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Life > Experiences

Traveling to the Grand Canyon by Train: Is It Worth It?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

My main goal for my spring break trip to Arizona was to spend time with my mom. However, finally visiting the Grand Canyon was a close second. Since I decided relatively late to spend my break in Arizona, we did not have time to plan an extended trip. We also wanted to minimize the amount of driving, as the Grand Canyon is four hours away from the Phoenix area. Considering these factors, we eventually discovered a train service that ran from Williams, AZ to the Canyon that would cut our trip down by two hours and decided to book it!

Because our train left early in the morning, my mom and I decided to make the three hour drive to Williams the day before and spend the night in a hotel. We opted not to stay in the hotel that accompanied the railway. Arriving early gave us plenty of time to explore the city of Williams. The town is situated next to Historic Route 66, and it is evident  when looking at the small town’s shopping and decor. My mom and I perused many touristy shops and ate at a ‘60s themed diner. The downtown was small and walkable. One of the perks  of train travel is that passengers see places that they may never see otherwise, which was definitely the case for Williams.

The Grand Canyon Railway is a privately-owned train service that runs one round trip a day, departing Williams at 9:30 a.m. and leaving the Canyon at 3:30 p.m. Their parent company, Xanterra Travel Collection, owns a variety of hotels with many being in or near national parks. The Railway offers multiple ticket options at different prices, with some including amenities like reclining seats and snacks. Our tickets included both of these, adding another level of comfort to the experience. We had a train attendant taking drink orders, but soft drinks and snacks were complementary and self-serve.

There are also theatrical aspects of the train. Musicians roam the cars, and there is a fictional robbery on the way back from the Canyon. As someone who is interested in public transportation on its own, the more touristy aspects were unnecessary for my enjoyment of the ride. It was interesting enough to see the sights, especially as we neared the Canyon. 

The train ride totaled two hours and 15 minutes, pulling into the Grand Canyon station at the South Rim at 11:45 am. This gave my mom and I about three and a half hours to explore the Canyon, which is the biggest disadvantage of the train; however, this issue is easily solved by staying at the Canyon overnight and taking a train back a different day. My mom and I set off right away to make the most of our short time.

Saying that I was amazed as I approached the Canyon and looked over the edge is an understatement. As my mom and I walked a mile and a half around the South Rim’s edge, I just stared down at the intricate caverns in awe. I took many pictures, but I tried to spend less time looking at the sights through a lens and more through my own eyes. My favorite moments were the ones where my mom and I went off the trail and near the edge. While often a bit terrifying, this is where I got real glimpses of the Canyon.

One thing I didn’t expect to notice as much was the experience of the Canyon bringing people together. I watched strangers take each other’s phones to snap pictures of each other. I watched two people take a nap on the edge. My mom and I, along with a group of hikers, watched three deer cross the path – an experience that brought us together. As my mom stood astounded at a group of teenagers photographing one girl standing at a cliffside, all I could wonder is if the group was previously connected or if this was their first and last time speaking. A sight as mind-boggling as the Grand Canyon is bound to build community, even in the temporary manner of  the bond between tourists.

After our walk, we stopped at the Yavapai Museum of Geology that overlooked the Canyon. We then took a shuttle to get to another area with gift shops and a cafe; the shuttle system was imperative for us making it back to our train in time. After an exhausting day, we eventually made it back to the train with 10 minutes to spare.

The ride back was naturally less exciting than the journey to the Canyon. My mom and I relaxed, exhausted from running around for four hours. The aforementioned “robbery” occurred, which was an entertaining addition. We returned to Williams around 5:45 p.m., ready for the three hour drive home ahead of us.

As a tourist experience, the train ride was exciting and new, as it was my first time on one. The snacks and the view were both very enjoyable. Our attendant and everyone on board was helpful and kind. However, it was not as practical of a transportation mode. It really did not shorten the journey by much, especially for the price. It is also not as convenient for a day trip, as the schedule forced my mom and I to rush around and possibly not take in all of the beauty we could. Additionally, the touristy nature of the train was also not my vibe. 

I feel that the Grand Canyon Railway experience is best suited for families with younger children that live closer to Williams. I would recommend arriving in the town the night before and giving yourself at least one night at the Grand Canyon if possible. That being said, I had an amazing time traveling to the Grand Canyon and am so glad I had this experience. 

Ashley Morgan is a staff writer for Her Campus at MSU. This is her first year writing for the publication. Morgan is a freshman at Michigan State University majoring in journalism; she is still deciding on a concentration. Morgan wrote for her high school's newspaper her senior year, which solidified her love for the craft. She is also involved with MSU's student-run radio station, Impact89, where she writes for the Entertainment team and is on the Music Review team. Aside from writing, Morgan enjoys going to local music shows, leisurely kayaking, playing bass, reading, playing TTRPGs, and collecting various trinkets to display in her dorm.