10 reasons why you should ride the Grand Canyon Railway

Grand View train siding

The Grand Canyon is renowned for its natural beauty, but there's man-made beauty too, as exemplified by the Grand Canyon Railway.

Built in 1901, the rail service was the first motorized transportation to and from the Grand Canyon from the nearby town of Williams, Arizona, shrinking an eight-hour stagecoach ride to just two hours by rail. Cars have since become the most popular way to get to Grand Canyon National Park, but the railway service remains a way to turn a mere drive to the canyon into an experience. Is that experience worth it? We look at the top reasons visitors should take the Grand Canyon Railway.

Grand Canyon Railway view from seat

1. Take in the diversity of the Northern Arizona landscape

The 64-mile trip from the Williams train station to the Grand Canyon passes through multiple ecosystems, and the train gives you a front-row seat to all of them. Start off among the ponderosa pines and junipers near Route 66 before transitioning to sweeping vistas of scrub prairie. As you approach the canyon, the scene transitions again to lush pinyon pine forests. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for animals, both wild and domesticated.

Sure, you can see some of the same stuff if you drive, but the view from the highway isn't as good, especially when you've got to keep your eyes on the road.

Pullman car Grand Canyon Railway

2. Travel aboard historic train cars

Visitors can travel through time just by walking through the train's historic railcars, each type from a different era. The star of the show is the original 1923 Pullman car, which features benches that flip so families can face one another and windows that open so you can cool down the same way travelers did in the old days.

Other options include 1950s streamliner cars, retired Amtrak cars, and the more modern First, Luxury Observation Dome, and Luxury Parlor classes.

Banjo player Grand Canyon Railway

3. Enjoy Old West performances

A trip through the history of the West wouldn't be complete without music, and travelers can enjoy performances on outbound and return trips. Hear the stylings of a singing cowboy on guitar, then switch things up with the twang of a banjo. In between, each car has its own attendant to point out the sights and share facts and history during your journey.

On the way back, be on the lookout for outlaws. Train robberies aren't as common today as in the Old West, but be prepared for some uninvited guests just in case.

Directions street sign Grand Canyon Railway

4. Skip the headaches of traffic and parking

One of the biggest perks of taking the train is not having to worry about traffic and parking. By car, Grand Canyon National Park is only accessible by State Route 64; the entrance is about an hour's drive from Williams without traffic. SR 64 is a two-lane highway with few passing lanes, however, so the trip can be substantially longer even in mild traffic. There can also be a long line of cars at the entrance waiting to purchase entrance passes. Once inside, parking can be scarce during busier parts of the year. Train travelers don't have to deal with any of that—Grand Canyon Railway's tickets and packages already include the National Park Service admission fee.

Tour Buses Grand Canyon Railway

5. Make the most of your time during a day trip ...

If you've only got a day to see the Grand Canyon, the train integrates with two of the best ways to cover lots of ground quickly: the Freedom and Grand motorcoach tours. These tours are only available to train passengers and offer visitors the best sights without having to spend lots of time walking or shuttling the long distances in between. There are two options: The Freedom Tour is an hour and a half long, whereas the two-and-a-half-hour Grand Tour includes an hourlong buffet lunch. Both board at the train depot at the Grand Canyon and allow time for free exploration.

South rim Grand Canyon sunset

6. ... or stay the night to get a fuller Grand Canyon experience

Want to spend a night or two at the canyon? Pick a 3- or 4-night Grand Canyon Railway package, which adds a stay at the South Rim's Maswik Lodge just a few minutes' walk from the canyon's edge. Staying the night means you'll see the sun set over the canyon and rise the next morning, an unmatched National Park experience.

It also leaves more time for self-directed exploration. Learn how the Grand Canyon formed at the Geology Museum, trek out to Hermits Rest for a front-row seat of the sunset, and shop for Native American crafts at the Hopi House. Don't worry about schlepping your luggage between hotels: The railway takes care of it, door-to-door.

Caboose view Grand Canyon Railway

7. Upgrade to Gilded Age luxury and an exclusive outdoor view

The Grand Canyon Railway's First Class cars are plenty comfy, but for the ultimate train experience, ride the Luxury Parlor car. Plush sofa and booth seating awaits, along with fruit, pastries, coffee, and juice on the outbound trip. On the way back, enjoy complimentary snacks and a sparkling wine toast. Purchase your favorite libations at the private onboard bar.

Unique to the Luxury Parlor car is an outdoor viewing platform that looks back from the end of the train. Travelers can feel the fresh air blowing by, watch the scenery fly past, and hear the train passing over the tracks. For an extra-cool view, hang on the platform until the train turns, then look back along its length to see the whole train in profile. 

Looking for more great outdoor views from trains? Read about 8 of the best scenic train routes to ride in the U.S.

Spensers Pub Grand Canyon Railway

8. Accommodations aplenty at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams is a AAA Three Diamond establishment right next to the Grand Canyon Railway depot. Each of the recently remodeled rooms has a coffee maker, mini refrigerator, and free Wi-Fi. There's also an RV park and the Pet Resort, which boards cats and dogs for a daily fee (even for patrons not staying at the hotel). There are two dining options on-site. The Fred Harvey Restaurant offers breakfast and dinner buffets, with a carving station and pasta bar in the evening. Spenser's Pub opens for lighter fare and beverages every evening and features an oak bar from England that was hand-carved in 1887.

Route 66 Store Grand Canyon Railway

9. Walk and shop along historic Route 66 in Williams

The small town of Williams bills itself as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon and was the last town on Historic Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40. The town center is just a few minutes' walk from the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, so pop on over to shop for '50s- and '60s-themed souvenirs, watch travelers drive by on their Route 66 road trips, and take your pick of the local dining scene—many of the restaurants in Williams are AAA Diamond-designated. Plan your evening early, as most establishments in Williams close at 9 or 10 p.m.

Santa meeting with a kid on the Grand Canyon Railway's Polar Express

10. Take the Polar Express to meet Santa

During the holiday season, the railway also adds trips to a different destination: Santa's Village. The 90-minute round trip visits the "North Pole" on select nights in November, December, and January, with hot chocolate, cookies, and storytelling from Santa Claus himself. Space is limited, so booking early is recommended.

Reservations are available for the train journey alone, but there's also an opportunity to bundle and save with a Polar Express package that includes the train ride, an overnight stay at the Railway Hotel, and dinner and breakfast.

Learn more and book your Polar Express ride or package

AAA members experience the train for less and enjoy exclusive upgrades

Save 15% on train tickets, Grand Canyon Railway hotel stays, and Grand Canyon Railway RV Park stays. Plus, AAA members who book any package with 2 or more nights get:

  • Complimentary room upgrade from standard to deluxe1 at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
  • Late check-out (noon)1 at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
  • 10% off a single retail purchase2
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