All You Need to Know | Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad AKA Verde Canyon Railway

The Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad was so much more than I remembered!

You may wonder, “What kind of experiences does the Verde Canyon Railroad offer? Or “Are there any special events or themed rides available?” We’ve got the answers to all your questions!

You’ll even find a printable list of sites along the way to help plan for your Verde Canyon railway adventure.

Summary

What You’ll Learn in This Article

Join us as we unveil the extraordinary highlights of our recent adventure:

  • glimpse into ancient Native American dwellings,
  • encounters with multiple historic bridge trestles and
  • a thrilling 730-foot handmade tunnel hewn through hardened limestone.

You’ll learn everything you need to know about riding this Verde Canyon railway, from

  • what to bring,
  • how to buy tickets,
  • what to expect, including parking, ADA accessibility and
  • a bit of fascinating railroad history.

There’s even a downloadable list of notable sites along the route that you can print before you go!

Across our vast, magnificent country, there are few chances to sit in the lap of luxury while simultaneously immersing yourself in untamed wilderness.

The Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, however, is one of those exceptional opportunities.

So what are you waiting for? Here’s my firsthand experience on the enchanting Verde Canyon Railroad:

pinterest graphic with image of train chugging along black through-truss bridge with red rock canyon behind and text: Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad
Pin this to your "Ride a Train" folder

1.) Introduction to the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad

classic Pullman passenger car on Verde rail road with close up of sign reading "Verde Canyon Railroad Wilderness Route" and AZ mountains in background against blue cloudless sky
Classic Pullman Lounge Car at Clarkdale, AZ, station | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

The Verde Canyon Railroad is consistently listed as one of the state’s top attractions and carries about 100,000 passengers annually. As a resident of Northern Arizona for almost 30 years, I’m always excited when people visit so I can ride the relaxing rails again and again.

Sometimes, I don’t even wait for out-of-state houseguests and simply escape the confines of modern life by riding the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad. Like my hubby and I did recently. There’s nothing like rocking on the rails that relaxes me more.

That’s not to say that the Verde Canyon Railroad isn’t exciting. The toot-toot telling us the engine is pulling away from the Clarkdale station always brings a zing to my heart! The same happens when I see a soaring bald eagle gliding in the Verde Canyon below. (As many of you know, I’m an avid raptor watcher, so I always have my eyes peeled.)

And the Wild West history, as told by the friendly crew, will surely keep you on your toes.

Intriguing Facts About Verde Canyon Railway History and Significance

1950s era diesel train engine of the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad pulls a line of passenger cars through a metal bridge with red rock canyons behind
Verde Canyon railway passes over historic bridge near Sedona AZ | Verde Canyon Railroad courtesy photo

Here’s a short list of fun facts about the historical significance of Verde Canyon railway:

  • When Montanan William A. Clark purchased the remote copper mining operations in Jerome, AZ, in 1888, the nearest railhead was over 50 miles away in Prescott. Copper was hauled by horse and wagon on poor roads around Mingus Mountain, which separated the two backland communities.
  • Clark made mining improvements, including launching a narrow-gauge Verde railroad in 1895.
  • Innovations during the 1890s enabled the copper mining operation to increase annual copper output from 7.4 million pounds in 1891 to nearly 44 million pounds in 1899, making Arizona’s largest copper producer and enterprising Clark one of the US’s “Copper Kings.”
  • Verde Valley Railroad, which later replaced the narrow gauge line, helped launch a dusty mining camp into the modern era. Besides freighting copper, the Verde railroad brought people, food and supplies to the remote frontier town.
  • Today, you can ride the historic rail line in various passenger coaches—we’ll discuss more about them later.
  • The year-round Verde Canyon Railroad was designated as one of “Arizona’s Treasures” by Governor Janet Napolitano in 2005.

2.) Romance of the Rails: Your Verde Canyon Railway Experience

couple sits at two top table next to panoramic window looking out of verde railroad car
Dan and Stacey Wittig get ready for the Verde railroad excursion | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Here’s a detailed description of the train journey we just enjoyed.

