9 Reasons the Grand Canyon Railway is Perfect for the Whole Family

The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is definitely worth the effort it takes to travel there. But why not make the trip a pleasant one by taking the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona?

In March 2019, my in-laws came to visit our home in Scottsdale with a request to visit the Grand Canyon. Rather than deal with traffic and parking in the national park, we decided to stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and make the trip an adventure.

The train and the hotel provide a perfect experience for a family, especially families with children or people with reduced mobility. The following covers the many ways we enjoy the ride.

1. The Grand Canyon Railroad Hotel

We checked into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel for two nights so we could have a stress-free day for the trip to the Grand Canyon. The rooms were comfortable and clean, and the lobby had a luxurious Old West feel with a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and landscape paintings.

The hotel’s Fred Harvey restaurant offered breakfast and dinner in a spacious room. We booked the package that included meals, which was very convenient, especially traveling in a group. However, I wish I had left a couple of meals open to try out restaurants in Williams. The city is just a short walk away along Route 66, and we were only able to explore it briefly and stop for a beer.

The hotel was built in 1995 and renovated and expanded in 2000 and 2004. It emulates the standards and feel of the Fray Marcus Hotel, one of the original Harvey House hotels, still resting on the lawn. Harvey House Hotels and Restaurants, established in the early 1900s by businessman Fred Harvey, were dedicated to providing high-quality food and service to railroad travelers.

2. The morning begins with a shootout in the wild west

After a hearty breakfast, we strolled over to the wooden bleachers by the depot to see a show. Some local cowboys got into a humorous altercation with Marshall over a game of cards. Old West facades, horses tied to posts, and authentic costumes complete with cowboy hats, bandanas around the neck, and leather chaps set the mood. The actors even involved one of the audience members in their antics. Of course, the discussion escalated and weapons were drawn. I won’t spoil the ending for you.

Pro Tip: If you have small children with you, warn them that there will be loud noises and the actors will fall to the ground.

williams depot
Williams Depot (Photo credit: Judy Karnia)

3. Exit Williams’ memorable deposit

Built in 1908, Williams Depot took us back to a time when people traveled this route between Chicago and Los Angeles. The building is a restored station of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In the past, the depot included one of the Harvey hotels, a bar, a dining room, and a newsroom. We picked up our tickets at the forest green wooden booth and perused the memorabilia. On the platform, friendly attendants lined the track to help us find the right car and seats.

The author and her granddaughter wait to board the Grand Canyon Railroad A (Photo credit: Judy Karnia)

4. Riding the rails on a historic train

The Grand Canyon Railway offered several classes of cars, from the classic 1923 Pullman style to more modern cars with expanded views. We chose economy class with simple but padded bench seats and large windows to view the passing scenery. The seats could be reversed so we could chat in a foursome. They also offered Observation Dome class for panoramic views, Luxury Dome class with plush seating, meeting couches, and a full bar, and Luxury Parlor class which also had an open-air deck.

Looking out the train window at the pine forest in the Grand Canyon.
Looking out the window at the beautiful Arizona landscape from the Grand Canyon Railroad.
(Photo credit: Judy Karnia)

5. Beautiful landscapes along the route

As the train traveled north to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, it moved from the ponderosa pine forests of the Williams area into open prairie and then up through the Grand Canyon’s pinyon pine forests. It was interesting to watch the change of scenery and try to catch glimpses of the wildlife. Being able to sit back and relax provided an opportunity to take in the passing scenery rather than a map.

6. Musicians and storytellers

Along the route, an attendant greeted each train car with its own style of entertainment. Ours told funny stories and took little quizzes on local knowledge. He brought his “wild pets” with him for us to meet. The fact that they were actually stuffed animals added to the humor.

Several musicians intermittently passed by our car. They sang traditional western and camp songs and invited us to sing along. The trip takes a little over 2 hours and we never get bored.

Pro tip: Much of the humor is pretty corny, but play along for the fun of it.

Disembark at Grand Canyon Station.
Landing at Grand Canyon Station (Photo Credit: Judy Karnia)

7. Land right at the historic town of the Grand Canyon

Of course the main event was the national park with a canyon a mile deep and 18 miles wide at some points. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Grand Canyon Depot has been welcoming train passengers to this natural wonder of the world since 1910.

The reservoir is adjacent to Grand Canyon Village and is within walking distance of the Verkamp Visitor Center, a good place to learn a little about the history of the canyon and plan our 3-hour stay on the rim. It also provided another option to upload memories of our trip.

Restaurants at Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar offered various types of food, from sit-down meals to grab-and-go meals. Sitting by the edge and enjoying an ice cream cone is always a treat, even when it’s cold outside.

Pro Tip: The train will return to Williams with or without you, so don’t lose track of time. Please confirm the time you need to be ready to board before you begin your wandering.

Girl stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
The author’s granddaughter on the rim of the Grand Canyon (Photo credit: Judy Karnia)

8. Plenty of time to explore the edge

The first thing most people will do when they disembark from the train is make a beeline for the edge. The first look at the Grand Canyon does not disappoint. Go and go. The distance between the top of either edge averages 10 miles. It’s hard to understand how far that really is. The Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon can be seen for points in the distance. The river eroded the Colorado Plateau over millions of years to create the mile-deep canyon.

Grand Canyon with the Colorado River in the distance (Photo credit: Judy Karnia)

The irregular shapes of the canyon contain horizontal strata of sandstone, shale, and limestone. Each layer was deposited in a different time period. The various colors of the stone range from tan to red, creating a wonderful pattern. When we visited, the foliage was greener than I had seen before, adding another hue to the scene.

Shuttle buses take visitors along the rim to various scenic spots. When we went in March, we chose the tour offered by the Grand Canyon Railway, which included a comfortable coach. The weather was cold and windy. The warm bus provided a nice respite between stops. We had plenty of time to explore each stop, take lots of photos, and use the facilities as needed. This was perfect for my in-laws who are mobile but couldn’t have walked very far over the edge. The bus driver also took a beautiful family photo of us.

Pro tip: The Grand Canyon is huge, and your photo won’t be any better if you stand right on the edge of the rim. An average of one person per month dies from falling into the canyon. Stand and walk far enough from the edge that you are not in danger. Never walk backwards when taking a selfie. On our last trip, a mother kept staging her two daughters right on the edge of the rim. She couldn’t bear to watch and I had to walk away from them. It’s not worth it, really. Your photos will be amazing no matter where you are.

9. Experience a train robbery

As we rode along the rails, happily recounting our Grand Canyon experience, we spotted two cowboys riding swift horses alongside the train. A short time later, the train ominously stopped. An announcement came that the robbers had boarded the train. Two of the actors from the morning show were strolling around the car and we threw our hands up in the air. My teenager and her grandfather screamed as we laughed. The sheriff followed us closely and assured us that the robbers had been apprehended and that the train was off again.

Pro Tip: Have a few dollars ready to hand out when the robbers stop by your train car to make your “heist” feel more authentic.

Last stop

The Grand Canyon should be on everyone’s bucket list during your Arizona vacation. Riding the Grand Canyon Railway took the hassle out of driving and provided a fun and relaxing trip to a popular tourist site; the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel was comfortable and convenient to the train depot. The historic feel and friendly service at both ensured an authentic Arizona experience for the whole family.

Need more inspiration for your Grand Canyon vacation? To consider:

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