top of page

Riding the Grand Canyon Railway: Things to Know Before You Go

Grand Canyon Railway

The American railroad revolutionized passenger travel and made the American West, including sights like the magnificent Grand Canyon, accessible in a way they had never been before. Join us as we look at railway travel to the canyon past and present.

History of Train Travel to the Grand Canyon

Whether they’d been moved by a Thomas Moran painting, inspired by the accounts of John Wesley Powell or excited by a poster extolling the grandeur of the American West, tourists from the East Coast and Midwest began flocking to the Grand Canyon in the late 19th century. The canyon didn’t become a National Park until 1919, but that didn’t stop the visitors or the wonder. At the time, travelers would have taken a train on the Santa Fe line to arrive in Williams, Arizona. From there they would pile into wooden stagecoaches to travel 65 miles on bumpy dirt roads to reach the majestic canyon.

Majestic View of the Grand Canyon

No doubt the sight and experience was worth it, but this arduous trek became infinitely easier in 1901 when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway connected the depot in Williams to the Grand Canyon Village with its very own track.

The Santa Fe Railway continued passenger service to the canyon until 1968 then switched to freight-only operations as the Golden Age of the railroad faded into the novelty of automobile travel and left the line in financial hardship. By 1972, all of their rail services to the Grand Canyon were discontinued.

The spirit of the rails endured, however, as the stretch of track was revived in 1989 by the Grand Canyon Railway and to this day allows Grand Canyon visitors to journey to the canyon as their ancestors once did.

The Grand Canyon Railway Today

The Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) offers daily nostalgic railroad adventures on restored train cars with entertainment reminiscent of the Wild West. Let’s take a look at their offerings and the benefits to railroad travel in present day.

Why Take a Train?

Aside from the nostalgia and romance factors of train travel, it’s actually a very practical and eco-friendly choice for your trip to the Grand Canyon.

  • You’ll avoid waiting for hours in line at the park entrance.

  • You won’t have to navigate parking at any of the attractions.

  • You’ll help lower carbon emissions by not adding your own vehicle to the onslaught arriving each day.

  • You can focus on the beautiful scenery and your travel companions instead of the road.

Planning Your Grand Canyon Railway Adventure

The Grand Canyon Railway has 6 classes of train cars to choose from:

  • Pullman Class: This is your basic, classic train car like it would have been in 1923 with functioning windows and bench seats.

  • Coach Class: These cars were made in the 50s and feature AC in warmer months and nice big windows for sightseeing.

  • First Class: Here you’ll have oversized seats and big windows along with bar service and complimentary snacks.

  • Observation Dome: Take a ride in a streamliner-era dome that also offers bar service and complimentary snacks.

  • Luxury Dome: This is their grandest car featuring a full-length dome, lounge, private bar with exclusive cocktails and complimentary snacks.

  • Luxury Parlor: Finally, experience the plush parlor car, with rear platform views in addition to the private bar with exclusive cocktails and, of course, complimentary snacks.

Grand Canyon Railway Dome Car

If you’re planning for your family, you’ll want to note that children under 2 ride free in the first three classes. Children under 2 are not permitted in the Observation Dome car, and children under 16 are not permitted at all in the Luxury classes.

Discounts and Deals

Packages are available combining food, lodging and experiences in both Williams and the Grand Canyon. They also offer discounts for AAA, first responders, and active or retired members of the armed forces.


Grand Canyon Map

A Grand Canyon Railway trip is an all-day adventure. Your train will depart Williams, AZ at 9:30am MST and arrive at the Grand Canyon Railway Depot on the South Rim at 11:45am. You’ll step off into the heart of the Historic Grand Canyon Village and will have 3+ hours to explore before the train departs at 3:30pm and gets you back to Williams at 5:45pm. Note that this schedule shifts to an hour earlier across the board in November and December (departure at 8:30am, arrival at the canyon at 10:45am, etc.). Two trains often run during busy seasons.


You’ll begin at 7,000 feet in Williams, drop to about 5,000 feet to the prairies of the Colorado Plateau and back up to 7,000 feet in the pinon pine forest approaching the Grand Canyon.

Be on the lookout for wildlife. Elk, deer, mountain lions, squirrels, etc. are common in the forests, while in the high desert you might see pronghorn, horned owls, or even bald eagles and condors.

Deer by the Grand Canyon Railway

You’ll also see a variety of plant life including Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen and spruce in the forest regions, then pinon-Juniper and a variety of brush and grasses as you drop in elevation.


The Cataract Creek Gang puts on a Wild West show in Williams before the train leaves the station. And those same rough and rowdy outlaws may catch you later—literally—as they “rob” the train on your journey. Talented cowboy musicians will serenade you on your train ride with songs of the Old West featuring banjos, fiddles, guitars and squeezeboxes. And each car is staffed with a Passenger Service Attendant who can provide facts about sights along the way and help you plan your activities at the canyon and throughout Northern Arizona.