Departure point and route

You’ll depart from the Clarkdale Train Depot in Clarkdale, Arizona. The 40-mile / 64-km round trip through Verde Canyon takes approximately four hours. You’ll return to the same Verde railroad depot since it is an out-and-back trip.

You’ll travel through the canyon along the Verde River to the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area. Along the way, your friendly attendants will point out notable sites and, hopefully, wildlife, such as the bald eagle I saw. However, if you don’t want to rely on others for noteworthy spots along the way, you can download this PDF as a cheat sheet.

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Don’t Miss These Notable Sites Along the Way

two women stand at rail gazing at red rock canyon walls as third woman sits on bench enjoying the same view from the open-air car on the Verde Canyon railway
Delighting in the red rock views on the Verde Railroad | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

To help catch a glimpse of the notable sites, watch for mile posts that designate the distance from Clarksdale to Perkinsville along this lonely section of track. Photographers or nature enthusiasts should be aware of these mile posts as many are the best scenic spots and photography opportunities along the route.

Why do the Mile Posts start at 38?

Since Verde railroad workers began laying track at Drake, AZ, north of here, Drake got the Mile Post 0 designation. Perkinsville, at mile post 18, is our turnaround point. At our starting point, Clarkdale, officially the end of the line, you’ll see mile post 38.

Just to let you know, these aren’t all the sites along the way. You’ll find more of them in the full-color 62-page guide you can purchase onboard. The attendants will point out others not even listed in the book! But here are my favorites:

Mile Post 38

Watch for the milepost, which is slightly north of the Clarkdale train depot.

This rail line was built to support copper mining in Jerome and, later, the Clarkdale copper smelter. Soon, we pass along the smelter’s slag dump on the east-northeast side of the tracks.

Slag, a byproduct of smelting, is what is left of the millions of tons of copper ore mined in Jerome after the copper is extracted. A corrugated metal barrier held The molten slag from the tracks. Today, you can see the pattern of the corrugated metal in the wall of solidified slag as we pass by. Although the Clarkdale smelter closed in 1953, you can still see part of the 40-acre slag heap today.

dark openings lined with rustic masonry between layers of pink colored limestone near the verde canyon railway mile post 37
Ancient Sinagua cliff dwellings as seen from the Verde Canyon Railroad | courtesy photo

Mile Post 37

Watch for dark shapes that look like caves on the west-northwest side of the tracks. About a third of the way from the top of the canyon wall, your eye will catch a small cliff dwelling in the light-colored limestone layers. Archaeologists have named the people who lived here Sinagua from the Spanish words sin, meaning “without,” and agua, meaning “water.” Next, watch for the second ruin, probably used for food storage.

To visit other Sinagua ruins in the area, take time to visit nearby Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon or Montezuma Castle National Monuments.

Prescott’s roundhouse is gone, but here’s an example of a similar turntable bridge at the ATSF Winslow, AZ, roundhouse | Jack Delano, photo via Library of Congress

Mile Post 35

The railroad trestle here was fashioned by reusing the original Santa Fe, Phoenix & Pacific (later Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway-ATSF) turntable bridge from the Prescott, AZ, seven-stall roundhouse.

Prescott’s roundhouse is long gone, but this photo depicts an example of a turntable bridge at the ATSF Winslow, AZ, roundhouse  |  Delano, Jack, 1914-1997, photographer via Library of Congress

river in foreground an tain on long bridge span in the distance, blue skies behind
Verde Canyon Railroad bridge with Verde River at mile post 33.5 | courtesy photo

Mile Post 33.5

You’re now traversing the Verde Canyon Railroad’s highest and longest bridge. Step out into the open-air car as you’ll have plenty of photo ops 150 feet / 46 meters above the canyon floor.

