Motorhomers can explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon by staying at an RV park in Williams, Arizona, and riding the historic Grand Canyon Railway.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
Geologically speaking, the Grand Canyon hasn’t changed much over the past hundred years. However, since the 1890s, the breadth and scope of tourism at the famous canyon has seen many turns. For a national park that welcomed approximately 4.4 million visitors in 2005, that’s not surprising.
The Grand Canyon was explored on expeditions in 1869 and 1872 by John Wesley Powell, and in the 1870s and 1880s the area began to boom with activity. Many miners staked out claims for copper, lead, and asbestos. However, extraction and transportation of ore from the canyon proved difficult and expensive.
William Owen “Bucky” O’Neill, mayor of Prescott, Arizona, in the 1890s, owned several mineral claims and built a substantial cabin on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. When he found that the cost of transporting his ore out of the canyon was too high, he lobbied for nearly five years before securing railway funding. On September 17, 1901, the first steam train headed out of Williams, Arizona, and arrived at the South Rim of the canyon.
Thus began the Grand Canyon Railway, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company. It made two daily arrivals at the South Rim, but in one day as many as six special trains might arrive. The railway carried such presidents as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and William H. Taft. Other notable passengers included Albert Einstein and movie stars Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, and Clark Gable.
Unfortunately, automobile travel to the Grand Canyon doomed the railway. On June 30, 1968, Train Number 14, a diesel locomotive with one baggage car and one coach car, made its final journey.
In the late 1980s several investors tried to restart the train trip from Williams to the Grand Canyon, but financing always went awry. Then a Scottsdale, Arizona, couple, Max and Thelma Biegert, dedicated an initial $15 million to reinstate the train service. They restored the Grand Canyon and Williams depots as well as 65 miles of track. They rebuilt washed-out areas and bridges, and replaced 30,000 railroad ties, as well as countless rails, bridge beams, and spikes.
On September 17, 1989, the Biegerts’ hard work paid off and train service returned. Today, except for Christmas and Christmas Eve, the train travels daily to the Grand Canyon, hauling 225,000 passengers annually. It has become so popular that it has cut automobile traffic to the canyon by seven percent.
And for motorhomers, the best news involves the new Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams, which opened in February 2006. Now you can buy a package that includes a stay at the RV park and a round-trip train trip to the Grand Canyon. Package prices between March 15 and October 15 (the most popular time of year) are $79 per person for three days, two nights, or $89 per person for four days, three nights. (Prices are $10 per person lower the remainder of the year.) The package price also includes full hookups, cable TV, shuttle service to the train depot, and access to the indoor swimming pool and hot tub at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel next door. (For the whole list of amenities, see the accompanying sidebar.)
It is essential to make your reservations as far ahead as possible. The cars fill up quickly, and to get the date you want, particularly in the summer, time is critical.
The RV park deal includes Coach Class fare, but there are actually five different service classes. You can upgrade if you wish. Coach Class seats are in the Pullman coaches (used only during summer months) and the railroad’s new Budd Coaches (used year-round). Coach Class includes free soft drinks during the ride. Club Class service includes coffee and pastries during the morning journey, with complimentary soft drinks throughout. In the Observation Dome cars, First Class cars, and Luxury Parlor Class cars, attendants provide a continental breakfast on the outbound journey, and champagne and snacks on the return trip. These three classes have a cash bar.
Passengers riding in the train’s two Luxury Parlor Class cars, the Chief and the Santa Fe, can access the Chief’s open-air rear platform.
No matter which train or car you choose, Grand Railway’s fleet consists of comfortable historic coaches with different decors and varying histories. The oldest, the Pullman coach cars, date to 1923; the remaining passenger cars date from the 1940s and 1950s. Diesel locomotives are used throughout the year, while steam locomotives are added between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Schedules differ slightly depending upon the time of year you take your train. But your railway experience starts a half-hour before you board the train with the performance of a “Wild West Shootout” near the Williams Depot. This comical 15-minute escapade is a little corny, but it does bring smiles to those who see it. Oh, and be on the lookout on the way back, too. The “Cataract Creek Gang” tries to rob the train every day!
The ride between Williams and the Grand Canyon takes two hours and 15 minutes. Entertainment occupies part of your trip, too, as musicians perform Western songs in each car while you’re traveling in both directions.
There is ample layover time at the canyon, and if you wish to stay even longer, you can ask to take a later train back while making your reservation. (This is possible only in the summer when two trains are running.) This gives you extra time to explore, dine, or shop at the Grand Canyon.
