Arizona travel writer Marni Patterson reveals a fun, stress-free way to travel from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village. So park your car—we’re all aboard the Grand Canyon Railway bound for Grand Canyon National Park.
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If you’re considering driving to the Grand Canyon, you probably aren’t looking forward to one and a half hours on a busy two-lane highway and navigating the crowds.
By riding the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village, you can avoid traffic jams and eliminate the headaches of hunting for parking spots. Instead, just sit back and relax on a turn-of-the-century train. When you arrive, all activities the South Rim offers will be at your fingertips.
The Grand Canyon Railway runs every day except Christmas. Electric diesel locomotives power most trips. However, an old-fashioned steam locomotive will pull your train if you book your journey on the first Saturday of the month from March through September, Presidents Day, Earth Day, or September 16th (the Grand Canyon Railway’s anniversary).*
History of the Grand Canyon Railway That Runs From Williams AZ to Grand Canyon
Thousands of steam engines used to transport passengers across the U.S. Fewer than 200 survive today, and only a few are operational. The Grand Canyon Railway’s No. 29 and No. 4960 are two.
GCR No. 29 was built in 1906 by the American Locomotive Company in Pittsburgh, PA, to haul iron ore on the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad branch lines.
It was retired from service in 1956, sold to the Marquette and Huron Mountain Railroad in 1963, and then sold to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. The Grand Canyon Railway purchased it in 1989, operated it on and off until 2016, and restored it in 2019 as a part of the National Park Service’s centennial celebration.
GCR No. 4960 was built in 1923 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, PA, to haul iron ore and other goods throughout the Midwest. It was retired from freight service in 1960 but pulled excursion, museum, and circus trains throughout Wisconsin and other Midwestern states until the early 1970s.
The Grand Canyon Railway purchased it in 1989 and converted it into a diesel engine in the mid-90s.
Locomotive runs on waste French fry oil
In 2009, GCR No. 4960 locomotive was restored to run on recycled waste vegetable oil used for French fries and other foods and snowmelt. So, its new nickname is the “Green Machine.”
Begin Your Trip in Williams, AZ
Many train passengers begin their trip from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Built in 1892, the hotel is a tranquil Old West retreat located next to the depot two blocks from downtown Williams and historic Route 66.
Past guests include President Theodore Roosevelt, the King of Siam, General John Pershing, Albert Einstein, Western author Zane Grey, environmentalist John Muir, and various members of the Vanderbilt family.
When you relax in the impressive lobby with its stone fireplace and wood staircase or enjoy a drink in Spenser’s Pub with its 19th-century handcrafted bar, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a bygone era. However, you’ll enjoy modern amenities such as an indoor pool and hot tub, fitness center, complimentary wi-fi and a Keurig coffee maker in your room.
Parking is free, and if you’re staying at the Grand Canyon overnight, you can leave your car in the hotel parking lot for free.
Entertainment Before and During the Trip
The train departs at 9:30 am, but the fun starts at 9:00 am at an Old West town outside the depot, complete with a saloon, stable, diner and jail.
Members of the Cataract Creek Gang put on an entertaining Wild West show that ends in a shootout because someone cheated during a poker game. Tempers flare, but everyone settles down when the Town Marshal gets involved, and good guys always win.
You’ll have plenty of time for photos with the cast members and horses before the train leaves.
The entertainment continues during the ride from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village. Musicians stroll from car to car and serenade you with train-themed and Western songs.
Cowboys tell entertaining stories of the Old West and offer advice on what to see at the Grand Canyon. On the return trip to Williams, they warn you to hide your money and valuables because the Cataract Creek Gang “might” stage a train robbery.
Things To Do in Grand Canyon Village
When the train arrives at the South Rim, you’ll find plenty to do in Grand Canyon Village. If you plan to return to Williams the same day, you have 3-1/2 hours to sightsee. Many visitors like to walk along the Rim Trail and enjoy the magnificent views from Trail View and Maricopa Points. The trail is paved and mostly flat.
You may enjoy the upper portion of the Bright Angel Trail if you’re an avid hiker. But be sure to allow enough time to walk back up the trail so you don’t miss the train. As an alternative to hiking, several bus tours leave from the depot and arrive back before the train leaves.
Many people choose to visit the historic Hopi House, a replica of a Hopi pueblo that housed the Fred Harvey Indian Arts Center. You’ll see native arts and crafts such as handcrafted kachinas, jewelry, hand-woven Navajo rugs and pottery. If you’re lucky, you may observe cultural demonstrations or Katsina Pollen Trail and Hoop Dancer performances that are scheduled periodically.
Dining options include food trucks and snack bars, markets and delicatessens such as the Desert View Market and Deli, and restaurants such as Fred Harvey Burger, the Arizona Steakhouse, and the El Tovar Dining Room. If you prefer to pack a picnic lunch or bring a cooler, overhead storage space is available in all train cars.
Staying Overnight in Grand Canyon Village
Visitors who stay overnight in Grand Canyon Village have a variety of lodging options. The El Tovar Hotel, Thunderbird, and Kachina Lodges are a short walk from the depot. Bright Angel, Maswik and Yavapai Lodges and Mather Campground are further away, but a shuttle bus that stops at the depot will take you to each.
Schedule Your Trip
If you choose to visit for the day, the train trip from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village takes two hours and 15 minutes each way, and you’ll be on the South Rim for three and a half hours. Plan to leave from Williams at 9:30 am (8:30 am during November and December) and return at 3:30 pm (2:30 pm during November and December). If you’re staying overnight, plan to leave at 3:30 pm on the day you want to return to Williams.
The Grand Canyon Railway offers different service classes that you can investigate on TripAdvisor or Viator. All service classes provide the opportunity to enjoy dramatic desert scenery and onboard entertainment in comfort.
If you’re traveling as a family from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village, Coach Class is an ideal choice because cars are air-conditioned and heated, and you have access to a snack bar.
Do you want the best view of the desert scenery to take photos or increase your chances of spotting wildlife such as elk, mule deer, horned owls, bald eagles and California condors? Then the Observation and Luxury Domes are perfect because the cars are glassed in, and the seating areas are elevated.
Bring a credit or debit card because cash isn’t accepted for onboard purchases. You should also bring a refillable water bottle because bottled water isn’t sold on the train or anywhere in the Grand Canyon. If you don’t want to bring your bottle, you can buy a refillable souvenir cup for around $5.
Traveling from Williams AZ to Grand Canyon Village on the Grand Canyon Railway is a fun way to experience one of the most spectacular national parks in the U.S. So, buy your tickets, head to Williams, Arizona and get on board.
Marni Patterson is a freelance journalist who writes about destination travel, local customs and cultures and history. She has had articles published in Matador, GoNOMAD, Travel Awaits, Foodie Flashpacker, Reel Travels. Her professional affiliations include TravMedia, International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), and Travel Writers University. She’s lived all over the U.S., spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student, and now calls Phoenix, Arizona home. You can catch up with her on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
*Subject to change depending on weather conditions and special events. Please check the schedule for the latest steam train dates.
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was NOT provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of this guide. The Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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