Neither words nor pictures can capture the grandeur of the Grand Canyon! While both of us had been here before – it was during our youth, so everything is “new and known” at the same time.
We arrived in Williams AZ, known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, on Wednesday afternoon and settled into the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park. Quite functional and easy access to both the town and to our train expedition the next day, the character of the park is severely lacking. The Grand Canyon Railway is the major source of revenue for the town of Williams, which at one time was a “destination on Route 66.” It still retains several establishments leveraging the Route 66 theme – and every budget hotel chain for overnight accommodations for those wishing to stay close to the Canyon.
Route 66 is “The Theme” for Williams AZ – the Pie Photo was at Pine Country Cafe.
Our friend, Chuck Evans, said we HAD to go for their pie – it is the “star of the show”
We saddled up our bicycles and, having completed a tour of town well within a hour, found a lovely little watering hole at the Grand Canyon Brewing & Distilling Company! We have so enjoyed in both our boat & land-yacht travels experiencing local breweries and distilleries – and this was no exception. The bartender, Paul, had spent several years in the Virgin Islands prior to coming to Williams (never could get his story on how THAT happened!), so we had lots of conversation about Jost VanDyke & Foxy’s, Speedy’s Taxi and a myriad of other colorful memories. We are departing with a numbered bottle (#201) of their small batch whiskey!
On Thursday morning, we boarded the Grand Canyon Railway at 9:15 for a 65-mile, 2 1/2 hour trip to the Canyon. The original railway was the vision of William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill, the major of Prescott. After five years of lobbying for funding of the railroad, he was successful – his underlying purpose being to reduce the cost of transportation of his mining operations. On September 17, 1911, the first steam train took passengers and supplies from Williams AZ to the South Rim of the Canyon. The Railway revolutionized the Canyon, sharing its natural wonder with the general public.
During its heyday, the Atchison, Topeka & SantaFe Railway Company had two scheduled arrivals each day to the Canyon – and as many as six special trains might also be deployed. The train was the preferred method of travel until, of course, the advent and love affair of the American people with the automobile. The final rays of sunshine for the railway occurred on June 30, 1968, when Train #14 pulling only one baggage car and coach car left the Grand Canyon Depot with just 3 people aboard.
The 65 miles of track lay dormant for nearly 20 years until a crop duster & his wife, Max and Thelma Biegert, dedicated $15M and every other resource they could muster to reinstate train service to the Grand Canyon! They & their team of experts had to restore the depots in both Williams & the Grand Canyon, repair 65 miles of weather-beaten track, rebuild washout areas and bridges, replacing over 30,000 railroad ties and countless more rails, beams and spikes.
Their hard work paid off, and on September 17, 1989 — 88 years to the day from the first train to the Canyon, the Grand Canyon Railway returned to service! They currently provide two trains each day transporting 225,000 passengers each year (well over 2M passengers since it returned to service). It is more than just alternative transporation – it is an opportunity for many who have never had the experience of rail travel and such a civilized way to make the 2 1/2 hour journey through 65 miles of majestic scenery and stress-free travel.
Our reservations were, of course, made months ahead, so it is the “luck of the draw” relative to weather. The sun rises early here – 5:45a, which was just after the 5:30 train with his incessant whistle, came screaming right beside our RV park! We had sun early but by the beginning of the journey, the clouds had rolled in and the forecast for the day was a high of 63 degrees and wind.
We had perfect seats in the dome car – so the view was amazing!
Arriving at the Canyon just before noon, we had our first glimpses of this Natural Wonder! We knew that we were planning to return by car the following day, so did not feel the pressure to “run & see everything” when we only had ~3 hours before we had to board the train for our return to Williams. But that did not in any way diminish the breath-taking sense of awe and amazement!
After a brief visit to El Tovar Hotel, the original hotel built and owned by the Atchison, Topeka & SantaFe Railway for their guests, we made our way west towards Bright Angel Trail. After assessing the storm clouds gathering and listening to the weather alerts on our phones, we elected to stop in the Arizona Room for lunch. We had not been seated more than 5 minutes when the skies opened up – to more than an inch of pea-sized hail, strong winds and rapidly reduced temperature.
As is often the case at the Canyon, the storm clouds move through quickly. We ventured out to enjoy the clear, crisp air – throw a snowball or two – and enjoy the South Rim for quite a while before returning to the Depot for our return trip.
The Admiral was happy when this greeted her as we boarded the train!
Friday promised and delivered a much more hospitable weather day and we took full advantage with an early departure and the bicycles loaded on the back of The Toad! Traffic was fairly benign, but we know that once school is out for the summer, the crowds will exponentially increase. There are more than 4M visitors to the Canyon each year!
Finding a parking place close to the Greenway/Bicycle path, we headed first to Mather Point – the most photographed and heavily populated area of the South Rim.
The Grand Canyon runs from the base of Lake Powell in Colorado to Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam in Nevada,some 288 miles. Covering 1,902 sq miles, the Grand Canyon National Park was established 100 years ago this year to protect and preserve this natural wonder. On the South Rim, at an elevation of around 7,000 ft, there are spots where you can see the Colorado River, some 5,280 ft (1 mile) below. This past spring we were in Borrego Springs south of us in Southern California to see the Wildflower Super Bloom. That entire region was at on time part of the Sea of California, but the land was created from the silt flowing from the Grand Canyon!
If you look closely, you will see the Colorado River!
The bicycle path fortunately is not the most desirable for the walking visitor, so we headed west without traffic for the 2.5 mile ride to once again attempt to reach the Bright Angel Trail.
We returned to the car for a picnic lunch and then headed out east to South Kaibab Trailhead. A much less populated area of the South Rim, it provided one of the highlights of our visit – up close & personal encounter with two elk!
We kept our distance while attempting to capture some pictures of these massive ladies. They had certainly taken over the bike path, so after enjoying the view, we retreated back to the visitor center and our vehicle. In all, we had done about 7 miles of well-maintained pathways that are anything but level. What an amazing place – we look forward to returning to the South Rim and exploring the North Rim!