Amtrak Train Travel to the Grand Canyon 2012
A Grand Canyon Train Tripby Christopher Shaw Jones for The Tale of the Trail
In November of 2012, my mom and I decided to take a trip to the Grand Canyon. You’re probably thinking that we drove there, but we didn’t. Instead, we traveled the way that our grandparents did: on board a train. From Fullerton, California to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and back we traveled by way of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and the historic Grand Canyon Railway. And we didn’t even spend money on a hotel, making it all happen in a 36 hour turn-around.
Starting in Fullerton, California on Friday, November 9th, we first collected our tickets at the Amtrak station, which we had purchased online at www.amtrak.com. We then made our way over to the Old Spaghetti Factory, located adjacent to the Fullerton train station, for a farewell dinner. The Old Spaghetti Factory is housed in the old Union Pacific station building, and is filled with historic architecture and photos of a bygone era. The restaurant serves up classic Italian dishes, our favorite being the appetizer of broccoli with their homemade mizithra cheese.
After dinner we waited on the platform for the eastbound Southwest Chief, which arrived only a few minutes behind its 7:20 pm arrival time. Once onboard and out of Fullerton, the train sped along through the night, making its scheduled stops at Riverside and San Bernardino before starting its ascent over Cajon Pass. Although we had to stop multiple times to let freight trains pass, we eventually made it over the mountains and out into the Mojave Desert. From Victorville on it was smooth sailing all the way to Williams Junction, Arizona: our stop. After crossing the mountains my mom and I got some sleep so that we would be ready for our long day tomorrow.
The Fullerton Train Station.
Arriving at 5:30 am in what was basically the middle of nowhere, the train let us off at the Williams Junction stop. We were the only two getting off here, so it was a little unnerving. Thankfully the shuttle bus to take us into Williams, three miles to the west, was already there waiting for us, and we quickly got on. The other crew member on the bus then got out and flipped the switch turning off the big searchlight that lit the platform, and in an instant everything was thrown into pitch blackness. The bus ride into town was alright, made better by the conversation we had with the bus driver and the other crew member. The bus dropped us off at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, where we quickly went inside. After making ourselves comfortable, I went outside to take pictures of all of the Christmas decorations around the hotel and Williams depot.
During the time of our visit, the Grand Canyon Railway was operating its Polar Express train, which meant that the entire town was dressed up for Christmas, with lights and songs playing. And if that wasn’t enough, there was actual snow on the ground! Remember that this was early November, yet it felt like it was a week before Christmas. My mom joined me outside, and we walked around the Williams train depot, watching the sun beginning to peek over the nearby mountains. It continued to rise until the darkness faded away into full daylight. We then made our way over to the Grand Depot Café for breakfast. It was a buffet style restaurant, and the food was delicious. During our breakfast a BNSF freight train zoomed by the depot, and I was quick enough to get some pictures. After eating we walked over to the depot and got our tickets, which we too had bought online at www.thetrain.com, before heading back to the hotel to get our stuff.
At 9:00 am the Grand Canyon Railway puts on a comic Wild West Show near the depot that passengers get to enjoy while the train is backed into the station. After the show passengers board the train for the 2 hour and 15 minute ride to the South Rim, departing at 9:30am. On the way there our car host along with cowboy singers kept us entertained on the long ride to the canyon through typical desert scenery. Arriving at the canyon at 11:45am, it’s only a short walk to the rim. The railroad gives passengers a 3 hour and 45 minute layover, so you have plenty of time to get lunch and explore the Grand Canyon Village. We checked out the visitor’s center, the El Tovar Hotel, the Hopi House, the Bright Angel Lodge, the Lookout Studio, and the Kolb Studio. The visitor’s center has lots of information about the canyon as well as the history of it and the railroad. The El Tovar was constructed in 1905 as the canyon’s first hotel, and still functions as one today, along with the Bright Angel and the Maswik. The Bright Angel Lodge is home to a display room of the Harvey Houses, and showcases pieces and pictures of them along with Fred Harvey himself and the famous Harvey Girls. The Hopi House sells authentic Hopi artworks and collectables. The Lookout Studio was a photography studio and offers stunning views of the canyon, while the Kolb Studio has an amazing display room of paintings of the Grand Canyon. Our final stop was a walk along the Rim Trail, which is lined with pieces of rock from the different geological layers of the canyon wall, each signified on the path with a marker of how many millions of years you’ve gone back in time. We ate lunch at an inexpensive snack bar at the Bright Angel and bought some souvenirs from several different places in the village.
The Hopi House is more than a gift shop. It's a history lesson with an opportunity to buy Indian artifacts and souvenirs.
Bright Angel Lodge offers a museum with displays and valuable pieces from the early 1900s.
Before we knew it our layover was up and we made our way back to the train with our souvenirs and too many pictures to count! The train ride back was relaxing until we were “robbed” by bandits who boarded our train and gave everyone a good scare and a great laugh! (The bandits are actors for the railroad who use the money people give them as donations for different projects for the railroad). The rest of the way back was filled with the entertainment of our car host and more cowboy singers. Upon arriving back in Williams, we walked over to the main street where we ate dinner at The Red Raven, a nice not-too-fancy restaurant with great food and wonderful service. It was a perfect end to the evening. After dinner we walked along historic Route 66, snow coming down, and stopped in to a local store to buy even more souvenirs. It felt like we were in Park City, Utah during Christmas! We then walked back to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel to relax, but I had to make one last purchase at the Grand Canyon Railway gift shop to round out my newly acquired shirt collection: one Grand Canyon, one Route 66, and one Grand Canyon Railway.
At 10:00 pm we and several others got on the shuttle to head back to Williams Junction, where at 10:30 pm the westbound Southwest Chief came in to take us back to Fullerton. The train ride back, however, was not as pleasant as the train ride there, and here’s what we believe why that was. On the way there, it was a fresh train that was just starting its journey from LA, but on the way back, it’s a beaten-up train that’s been travelling from Chicago for over 2 days, which meant that everyone on board including the crew was tired and the passengers were all asleep. We did however manage, and soon joined everyone else in sleeping the night away. My mom woke me up at around 5:30 am the next morning in San Bernardino to watch out the window as we clicked off our final miles back into Fullerton. With the sun in the sky, the view out the window gave me a whole new perspective on the areas that I’ve passed multiple times before in a car, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Arriving back in Fullerton at around 7am on Sunday, November 11th, we couldn’t believe that our train trip was already over. This had been an amazing experience, and one that we highly recommend everyone should do at least once.
The train brought visitors to the canyon beginning in 1901. Tourism was born!
Emory Kolb and his brother were early photographers of the canyon and understood the importance of tourism and preservation. Their property is now an art studio and lookout point.
The lessons to learn from geology are very important and the Grand Canyon has done a good job of teaching the science and history of the trail of time.
We found Mr. Conductor at the Fullerton Train Station at the end of our journey. He was set to retire after 30 years with the railroad.