Arizona’s Verde Canyon Railroad travels into the past, along the Verde River, through national forests and desert landscapes, to the ghost town of Perkinsville.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Verde Canyon Railroad
- 2 The Depot
- 3 The Rail Journey
- 4 Verde Canyon Railroad Route Map
- 5 Verde Canyon Route Highlights
- 6 Perkinsville
- 7 Book Your Journey on the Verde Canyon Railroad
- 8 Lodging
- 9 Map It!
- 10 Design Your Own Arizona Road Trip
- 11 Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
- 12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 13 Pin this Post!
The Verde Canyon Railroad
At Backroad Planet, our subtitle is: Road, River & Rail Travel Adventures. To date, most of our published stories have been about road trips and cruises, but within the past year we have been privileged to embark on several rail journeys including the Rocky Mountaineer, the Grand Canyon Railway, and the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (story forthcoming).
While in Arizona, we also took a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad, which proved to be one of the best rail experiences to date.
Like most scenic railways, the Verde Canyon Railroad is also a heritage railway, moving vintage diesel engines and railcars along tracks laid more than a century earlier.
In 1912, a 38-mile stretch of standard gauge rails through Verde Canyon—financed by copper magnate William A. Clark and operated by the Santa Fe Railway—was completed. The branch line between Drake and Clarkdale, Arizona, would transport passengers, copper, and other products for years to come.
David L. Durbano’s company, the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad, purchased the branch line in 1988. Its freight division assumed operation and still hauls concrete and coal today.
In 1990, passenger service resumed with the Verde Canyon Railroad division, conducting daily round-trip excursions between the Clarkdale Depot (milepost 38) and the ghost ranch of Perkinsville (milepost 18).
Today the scenic railway carries 100,000 passengers annually on a 4-hour, 40-mile round trip journey through the narrow canyon bordered by the Prescott and Coconino National Forests.
Passengers on the Verde Canyon Railroad should arrive at the Clarkdale Depot with a couple of hours to spare, especially if you plan to eat lunch.
With the exception of special events, all trains depart Clarkdale Depot at 1:00 PM.
The Copper Spike Café menu features soup, salad, sandwiches, wings, chips, and a selection of beverages.
Guests have the option of eating on the depot patio or having lunches packaged to carry aboard the train.
You can expect to see wildlife while on the train excursion. We got a head start when a hungry roadrunner visited the depot during our patio lunch.
The depot museum occupies a refurbished boxcar.
Named for local newspaperman and historian John Bell, the museum houses railroad and related artifacts from Bell’s personal collection that span more than 100 years.
Interpretive panels inside the museum continue as storyboards along the quarter-mile loading platform outside, relating histories and sharing information about the people, equipment, plants, and animals connected to the heritage railway.
Guests are encouraged to walk along the loading platform and get acquainted with the vintage locomotives and historic railcars that will carry them into the canyon.
Named for prominent Arizona towns, renovated Pullman-Standard and Budd Chair railcars from the 1940s transport coach and first class passengers during the excursion.
During the journey, passengers of every class have access to customized open-air railcars with benches and shaded canopies.
The Rail Journey
The Verde Canyon Railroad offers three classes of accommodations: coach, first class, and caboose.
We were booked first class, and that is the class I recommend. For just a few dollars more than coach class, you will enjoy additional amenities to make your journey just about perfect.
Caboose class is exclusive and pricey, but if it fits your budget, go for it!
First class and caboose class offer complimentary snacks, including fresh fruit, vegetables and dip, chicken wings, riblets, and brownies.
All indoor railcars feature a climate-controlled environment, oversized windows, private restrooms, and ADA accessibility.
Throughout the excursion, pre-recorded narration and a rotation of classic railroad tunes plays unobtrusively in the background.
In my rail travels so far, I have experienced a heritage railroad with no outdoor access, a scenic railway with a small outdoor vestibule, and a scenic railroad where passengers must choose between an indoor car or an outdoor car.
The Verde Canyon Railroad has an optimal arrangement, providing passengers the best experience with unrestricted movement and comfort. Guests can freely move between indoors, outdoors, sun, shade, standing, or sitting.
