Cowboys and bandits: Why it’s worth travelling to the Grand Canyon by rail

The spectacular landscapes of the Grand Canyon (Getty/iStock)
The spectacular landscapes of the Grand Canyon (Getty/iStock)

Beside a dusty gravel track in what feels like the middle of nowhere, the train screeches to a halt. A herd of antelope disappears into the horizon: first chased by the thick dust cloud of their own doing, and then by three cowboys on horseback with revolvers. “I’m sorry to tell you that those cowboys have made it onto the train,” announces our conductor, as the town marshal rushes through the carriage.

Sure enough, those desperadoes would soon skulk from seat to seat, parting unsuspecting passengers from their cash along the way. “Get your hands where I can see ’em!” shouts the leader of the Cataract Creek Gang; this is an old-fashioned train robbery featuring every darn Wild West cliche imaginable – except the dynamite, obviously. Butch Cassidy would be proud.

I’m travelling on the Grand Canyon Railway, a 65-mile stretch of single-track heritage railroad that, until this point, was gently swaying its way between Williams and the Grand Canyon South Rim. The cowboys are, of course, part of the act. We all hide dollar bills in creative places – under hats, between book pages, in hair – as gratuities for the actors to find.

All aboard the Grand Canyon train (Richard Franks)
All aboard the Grand Canyon train (Richard Franks)

It’s so much of an act that I’d already seen these dastardly bandits and the town marshal before boarding the train, at the 9am-on-the-dot, 364-days-a-year slapstick show in the Williams railway depot’s faux Old West town. The show continues during the journey. The town marshal – an (actual) authentic marshal, originally from the Netherlands and with seven horses at his private ranch – teases us by saying a bobcat has been spotted a couple of miles ahead. Cue cameras for a Bobcat forklift left in a small construction site.

Williams has a lot to thank this railroad for. Having first operated in 1901 – to be followed in 1908 by the historic Fray Marcos Hotel and Williams Depot – passenger services were stopped in 1968 due to the rise in popularity of the motor vehicle. The line would later reopen for passenger service in 1989, followed by the current incarnation of the Fray Marcos Hotel: the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. By 1993, the railway was carrying 105,000 passengers each year and removing 40,000 cars from the road.

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As a knock-on effect of the railroad’s initial closure, Williams experienced major hardship in the 1970s and 1980s and was in danger of becoming a ghost town. To preserve it, in 1984 Downtown Williams was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now known as a thriving Route 66 stopover, and as the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

And over Christmas, Williams turns into something else entirely. The town’s railway boom applies year-round, but from November onwards the town is usually full of people walking around in their pyjamas and slippers – often in the snow.

The traditional train carriages date from the 1950s (Richard Franks)
The traditional train carriages date from the 1950s (Richard Franks)

During the festive season, the Grand Canyon Railway turns into the Polar Express train ride, where staff dress up as characters from the movie and the train’s final destination is its own version of the North Pole. And just like in the movie, everyone gets a hot chocolate and the children receive a sleigh bell gift.

This train is clearly big business for Williams; 10 per cent of its residents are directly employed by the railway, with other businesses benefiting from its popularity. The proof is in the pudding: some 200,000 guests ride the famous railway each year, with 50 per cent catching the train during the two-month Polar Express schedule alone.

Departing daily at 9.30am, passengers can enjoy a two-hour journey to the Grand Canyon where they then have three hours to explore the compact Historic Village before returning to Williams. I find myself in the super spacious, first-class Yavapai rail car – built by the Budd Manufacturing Company in 1950 for original use on the Southern Pacific railroad. Musicians perform hits by country-folk artists like Hank Williams and John Prine on both legs of a journey that’s not just an excuse to spend the day on a vintage train; it also encourages sustainable travel by reducing vehicle congestion.

The midday sun accentuates its vivid rock layers as tiny hikers the size of garden ants tackle the Bright Angel Trail far below

Not much will prepare you for the awe of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. I spend a few hours milling around the South Rim, where a lesser-spotted California condor soars above a few moments after my first glimpse of these billion-year-old rocks. I don’t know what I had imagined, but I didn’t expect goosebumps. The midday sun accentuates its vivid rock layers – a myriad of red, orange, yellow, even green – as tiny hikers the size of garden ants tackle the Bright Angel Trail far below.

The South Rim is peppered with restaurants, taverns, gift shops and galleries – all of which are easily accessible on foot within the three-hour time frame, which is just about enough time to explore. I head into the famous El Tovar hotel – whose lobby alone is worth a visit – for a quick beer in the cocktail lounge. I order a prickly pear IPA, served by bartending stalwart Raymond with a side of dry wit, before heading back to the station.

Williams railway depot’s faux Old West town (Richard Franks)
Williams railway depot’s faux Old West town (Richard Franks)

The train eventually rolls back into Williams, where I’m greeted by a deep blue sky and the earthy smell of hops emanating from the Grand Canyon Brewery, my next stop. The marshal is heading that way too; I should be safe there.

Travel essentials

Getting there

American Airlines operates daily flights between London Heathrow and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (return, from £440), from where it’s around a 2hr 45min drive to Williams.

Staying there

A one-night hotel and railway “Getaway Package” at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel starts at £173, based on two people sharing, and inclusive of return railway tickets between Williams and the Grand Canyon Village. Train tickets without accommodation start at £53.95 return;

Further railway-inspired accommodation can be found at the Canyon Motel and RV Park, where two authentic 1929 Santa Fe cabooses have been repurposed as double suites;

And for an authentic Wild West-themed stay, look no further than the Drovers Inn at the Wild West Junction. All seven abodes in this cosy B&B are unique and offer an authentic snapshot of historic Williams. Doubles from £96 a night;

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