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Rails to the Rim on the Grand Canyon Railway by Carl Morrison,


Rails to the Rim

On Grand Canyon Railway

Photos and text by

Text in italics from Grand Canyon Railway.

The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and Ride to the Canyon.


(Double-click any photo below for a double-sized copy; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

Grand Canyon Railway: Where history repeats itself daily

President Theodore Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon "the one great sight which every American should see." He made this proclamation on May 6, 1903 after traveling to the South Rim aboard Grand Canyon Railway. Today, travelers from all over the world are invited to relive history both en route to the canyon and in Grand Canyon Railway's restored, historic locomotives and passenger cars. Grand Canyon Railway's fleet of equipment is like a traveling train museum, and is guaranteed to capture the imaginations of leisure travelers and train enthusiasts alike.


Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, Williams, Arizona

Checked in October 16, 2008

After driving from beautiful Sedona, Arizona, through the Oak Creek Canyon, then west from Flagstaff, we checked into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.  This would be 3 nights and 2 days when we would not start our car, but be escorted to one of the Seven Wonders of the World via train!

Once we checked in and deposited our luggage in our room, our first activity was to enjoy a buffet dinner at Max and Thelma's, a property of the Grand Canyon Railway, literally a few steps from the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

Following the buffet dinner, and some time in the accompanying gift shop, we used our laptop computers in the Lobby to catch up on work and e-mails. 

[Suggestion:  Please add wireless internet in the rooms, it was hard to find a seat in the lobby since guests from all 300 rooms want to use the Internet.] 

Traveler Hint:  If all seats in the Lobby are full, and you want to use the Internet, go to the mezzanine level and there is a couch with an electrical outlet behind it with good Internet reception.

Photo Hint:  The Mezzanine Level is a good spot to take pictures of the lobby.

The desk clerk said they now have 299 rooms, 10 suites, and 1 "Luxury Rail-Bound Suite".

The current Grand Canyon Railway Hotel was built in 1995 and was designed to resemble the historic Fray Marcos Hotel. The hotel opened as, and continues to be, the finest in Williams. The GCR Hotel sits across the lawn from the historic depot. In keeping with the reputation of the original Fray Marcos Hotel for quality and service, the GCR Hotel continues this fine tradition. A 107-room addition was completed in February, 2000 doubling the size of the property and added an indoor pool, jacuzzi and exercise room. A third addition was completed in March, 2004, adding 92 rooms and 10 suites.


Today's Grand Canyon Railway Hotel offers guests the choice of 297 rooms, including 287 standard rooms and 10 luxury suites. Standard rooms feature two queen beds, a coffee maker and full bathroom with bathtub and shower. Suites have a bedroom with two queen beds and a separate living area with a pullout sofa. The living area has a microwave, refrigerator, wet bar and coffee maker. Two suites and eight standard rooms are accessible to those with limited mobility.

Hotel Entrance, Depot Side

Hotel Lobby
Hotel Registration Desk with Monument Valley paintings.

(Free Wireless Internet available only in the Lobby.)
Lobby fireplace with Grand Canyon paintings.

Limited mobility Room 1314

Limited mobility Bathroom 1314


Max and Thelma's Central Fireplace, with GCR model trains.


Breakfast and Dinner Buffets in Max and Thelma's were included on our Package

    The reason that the restaurant is called, "Max and Thelma's," is that Max & Thelma Biegert created what is now the Grand Canyon Railway.

Railway service returned on Sept. 17, 1989. Max and Thelma agree that the re-inaugural is their favorite memory. 10,000 people came to the platform to see the train off, and Governor Rose Mofford was the train's guest of honor. She's actually responsible for the train robberies taking place today, saying that the only way she'd participate was if the train was robbed. Her watch, stolen during the robbery, is on display at the Railway Museum.


Grand Canyon Railway

The Riding the Rails to the Rim

    October 17, 2008

    By 7:30 a.m. on this exciting day, we took suitcases, containing items that we would not need for two days and a night, to the lobby for storage (we could have put them in our car, but storage seemed easier).  Next, we took the one suitcase to the lobby that we wanted them to take on the train to the Grand Canyon National Park's Maswik Hotel where we would spend the night.  We checked out of our room (since we would be overnighting at the Park), and walked across the lawn to breakfast at 7:40 a.m. 