Train rides aren’t narrated, but attendants will answer questions. And you won’t lack for information. At the depot, pick up the park newspaper, The Guide. It contains a centerfold map of the South Rim area. And train passengers receive copies of The Grand Canyon Railway’s Territorial Times, which includes information about the train and what to see and do in the Grand Canyon. Inside the park’s Canyon View Information Plaza, you’ll also discover the Grand Canyon Association’s many booklets.
Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you can explore the area on your own, and take the National Park Service’s free shuttles, but most passengers opt for the bus rim tour, called the Grand Tour. It covers four viewpoints on the west side of the South Rim. You travel on buses whose drivers provide full narration. My tour covered park history, its geology, its wildlife, and the Colorado River. I found that 15 minutes is given at each stop, providing plenty of time for photographs. Lunch was a leisurely hour. My only regret was that the tour ended shortly before it was time to board the return train. Check times in your case, and consider taking a later train upon your return, if that will be to your advantage.
At the Grand Canyon, check out the Grand Canyon Depot. Built in 1909, it’s among three remaining log depots of the 14 once constructed in the United States. It’s the only one where logs were the primary structural material and the only one of its kind serving an operating railroad.
If you are meeting friends who don’t have motorhomes, you should note that the train sells hotel packages that include stays at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, complete with meals. And if you want to take a night to stay at a hotel room at the Grand Canyon, you can do that, too.
By taking the National Park Service’s free shuttles and tours, train passengers discover it isn’t necessary to have a car to get around the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Of course, whether you come by train, by motorhome, or by automobile, the Grand Canyon offers plenty to do and see. But you may wish to consider making the trek, this time by train!
The Grand Canyon Railway RV Park is next to the Williams Depot. Campers find 124 full-hookup sites including cable TV, a convenience store with supplies and a snack bar, available wireless Internet access, a laundry, and showers and rest rooms. Recreational activities include volleyball and basketball courts, horseshoe pits, and a children’s playground. An impressive feature is the 72-seat pavilion complete with gas grills, picnic tables, and a fire pit. Park guests have access to the facilities at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, including the heated indoor pool, the hot tub, the fitness room, and the video arcade. The park is in Williams and within walking distance of town shopping and dining.
The RV park’s Pet Resort is perfect for those who don’t want to leave their pets in their RV while taking the train ride, or for those who want to stay overnight at the canyon.
For more information, contact:
Grand Canyon Railway
233 N. Grand Canyon Blvd.
WIlliams, AZ 86046
A Few Grand Details
Traffic. Roads to the canyon’s South Rim can accommodate motorhomes. So, if you don’t take the train, and would rather drive to the visitors center, how is the traffic?
It’s not as bad as it has been made out to be, according to Bruce Brossman, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra, the company that runs the Grand Canyon concessions and accommodations. “The traffic problems here are dramatically overblown by the press and the Park Service,” he said. “If people would park their car and only use one parking space, and use the shuttle system or walk, most of the traffic problems here would disappear.” Still, it’s advisable to arrive early in the day to avoid parking hassles.
Shuttles. The canyon’s free shuttle loops are the way to travel. Bus service is free, efficient, and frequent “” approximately every 15 minutes. Several routes are available; some run year-round, while others operate March 1 to November 10. The shuttles go to the most popular stops and views.
Dining. If you extend your stay at the Grand Canyon, you’ll want to stop for lunch or dinner. Gourmet dining overlooking the canyon rim is available at El Tovar Hotel dining room (928-638-2631), and upscale dinners are offered at Bright Angel Lodge’s Arizona Room. More moderately priced meals are available at the cafeteria at Maswik Lodge and the Canyon Café at Yavapai Lodge. From May through September, check out the Bright Angel Fountain for fast food and ice cream. Other options are the Desert View Trading Post Cafeteria and Hermits Rest Snack Bar.
Shopping. Verkamps Curios near the Hopi House is the Grand Canyon’s oldest continuously operated retail establishment. It has been in business since 1906.
If you’re looking for Navajo rugs, pottery, or sand paintings, check the Hopi House located next to the El Tovar Hotel.
Indoor sights. While at the Bright Angel Lodge, visit the Bright Angel History Room. You’ll learn about Fred Harvey, Mary Jane Colter, and the Santa Fe Railroad, and see a carriage used by the Harvey Company in the park’s early touring days. Examine the fireplace Colter designed. It contains a cross section of the canyon’s different layers.
A short rim walk from the lodge will take you to Kolb Studio. The Kolb Brothers used to photograph canyon visitors going down the Bright Angel Trail as early as 1904. The studio contains changing art exhibits, slide shows about the Kolbs, and a gift shop/bookstore.
For more information, contact:
Grand Canyon National Park
P.O. Box 129
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023