Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Riding the Rails to Grand Canyon National Park

It didn’t seem right to leave Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon. Cal and I have been there a few times in our lives, separately and together, so I looked around for a different way to see it. Riding a train seemed like a perfect idea.

The depot is in Williams and they have quite a set up: besides the train, there is a hotel with all the amenities plus the RV park where we stayed for just two nights. It was a packed park. We were right in front of some railroad tracks, separated only by a ditch and a fence. You either love the sound of the trains, or you hate them. I don’t mind if they are off in the distance, but the train horn blowing woke me up once each night.

Small price to pay for the convenience, though. We were able to walk to the depot in the morning of our excursion. Before we boarded the train, there was a shootout outside the depot. The sheriff was having a little trouble with the Cataract Creek Gang. This was a huge event; why did I not see it in the morning news?

Silliness aside, we enjoyed the two hour ride up to Grand Canyon. Our host in our car told us about the trains and the scenery we were passing, there was a little snack buffet, and a singer came by with guitar in hand to entertain us with a few songs. Before we knew it, we were at the Grand Canyon Depot.

The 64-mile Grand Canyon Railway was originally completed in 1901 and was instrumental in the development of Grand Canyon Village. It was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. With the decline of the railway, the last passengers rode the train in 1968. Developers purchased the line and restored operations again in 1989. Today the train runs 364 days a year. Our car was full and it looked like the others were too on the day we rode.

Of course, the Grand Canyon is the main attraction. We climbed up a lot of steps from the depot, and there it was. I had forgotten. Forgotten how it takes my breath away and almost brings me to tears every time I see it. I’m struck, every time, by its beauty. It truly is grand.

A National Park Service informational sign says much of what I was feeling:

Gazing upon this view, one is struck by the canyon’s vastness. The mind struggles to comprehend it. Try to describe the canyon’s size in words. Try to measure in your mind the canyon’s depth, width, and length. Measurements like 1 mile deep, 18 miles wide, and 277 river miles long leave us scratching our heads. Perhaps the best we can do is just feel the canyon’s enormity. Measure yourself up against it. We are miniscule in comparison…”

We rode the park shuttle to Hopi Point and hiked back along the Rim Trail. That was a good way to get some quiet trail time. We appreciated our host’s suggestion for this; our walk from Hopi Point was all down hill.

From Hopi Point, we could see the Colorado River far below.

The view of the canyon was dizzying in some spots, as there was no barrier rail in many places of this part of the trail:

Maricopa Point looked like a good viewing spot, although we did not hike over to it.

If one wants to hike down inside the canyon, Bright Angel Trail is the trail to take, and it will be four to six hours to the bottom. It is a long and strenuous hike, and hiking back up takes twice as long as venturing down. If one is overnighting, Phantom Ranch has basic accommodations at the bottom. I think it would be fun to hike down and stay at Phantom Ranch, if someone could come by and pick me up in the morning! Before we hopped on the shuttle, we passed the Bright Angel trailhead.

As we got closer to Grand Canyon Village on our hike, we could see the trail far below.

Looking down on Bright Angel Trail closer to the beginning of the trail head:

This little squirrel posed nicely for me. Or it was looking for a handout, I can’t be sure.

You wouldn’t think you’d see much wildlife so close to all the humanity around, but this bighorn sheep was oblivious.

I visited Grand Canyon with my parents when I was twelve, and again in my late teens with a friend on our way back to Texas from Las Vegas. Each time, I loved to see the Hopi House on the edge of the canyon. I wondered if this was a real Hopi house. Did Hopi Indians once live here? At the time, I received no answers, or I don’t remember that I did.

Fast forward to the Internet age. Our host on the train told us that the Hopi House was designed by Mary Coulter for the Fred Harvey Company which was instrumental in promoting tourism in the canyon. In the early 1900’s, she was revolutionary in the field of architecture. Her designs blended the natural landscape with whatever building materials were local. The Hopi House was finished in 1905.

The Hopi were a native canyon tribe and at the time were considered more civilized because they lived in permanent pueblos and created beautiful arts and crafts. The Hopi House was built as a place where Hopis could work and live, and visitors could observe and purchase their goods. It’s built like a true Hopi home, where several families could live, enjoy the rooftop terraces and vistas in the evening, and enjoy the company of fellow artisans. The exception to this is that there is a door in the front on ground level; the Hopi would not have had one. At one point, three generations of one family lived here. A dance platform was built in the 30’s but the evening Hopi dances ended in the early 1970’s with resentment by many Hopi for having their culture on display for tourists. Today, we know that several tribes once lived in the Canyon, not just the Hopi, and we celebrate their cultures as well.

I found much of this information on gracahistory.org and for further reading you can visit their site with a search on “Hopi House”.

The Hopi House has been refurbished. True to its original conception, it is a shop and art gallery that sells mostly native crafts. The items for sale are beautiful, and I also tried to look past them to see the original house as it was.

My parents were also here on their honeymoon in 1938, which was probably the heyday of the Hopi house. I faintly remember my mother saying that the Indians would be sitting along side of the road selling their wares as they traveled. I would love to see the Hopi house as she saw it then.

All too soon, it was time to board the train back to Williams. We had a different singer this time, who billed himself as “The Rock-n-Roll Cowboy.” And then we were held up by the Cataract Creek Gang! We saw them on their horses as we passed and soon the train stopped. The robbers actually got away with some of our cash, which was in reality tip money.

The sheriff just before the robbers boarded our car, certain that the passengers ahead of us knew of their whereabouts

The train was great fun and we liked not having a car at the Canyon, but I would not recommend it if it would be someone’s first visit there. I was surprised that, even as a repeat visitor, our time at the Canyon felt a little short. Or maybe I just got lost in the Hopi House. Some passengers had luggage and were staying at the Canyon with a return trip the next day. I wish I had thought of that earlier! The train ride would also be a whole bunch of fun for school-age kids.

The town of Williams is on the original Route 66 and was one of the last towns to be bypassed by the highway. We were able to walk over the tracks for a little visit.

Our time in Williams was brief but with much to look forward to on the road ahead, we were ready to go. I’ll leave you with one last view of the Grand Canyon.

Next time: on the road to Utah

2 thoughts on “Riding the Rails to Grand Canyon National Park

  1. Great post! I have only seen the Grand Canyon from an airplane. I have been to Black Canyon of the Gunnison though – before it became a national park. The Grand Canyon looks amazing. Someday, I hope we can see it at ground level. Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

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