    After our Buffet Breakfast at Max and Thelma's, we ventured past the Depot to the Western Set where passengers assembled for a 'shootout' at 8:30 a.m.   We boarded our car at 8:45 a.m. and found our reserved seats in the First Class car, Cococino, with the help of our car hostess, Katie.

Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.
Next to Max and Thelma's is the static display of Steam Engine 4960.
One veteran employee of the GCR I spoke to felt this beautiful engine should not be left out in the elements like this.  "They have plenty of engines they could have put here for display."

Although it is outdated, saying Xanterra just purchased the Grand Canyon Railway when in fact they already sold it, pick up a copy of the Territorial Times.  It has many interesting articles you might want to read on the 65-mile train ride to the Canyon such as:  Daily Passenger Schedule (not current), What to do and see at the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park Map, Fred Harvey--Civilizer of the West, and Common questions answered.

Williams Depot

Grand Canyon Railway departs each day from the historic Williams Depot. The depot was built in 1908 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Williams DepotThe depot was an oasis for travelers heading to and from California along the main line running from Los Angeles to Chicago. The depot was much more than a place to get tickets. It was home to a Harvey House Hotel, which had 43 rooms. There was also a formal dining room as well as a cafe, bar and a news room. The depot is the oldest poured-concrete structure in the state of Arizona. Today, the depot is where passengers of Grand Canyon Railway pick up their tickets. There is also an expansive gift shop in the depot full of Grand Canyon Railway and Grand Canyon mementos. Both the Williams Depot and original Fray Marcos Hotel are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic Hospitality

The Williams Depot was one of many Harvey Houses that dotted the lines of the Santa Fe Railroad. See historic photos of the Williams Depot and its Harvey House.

It appeared that many people may not have picked up their tickets, but we found, on our return from the Grand Canyon, you can change or upgrade your accommodations on the train up until departure.

Williams, AZ, Grand Canyon Railway Depot

Ticket Window in GCR Depot
I expected entertainment on the train, so in the Gift Shop I spotted Rusty Rogers, who plays the Marshall in the show before departure, and on the train to the Canyon.
The day's weather is also posted in the Depot.

Giftshop in the Depot

Giftshop in the Depot

The original Depot included a Harvey House, that the GCR says they plan to restore.
A steam engine of a different kind on display.
This one used to power threshers and sawmills in its day.

One of the cowboys in the pre-trip show.
A one-horsepower cowboy in the show.


While the cowboy show was taking place, the train backed in ready for the passengers to board at 8:45 for a 9:00 departure.


Our First Class seats were in the Coconino Dome Car, downstairs.  Seats in the dome cost a bit more.  All First Class seat holders enjoy pre-paid soft drinks, pastries, fresh fruit, coffee, and cash bar.  Return trips from the Canyon include champagne (or sparkling apple juice).
Katie was our hostess on this 65-mile rail adventure to the Canyon.  She surely earned her tip at the end of the journey.

Half of the First class seats in a Dome car look like this, with restrooms under the dome on the first level.  The four of us had a nice upholstered set of 4 seats facing each other.  The group to our right tried to move to the dome, but were politely asked to return to their assigned seats (since dome seating is a little more).

Other non-dome cars are First Class also.
I've found that domes on other trains are sometimes hot, but guests today said the temperature was fine.
The pre-paid refreshments next to the Dome stairway.
As we left the station, Katie encouraged us to wave goodbye to the "hired wavers" on the platform.

We turned northbound, away from the current BNSF track.

There are no open vestibules on the GCR so if you wan the wind in your face, and no windows in front of your camera, book the Parlour Class with an open-air rear platform.

