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Verde Canyon Railroad 2011

A Train for All Seasons

A Ride on the All-Season Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale, Arizona,

plus an entertaining evening at the Blazin' M Ranch in nearby Cottonwood, Arizona.

February 9, 2011

By Carl Morrison, Italicized paragraphs are from their website and press releases.

Arizona's Longest-Running Nature Show

Verde Canyon RR No. 1510 and 1512 heading back to Clarkdale, AZ, Depot after a trip to Perkinsville, AZ, pull the excursion train past a bald eagle preparing to fly across the tracks to the River.

The Verde Canyon, featuring an abundance of native flora and fauna, rugged, high-desert rock faces and spectacular vistas, is only accessible by rail. As you step aboard this popular excursion, complete with luxurious coaches and open-air viewing cars pulled by vintage diesel engines, expect to be captivated by this untouched and unspoiled canyon.

Departure to Perkinsville is scheduled so passengers may enjoy the progress of daylight as it dances over the rippling green waters of the Verde River, then tiptoes across the canyon floor through canopies of foliage before escaping up the towering canyon walls into the brilliant azure skies of this celebrated gorge. On the return trip to Clarkdale, the Canyon takes on an entirely new dimension with further shifting of illumination and shadows.

Expert narration and open-air car attendants leave you with an appreciation of the history, archeology, geology, wildlife and Indian lore of the Verde Canyon. Original music is an integral part of the trip as you make your way through Arizona’s longest-running nature show.

Getting There

During three days of a February trip from Southern California to Flagstaff, Arizona, I wondered what I could possibly find in the way of trains to ride.  The Verde Canyon Railroad and The Grand Canyon Railroad were the answers, since both are open year round.

There is a choice of Amtrak trains you can take to the Verde Canyon Railroad at Clarkdale, Arizona - The Southwest Chief  or the Sunset Limited.  The Southwest Chief will get you the closest, at Flagstaff, Arizona:

Distance from Sunset Limited, Tucson, AZ, to Verde Canyon Railroad;   3 hrs 37 mins / 223.47 miles
Distance from Southwest Chief, Flagstaff, AZ, to Verde Canyon Railroad;   1 hour 15 mins / 72.28 miles

I was staying at Little America on the east side of Flagstaff and since the excursion train leaves from Clarkdale at 1 p.m., I had some options as to how I would get there.  I chose to go south of Flagstaff on 89A, taking the scenic route of about 1 1/2 hrs.  Since I would also be attending the Blazin' M Ranch Chuckwagon Diner and Cowboy Music Show immediately after the train ride, I chose to take I-17 back to Flagstaff because it would then be dark and I thought Interstate driving would be easier at night.

No sooner had I begun driving on 89A south of Flagstaff, than I encountered a herd of 35 elk in the Ponderosa Pines on my left.  It was a perfect day, bright sun, cold, with some light snow on the ground from earlier snowfalls.  I made a quick U-turn on this 2-lane highway and got a few photos of the herd.

(Throughout this report: 

Click any small photo for a double-sized copy on your screen; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

Elk south of I-17/89A jct. south of Flagstaff.

The drive south on 89A was winding through Oak Creek Canyon, but beautiful views to Sedona with its beautiful red bluffs.  South of Sedona, 89A becomes a 4-lane to Cottonwood.

The Excursion Ride

The Verde Canyon Railroad advertises something "Natural" each season.  Since I would be there in Winter, I was looking forward to 

Eagle Watch,

and it turned out that my visit would also be the first day of

Verde Canyon Railroad's Chocolate Lovers' Train.

Their Chocolate Lovers' Train runs February 9-14.  The journey features platters of decadent desserts, chocolate fountains and specialty drinks served up in a comfortable first-class car.  The train runs every day except Tuesdays, departing at 1 p.m. and returning at 5 p.m.


Verde Canyon Railroad Train Depot on 300 North Broadway, Clarkdale, AZ 86324.

My Ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad

Upon my arrival at the Verde Canyon Clarkdale Depot, a full hour before departure time of 1 pm, I was amazed at how many cars were in the parking lot already.  Even though this train is "in the middle of nowhere," there ended up being more riders this day than were on the Grand Canyon Railway the previous day.

I found a parking spot in the large, level lot and crossed the street to the Depot.  I immediately went to the front of the train, which was purposely positioned for photographs of the eagle graphics on Locomotives 1510 and 1512.

