If you’re looking for train rides in Arizona that immerse you in history, provide a unique experience, and entertain the whole family, hop aboard the Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railway. Both located in northern Arizona, these rail adventures are similar in that they employ restored railroad cars and vintage trains.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers immersive live entertainment with its cowboy shows, train bandits and musicians. Meanwhile, Verde Canyon Railroad offers a passive educational experience with sizable and numerous storyboards in the depot and recorded narration on the train.
Let us explore the key differences to know.
Note: I was met by the Grand Canyon Railroad and the Green Canyon Railroad on every train ride. However, these opinions are my own.
1. Entertainment Styles
Exciting family entertainment begins in the barnyard, where The Cataract Creek Gang performs before departing at the historic Grand Canyon Railway Depot. The gang’s realistic antics and fake gunshots made me jump in surprise and laugh out loud along with the other guests in the audience.
Passenger service attendants on the Grand Canyon Railway share interesting facts about the area and the canyon. Dressed in period costume, the PSAs handed out bottled water to passengers in the car and reminded us how important it is to stay hydrated at the nearly 7,000-foot elevation.
Publisher’s note: TravelAwaitsJudy Karnia herself took the family on the Grand Canyon Railway. If you’re curious to know how it went, read her account here.
Meanwhile, Verde Canyon is a pristine landscape devoid of developments like homes, hotels, resorts, and roads, and the entertainment on the Verde Canyon Railway is inspired by nature.
The Verde Canyon Railroad boasts the oldest natural spectacle in Arizona. Canyons are the defining feature when referring to this section of the desert Southwest. Visible from the open-air cars and large windows of the train cars are unforgettable towering red rock buttes, rugged terrain and tall desert foliage.
Although it rained during my train ride, the cover that covered the open-air carriage provided some protection from raindrops. The rain added to the drama of the landscape and emphasized the burnished orange-red of the rocky pinnacles.
Verde Canyon Railroad offers recorded narrations and lively sing-along songs, drinks and snacks to accompany the stunning scenery as we ride along the Verde River. I heartily sang several of the recognizable tunes.
The Grand Canyon Rail Tour is a 65-mile long trip and takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to get from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim. You have about 3 hours at the destination. Because the historic buildings are close to the Reservoir, there is plenty of time to visit the Verkamp Visitor Center and the Hopi House, look for condors, see historic national monuments, enjoy a good meal at El Tovar, and soak in the beauty of the Canyon. . The return trip drops you off at Williams in time for dinner.
pro tips: If you decide to eat in El Tovar, make a reservation as soon as you get off the train. Your wait time, which can be an hour or more, can be filled with exploration on the south rim. You can opt for a walk instead of a delicious meal. Bright Angel Trailhead is steps away from Lookout Studio.
The Verde Canyon Railroad, on the other hand, is a 4-hour, 20-mile journey through some stunning scenery. Everything from the relaxed atmosphere of the train cars with premium beverage service.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers family entertainment at its finest. It is relaxed, informal and fun.
While the Verde Canyon Railroad promotes special and seasonal programs for families with children, the lounge-style décor on the Pullman train cars seems more suited to adults who want to relax and sightsee with adult beverages.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the view of the Painted Desert is breathtaking, is the destination of the Grand Canyon Railway. It is one of the natural wonders of the world and is also an International Dark Sky Park.
If you’re lucky, you may spot the rare and critically endangered California condor soaring above thermal currents. It was windy and cold when I was there, so all I saw was blackbirds perched in the trees from my vantage point at Lookout Studio, a national historic landmark.
On the Verde Canyon Railroad, it’s not the destination; it’s the ride Passengers stay on the train for the entire ride through the stunning southwestern landscape at Verde Canyon.
5. Cost and cars
Five classes of service on the Grand Canyon Railway offer transportation for all budgets. From my simple crimson leather bench in coach to the couches and chairs I’ve experienced in other cars, I’ve found that all levels of passenger service and comfort are considered. I enjoyed the entertainment both on the coach and in the Luxury Parlor and Dome Car.
In all categories we arrive and leave at the same time and enjoy good service.
The lounge style at the Verde Canyon Railroad is priced uniquely at around $100 per person. All seats are premium, assigned and charged per person. As a single traveler, I sat by a window and shared a table with another passenger.
The open cars on the Verde Canyon Railroad give the passenger two seats for the price of one.
6. Special programs
Grand Canyon Railway offers the Ultimate Polar Express Experience (a “private train car to the North Pole”) or the standard Polar Express Train Ride. Santa Claus and his reindeer greet passengers, serve hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, and you can listen to timeless stories. Both of these experiences make for a great family vacation tradition.
Verde Canyon Railroad offers special programs on the train or at the depot. Seasonal train rides include Chocolate Lovers’ Special, family-style Ring in the New Year, Magical Christmas Journey, Fall Colors, Spring Bloom, Summer Starlight and Moonlight Rides, Phantom Train Experience for kids, as well as wine and beer tasting . festival train rides.
7. The Route
The Grand Canyon Railroad journey begins at the Williams Depot, located in historic Williams, Arizona, along the famous Route 66. Taking the train from Williams to the Grand Canyon, we travel on the same rails that the first steam train did. in 1901. The scenery changed from high desert to prairie and from prairie to pine trees as we shifted 1,500 feet in elevation.
On the return trip, assigned to the parlor car, I stepped out onto the balcony of the caboose and enjoyed watching the rails disappear behind me and saw the Cataract Creek gang riding their horses at breakneck speed to catch and rob the train. They did, by the way, and “stole” our tips.
The Verde Canyon train departs from the depot in Clarkdale, about 67 miles southwest of Flagstaff and 23 miles southwest of Sedona. The huge pile of tailings and slag from mines near the city serves to remind the viewer of the mining activities that made Green Canyon famous.
The historic route of the Verde Canyon Railroad is only accessible by rail and traverses untouched, unspoiled Verde Canyon and runs alongside the Verde River. The river is located between two protected sanctuaries, the Coconino Forest and the Prescott National Forest.
Towering red rock pinnacles, fortified bridges and ancient Native American ruins are part of the landscape from Clarkdale to the ghost town of Perkinsville and back. A magnificent 734-foot tunnel, carved out of solid rock over a century ago, casts the train into total darkness only to escape into daylight at the other end.
pro tip: If you fancy a thrill, make sure you’re in the open-air car when you go through the tunnel. The clearance between the wagon and the rocks is minimal.
Similarities Between Train Travel
The Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railway are two train rides in Arizona that have a lot in common, yet offer different experiences.
For example, both trains have the means to turn around with passengers still on board. The Grand Canyon Railway uses a star, a triangle of track that allows 180-degree turns, to turn the entire train around; the Verde Canyon Railroad disconnects its engine upon reaching Perkinsville, runs around the train on the track to the right, hooks onto the other end of the train, and makes the return trip to Clarkdale.
Both the Grand Canyon Railway and the Verde Canyon Railroad use Pullman cars for their train travel throughout Arizona, and both are ADA compliant.
Historic depots and towns are at the heart of Arizona rail travel. Williams Depot and Grand Canyon Depot were built over 100 years ago and are National Historic Treasures. Clarkdale, the town from which the Verde Canyon Railroad departs and returns, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its train museum has more than 100 years of history.
Both depots have gift shops for souvenirs and souvenirs and places to eat so you won’t go hungry or thirsty, and pet sitting services are available at both depots because pets are not allowed on either train.
The Iron Maiden tamed the West, and both the Grand Canyon Railroad and the Verde Canyon Railroad work to keep history alive with historic wagons, tracks and locomotives as part of Northern Arizona’s living history.