We passed the GCR Shops on the east side of the track.  Katie said these engines were being restored for use.  Hmmm, this conflicts with the fact that they just announced the end of steam on this route.
The Territorial Times (No. 1, Volume  XXIII) had an article about No. 539 (Left).  It arrived in Mid-April, 2007, on 3 flat cars from Battle Ground, Washington.  Built in 1917 and last ran for 40 years on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle before becoming a park project in Vancouver's Ester Short Park.  GCR swapped No. 18 and No. 20 (2-8-0s) for the bigger 539 2-8-2.  The two swapped locos. will do service on the Mt. Hood Railway in Washington.  No. 539 will be enhanced to burn ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel and retrofitted to use less fuel and water than conventional steam engines.

Entertainment soon began in each car with excellent musicians, instruments, and authentic costumes.

Without these entertainers, this would be a long, boring 65-mile ride, but they kept it enjoyable every mile.


After we were underway, the authentic costumed Conductor and Brakeman had a few minutes to answer questions.
IMG_7104.jpg IMG_7076.jpg

Ah, there's Marshall Russ again.  Photos with the cowboys is encouraged.

Sue Evans and Bette DiSilva from Rhode Island enjoyed the entertainment and ride in Coach Class.

Coach "C" had "Cute Kids" right.

Morgan kept every smiling in Coach "C"

Some coaches have accommodations for Limited Mobility Passengers, (right).

The Cafe Car had "souvenirs available only on the train."
However, I bought this same hat/shirt set (left) at the Max and Thelma's Gift Shop.
Brakeman, Larry.

I was surprised that the platform was not full of Lounge Class passengers.  But you can see here how exciting the terrain is, so the passengers were inside enjoying the entertainment and refreshments.
Veron Nixon, L.A., and I enjoyed the open-air platform, the only place on the train you can act like a dog in a pickup truck and let your tongue hang out as the wind blows in your face.
Drum head of the open-rear-platform of the Chief Car.

Entertainer in the Chief.


After walking the train to see all the classes of service, I returned to my assigned seat to find this guy, "fiddling around with my wife!"

Crystal came through our Coconino First Class car (standing, left).  She seemed to be involved on the train as well as in the Depots at Williams and Grand Canyon National Park.  She cheerfully changed our tickets when we found out we were returning on a different car than our friends.
The scenery nearing the Canyon becomes more interesting in my estimation.
The large picture windows on the Arizona country side is better than wide screen TV any day!  On this 65-mile trip, there are very few examples of 'civilization' so you can enjoy unspoiled scenery and wildlife all the way.

Arrival at the Grand Canyon Depot is a good time to take pictures of the GCR cars and Depot (below).

The Grand Canyon Depot

gcr_ElTovar&Trains.jpgThe northern terminus of the line resides in Grand Canyon National Park. Constructed in 1909-1910, Grand Canyon DepotGrand Canyon Depot is part of the Grand Canyon National Park Historic District and is a National Historic Landmark. Designed by architect Francis W. Wilson of Santa Barbara, Calif., the log and wood-frame structure is two stories high. Originally, the downstairs was designated for station facilities and the upstairs was inhabited by the station agent’s family. Today, the first floor is used for railway passenger services. The building is one of approximately 14 log depots known to have been constructed in the United States, and one of only three remaining. Of the three, the Grand Canyon Depot is the only one in which logs were used as the primary structural material and which still serves an operating railroad. The Depot’s logs are squared on three sides creating bearing surfaces, flat interior surfaces and a rustic exterior appearance. Just beyond the depot is the El Tovar Hotel, built in 1905 by the railroad. The El Tovar is the signature hotel along the rim. The railroad built the depot five years after the hotel and placed it conveniently close for the rail passengers.


Our Package included a "Rim Tour and Hot Lunch" upon arrival.  There were 6 busses this day, so the first 3 went to Lunch at the Maswik from the depot.  Our bus, in the second 3, went on the Rim Tour to eliminate having so many people at the Lunch Buffet at once.  Even if you are not staying overnight, there is time for the Rim Tour and lunch before the train leaves to return to Williams.

Our driver, Steve, (right) is completing his 9th year working the Park in the Summer Season.  He was very informative as he took us to two very nice overlooks to the Canyon.


Next:  The South Rim Tour of the Grand Canyon.

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