Canyon to Perkinsville and back.

The engines, built in 1953 by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, first debuted on the Alaska Railroad for their centennial celebration.  Mountain Diesel, a Colorado-based company, purchased the engines and exhibited them at a California museum before their purchase by the Wyoming/Colorado Railroad in Laramie, Wyoming. 

In November 1996, the engines were moved to Clarkdale, Arizona.  After three months of restoration the classic iron horses were decorated with the Bald Eagle as a tribute to the inhabitants of the Verde Canyon and our American heritage, taking on the symbol of the Verde Canyon Railroad with their exclusive paint scheme.  The engines made their maiden journey on Arizona rails on March 8, 1997.

Don't you agree that the graphics are the most dramatic and creative of any ever seen on locomotives?

While at the front, I also photographed the Generator Car,

and an 'open air-observation car.'

Passengers actually purchase two seats for the price of one because all coaches access open-air viewing cars with bench seating, safety railings and sun shades.  Passengers may move about throughout the trip.

From their press releases:  Take a train trip through a beautiful canyon in central Arizona. The Verde Canyon Railroad (formerly the Verde Valley Railroad) of Arizona was originally built to support Arizona's richest copper mine, located in Jerome. Now visitors enjoy the Verde Canyon Railway excursions to enjoy a leisurely trip, view the natural surroundings and participate in special events.

The Rail Cars

The Verde Canyon Railroad has three types of passenger cars: Pullman Standard, Budd Stainless Steel and a refurbished AC&F caboose. The Pullman Standard coaches, built in 1946 and 1947, were originally used in a commuter capacity along the eastern seaboard. These cars provide both first-class and coach service on the Verde Canyon line.

Some of the Budd Stainless Steel cars, built in the late 1930s and ‘40s, once carried passengers along Santa Fe’s “El Capitan” route between Chicago and Los Angeles. All of these cars are first-class cars. Dating back to 1938, the Santa Fe Bell is the oldest car and has been in service longer than any other car on the train.

Today, each car has an interior design that incorporates a different element of Arizona. Throughout the train, the interior murals and faux finishes reveal the desert colors and countryside of this Southwestern region.

Each rail car is named after an Arizona city or attraction, such as "Cottonwood" or "Tuzigoot," and the decor replicates the city or area.

Both classes of travel can access the open air observation cars, each with a live guide to point out the wildlife and geological features and recorded description interlaced with music through speakers.

Since I arrived at noon, one hour before departure, I was not sure they served food at the depot, but was pleasantly surprised that they do.  Equally surprised that the class in which I would be riding also would have complimentary appetizers and sparkling wine or Champagne.

Copper Spike Cafe Menu

Burgers, sandwiches, salads, and desserts.  Coffee, tea, and bottled drinks

Boxcar Gift Store open before and after the trip.
Train and logo memorabilia.  H-O scale replica of the VCR's FP7s.  Train and eagle novelties.

Ticket Windows on the side of the Gift Shop.

Just outside the Gift Shop, south, is this sign where you can compare your wingspan to a bald eagles.

Next is the John Bell Museum.  John rode the VCRR for 10 years sharing stories with riders.  This museum was started with a collection donated by him.

Inside the John Bell Museum

From the Museum's platform, the "photo opportunity" is to shoot the length of the train as passengers prepare to board.  This view is southward.

Each car is clearly labeled so all passengers can find their seat easily.

Greg Woodward's "Ricochet"  Eagle art piece.  Note the RR rail and tie as the base.  It is between the Gift Shop and Museum.

In the time before departure at 1 pm, I found Lisa O’Neill  877-674-3836, and she gave me a tour through the entire train, starting with the caboose.

The exclusive caboose is designed for one party of six or less adults. Its luxurious interior features oversize chairs near panoramic windows and access to private outdoor viewing platforms.

Two cupola seats afford a bird’s eye view of the Canyon rarely seen by one without wings. A personal valet pours Champagne upon boarding and serves sumptuous, freshly-made appetizers. A choice of premium alcoholic beverages is available for purchase throughout the trip.

Lisa O'Neill starting my tour through the caboose, above.

Right, Lisa with Brandy, a Naturalist who rides one of the open air cars pointing out natural wonders and wildlife.

Inside the caboose.

Cupola, right, offers a unique 360 degree view.