Mile Post 30

From here, at the Confluence of Sycamore Creek and Verde River, we enter the gorgeous Verde Canyon. We’re now surrounded by national forest land. Prescott National Forest is on the rail side of the Verde River, and Coconino National Forest is on the opposite bank.

women look out the open-car Verde railroad train to tall light cream and pink cliffs
Girls Getaway on the Saturday Night Starlight Train | Verde Canyon Railroad courtesy photo

Mile Post 29

You can now see parts of Sycamore Canyon Wilderness area across the river. The 58,448-acre / 22,662-ha wilderness is so immense that it lies within three National Forests: Coconino to the east, Kaibab to the north and Prescott National Forest on its western side. Black bears, deer, elk, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, ring-tailed cats, scorpions and others make this rugged wilderness their home.

Mile Post 28

Sycamore Siding is the only railroad siding in the Verde Canyon. A railway siding is a short section of track where engines and cars are left when not in use or are being loaded or passed by another train.

passengers lean to get photos of upcoming tunnel - a black hole where the Verde railroad in front of them disappears into
Entering the handcut tunnel on the Verde Canyon Railway takes you into pitch darkness | courtesy photo

Mile Post 22.5

Enter the 734-foot / 223 m-long tunnel cut through a sharp promontory way back in 1911. The tunnel curves under its roof of solid limestone, so you cannot see the end of the tunnel when you enter the dark.

Entering the handcut tunnel on the Verde Canyon Railway takes you into pitch darkness | courtesy photo
Verde Canyon railway passes over historic bridge near Sedona AZ | Verde Canyon Railroad courtesy photo

Mile Post 19

Here’s where we encounter a through-truss steel bridge that spans a side gorge of the Verde Canyon. This particular bridge seems to be a Parker truss, a design attributed to engineer C. H. Parker, who played a role in its development during the mid-19th century.

The use of polygonal top chords in this design helps save on materials and strategically places the truss’s greatest depth at the span’s center, providing maximum support. The riveted Parker truss was particularly well-suited for relatively long spans and continued to be in favor during the early decades of the 20th century.

Verde Canyon railway diesel locomotive painted turquoise stands out against the red rock cliffs
Perkinsville turnaround afford photos of the front of the engines | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Mile Post 18.5

Perkinsville is now a ghost town but once was a whistle-stop where lime, produced from the nearby limestone quarry and kiln, was loaded for shipment to the Clarksdale smelter.

Look for the wooden beam remnants of the Perkinsville water tower blown up for the dramatic feature film How the West Was Won. We’ll discuss this classic flick more in the History and Heritage section below.

At Perkinsville, the FP7 locomotives disconnect and are sidetracked to the “back” of the train. Leaning out the open window of the engine, the conductor slapped our hands as he passed our open-air flatcar. The locomotives then hook up to the “back of the train,” which becomes the front as they pull us back to Clarkdale.

On the way back to Clarkdale depot, you can follow the mile post indicators in numerical order.

4 Types of Train Cars on the Verde Canyon Railway Arizona

You can choose the type of train car you’ll ride in when you buy Verde Canyon Railway tickets.

1. Coach Cars

Each renovated vintage train car is equipped with comfy living room-style seating, air-conditioning, a restroom and a full-service cash bar. The train car attendant poured us a jigger of champagne to toast “bon voyage” and served any drinks we purchased right at our seats.

Relaxing on an upholstered chair and looking through a huge panoramic window was a great way to unwind. When we approached notable sites, our gracious bartender prompted us to go outside to the adjoining open-air viewing car for 360-degree vistas.

2. Open-Air Viewing Cars

Each coach car connects to an open-air viewing car built from classic flatcars. Safety railings, benches and high canopy shades that don’t obstruct the fantastic canyon views have been added to the cars once used to haul oversized materials, vehicles and equipment. When we spent time outdoors with the wind in our hair, an attendant pointed out notable sites and answered questions about the history, geology and wildlife we passed by.

When you purchase tickets for the Coach Cars, you get free access to the open-air cars. It’s like getting two seats for the price of one!

