All Aboard in Arizona: Scenic Rail Tours

By: Elena Acoba

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August 30, 2011

Heed the call to ride the rails-and one ghost train-through Arizona history and scenery.

About the author

Elena Acoba

Elena Acoba

Since moving to Tucson in 1988, freelance writer Elena Acoba has enjoyed traveling to the four corners of Arizona. Her favorites spots in her adopted state: the natural wonders and the rich historical sights.

Two Arizona train excursions reveal the wonder and railroad legacy of the Grand Canyon State. A third experience conjures the romance of 19th-century railroading.

Purchase your ticket, then heed the conductor’s call and climb aboard for an unforgettable Arizona train ride.

Grand Canyon Railway, Williams

In 1901 – seven years before the Grand Canyon became a national monument – trains started transporting passengers from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of the canyon. The trains ferried visitors along the scenic route until the late 1960s, when the depot closed.

Today, the rails are rumbling once again as restored locomotives from the 1950s and 70s chug passengers aboard vintage railcars 65 miles to the canyon’s southern edge.

The tours begin and end at restored depots, both built in the early 20th century. Start your trip from Williams with a Wild West shootout. Sing along with western minstrels, and keep an eye on your travel bags during a surprise boarding.

Roundtrip passengers enjoy a layover of nearly four hours to explore Arizona’s Wonder of the World. For those wanting an extended trip, a Grand Canyon train package offers the option of adding on a stay at a restored lodge either in Williams or at the Grand Canyon.

Each year, families eagerly anticipate the seasonal Polar Express train, based on the popular book by Chris Van Allsburg.

Nibble on cookies, sip hot chocolate and relive the tale of bells and believing as the train makes a magical nighttime trip to the North Pole. Meet Santa’s reindeer before the big guy comes aboard to hear wishes and present each child with a special gift.

The Polar Express trains fill up fast, so make sure to make reservations early.

Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale

Savor fresh air and panoramic views of magnificent Verde Canyon from this scenic train’s popular open-air cars. The Verde Canyon Railroad passes colorful and whimsical rock formations, sycamore and other riparian flora, ancient and pioneer ruins, and wildlife such as bald eagles.

The leisurely four-hour roundtrip between Clarkdale (25 miles southwest of Sedona) and the Perkinsville ghost town is fully narrated. The 1940s-era indoor coaches have friendly attendants who answer questions while serving up refreshments.

Special seasonal rides add other wonders.

Fall Color Tours reveal nature’s bright hues, while ghosts and ghouls hitch a ride on the Haunted Halloween Express. During winter, Eagle Watch thrills with raptor activities, and The Christmas Express shares candy canes and good cheer.

Special activities complement rides during spring’s St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and Cinco de Mayo. Starlight Tours show off the canyon in a different light, and specialty jaunts include tequila or wine tastings.

Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Yuma

Sit quietly at Yuma’s outdoor Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza on Arizona’s West Coast. Close your eyes.

Hear the river flowing by? A steamboat plying the Colorado River? The whine of the swing-span rail bridge cranking open? The braking of the train at the old Southern Pacific Hotel?

Experience the ghost train, a modern sensory system that replicates sounds once heard at this site where the first railroad entered Arizona in 1877. At night, two laser lights point the way the railroad traveled across the river.

Pivot Point refers to the concrete pivot on which the rail bridge was swung to let boats pass on the river. Learn more about it and Yuma’s history with photographs and stories on interpretive panels. Let the kids climb on the 1907 steam locomotive. Stroll the path and enjoy a picnic.

Propel yourself into the bygone era of rail travel in Arizona while recognizing that it lives on throughout the state.

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