Coach-class service features vintage Pullman-style seating, the historic seating arrangement that has characterized train travel from its inception. All seats are near large panoramic windows.

Convenient, fully-stocked food and beverage centers have snacks, drinks and some alcoholic beverages for purchase throughout the trip.

With comfortable seating indoors and high-backed benches on the open-air cars, it is like getting two seats for the price of one.

These special gondolas feature comfortable benches with backs and wide handrails for ease in walking. Shaded canopies and the moderate Arizona temperatures of the Verde Canyon make it possible for passengers to enjoy the open-air viewing cars in all seasons.

The cars become one with nature as you immerse yourself in the sights and sounds exclusive to this part of scenic Arizona.

Knowledgeable car attendants are quick to spot points of interest along the route, including the resident Bald Eagles “Black and Decker.” Photo opportunities abound with 360 degrees of visual interest around every bend.

Because the caboose has its own platform, they don't have access to the open car next in line.  We stepped down and then onto the next car.

They thought out the open air car design perfectly.  You might wonder why it is not completely covered.  You need the open space to look straight up the can walls and into the sky to look for eagles flying above.  I spent most of my time out here.

The coach cars have movable seat backs so that on the way up and back you will always be facing forward.

First-class service (below) includes comfortable love seats or bistro-style chair-and-table seating near panoramic windows.

Along with spacious accommodations, first-class amenities include a Champagne toast upon boarding, full-service cash bars featuring premium liquors, beverage service at your seat and a variety of complimentary appetizers reflecting the Southwest region. First-class cars accommodate fewer passengers inside and outdoors.

With comfortable seating indoors and high-backed benches on the open-air cars, it is like getting two seats for the price of one.

Arizona wines are served at the bars on the train.

Noticeable improvements in accommodations as you move up from coach class.

The car in which the Chocolate Lovers would ride.

The Car Assistant was pouring sparkling cider and Champagne for our departure.

The decorations were more festive and the chocolate fountain, right, was about to begin flowing.  Lisa said this was a real challenge on a train!

The mirrors in the ceiling of the Chocolate Lover's Car made it look like a double-decked galley car.

During the car tour, Lisa pointed out the freight locomotives of the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad that also run on this line.

Freight from the company that is going through the slag from the smelter for valuable minerals goes north to Drake, AZ, where this line meets the BNSF line, 38 miles north.

Our car attendant explained all the rules, such as being able to  go out on the open-air car any time.  She sold the Rail the official magazine of the Verde Canyon Railroad for only $2.  I strongly recommend you buy one, if not only for the Rail Guide by Milepost.  She also sold Verde Canyon Chocolate Rocks, right, for only $5, available only on the train.

"Arizona ROCKS!"

My seat mates were Linda and John from Simcoe, Ontario,  Canada.  He was born in Niagara Falls, so had some interesting stories about the Falls.

The company that is currently recovering minerals from the slag pile.

Just north of the Depot is the 50 million tons of slag that covers 40 acres, 40 ft. high.

Right, we went through an underpass over which slag cars carried molten slag out and dumped it on the pile.

Iron pipes were used with sheet iron to keep the molten slag from covering the tracks.  When cooled, it is very hard and the pipes and corrugated sheets are just rusting away now.

Horses graze below the slag mountain today, so I guess it is not a toxic mountain.

We head north with the private caboose at the end.

Soon the observation car guides point out the Sinagua Indian cliff dwellings.

You'll need a telephoto lens for shots like this and of wildlife and bluff formations.

When I saw this field, I realized that farmers used water from the Verde River for irrigating their fields.

This and another fellow were still out here when we returned.  That's how 'fun' farming is.

Notice that there is an outdoor car for each passenger car.

The highest and longest trestle on the route is the one that spans S.O.B. Canyon, approximately 150 feet above the landscape.

Since S.O.B. Canyon was named before my birth, I presume it was not named after me!

Carol pointed out an eagles nest high on the cliff across the Verde River.

There are many opportunities, as the train enters the inner canyon, to photograph both the front and back of the train.

The Verde River Canyon is quite a beautiful place even in the 'dead of winter.'

Carol, left, our open car attendant was always pointing out geological and wildlife photo ops.

It is very difficult to photograph bald eagles in flight in the canyon, but you'll see them between December and March.