3. The Caboose

The caboose is a private affair that you can reserve for your party of six or fewer adults. Heads up: this is the one car that is not ADA-compliant. But the caboose does afford private outdoor platforms and seating in the small-windowed structure on the roof called the cupola. Historically, train conductors used the pilot house, or cupola, to watch the train.

4. The Engine Cab

You can even book a ride up front with the engineer inside the cab of the powerful FP7 locomotive. A perfect gift for the over 18 years of age “trainiac” in your group!

Get information on ticket prices at verdecanyonrr.com/train-rates

Special Experiences and Packages

black tray with 5 compartments filled with cheese, meat, fruit, crackers and brownies
Charcuterie trays like this one are offered as part of some packages | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Memorable experiences and seasonal packages for the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad include:

  • February: Chocolate Lovers’ Special
  • May: Uncorked on the Patio (wine tasting)
  • Select Summer Evenings: Saturday Night Starlight Train, Moonlight Excursions and Grape Train Escapes
  • Mid-September through October: Fall Colors Tours, Ales on Rails Beer Tasting
  • November through December: Magical Christmas Journey®

3.) The Scenic Beauty of Verde Canyon

fall colors light up the canyon with bright yellow cottonwood trees in fall - verde railroad scene in background

As I mentioned earlier, Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad gives you one of the few chances to indulge in luxury while immersing yourself in untamed wilderness. The scenic beauty of Verde Canyon is spellbinding.

You’ll pass through stunning red rock canyons while following the wild and winding Verde River that separates the Prescott and Coconino National Forests.

Notable Wildlife and Plant Species Spotted Along the Route

Probably the easiest plant to spot from the train is prickly pear cactus. When I rode along, I saw plenty of bright pink prickly pear pods ready for harvest. You can identify the cactus from its wide green paddles. It looks similar to beavertail cactus in other parts of the county.

You’ll also see cottonwood, sycamore and oak trees near the Verde River. Pinon and juniper are spotted on drier terrain. Closer to the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, you may be able to spot walnut trees.

Watch for bald eagles, as a nesting pair stays all year. Other bald eagles will join them as they pass through in January and February. Although Black bears, elk, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, ring-tailed cats, scorpions and others live in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, chances are you won’t see them during daylight hours. You may see mule deer, squirrels and prairie dogs.

Ringtail in Phoenix, Arizona | http://www.RobertBody.com via Wikipedia

Highlights of the Verde River and Its Significance in the Area

slow moving river in foreground with Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad bridge in middle of pic framed by red rocks behind
Through-truss bridge on the Verde Canyon Railroad downstream of Perkinsville, Arizona, USA | Alvin L. Medina, USFS

The Verde River is one of the few rivers that continue to flow through Arizona’s arid landscape. As you gaze through the train’s windows, the landscapes, nourished by the meandering river, will captivate your senses.

It’s no surprise that the ancient Sinagua people chose these cliffsides as their home. Today, as it did during the mining era, the river continues to offer sustenance for agriculture and recreational pursuits.

I was pleased to see the mission of the railway, so I think it’s worth repeating here:

“Verde Canyon Railroad seeks to preserve, conserve and protect the environment, wildlife, equipment and artifacts of historic significance to the Verde railroad and its community, including the scenic Verde Canyon and Verde River.”

4.) History and Heritage

The History of the Arizona Verde Canyon Railway

This railroad line was first built as a narrow gauge line, the United Verde and Pacific Railway, to connect copper mining operations in Jerome, AZ, to markets in the east.

William A. Clark and other celebrants drove the last spike of the narrow gauge (3 feet / 914 mm) on Monday, December 24, 1894, and service began in January 1895.

From 1911-12, Clark financed a standard gauge rail line while building the new smelter in Clarkdale. Construction of the new line, Verde Valley Railroad, connected the new Clarkdale smelter to a railhead in what’s now known as Chino Valley.

It is said the engineering marvel took 250 men, 200 mules, and pounds of DuPont dynamite in only one year to complete the 38-mile line.

They finished the task the same year Arizona became the 48th state.

