Arizona Rocks: The Grand Canyon by Air and Rail

The Grand Canyon is one of America’s favorite family destinations. Photos by Shady Hartshorne
The Grand Canyon is one of America’s favorite family destinations. Photos by Shady Hartshorne

By Shady Hartshorne

Arizona conjures up images of giant saguaros and wide open desert spaces, Phoenix, Flagstaff and maybe even Route 66. But if you’re like most people, the first thing you’ll think of when you think of Arizona is the Grand Canyon.

If you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, you owe it to yourself to plan an Arizona trip to take in the majesty of one of the world’s seven natural wonders. Stretching 277 miles from east to west and 18 miles at its widest point, the Grand Canyon dazzles around five million people each year.

There are many ways to see the Grand Canyon. Xanterra, the company that manages the facilities for the National Park Service, offers rooms in seven lodges on the South Rim.

An ECO-Star helicopter
An ECO-Star helicopter

Free shuttle buses take you to various viewing spots or you can walk along the Rim Trail on your own. If you go with a full-service travel company like Detours, they will handle all the arrangements for you.

The Grand Canyon by Helicopter

I recently had an opportunity to view the Grand Canyon from the air in a Maverick Helicopter tour. Flight plans for these tours are very strictly regulated to keep the noise of the helicopters from spoiling the experience of the folks along the rims, but you can still enjoy a breathtaking view that you could never experience from the ground.

The Colorado River as seen from the helicopter
The Colorado River as seen from the helicopter

They take off from the platform and head east above the ponderosa pine forest. Once clear of the No-Fly zone, the pilot turns North to enter the canyon.Maverick uses ECO-Star helicopters, the state of the art in comfort and viewing ability. These models are specifically designed for the tourist trade and you’ll be amazed at the smoothness of the ride and the panoramic views.

Our Pilot, Ron Suess, warned that crossing over the rim of the Grand Canyon at 100 miles an hour would be a bit of a “tummy tickler” but that did not begin to describe it.

The flat plain of ponderosa pines suddenly slides away like a curtain to reveal a mile of empty space between you and the rocky bottom of the canyon. If you’ve ever seen Wile E. Coyote run off the edge of a cliff, you know what I’m talking about.

From there, the tour continues over the bright green Colorado River and the turquoise Little Colorado before turning west to zoom through side canyons and over colossal rock formations with names like Buddha Temple and the Dragon. The ability to see these formations up close and view the canyon from above is a thrill you’ll never forget.

Maverick offers tours of 30-35 or 40-50 minutes, and when you’re done you can buy a DVD of your flight recorded by the on-board camera to relive the experience over and over again.

The Grand Canyon Railway

If you are looking for a novel way to get to the Grand Canyon and your pocketbook doesn’t allow for helicopter travel, you can hitch a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona, The Gateway to the Grand Canyon®

The observation car on the Grand Canyon Railway
The observation car on the Grand Canyon Railway

The original train to the Grand Canyon was started in 1901 by William Owen “Bucky” O’Neil, one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. It carried many notable passengers to the South Rim including Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and William Howard Taft.

With the advent of interstate highways and America’s love affair with the automobile, the railway faltered and made its last ride in 1968.

It was eventually reborn due to the efforts of Max and Thelma Biegert. They began running trains to the Grand Canyon in 1989 and opened the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams in 1995.

Williams is proud of its old west heritage and every morning, the Cataract Gang reenacts a shootout in a small amphitheater near the station. Marshall John Goodmore battles the gang in an old west showdown.

You can get your picture taken with a real outlaw.
You can get your picture taken with a real outlaw.

“All Aboard!”

When the smoke clears, the Marshall and the newly revived gang members pose for pictures with audience members until the conductor announces “All Aboard!” The Cataract Gang makes no effort to hide the fact that they intend to rob the train at the first opportunity.

The Grand Canyon Railway has five classes of travel: Budd Coach, Pullman Coach (in which the bench seats can be flipped to face each other), First Class, Observation Dome and Luxury cars.

The Luxury and First Class cars have a full bar and access to the open-air platform at the rear of the train, so you can feel the sun and the breeze as the train chugs through the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines.

A fiddler performs on the GraWandering minstrels entertain the passengers. Don’t forget to tip!
Wandering minstrels entertain the passengers. Don’t forget to tip!

All cars have entertainers and musicians passing through and kids will love the “train robbery” that happens on the return trip.

The trains leave around 9:00 am and return around 3:30 in the afternoon to allow plenty of time for sightseeing.

The Grand Canyon Railway also reserves a small number of rooms at the South Rim if guests want to spend the night. For those who don’t want to fight traffic, the train offers a spectacular Grand Canyon experience that’s car-free.

For RVers, the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park has 124 extra-wide spaces, free wireless internet and all the amenities you would expect from a premier RV park.

The bar car on the GraGo Ahead. Have a drink. You’re on vacation and you’ll never see any of these people again.
Go Ahead. Have a drink. You’re on vacation and you’ll never see any of these people again.

The Grand Canyon Railway offers some specialty trips like the Sunset Limited, an adult-only excursion featuring gourmet food, jazz music, a sunset tour of the Grand Canyon and a moonlit return ride under the stars.

The Polar Express™ that runs from Thanksgiving to January takes children of all ages to the “North Pole” for a reading of the classic story by Chris Van Allsburg. Kids get a visit from Santa and a special gift to take home with them. These excursions fill up quickly, especially on weekends, so check availability before you go.

Cruise the Loop® on Route 66

Williams is located on the old Route 66 and was the last town to be bypassed by Interstate 40, so they are proud of their Route 66 roots. The two-lane highway splits in half and runs on either side of Williams’ restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.

You can Cruise the Loop® and have a burger and a soda at Cruisers Café 66 or Twister’s Soda Fountain. I had breakfast and lunch at the Pine Country Restaurant and the food there is great.

The bordello room at the Wild West Junction
The bordello room at the Wild West Junction

During the summer, Williams is hopping with Antique Car shows, motorcycle rallies, rodeos and wild west shows.

There are loads of shops with souvenirs and Indian crafts and the Wild West Junction features a museum housing an impressive collection of John Wayne memorabilia including many of the Duke’s guns, hats and other personal items.

Guided tours of the museum also point out the large collections of old west artifacts and tell the “real” story of the American west.

If you want to stay at the Wild West Junction, proprietors Mike Ducharme and Jay Redfeather have fixed up some rooms with old western themes.The Movie Room features authentic props from Hollywood westerns or, if you’re feeling frisky, you can stay in the Bordello Room.

Williams has more than 28 hotels and motels so you can find something for every taste.

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