At Milepost 22.5, a 680-foot tunnel that was blasted through limestone by a crew of 25 Swedes was completed in 6 months.  The whole line took 250 men and 200 mules one year to level and lay the track.

"Shooting the Moon."

Just through the tunnel, we came out into Perkinsville valley and crossed a large steel bridge.

The end of the line, Perkinsville, AZ.  Originally a water tower stop for steam until 1952.  Limestone was quarried and made into slaked lime for the copper smelter in Clarkdale until the smelter closed.  Originally a 770 square mile ranch.  in the 1960s, some scenes from How The West Was Won were shot here.  The locomotives run around the train and pull us back to Clarkdale.  Station is original.

Station from the left side of the train.

Right, a good chance to photograph No. 1512 and 1510 is when the locomotives run around the train at Perkinsville.  Be ready on the right to photograph the locomotives on the right side of an open air car.

The train pulls through town a piece, before heading south, so all cars can see the Depot.

Some "Canazonians" (Canadian natives who have property in Arizona).  Enjoyed talking farming with the fellow on the left since I was born and raised on a farm in Southern Indiana.

"Rust in Peace in Perkinsville"

Perkinsville Depot and rotting platform.

With the sun lower in the western sky as we returned to Clarkdale, the still water in the Verde River reflected the colorful bluffs.

The caboose became the first car on our way back.

We again crossed the bridge over S.O.B. Canyon, and, right, the shadows were longer of me on the open air car.

The Verde Canyon Railroad has a great system for spotting wildlife and forwarding the location to the open air car attendants.  The engineer in the lead locomotive keeps his eyes out for eagles and when he sees one, he radios the car attendants who immediately notify the guests who are in the open air cars.  Since the eagles have favorite trees, their actions are somewhat predictable.  They are still far away for photographs, even with a telephoto lens, but I'll add some eagle photos below mine that were submitted to a contest by the VCRR and offered to me by Ellen Roberts of VCRR.

Looking down on the Verde River from the train gives a good vantage point for reflections in the water.

Award winning Bald Eagle Photos submitted to to a photo contest by Verde Canyon Railroad

Photo by:  Tony Cyphert

Photo by:   Elizabeth Rose

The best I could do was to include the train with the eagle graphic under a Bald Eagle ready to take flight across the track to the Verde River for some sushi.

Remaining sights along the track back to Clarkdale.

This farmer was still irrigating his fields.

Sinagua Indian ruins

Sinagua Indian ruins

Back in Clarkdale, at the VCRR Depot, it was time to go to my next destination for the day, the Blazin' M Ranch.

What an excellent train riding experience I had on the Verde Canyon Railroad on this winter day.  It was beautiful weather, sunny, dry, and cool.  The entire staff of the train were obviously proud of the VCRR. 

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw what great ridership they have, and how many cars make up the consist, each car having an adjacent open air car for the guests.  on board amenities were just perfect including restrooms, a car attendant, food, a naturalist who points out geological, historical, and wildlife aspects of the trip.  The depot and accompanying shops and museum were surprisingly new and up to date with ADA compliance in all areas, even on the train.

The VCRR ride alone would be an excellent day's activity, but the Verde Canyon Railroad and the Blazin' M Ranch have the same management company and cross-promote the two venues.  So, I still had something, that I really enjoy, to look forward to the same evening after my train ride -- The Blazin' M Ranch Chuckwagon Dinner and Cowboy Music Show!

I received a testimonial from Lisa O'Neill at VCRR soon after this story was posted.  She said:

Geeze, Carl, what a flattering article. Incredible photos!  I can't wait to see what you did at the Blazin' M Ranch.

Thanks for spending a day on the rails with us!
It's not the destination, it's the journey!

Lisa O'Neill
Marketing and Sales
Verde Canyon Railroad and Blazin' M Ranch
Reservations 800-293-7245
300 North Broadway
Clarkdale, AZ  86324
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Next:  The Blazin' M Ranch


Verde Canyon Railroad:

Sample VCRR Newsletter: VCRR_Newsletter

Verde Canyon Railroad Brochure with prices, descriptions, address, map, and beautiful photos:  VCRR_Brochure

To have an excellent Travel Agent make all the arrangements for you, including an evening's entertainment at the Blazin' M Ranch,  and hotel, Call: 

Carole Walker,  Bella Vista Travel.  562-594-6771.

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