A Tale of two train tours – Arizona

In addition to airplanes and cars, Steve also loves trains and riding on them.  And I have no complaints about them either!  During one of our travel planning sessions he noticed that our route would take us near two popular train excursions; one on the Verde Canyon Railway near Cottonwood, AZ and the other on the Grand Canyon Railway.  One was all about the journey, while the other had an unforgettable destination.

Verde Canyon Railroad – it’s all about the journey!

First we hopped aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale,  just a few miles from our campsite at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Steve wanted to travel in style so he booked First Class passage (no kids allowed!).  The ride is a four hour, 40-mile round trip on a heritage railroad running between Clarkdale and Perkinsville, into Arizona’s most scenic wilderness of Verde Canyon.

The moment we stepped into the vintage car we felt transported back to a time of luxurious and leisurely train travel, especially when champagne was served upon boarding.  That was a sign of great things to come as we sat back to relax and enjoy the ride.

It was a narrated trip, which made it interesting to learn about the history of the railroad that was built in the late 1880’s to supplement mining in the Mingus Mountains.  Mining has since ceased there, but the railroad endured and has become a wonderful excursion into the wilderness.

Engine 1510, Verde Canyon Railroad

Built in 1953, engines 1510 and 1512 are the muscle of the Verde Canyon Railroad

Under new ownership, today’s train is transporting us modern tourists into the isolated, rugged backcountry that originally challenged early pioneers.  We marveled at the pristine scenery only accessible through this tour.

Here are the highlights of this unforgettable experience:

Sinagua Cliff Dwellings

With Verde Valley being an aboriginal melting pot, it was not surprising to spot Sinagua cliff dwellings

Verde River

The railroad twists and turns along the Verde River

A narrator was available on the outdoor viewing platform to point out various formations and facts

A Bald Eagle makes its home here

We passed through a curved 680′ long man-made tunnel – everyone yelled in there!

The scenery was amazing as we passed through “Little Grand Canyon”

Perkinsville, where scenes from “How the West Was Won” were filmed in 1960, was the end of the line.  Then the engines moved to the other end of the train and back we went!

Just as we began our return trip the clouds gave way to the afternoon sun

Despite the mostly overcast sky we enjoyed the trip immensely and thought a summer or fall trip would offer another perspective.  This journey through remote and protected areas gave us a glimpse of what life might have been like during the railroad’s heyday, and it was a wonderful foray into the wilderness.

Grand Canyon Railway- this one’s about the destination!

We purposely went 40 miles out of our way to camp in Williams, Arizona just so we could ride the Grand Canyon Railway, one of Steve’s long-time bucket list items.

Again, we booked first-class dome car seats – hey, we’re only going to do this once!

A happy passenger with a big smile

In 1901 the first locomotive took passengers from Williams to the Grand Canyon, thanks to William Owen “Buckey” O’ Neill.  It’s heyday lasted until the advent of cars, and by 1968 train travel here died and the town of Williams struggled.

It wasn’t until 1989 when Max, a crop duster pilot, and his wife Thelma revived the railway system.  Their vision paid off, and here we were en route to the Grand Canyon aboard a fully restored vintage passenger car.  They say the west was won not by cowboys or cavalry but by the iron horse, and the people with visions of grandeur made it happen.

The train departed from the Williams Depot for a two-hour journey that covered 65 miles across high desert with endless vistas:

San Francisco Peak taken through our window, hence a bit blurred

We rode in a full-length dome car called the Mary Colter

Enjoying our drinks in the lower-level lounge

We had 3.5 hours to check out our destination, the Grand Canyon.  Not nearly enough time for a complete exploration, but fortunately this was our second visit.  There’s plenty to see and do at Grand Canyon National Park, and this time we walked the Trail of Time which was new to us since our last visit more than a decade ago.

After lunch we walked the trail to Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum.  I would have loved to stay longer at the museum, but this trip did not afford enough time to go through all of the displays and read about the geological story of the canyon.

The walking trail was lined with actual rock samples collected from all 70+ geologic layers of the canyon

So we learned about the geological history of the canyon through displays as we strolled along the South Rim, while taking in the timeless expansive vistas.  The 4-mile round trip walk took us 2 1/2 hours, with many photos taken along the way.

Here are some glimpses of the 277-mile long, one-mile deep canyon that covers a total of 1,900 square miles – the natural wonder that is the Grand Canyon:

Capturing the spectacular colors of the rock layers here is best done at sunrise or sunset, but this time I had to make do at midday 😦

This recently cut tree looks like an octopus ready to plunge below

Looking down at Bright Angel Trail that leads to the canyon floor

See those tourists on the edge?

Our two train tours were filled with railroad history and beautiful scenery.  It’s a way to see places that you can’t by other means, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it!


Next up:  Page, a Photogenic Playground