Who doesn’t love seeing red canyon walls and snowy mountain peaks through the picture window of a gently rocking heritage train? Arizona is gifted with two great historic and scenic train rides, the Verde Canyon Railroad (VCR) and the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR). The VCR runs most afternoons along the Verde River into Sycamore Canyon, while the GCR pulls you in style across a rolling plateau to the brink of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Both railroads were saved from oblivion by rail lovers who believed in a renaissance of travel from Arizona’s frontier days, and we have much to thank them for.
The VCR train is stabled in quiet Clarkdale at the western edge of the Verde Valley, an easy two-hour drive north from Scottsdale. Starting at 1 p.m., this four-hour excursion cruises above the cottonwood-flanked Verde (green) River, to the turn-around site of old Perkinsville. Here the diesel 1953 locomotives switch position on a siding, giving you a close-up of the newly painted American Bald Eagles adorning their noses. During the spring, watch for bald eagles soaring over the canyon, or deer grazing by the river. The VCR is the more intimate ride, as the tracks run under sheer walls of sandstone and limestone almost close enough to touch. What better way to laze away an afternoon than lolling about on the open-air vista cars, sipping a microbrew or margarita, soothed by the clickety-clack rhythm that harkens back to a simpler time?
In addition to the standard scenic ride, you can book seats for a variety of theme events: Wild Splendor with Sonora the bald eagle (monthly), Chocolate Lover's Special (February), Easter Bunny Express (April), Cinco de Mayo Celebration (May), Starlight Tours (monthly, May-September), Grape Train Escape / Ales On Rails (September-October), Fall Color (October-November) and Magical Christmas Journey (December). For real train junkies, the Locomotive Ride-Along is a bucket-list must. You’ll enjoy lunch at the Copper Spike Café, then take your seat in the cab of the lead locomotive next the engineer. After you get the train home safe and sound, you’ll receive a framed print of yourself with the crew as a souvenir. Now that’s a ride to remember!
If you have more time to play, head for the GCR depot in Williams, Arizona. The drive north from Scottsdale through Flagstaff takes about three hours, so you’ll need to get an early start to make the 9:30 a.m. train. After a scenic 64-mile journey highlighted by breathtaking views of San Francisco Peaks, cowboy storytellers and guitar-wielding musicians, the train arrives at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at 11:45 a.m., disembarking just below the majestic El Tovar Hotel. You’ll have 3½ hours of free time to stroll the Rim Trail, enjoy lunch or a cocktail on the rim, watch condors riding the thermals, or even take a bus tour that will bring you right back to the Canyon’s vintage depot.
On the ride back to Williams, keep your eyes peeled for outlaws! On my last ride (okay, on every ride), train robbers galloped alongside and forced us to stop. The scruffy bandits held us up with bad jokes and silly grins, but all they got was a few dollar bills from wide-eyed kids and chortling parents. A grand time was had by all!
The GCR offers six classes of service, but their unique dome cars are the best choice for viewing. I recommend either the Observation Dome or Luxury Dome class, both of which include morning refreshments, afternoon snacks and a sparkling wine toast in the ticket price. To stretch your budget, opt for Pullman or Coach tickets. To stretch your legs, go for the added legroom and over-sized seats of a First-Class car.
Finally, if you’d like to stay overnight at the Canyon to savor a sunrise at Yavapai Point, a tradition with many visitors, GCR can assist with accommodations at the South Rim’s Maswik Lodge.