I hadn’t been on a road trip with my mom since we moved to Arizona in 1978. So I thought I’d treat her to a long weekend of Western fun. Destination: Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. I booked two nights at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel—breakfasts and dinners included, plus first-class round-trip tickets on the Grand Canyon Railway train up to the Grand Canyon.
Getting a whole new altitude.
The Drive to Williams
Mom and I hit the road around 11 a.m. on a Friday and headed north on I-17 from Phoenix. Once we got out of the city, the vast, expansive views blew through my mental cobwebs and I started to decompress. Arizona’s long stretches of winding mountain roads are a balm to the work weary. After a pit stop at the Camp Verde Starbucks, we continued north and watched the terrain change from desert to scrub oak to Ponderosa pine. The higher we climbed in elevation, the lower the temperature dropped. We went from 100°+ in Phoenix to the high 70°s in Williams. There, in the cool pines, we heaved a collective sigh of relief.
The other day, I saw a bear. Out in the woods, a wayout there.
Just south of Flagstaff, we turned west on I-40 towards Williams, a picturesque town located on “the Mother Road,” also known as Route 66. We passed the Grand Canyon Deer Farm, and took exit 165 to Bearizona, a unique drive-through wildlife park. We paid the entry fee at the ranger station and were told to “keep the windows up” driving through the wolf and bear enclosures. Complying was no problem!
Winding along the unpaved road, we were amazed to see animals so up close and personal. Dotted among the trees were Dall sheep, Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep. Driving through the American Burro area, the animals walked right up to the car and expected to be petted. One burro also had the audacity to scratch his head on our car’s grill.
I was expecting to have to look sharp to catch a glimpse of the Black Bear. Nope. Bears were everywhere. Sitting on the side of the road catching some rays. Shambling around in the woods. Sleeping under a shady lean-to. Digging in the dirt. In total, mom and I counted 14 bears! We took lots of pictures—and kept the car windows up.
Our next stops included the Arctic and Alaskan Tundra Wolf exhibit. The white Arctic Wolf was gorgeous and seemed more dog-like, but the Tundra Wolf was s-c-a-r-y. It was much more feral in stance and appearance. On our last stop, we saw Brown and White Bison roaming in a yellow flower-filled meadow.
After the drive-through portion of the tour, we parked the car and entered a walk-through area filled with baby and small animal exhibits. The bear cubs were adorable—four were huddled in a pile napping with arms and legs all a-tangle while one played with his food bowl. We also viewed a magnificent European Eagle Owl with beautiful orange eyes—one of the raptors starring in the park’s Birds of Prey show.
Ticket to Ride: The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.
High off our close encounter with nature, we excitedly checked into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, just a few blocks off Route 66. Its inviting lobby boasts a flagstone fireplace, leather seating and an adjacent English-style pub, where we enjoyed drinks and free homemade chips and salsa.
Behind the hotel are two freestanding buildings: the train depot where you pick up your train, tour and meal tickets, and the Grand Depot Café, serving all-you-can-eat buffet-style breakfasts and dinners. We used our meal ticket to access the dinner buffet, and were surprised to find how good it was. Choices included a salad bar, a carving station with beef brisket, a variety of main entrées and a chef-attended pasta station. Dining room servers bring drinks to the table and offer a choice of delectable desserts après meal.
Relaxed and happy with our full bellies, we lumbered up to our room for a restful night’s sleep. It wasn’t hard to accomplish—our two, triple-sheeted queen beds were super comfy.
All Aboard: The Train
Bright and early the next day, we grabbed cappuccinos from the hotel pub, which operates as a morning coffee shop. After a delicious buffet breakfast in the Grand Depot Café, we were treated to a Wild West shootout prior to boarding the train.
I’d booked first-class train accommodations to take advantage of the oversized, reclining seats with lots of legroom and big windows to enjoy the scenery. Our car, the Kokopelli, was one in a line-up of 15 that day. It was manned by Dennis, an affable older gentleman with an endless supply of cute (and corny) jokes. Dennis laid out a spread of pastries, fruit, juice and coffee for our two-hour-and-15-minute ride up to the Grand Canyon.
According to history, the Grand Canyon Railway train first arrived at the South Rim on September 17, 1901. But with the advent of the automobile, it soon became irrelevant—until now. Today, the Grand Canyon Railway takes tens of thousands of passengers into Grand Canyon National Park by way of vintage train service every year. And mom and I are sure that the revenue it generates boosts the entire economy of Williams.
As we chugged through prairies and pine forests at a leisurely 40 miles per hour, we were serenaded by strolling cowboy musicians playing the tunes of the West.
Going Deeper: The Canyon
The train pulled into Grand Canyon Village, right at the base of historic El Tovar Lodge and Hopi House. The Freedom Bus Tour was part of our package, and after debarking the train we boarded a motor coach for a guide-narrated tour of the Canyon’s South Rim.
We stopped at two scenic overlooks to enjoy spectacular views of the Canyon’s ever-changing play of light and shadow across its vast expanse. Did anyone say photo op? About 150 shots later, we were satisfied with the day’s take! At one observation point, a park volunteer had set up high-powered telescopes to view majestic California Condors that soar on Canyon wind drafts.
Mom and I rode the motor coach back to Grand Canyon Village and ate lunch at El Tovar, the iconic lodge overlooking the South Rim. Opened in the early 1900s, it was considered one of the most elegant hotels west of the Mississippi. Across from the lodge is Hopi House; a stone-masonry building designed by architect Mary Colter to resemble a Hopi pueblo. It showcases a variety of works by American Indian artists, which proved to be a great place to shop.
A few hours (and dollars) later, we reboarded the train for the trip back to Williams. Dennis, a master of hospitality, set out refreshments and snacks for the ride home. Halfway there, we were boarded by “train robbers” known as the Cataract Creek Gang. The bandana-masked bandits came through the cars asking for gold, and I promptly complied by showing him my one gold tooth. It made him laugh.
We arrived in time to enjoy another sumptuous buffet dinner in the Grand Depot Café. It was a delicious way to end an adventurous day.
Moving our cabooses.
The Town of Williams
On Sunday, we headed to the quaint downtown area of Williams; just a few blocks walk from the hotel. Mom and I strolled Main Street; listening to the sounds of live music coming from local eatery patios, banter from Wild West street characters and screams of exhilaration from the Route 66 zipline. Local shops in Williams feature western and American Indian arts and crafts, Route 66 kitsch and tour operators offering excursions like Canyon raft trips and helicopter rides.
On the drive home, we both agreed that our road trip to Williams and the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel was one of the best adventures we’ve ever had. Kind of like Thelma and Louise, but without all the drama and danger.
The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel offers a variety of customizable packages. To plan your railway adventure, visit thetrain.com. Or call 1-800-THE-TRAIN.
Michigan-native D.D. Kullman was roped and dragged to Arizona in 1978 when her mother got a hankering to be a cowgirl. While a cattle feed lot was the closest her mom came to that dream, D.D. found the state wide open for exploration and opportunity and has been enjoying its people and points of interest ever since.