A couple stands on a train's caboose as other travelers disembark and walk toward the Grand Canyon Railway depot.
Departing on a railway tour (All images courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection)

The Grand Canyon by Rail

Skip the hiking boots and helicopters to experience the Grand Canyon on the historic Grand Canyon Railway.

Take a trip through time—and some of Arizona's prettiest high country—with a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway, which travels from Williams to the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park.

History of the Grand Canyon Railway

In 1901, more than a decade before Arizona became a state, the fabled Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway opened the Grand Canyon Railway, a 64-mile line running from Williams to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. For nearly 70 years, the experience attracted five presidents, numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and artists to ride the rails.

Then, the allure faded. Passenger service on the railway was discontinued in 1968, freight service ended six years later, and the track through the pine forest of the Kaibab Plateau was abandoned.

That is, until Max and Thelma Bigert bought the dormant railroad, restored the tracks, and purchased and refurbished classic rolling stock. The Grand Canyon Railway started service again on September 17, 1989, 88 years to the day after its inaugural passenger run.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people ride the restored Grand Canyon Railway (now owned by Xanterra Parks & Resorts) to and from the Grand Canyon's South Rim every year.

What's it like to ride the Grand Canyon Railway?

The two-and-a-half-hour journey is a trip back in time. Beautiful vintage cars are staffed by conductors in railroad uniforms—an homage to the heyday of train travel. Each car features entertainers who roam the train singing, strumming, joking and telling terrific tales, as well as a Passenger Service Attendant who happily share facts about the area and the Grand Canyon, so you get the most out of your trip.

Your trip on the Grand Canyon Railway begins at the Williams Depot in the quaint town of Williams. (It's highly recommended you pre-purchase your tickets ahead of time on the Grand Canyon Railway's website.)

Passengers are in for a thrill before they even board the train. The experience kicks off with an appearance by a gang of suspicious-looking cowboys rustling feathers at the Williams Depot. Hmm, what are they up to?

The trip to the South Rim takes a little more than two hours, during which our troublemaking cowboys make a return in a staged train robbery attempt. Will the marshall arrive in time?

Two boys stare out the window of a train as a man on horseback rides by

Disembark in the Historic Village at the Grand Canyon, where you'll have more than three hours to admire the canyon, learn about its history and explore the park’s buildings and exhibits before boarding the train for the trip back to Williams. Since you'll be sans car, take advantage of the park's free shuttle service to get around (depending on availability).

Things to know about riding the Grand Canyon Railway

The Grand Canyon Railway offers six classes of service. A ride into the past can be a luxury indulgence, an economical experience or something in between. From the least expensive to the most expensive, the classes of service are:

  1. Pullman Class
  2. Coach Class
  3. First Class
  4. Observation Dome (adults only)
  5. Luxury Dome (adults only)
  6. Luxury Parlor (adults only)

If three hours at the Grand Canyon isn't enough, overnight stays at Maswik Lodge inside of the National Park are available. If you return to Williams, you'll find plenty of accommodations in town, including the Railway's own hotel and RV park.

Bonus: Grand Canyon Railway Polar Express

In winter, the Grand Canyon Railway transforms into the Polar Express. The train transports families to "the North Pole," where passengers meet Santa Claus and his reindeer and receive a special present. Hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies are as sweet as the experience. Purchase tickets for the Polar Express online at the Grand Canyon Railway’s website.

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About the Author

Claire Walter

Claire Walter is an award-winning author of hundreds of magazine and newspaper features and some 20 books. She specializes in writing about food, travel and snow sports with particular emphasis on the Western United States.