1930 Map of rail lines in Arizona | By Missouri Pacific Lines, Public Domain
movie poster with headline: "24 Great stars in the mightiest adventure ever filmed" and headshots of 13 of them framing 2 sides of the poster

Stories From the Past: Verde Canyon Railway

There is some discrepancy in the accounts of the men who blasted the long tunnel that the Verde Canyon railway passes. Some report that it was Swedes who dug the underground passage. Others say it was Swiss.

As an interesting aside, Sweden just launched a tourism campaign aimed at the confusion between Sweden and Switzerland.

Even after the Clarkdale smelter closed in 1951, Santa Fe Railway owned and operated the branch line from Chino Valley to Clarksdale.

In the early 1960s, Perkinsville, a stop on the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, was a ghost town and an ideal spot to shoot train scenes for the epic film How the West Was Won. The movie starred James Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds and a slew of others. The Perkinsville water tower was blown up for the movie but never made it past the final cuts of the film that earned eight Academy Award nominations.

In 1988, David L. Dubano bought the rail line based on freight figures. But after being moved by the beauty of the undisturbed wilderness through which his railroad passed, he knew others would want to make the journey on a scenic passenger train.

Preservation Efforts and Restoration of the Verde Valley Railroad

Verde Canyon railway diesel locomotive painted turquoise stands out against the red rock cliffs
Verde Canyon Railway EMD FP7 diesel locomotive | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Dubano’s company undertook the refurbishment of two vintage EMD FP7 diesel locomotives to operate an excursion train. These locomotives are among the last eleven still in service in North America.

Built in 1953 by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors in LaGrange, Illinois, the pair was initially put into service by the Alaska Railroad.

Verde Canyon Railroad wildlife conservation efforts include partnering with Liberty Wildlife, an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility in Phoenix, and Arizona Game & Fish’s conservation and nest watch programs.

Learn more in the book by Julie McDonald,  Verde Canyon Railroad Wilderness Train: Clarkdale, Arizona.

5.) Tips for a Memorable Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad Journey

What to bring on the trip

Wear comfortable clothing and bring layers. I was glad to have my medium-weight jacket in the air-conditioned Santa Fe Lounge car. Don’t forget your camera or smartphone to capture all the mesmerizing scenery.

I brought along my Vortex Optics Solo Monocular for spotting wildlife. It’s extremely lighter than binoculars and small enough to fit in my pocket.

You’re in sunny Arizona, so don’t forget sunscreen, hats and extra water.

Recommended times to visit and seasonal considerations

The Verde Canyon Railway operates throughout the year, making it accessible for visitors with diverse preferences.

Spring and fall are favored for their pleasant weather conditions, while the winter season offers a distinctive perspective on the landscape.

Regardless of the season you choose, rest assured that the passenger cars are equipped with climate control for your comfort throughout the year.

Q&A:

Here are some commonly asked questions about the Verde Canyon Railway and their answers:

1. What is the Verde Canyon Railway?

The Verde Canyon Railway, also known as the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, is a scenic excursion train that offers a journey through the stunning Verde Canyon in Arizona, USA.

2. Where does the train depart from?

The train departs from Clarkdale, Arizona, about 25 miles southwest of Sedona and 1-hour 57-minute drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

3. How long is the train ride?

The standard train ride is approximately 4 hours round-trip, covering about 20 miles through the Verde Canyon

 

4. What is the best time to visit the Verde Canyon Railway?

The railway operates year-round, and the best time to visit depends on your preferences. Spring and fall are popular for mild weather, while winter offers a unique perspective. The passenger cars are climate-controlled for year-round comfort.

5. Are there different types of train cars to choose from?

Yes, various types of train cars are available, including caboose options. There’s even a “Locomotive Ride-A-Long” for you trainiacs! See “4 Types of train cars on the Verde Canyon Railway Arizona” above for specifics.

6. Can I purchase tickets in advance?

Yes, booking your tickets in advance is highly recommended, especially during peak seasons. You can purchase tickets online through the official website or by phone.

