Cataract Creek Gang and Marshal John B. Goodmore.

YouTube video

The 15-minute sketch includes guest participation, a shootout, and an acute fascination with “horse apples.”

The Williams Depot

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Constructed in 1908, the Williams Depot was also home to the Fray Marcos, a Fred Harvey hotel and restaurant. Today the structure houses a ticket counter, coffee and fudge shop, gift shop, and depot administrative offices.

All Aboard!

Boarding begins fifteen minutes prior to departure, immediately after the Wild West Show. Guests are assigned to a car, as stated on their tickets, but seat selection is on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Insider Tip: There are six classes of service—coach, pullman, first class, observation dome, luxury dome, and luxury parlor—so guests should carefully consider their railcar options before purchasing tickets.

I have learned that more expensive tickets do not necessarily improve your experience. It all depends on the amenities you prefer.

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We had first class tickets on the Grand Canyon Railway, which is class three out of six. Although our railcar had some nice amenities, we missed the scenic railway feature I enjoy the most.

Our passenger service attendant did an excellent job providing orientation for the train, and later, the Grand Canyon itself. She also provided beer, wine, and cocktail service, all at reasonable prices.

Strolling musicians provided entertainment, and a photographer good-naturedly cajoled passengers to pose for pictures available for purchase on the return trip to Williams.

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Our car had an observation dome for passengers who purchased that ticket class. For some reason, one family from the dome moved to open seats on the lower level.

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Passengers are able to move freely to the cafe car with its menu of snacks, frozen treats, beverages, and souvenirs.

YouTube video

The 2.25-hour rail journey between Williams and the Grand Canyon carries passengers through high desert plains and into the Kaibab National Forest, the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world.

If you keep your eyes open, you have a great opportunity to see Arizona wildlife, as well. We spotted a herd of pronghorn, but they were out of range before I could grab a photo.

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I have completed four scenic rail journeys in the past six months, and I have learned that the most important feature for me is . . . access to open air.

So what scenic rail feature did I miss most on the Grand Canyon Railway?

When I rode the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies, our car had a dome and an open-air vestibule. The dome was nice, but the vestibule was the best location for fresh air, unobstructed views, and photo ops.

On Arizona’s Verde Canyon Railway, we had coach seats with free access to an open air car.

And on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in North Georgia, we enjoyed an open air car for the entire journey.

Insider Tip: If open air is important to you, you should know that the two cheapest classes on the Grand Canyon Railway—pullman and coach—have windows that open, and luxury parlor class has an open air platform at the rear of the train.

Arrival at the Grand Canyon

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The Grand Canyon Depot is a two-story log and wood frame structure completed in 1910. This National Historic Landmark is one of only three remaining log depots in existence, and the only one still serving an operating railroad. Its proximity to the El Tovar Hotel has historically made it a great convenience for travelers by rail.

Passengers have the option to return to Williams on the same day, or stay one or more nights in the national park.

We were on a weeklong Arizona road trip with a packed itinerary, so we only had 3.5 hours to spend at the canyon before boarding for the return trip. I had visited the Grand Canyon twice previously, but I knew Jerry would have preferred more time to explore the park.

Guests who overnight have the option of five historic lodges and the El Tovar Hotel, all but one booked through the Xanterra Travel Collection. Due to the extreme popularity of these properties, advance booking is required.

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Insider Tip: When planning your itinerary and debating whether to drive or take the train to Grand Canyon National Park, one factor to keep in mind is that there is no park admission fee for rail passengers. Current park admission is $35 per vehicle, and during the busy summer months wait time to enter the park by car can be up to an hour or more.

I believe every fee collected by the National Park Service is money well spent, and I never begrudge paying admission. But when visiting one of the major national parks and paying a high fee, why not splurge and purchase an annual pass for $80. You will find it money well spent, and it provides admission to all federal lands for every passenger in your vehicle for a full year.

Insider Tip: To maximize your time at the canyon, you may want to consider adding a guided motorcoach tour. Two motorcoach tours (one including lunch at Maswik Lodge) are scheduled to sync perfectly with the train schedule.

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If you will be exploring the park on your own during the 3.5-hour layover, the NPS Grand Canyon South Rim Pocket Map will be your best friend. Shortly before arriving at the canyon, passenger service attendants distribute and review printed copies of the publication and offer tips for a self-guided tour. For planning purposes, you can download a PDF of the brochure.

We would be exploring on our own, so not to waste a minute of our time, we disembarked and headed for the rim.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon was just 200 yards north of the depot, and it did not disappoint.

Exploring the South Rim on Your Own

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The Grand Canyon is every bit as majestic and awe-inspiring as you have heard, and I count my blessings to have seen it.

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The canyon itself is the star attraction, but the Grand Canyon Village is also worth exploring with its historical structures including the El Tovar Hotel, a former Fred Harvey property completed in 1905 and in operation to this day.

The book Over the Edge: Fred Harvey at the Grand Canyon and in the Great Southwest—beautifully illustrated with photographs, pamphlets, menus, postcards, and advertisements—gives an account of the entrepreneurial genius who brought comfort to travelers through the Wild West.

Additional downloadable PDF resources for exploring Grand Canyon Village.