At the Canyon

Grand Canyon Railway Station

Your train will pull into the Grand Canyon Railway Depot, a historic landmark that is the oldest wooden train depot in a national park and one of the oldest in the nation. You’ll want to check out the depot as well as a host of other attractions such as the El Tovar Hotel, the Kolb Brothers Studio and Residence, the Lookout Studio, Verkamp’s Visitor Center and the Hopi House. But don’t forget the main attraction: the canyon itself. You’ll be forever changed with that first glance across the expanse of this incomparable natural wonder. Take advantage of scenic viewpoints and photo opportunities galore.

Amtrak Connections

Rail buffs coming from other states to the Grand Canyon should check out Amtrak’s 20+ rail packages for longer and even cross-country journeys. Their Grand Canyon Getaway is a 4-day excursion that takes you from Williams to the canyon and back but includes a stay at the South Rim, a Motorcoach Rim Tour, meals and more. Amtrak also offers a Rails to the Grand Canyon 5-day trip that leaves from Los Angeles. And for true train enthusiasts, check out their Grand Canyon Discovery 10-day trip leaving from Chicago, IL. Each of these routes connects with the Grand Canyon Railway trains in Williams and offers the same entertainment and experience as day trips on that leg of the journey.

Special Events

The Polar Express Train Ride

Grand Canyon Polar Express

Chris Van Allsberg’s classic story The Polar Express comes to life on the Grand Canyon Railway’s own holiday train ride. From the second week of November through December 30th, this special event takes you on a trip to the North Pole. Train staff will entertain with a read aloud of the story and a carol sing-along while serving refreshments of cookies and hot chocolate. Upon reaching the North Pole, Santa will visit each car and distribute a commemorative Polar Express silver bell to every child passenger.

The Polar Express trains leave from the Williams depot at 5:30pm and 7:30pm, and the festive adventure runs about 90 minutes. It’s best to arrive at least an hour before departure so you can pick up tickets and be ready to start boarding 15 minutes prior. Be sure to check dates for value, standard and holiday rates before booking, and be on the lookout for package deals that might also offer meals and lodging. And don’t forget to wear your pajamas!

The Ultimate Polar Express Experience

Want a more intimate Polar Express journey with just your own family and friends? GCR offers a private train car option that will make you feel like you’re in the privacy of your own festive living room. With seats for up to 32 guests, you can handpick loved ones to share in the magic.

In addition to cookies and hot chocolate during story and caroling time, adults can enjoy refreshments from a private bar. When Santa joins your car, he’ll ride back with you to the station, and children will receive the commemorative Polar Express bell along with other special gifts from Santa.

Steam Saturdays

First Saturdays of the month and other select days and holidays from March to September are known as Steam Saturdays, meaning your train car will be pulled to the Grand Canyon by one of two fully restored steam engines—just like the original canyon tourists of the early 20th century.

The Steam Locomotives

No. 29 was built in 1906 in Ohio as an ore and freight hauler. The Grand Canyon Railway started running it to the Grand Canyon in 1990, and though it has taken breaks and been brought back to life multiple times through extensive restoration, it still makes trips to the canyon. GCR even received the 2017 Arizona Governor’s Award for Outstanding Historical and Cultural Preservation for their engine No. 29 restoration project.

Grand Canyon Railway

No. 4960 was built in Pennsylvania in 1923, also to haul ore, and has served as the backbone of the GCR steam fleet since 2009. As No. 4960 turns 100 this year, it will make some extra runs to the canyon on August 5th, 12th, and 19th, and a birthday celebration with special displays and music events will he held on August 12th in Williams.

Environmental Practices and Certification

Historically frequent runs of the steam engines were discontinued in 2008 for environmental concerns. But in 2009 the Grand Canyon Railway revamped their process and engines to run on recycled Waste Vegetable Oil, which is almost entirely carbon-neutral, allowing for Steam Saturdays and other special events to continue today.

Grand Canyon Railway is the first tourist railway in the US to receive ISO Environmental Certification for its environmental management system.

Climb Aboard

Grand Canyon Railway

Historically “going west” carried with it a thrilling sense of adventure, the potential of wide-open spaces and unknown grandeur that had to be seen to be believed. The Grand Canyon Railway offers an authentic experience that gets you as close to that magical and exciting time in history as possible while staying current with technology and environmental considerations. Let the train feed your wander lust and your appreciation for a bygone era as it takes you to one of the most stunning landscapes in all the world.

Come Stay with Us

Williams itself is a charming historic town and is not far from a host of other fantastic Northern Arizona attractions; from national parks and outdoor recreation to animal encounters and ski and snow play, you'll have plenty to explore here in the west.

The Grand Canyon Railway depot in Williams is only 20 minutes from Backland, which makes us a perfect lodging choice for your trip on the train. Get a great night’s rest in one of our luxury tented suites before embarking on your unforgettable journey to the Grand Canyon and beyond.

Backland Glamping Tent


bottom of page