7. Are there onboard services like food and drinks?

Yes, the train offers a snack bar with a variety of snacks, beverages, and alcoholic options. Passengers purchasing special packages may have more dining options on their tickets.

8. Is the train ride suitable for all ages?

Yes, the Verde Canyon Railway is family-friendly, and people of all ages can enjoy the journey. However, young children should be supervised at all times.

9. Are pets allowed on the train?

With the exception of service animals, pets are not allowed on the train.

10. Is there commentary or narration during the journey?

Yes, there is informative narration throughout the trip, providing insights into the natural and cultural history of the area.

11. Is there a gift shop on board or at the depot?

Yes, there is a lovely gift shop at the depot where you can purchase souvenirs and mementos of your visit.

I typically find something I can’t live without! And if you don’t have enough space in your luggage, check out the online gift shop.

12. Is there wheelchair accessibility on the train?

Yes, the Verde Canyon Railway is equipped to accommodate guests with mobility challenges. It’s recommended to inform them in advance to ensure proper arrangements.

13. Can I take photographs during the journey?

Absolutely! Photography is encouraged, and the scenic views provide numerous opportunities for capturing memorable moments.

You can see all the fantastic photos I captured in this article!

14. Are there any special events or themed rides throughout the year?

Yes, the railway often hosts special events, such as rescued bald eagle programs, holiday-themed rides, wine-tasting excursions, and other seasonal experiences.

Be sure to check their schedule for upcoming events.

15. Is there parking available at the depot in Clarkdale?

Yes, ample parking is available at the depot for guests arriving by car. Parking is typically free of charge.

Is Verde Canyon Railroad worth it?

Yes, the Verde Canyon Railroad is worth the time and money! Some visitors to the Sedona area may be shy to commit four hours to this train ride, but I tell you it is so worth it!

Many people come to Sedona to slow down and relax. I think this is one of the best ways to do that. you’ll experience nature while being in a climate-controlled railroad coach.

6.) Plan Your Visit

Contact information for booking tickets and inquiries

You may book tickets at verdecanyonrr.com/train-rates or on your favorite booking site like Viator or TripAdvisor. Or call Verde Canyon Railroad directly at 800-293-7245.

Directions to the departure point and parking information

Check in to the guest services desk at the Clarksdale depot at 300 N. Broadway, Clarkdale, AZ 86324. Plenty of free parking is available. I recommend you go early to enjoy the John Bell Museum, which is free with your train ticket, the café, and the gift shop.

Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, 23 miles west of Sedona, is a 1-hour 57-minute drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The railway is only a 1-hour 10-minute drive from the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.

man and woman stare up at red sandstone canyon walls from Verde Valley railway open air car
Couple mesmerized by red rock canyon walls on Verde railroad excursion | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Hotels Near Verde Canyon Railroad

You could stay in Sedona, which is only 23 miles away, or you could stay closer. Scroll through the map below to find hotels near Verde Canyon Railroad or in Sedona, AZ.

MAP YOUR STAY

Conclusion: Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, Aka Verde Canyon Railway

I recommend that you ride the Verde Valley Railroad. Over the past 30 years I have lived in the area, I’ve experienced the Verde railroad over a half dozen times. I love it!

The best thing about the Arizona Verde Valley Railroad is that it takes you into the wilderness, which you view from the comfort of the train. No need to pack up the camper or study maps for a backcountry hike!

Embark on your own Verde Canyon Railway adventure, and you’ll discover why I keep returning. You’ll experience the beauty and significance of this Arizona gem just as I have!

I welcome your questions! If I haven’t answered your question about the Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad, please email me here.

Alcohol Served
Catering
Designated Smoking Area
ADA-Compliant Coaches
Internet Access
Lunch Served
Motorcoach Parking

Table of Contents

pinterest graphic with image of train chugging along black through-truss bridge with red rock canyon behind and text: Arizona Verde Canyon Railroad
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Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review,  the author believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

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