Increasing visitation to the Grand Canyon
at the end of the 19th century led to the construction, by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF), of a branch railway linking the canyon with the main line at Williams
; the 65 miles of tracks were completed in 1901, some years prior to the national park creation, and the majority of Grand Canyon visitors for the next few decades arrived by train. Also part of the project were stations at either end of the line, several halts en route and the grand El Tovar Hotel
, built right on the canyon rim and still in operation today. The ease of access by road also improved after designation of state route 64
, in 1932 (also from Williams), and eventually the number of people traveling by train declined such that the line became uneconomic, and it was closed to passengers in 1968, and finally to freight traffic in 1974, after which the line and many of its buildings became derelict.
However, following purchase of the line by private investors in 1988, the service from Williams was reinstated, and is now more popular than ever, carrying nearly a quarter of a million tourists each year; the appeal is based on the historic nature of the line and the tranquil, scenic surroundings en route rather than simply a means of reaching the canyon. The air-conditioned passenger coaches date from the 1920s to 1950s, pulled either by diesel-electric locomotives or (less frequently) steam engines, now powered by waste vegetable oil; the original, traditional steam trains used post-1988 were discontinued in 2008, partly due to environmental considerations. The railway is now managed by Xanterra
, the major Grand Canyon concessionaire, who also operate other commercial services in the national park such as lodging, dining, mule rides
and gift shops.
Reservations can be made at the official website for the railway, www.thetrain.com
From the thick ponderosa pine woodland around Williams, elevation 6,745 feet, the railway passes several extinct volcanoes then gradually descends to the treeless, high desert expanses of the Coconino Plateau, moving well away from Hwy 64 and encountering similar scenery for about 30 miles, until the land rises again and becomes a little more uneven - part of the Kaibab National Forest. The pine/fir trees return as the line continues northwards, curving around a few bends, including along the deep, twisting canyon of Coconino Wash, then emerging from the forest at the west side of Grand Canyon Village, terminating at a small station (Grand Canyon Depot) 150 feet from El Tovar Hotel and 450 feet from the canyon rim.
Outward: depart Williams 9.30 am, arrive Grand Canyon Village 11.45 am
Inward: depart Grand Canyon Village 3.30 pm, arrive Williams 5.45 pm
Trains run every day of the year except Christmas Day.
Five types of service are available (2020 prices):
Coach Class ($82 adult, $51 children under 15).
First Class ($159 adult, $121 children under 15), featuring more comfortable seating, free drinks and snacks.
Observation Dome Class ($189 adults, $153 children under 15, no children under 3 permitted), which offers increased visibility due to an elevated, glass ceiling.
Luxury Dome Class ($226 adults, no children permitted) - travel in a carriage with a larger observation dome in the upper deck, and a lounge below.
Luxury Parlor Class ($226 adults, no children permitted) - even more luxurious surroundings, plus access to a private bar and the open-air platform at the rear of the train.
Other packages are available that combine train journeys with discounted hotel stays.