Williams, Arizona city guide: What to do in the gateway to the Grand Canyon

Howdy, partner: Williams has plenty of Wild West history  (Getty Images)
Howdy, partner: Williams has plenty of Wild West history (Getty Images)

Williams has a lot to thank the railroad for. Its resurgence from ghost town to the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” harks back to the 1989 re-opening of the Grand Canyon Railway. This thriving heritage railroad, which first opened in 1901 and then closed to passengers in 1968 due to the emergence of the motor vehicle, has been continually transporting tourists to and from the South Rim ever since its second coming.

Despite its locomotive anchor, Williams remains a hub for automotive enthusiasts as a certain highway runs through its heart: Route 66. Drive through on a warm summer’s evening where al fresco dining is backed by live music and that tangy smell of smoked brisket fills the air, while the city’s iconic neon signs are at their most luminous. The youngest of your party may already recognise Williams, as this place even inspired the town of Radiator Springs from the animated movie Cars. Buckle up.

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Take the Grand Canyon Railway

You’ll do well to leave the car in town in favour of a more sustainable, slow roll north towards the Grand Canyon. Not before the 9am Wild West show though: a slapstick sketch beside the railway tracks featuring comical cowboys and their silly quips. On the immersive 130-mile round trip you’ll follow in the footsteps of early Grand Canyon explorers and traverse the lush countryside, where antelope and prairie dogs roam freely, as musicians serenade carriages and Wild West town marshals meet and greet passengers en route. You’ll have around three hours to explore the famous Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim before heading back to your streamliner-style coach for the return leg, where conniving cowboys later stop the train in search of gold. Hide your dollar bills. thetrain.com

The Grand Canyon Railway has been added to the US National Register of Historic Places (Getty Images)
The Grand Canyon Railway has been added to the US National Register of Historic Places (Getty Images)

Spot bears and wolves from your car

Arizona’s vast wildlife spans black bears and bison to bighorn sheep and bobcats – but you’re unlikely to spot them in the wilderness. At Bearizona, a drive-thru wildlife park and zoo, you’re guaranteed to see all of the above and more. Those curious bears can be seen peering through car windows and splashing about in rock pools. Most animals at Bearizona are North American natives – no elephants here – and more than 50 per cent are rescues deemed unable to survive in the wild, so you’ll be directly supporting conservation efforts.

Visit Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum

It’s all about America’s most famous highway at this museum and gift shop (Getty Images)
It’s all about America’s most famous highway at this museum and gift shop (Getty Images)

Housed in a retro gas station, this museum celebrating US automotive history is a real nostalgia treasure trove. Old signs, trinkets and tins adorn the walls and shelves of this tiny emporium that also doubles up as a gift shop. Original gas pumps and vintage cars sit proudly outside.

Hike to Keyhole Sink

If all that driving has you yearning for a leg-stretcher, this brisk 30-minute there-and-back hike is worth stopping for. Keyhole Sink is a pretty box canyon with a seasonal waterfall, where its prehistoric residents, the Cohohina people, would conduct religious ceremonies. It’s thought that hunters would corner prey in the natural canyon; petroglyphs inscribed in the basalt rock date back some 1,000 years, depicting their traditions as well as the animals they hunted.

Cruise down Route 66 in a vintage car

Another cool pitstop is the Cars of the Mother Road, an Aladdin’s cave of a gift shop and vintage car hub. Many of its motors – some dating back to the 1920s – are available for guided tours of the Mother Road itself, while real life-size vehicles modelled on the animated movie Cars are usually here, too.


Pine Country Restaurant

Pine Country’s prime corner location opposite the railway depot makes it one of Williams’ most popular restaurants. Known for its pies, Pine Country offers more than 30 specialities – such as key lime and cherry cream – and its hearty breakfasts are sure to fuel a day’s exploring.

Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe

Expect smoked brisket sandwiches, juicy BBQ ribs and baskets of sticky chicken wings at this roadside Route 66-themed diner, known for its on-site smokehouse and retro vibes. The decor stays in line with that nostalgic southwestern American theme of original gas pumps and road signs, and is absolutely best enjoyed on a pleasant evening with live music on the outdoor patio.

Cruiser’s is a popular spot in Williams (Getty Images)
Cruiser’s is a popular spot in Williams (Getty Images)

Grand Canyon Brewing Company

You’ll find these beers all over Williams, but it’s worth visiting this mountain lodge-inspired brewpub for the bites. It hones right in on the brewing theme with Bavarian pretzels, charcuterie boards and epic pizzas plonked on almost every table at any given moment. Throw in fried pickles and shrimp tacos, plus a crisp prickly pear IPA brewed on-site, and you’re onto a winner.


The World Famous Sultana Bar

If you like your drinks with a slice of history, this is the place. Sultana, which rightly dubs itself as world-famous, predates Route 66 itself as a watering hole by two years, and as such is backed by tales of ranching and prohibition. While there’s a secret tunnel underneath, which desperados would once scuttle their illicit wares along, today this dive bar is more of a laid-back affair, where the locals drink beer, play pool and watch live sports.

Sultana, which has branded itself as ‘world famous’ (Richard Franks)
Sultana, which has branded itself as ‘world famous’ (Richard Franks)

Historic Brewing Company

Excellent local beer and wines are guaranteed at this industrial-style barrel house, set across a fun indoor space with arcade games, a shady outside patio, and a sun kissed rooftop. A good selection of craft ales rotates regularly; get in early as it gets busy. Make sure you try the Recession IPA.

The Long Horn Saloon

Saloons are synonymous with the Wild West – this dollar bill-strewn bar is another hit with the locals, so you’ll want to pull up a barstool. After sticking your dollar note on the wall, spend a little time exploring the Wild West Junction grounds it’s a part of.


Thunder Eagle Native Art

Operating in Williams since 1999, Thunder Eagle is one of Arizona’s largest certified all-Native art stockists and jewellers. The store acts as a gallery for indigenous art as much as a jewellery store, and is certainly the best spot to pick up an authentic Native memento along Route 66.

Colors of the West & Copper Canyon Trading Co

Set over some 12,000sq ft, you’ll find everything from the usual fridge magnets and Christmas decorations up to the more unique items like local artwork and Navajo sculptures. At Copper Canyon Trading Co, the sister store across the street, you’ll find even more curious wares, like cowhide rugs and longhorn steer horns.


The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel

Staying at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel makes visits to the Canyon a doddle – train tickets can be added to bookings and collected at check-in - but it’s the nods to the luxurious, bygone era of railway travel that make overnighting here more than worth it. Modelled on the original train depot and celebrating the town’s Santa Fe Railway heritage, this 298-room complex provides a comfortable night’s rest overlooking the tracks, and also features an indoor pool and hot tub. Food and drink options at Spenser’s Pub and the Fred Harvey buffet restaurant complete this unique offering, with a vintage model train circling the latter’s dining room. thetrain.com

Getting there

American Airlines operates daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, from where it’s around a two-and-a-half hour drive to Williams.

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