In my opinion, open air railcars offer the best way to immerse oneself in the lovely landscape, with optimal views, fresh air, flexibility, and photo ops.
Note: Check out these rail travel photography tips from our Insider’s Guide to the Rocky Mountaineer. They can be applied or adapted to any scenic rail journey.
Verde Canyon Railroad Route Map
Map Credit: Verde Canyon Railroad
The best way to prepare for a journey on the Verde Canyon Railroad is to get acquainted with the route map between Clarkdale and Perkinsville. This will give you an idea when to expect some of the key features along the route.
If you really want to prepare for your journey, click on the image above to access the online version of RAIL magazine. The 62-page full-color publication relates the history of the railroad, the canyon, and surrounding communities; explores natural features and wildlife; and best of all provides a milepost guide to sights along the way.
Verde Canyon Route Highlights
The Verde Canyon Railroad carries you into the valley and through an ever-changing panorama of high desert landscapes.
The railroad closely parallels the Verde River for most of the journey, perfectly illustrating how water attracts wildlife and plants that would not typically grow in such arid regions and high elevations.
The ruins of Sinagua cliff dwellings dating to 600 BC are one of the first features that appear to the west, but a zoom lens is recommended for a good photo.
The high-desert landscape provides a scenic setting for primitive wilderness campers and historic ranches, as well.
The best way to capture photos or video of the train itself is when it is rounding a bend. The route map will give you a heads-up when to expect them, or you can just hang out on the open air car and wait for them to happen.
Crossing the S.O.B Trestle is a great photo and video location.
Red rocks, dry stream beds, and caves used by prehistoric natives are all part of the scenic experience.
One of the coolest parts of the ride is the 680-foot curved tunnel shortly before arriving in Perkinsville. In 1911, 25 Swedish workers blasted their way through solid limestone and completed the tunnel in six months.
The tunnel appears around the 1:30 mark in the video.
Perkinsville is a ghost town located at milepost 18.5.
Although the railroad tracks used by freight trains continue to Drake, Perkinsville is the endpoint of the first leg of the scenic excursion.
The railroad built a station at Perkins Ranch in 1912 and named it Perkinsville. The community grew, and at one point had a general store, post office, and school. Today, only a few structures remain, including a section house, the depot, outhouses, and cattle pens.
The platform for the old water tower still stands, but reports say the tank was blown up when scenes for the 1962 motion picture How the West Was Won were shot on location in Perkinsville. The explosion, however, ended up on the cutting room floor.
Railcar attendants are ever-present to assist passengers, point out features, and answer questions. During our Perkinsville layover, I enjoyed listening to an attendant named Dewey tell the story of the ghost town.
At Perkinsville, the train’s opposite-facing locomotives disconnect and take a side rail to reconnect at the opposite end of the train for the return to Clarkdale.
This may be the best way to get an up-close-and-personal look at the vintage FP7 locomotives, two of only 10 such engines in North America.
Although the return trip repeats the same 20-mile stretch of rail, it is almost like traveling through new territory. The perspective is fresh, the sun is shining at a different angle, and it offers the opportunity to see sights you may have missed on the first leg.
Book Your Journey on the Verde Canyon Railroad
The Verde Canyon Railroad operates year-round, at varying days of the week.
When making travel plans, be sure to check the train schedule for days of operation, as well as holiday and special event trains.
And to ensure a seat on the train, be sure to purchase tickets in advance.
The Pines Motel in Cottonwood, Arizona, is conveniently located 5.5 miles from the Verde Canyon Railroad depot. It was our home base while exploring the area.
We had read that it was not your average motel, and based on the comfortable amenities in our mini-suite, the description was on point.
The Pines Motel is Certified Green with in-room recycle containers. Electric vehicle and Tesla charging stations are available.
Design Your Own Arizona Road Trip
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:
Happy Trails! An Arizona Road Trip
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:
- Part 1: Phoenix to Tucson to Safford
- Part 2: Safford to Pinetop-Lakeside
- Part 3: Pinetop to Whiteriver to Greer
- Part 4: Pinetop to Salt River Canyon to Mesa
- Part 5: A Day Trip on the Arizona Apache Trail
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever journeyed on the Verde Canyon Railroad? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!