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Every visitor wants a great picture at the Grand Canyon. And you can take all the photos you want.

But even with several highly-publicized incidents of death by falling into the canyon this year, we still saw people taking foolish risks. I witnessed a girl standing on an elevated ledge above the canyon while balancing on one foot for a picture.

Insider Tip: Don’t be stupid. You can easily pose for a photo, or take a great selfie, and do it safely. Grand Canyon pictures are wonderful, but tragic deaths are not.

The expanded 10th Anniversary edition of the book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon may be morbid, but it gives factual accounts of fatal mishaps in the national park.

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We visited the South Rim during the month of October, and even though the temps were cool in the morning, the day quickly warmed.

Insider Tip: There is little shade to be found at the canyon, so be sure to wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.

After checking in at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center to collect our National Park Passport stamps, we did a walk-through of architect Mary Colter’s Hopi House and the El Tovar Hotel.

Then we headed west along the rim past other historic lodges and studios toward the Village Route Transfer shuttle stop.

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We passed the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail into the canyon. Rail passengers would not be able to complete the entire trail during a 3.5-hour layover, but if you want an up-close-and-personal experience with the canyon, you could definitely hike a portion of the trail out and back. Just be sure to study the linked brochure and map to make a timely plan for getting back to the train on time.

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We had decided earlier that we wanted to see the Colorado River, so we took the Hermit’s Rest Route (Red) shuttle to Hopi Point.

Insider Tip: You can spot the Colorado River at five locations from Hopi Point. Some of them are visible with the naked eye, but binoculars definitely help.

The return shuttle (eastbound) does not stop at Hopi Point, so we had to walk a short distance to Powell Point to catch a ride back to the Village Route Transfer stop.

We transferred to the Village Route (Blue) to catch a shuttle to the Canyon Village Market. After grabbing some pizza slices for lunch at the General Store Deli, we hopped the shuttle back to the depot.

The Return to Williams

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With a few minutes to spare, we returned to the Hopi House gift shop to pick up a couple of souvenirs before reboarding the train for the 2.25-hour ride back to Williams.

There was a holdup and train robbery by the Cataract Creek Gang on the return journey. Disguised as a stunt, it was really a way for the Wild West Show cast members to collect tips.

Although there were no obligations, between the holdup, photo sales, and well-deserved gratuities for our passenger service attendant, we were beginning to feel nickeled-and-dimed a bit.

That said, the Grand Canyon Railway is a wonderful option for visiting the national park and easily customizable to fit individual needs and interests.

The Grand Canyon Railway operates 364 days per year, excluding Christmas.

The City of Williams and Route 66

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Williams, Arizona, was founded in 1881 and named for the legendary frontiersman and mountain man William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams. A statue erected in Monument Park on the west side of town and Bill Williams Mountain to the south honor his memory.

Along with its claims to fame as Gateway to the Grand Canyon and home of the Grand Canyon Railway, Williams is also situated along the historic Mother Road.

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Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

As a roadtripper intrigued with vintage travel, I am drawn to the slice of Americana that is Route 66. Thoughts of the historic road from Chicago to Long Beach evoke images of classic cars, diners, motor courts, neon signs, and retro roadside attractions.

Although the interstate system has overtaken or bypassed much of the original road, some stretches remain in Amarillo, Flagstaff, Winslow, and other towns along the original route.

On October 13, 1984, Williams was the last of the Route 66 communities to be bypassed by I-40. Today, a 4-mile stretch of the historic road passes through town, and local businesses have done their best to keep the memory and flavor of the era alive. While in town, plan to experience some of the 66 Things to Do on Route 66 in Williams, Arizona.


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Bearizona is a wildlife park located along Route 66 in Williams.

Unlike other wildlife parks and zoos I have visited, such as Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, Bearizona is an exclusive sanctuary for animals native to Arizona and regions of North America.

Also unlike other parks, visitors are not able to feed the animals while touring the 3-mile drive-thru section. Windows must be rolled up when entering wolf and bear habitats.

The walk-thru section of the park features rarely-seen animals such as badgers and javelinas.

YouTube video

The residents of Otter Mountain inside Fort Bearizona can be quite entertaining.

Barnyard critters, animal caretaker chats, and a birds of prey flight show round out the entertainment.

The newest residents of the park are two jaguars, one spotted and one melanistic (black). Guests must walk through the gift shop and restaurant to access the jaguars.

Bearizona wildlife park is open year round with varying hours, and admission fees apply.

Map It!

Design Your Own Arizona Road Trip

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For more Arizona destination information and road trip planning resources, navigate to our Design Your Own Arizona Road Trip round-up post, or use the links below for direct access to additional stories and guides:

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Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip 

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Be sure to check out Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip for a loop itinerary through central and eastern regions of the state. To access specific segments of the route, navigate directly using the links below:


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We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever taken the train to Grand Canyon National Park? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!

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Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel website Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with houses including Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill.

Retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, classic movies, autumn, sandhill cranes, Florida springs, rain, gloomy days, log cabins, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, castles, cathedrals, Civil Rights history cold sheets, National Park Passports, quotes, Reba Rambo, Dionne Warwick, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists.

And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.