When paying a visit to one of the seven wonders of the natural world, it feels right to make something of a grand entrance. While a trusty hire car had been more than adequate for a family road trip around Arizona, a more unique mode of transport was required to reach the state’s jewel in the crown – the Grand Canyon Railway.
The 65-mile route was opened in 1901 by the Santa Fe Railway for the ore industry, but it was soon realised that transporting tourists into the park - and the workmen and materials needed for the resulting boom in hotel building - was more profitable. Despite attracting passengers as prestigious President Franklin Roosevelt, Clark Gable and Doris Day, the rise of the car saw riders dwindle and the train stopped service in 1968.
The track was slowly being sold for scrap until it was saved and reopened in 1989 by entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert, simultaneously preserving this piece of Arizonan history and lessening the environmental damage of car journeys to the canyon.
The train now makes a daily round trip (with two services at busy times) from its depot in the town of Williams to the heart of the world famous gorge. It's a unique, great value and fuss-free option for families wanting to catch a glimpse of this must-see sight.
We started our adventure by checking into the 297-room Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, a comfortable and convenient way to bookend your visit to the national park. Built in the style of the old train depot from a century ago, it sits right beside the tracks and is a block from the town’s main street, part of the legendary Route 66.
Arriving in the lobby, which boasts plush leather chairs, a roaring log fire and an atmospheric oil painting of the canyon, the charming staff gave us a wonderfully warm welcome. “Make sure you wear a cardigan, honey,” advised our receptionist, as she spotted us shivering in clothes that had been more appropriate in baking Sedona than higher altitude of the Colorado Plateau.
Our recently renovated deluxe room was stylish, with two roomy beds and a chic white and black bathroom. The hotel also offers a gym, heated indoor salt water pool (in which we enjoyed a jetlagged early morning dip), games room and outdoor playground complete with climbing wall.
For drinks and a low key dinner of pizzas or tasty chicken wings, the hotel’s Spenser’s Pub is ideal. Its grand oak and stained glass bar, a carved artifact that reaches from floor to ceiling, dates from 1887 and was created by a George O. Spenser for London pub Lion’s Den. Somewhere along the way, it was shipped to its new home in America from Europe, although we couldn’t fathom how it made the journey in one piece.
Other mealtime options include the Grand Depot Café next door, which offers buffet style dining from breakfast through to dinner, or wander down the block to the quaint Pine Country Restaurant. With its green-and-white checked tablecloths and extensive pie menu, it’s a down-to-earth favourite of the locals and an authentic slice of Americana for visitors.
Make no mistake - this isn’t just a vehicle to get you from A to B. The journey is as much a part of the experience as the destination, starting with a shoot-out show on a Wild West set next to the tracks. The 15-minute skit had kids and adults alike chuckling and we were all in an jovial mood when the gleaming silver Williams Flyer pulled up, ready for boarding.
The train itself offers a mix of carriages from the 1920s through to the 1950s, each restored to its original style, with six classes of travel to choose from, depending on your preference and budget. Children are welcomed in all but the two luxury classes.
We opted Coconino, an observation dome car built in 1954, which afforded spectacular views thanks to our raised seating within a glass ceiling. Included in the package was a seated drinks service from our rather droll carriage conductor Mark (“Today’s special cocktail is a Woo Woo – the louder you woo, the more vodka I put in”), plus a free buffet breakfast and afternoon snacks of cheese, crackers, crudités and dips.
The journey is done at a leisurely pace, to allow passengers to take in the landscape as it transitions from the Ponderosa pines around Williams to prairie plains and then the Pinyon forest of the Grand Canyon National Park. If you’re lucky, you may spot some of the locals – elk, pronghorn (an antelope-like creature), bald eagles, condors and mountain lions all live in these areas, although we only managed to see a few cows!
There’s plenty of onboard entertainment too, including a visit from the sheriff, who teased the children and warned us in all seriousness not to fall in the canyon, and a folk singer who got the whole carriage crooning along to Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, John Denver and other American classics.
With so much to keep our family occupied, the two hours and 15 minute trip to the end of the line whizzed by and we were excitedly disembarking just a short stroll from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Walking up to the edge for the first time, it’s fair to say we were all speechless by the size, scale and sheer beauty stretching out in front of us, as far as the eye could see. All the pictures we’d seen (and the dozens we took that day!) simply could not do justice to this natural wonder. When someone back in the mists of time named this place “Grand”, they did it with a heavy dose of understatement.
After catching our breaths, we set off to explore the world famous gorge further. Although you only have three-and-a-half hours between arrival and departure, the station is perfectly placed to take a walk along the Trail of Time, which explains the geological history of the canyon, buy Native American crafts and check out the visitors centres. It was the ideal amount of time for our attention spans but anyone wanting longer can book an overnight stay with return train the next afternoon.
The paths are all pushchair friendly and easy for children to navigate but be aware that there are no barriers, so it’s essential to keep your eyes on them at all times. Thankfully there are free shuttle buses should little legs get tired. Other things to bear in mind: no bottled water is sold within the national park to prevent pollution – be sure to take a refillable bottle and use one of the many water points. The high altitude means staying hydrated and slathered in sunscreen is vital.
All too soon, it was time to hop back on board for a leisurely return journey complete with a glass of fizz, some fine fiddle playing and a short stop to watch a trackside shoot out, complete with horses and a chase through the carriages. We arrived back in Williams in time for dinner and a slice of cherry pie at Pine Country. Perfect!
For rates and more information, visit http://www.thetrain.com/
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