Perhaps you harbor a desire to gain an up-close view of the Grand Canyon, but are concerned about driving your RV on the park’s narrow and often crowded roads. With 4.4 million visitors last year, Grand Canyon National Park is one of our country’s most popular destinations, and traffic and parking can be a major headache at the busy South Rim, especially for drivers of large RVs. While the South Rim has an RV park (Trailer Village, $28 per night), if you don’t want the stress of driving to the Grand Canyon, you can get there by rail, and the experience doesn’t have to cost a lot, especially considering the fuel savings from not driving a big rig to the rim.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the concessionaire that operates lodging and dining establishments at the South Rim, also runs the Grand Canyon Railway and an RV park and hotel near the railway station in Williams, Arizona. RVers can purchase packages that include a stay in the RV park, roundtrip train transportation to Grand Canyon, and, if desired, an overnight stay in one of the park’s Grand Canyon hotels. Prices vary depending on season, hotel choice, and class of train service.
Grand Canyon National Park
The two of us have visited the Grand Canyon over a dozen times, yet every trip brings a renewed feeling of awe when we walk to the rim. The Grand Canyon is simply the most spectacular vista in all of America, and, perhaps, the world. The immense size, changing colors, creeping shadows, and obvious excitement of visitors interact for an experience that is like no other. If you have already been there, you know what we mean. If you haven’t, be prepared for an awesome sight.
The Colorado River divides Grand Canyon and its 1.2-million-acre national park into two separate, but vastly different sections—the North Rim and the South Rim. Although about 10 air miles separate the developed areas of the North and South rims, the distance by road is 220 miles. The less-developed North Rim has elevations of 7,800 to 8,800 feet that produce a cool and wet climate compared to the South Rim that is a thousand feet lower. The North Rim is closed by heavy snowfall from mid-November to mid-May, while dining and lodging facilities close by mid- to late-October.
The more developed South Rim is open year-round. Six lodging facilities provide overnight accommodations that include the elegant El Tovar on the canyon rim, historic cabins at Bright Angel Lodge, and one- and two-story motel-type buildings at three locations. Eating establishments range from the El Tovar’s exquisite dining room to inexpensive cafeterias. Although the main activity for many visitors is gazing into the vastness of the canyon from a paved trail along the rim, the National Park Service offers guided hikes and other programs while a concessionaire offers day-long and overnight mule rides into the canyon.
A free shuttle system provides transportation that makes it easy to explore the South Rim without having access to your own vehicle. The shuttle stops at points along the Rim including all of the lodging and eating facilities, various overlooks and the train station. Passengers may find a particularly inviting location, get off for a visit, and then hop on the next shuttle. The free shuttle is yet another incentive to take the train to the South Rim; there is really no need for your vehicle when you arrive.
A train first brought passengers and freight to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in September of 1901 and operated until declining traffic forced its closure in 1968. An industrious couple purchased the railway in 1989 and reintroduced passenger service after building new bridges and restoring 65 miles of track.
Today Grand Canyon Railway operates one or two trains per day (except December 24 and 25), depending on demand. The train departs from the historic Williams Depot that adjoins what was once the Fray Marcos Hotel, a Harvey House that opened in 1908 with 22 guest rooms and is currently used as office space. At the opposite end of the line, the log and wood-frame Grand Canyon Depot at the South Rim was constructed in 1909-10 and is a national historic landmark.
The trains have 1950s diesel locomotives and several types of vintage passenger cars. The steam engine that was once used by the railroad, but is now retired, is on display near the station. Four classes of service are offered. The least expensive, Coach Class, includes seating in 80- and 90-seat coaches that comprise the majority of cars on each train. Passengers in First Class ride in cars offering more comfortable seating and additional space. Deluxe Observation Class provides seating in the second story of the famous dome cars. These cars offer by far the best views during the 65-mile trip. The top class is Luxury Parlor Class in deluxe parlor cars that have an open-air observation platform at the rear of the train. This latter class is fun if you are with a group and want to enjoy conversation during the trip. Choose the observation car if you are more interested in the scenery. All passengers except those in coach enjoy complimentary pastries, coffee and tea, plus champagne on the return trip to Williams. Cocktails and beer are available for purchase.
Trains depart Williams each morning and arrive at the Grand Canyon in two hours and 15 minutes. Passengers have three and a quarter hours before the return trip. A special Polar Express operates during evenings at 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. from early November to early January, taking passengers to a mystical North Pole and Santa Claus.
Staying in Williams
The Williams area has several RV parks, including the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, which is within easy walking distance of the train depot. Guests have access to the indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. A complimentary shuttle to the train depot is offered for guests of the RV park who prefer not to walk. The RV park is two blocks from the town’s main street with shops and additional eating establishments. In keeping with the Route 66 theme in Williams, a popular stop is 1950s-era Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe and adjacent Grand Canyon Brewery.
Details on lodging and train fares can be found at www.thetrain.com or by calling (800) THE-TRAIN.
Additional information about America’s national parks with links to camping, lodging and fees is available at www.valdosta.edu/~dlscott/national_parks/parks.html.
David and Kay Scott are authors of The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot Press). They live in Valdosta, Georgia.