There can be no mystery why it is called the Grand Canyon. Nothing else simply will do for this breathtaking rift carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, a geographic and geological wonder spanning nearly 280 miles of northern Arizona with depths of 5,000 feet from its majestic south rim to the valley floor below.
Time may not stand still, but it certainly seems to slow to a crawl as you peer over the edge, watching a sunrise gently unveil layers of limestone, sandstone, shale and other rock formations etched by rain, wind and time. As the day brightens, so does the clarity of color, with nature’s craggy canvas deepening from deep grays to tans, golds and oranges, playing off the pine greenery and the meandering Colorado River itself, where silvery whitecaps of green rapids morph into gentler ribbons of blue.
It is a destination worth the journey, but for my wife, Barbara and me, our two dogs, a 23-foot travel trailer and our 2000 Dodge Ram pickup truck, the journey to the Grand Canyon was an adventure. In mid-May, we set out from Salt Lake City on a two-day trip. It was already warm as we drove 300 miles south on Interstate 15 into southern Utah’s red rock deserts, staying that night at the Temple View RV Resort in St. George.
Early the next morning it was back on I-15 for the remaining 340 miles to the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams, Arizona. Our route took us through the arid northwestern corner of Arizona and into northeastern Nevada’s high deserts via Interstate 15 and U.S. 93 and then back into northern Arizona, with small towns like Paradise, Searchlight, Kingman and Bullhead City the only breaks to the long, lonely yet starkly beautiful vistas.
Williams, population 3,000, has a couple of claims to fame: It was the last town to have its section of the historic Route 66 bypassed in 1984 when the new, multi-lane Interstate 40 opened (though you can still travel a mile or two of the old, crumbling 66 just outside of town), and it is the terminus for two railroads—Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line, and the Grand Canyon Railway, which offers visitors a 130-mile round trip ride to the Grand Canyon for a day of sightseeing.
The lure of riding the rails through forests and mountain passes past antelope, deer and buffalo—in classic, restored Pullman cars pulled by a vintage locomotive—was too good to pass up. We put the dogs in the RV park’s pet resort for the day and bought $140 worth of first-class tickets.
Before the cry “All aboard!” brought us to the station, we joined our fellow travelers in watching a frontier-themed skit, complete with a shootout between ornery cowboys and the town marshal, in appropriate period costume. Once the train arrived and its steam whistle sounded, we were escorted to our assigned cars and soon were winding our way out of Williams.
Our hostess kept us supplied with food and beverages and entertained us with stories of the Old West, local folklore and the train’s history (Grand Canyon Railway goes back to 1901); cowboy musicians sang requests, accompanied by harmonicas and guitars, and on the way back, we were “robbed” by bandana-wearing, six gun-toting desperadoes—before they were run off by a tin-starred lawman, who also packed a mean looking shootin’ iron. All of the actors were happy to pose for photographs with the passengers.
Best of all, though, were the moments man and wife could relax, rocking gently with the train, listening to the wheels clickety-clacking past rangeland and into the mountains. Though the trip is two hours, 15 minutes both ways, the ride seemed to end all too quickly when the experience was so pleasant and restful.
Arriving at Grand Canyon Village, we were given time to visit the shops and, as we chose to do, take a bus tour of the prime viewing locations along the rim. In addition to the expected eye-popping canyon scenarios, we got a special treat: the sight of California condors, recently returned to the region, soaring on the canyon’s thermal columns, their nine-foot wing spans making them seem to drift with ease into wide, lazy circles overhead.
Back in and around Williams, there was much to do, too. The town has a thriving arts and crafts community and clean, reasonably priced restaurants downtown. A few minutes’ drive outside the community are numerous hiking trails and historical sites with cliff dwellings and rock carvings. Fishermen will find opportunities at Santa Fe Dam, Cataract Lake, Kaibab Lake, White Horse Lake and Dogtown Lake.
If you want a low-key, relaxed escape in your RV, Williams and the Grand Canyon are calling, “All aboard!”
Robert and Barbara Mims are RVers who live in Salt Lake City.