In the past I had only flown over the Grand Canyon, but had never visited it in person. I decided this year, on my annual trip to Arizona, to take the train from Williams to the South Rim to explore and see the stunning beauty of being there in person.
Today the Grand Canyon Railway offers train service to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The first train from Williams was in 1901. There are daily morning trains with a return in the afternoon. The trip is two hours and 15 minutes. You’ll have more than 3 hours to explore the canyon and its historic buildings and exhibits or you can spend a night at one of the hotels.
I suggest booking early as the trains are very popular. You have a choice of six classes of service to choose from. During the trip, there are lectures on history, entertainers playing music, an old-fashioned train robbery along with a cafe car, dome car and great views of the Arizona country-side. You will travel 65 miles through the high desert in the pine forests before reaching the South Rim and the Grand Canyon Depot, also known as Grand Canyon Railroad Station. This historic log building was constructed in 1909–10.
You can also drive to the South Rim as there are several parking lots available.
What to See and Do
Grand Canyon National Park is a World Heritage Site stretching 277 miles along the Colorado River. It averages a mile deep,10 miles across and is one of the best examples of erosion in the world carved by water. You can see the Canyon’s rock layers and pinyon and juniper trees from its numerous trails and lookouts. It became a national park on February 26, 1919.
You can bike or walk along the rim. The Rim Trail is a total distance of 12.8 miles. There are museums and historic buildings to explore along with a large visitor center. In addition there are four shuttle bus routes that you can take for free to get around between the sites, restaurants and hotels. Just grab a map from the visitors center to make it easy since you may not have WiFi or phone service.
Yavapai Point is a panoramic viewpoint on the South Rim with wonderful views of the canyon and the Colorado River. Mather Point is the most popular viewpoint so expect large crowds. To hike below the rim, the Bright Angel trail is popular for hiking into the Canyon. This trail goes down nearly 5,000 ft to the bottom of the Canyon. The trailhead is located just west of the Bright Angel Lodge.
Other sites to visit include the Kolb Studio. This is the former home and studio of photographers and filmmakers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb. There is a store and exhibit hall featuring the brothers’ work.
The Hopi House is an historic building, opened in 1905, that was designed by Mary Colter. Today it is a gift shop that was constructed by Hopi Indians and inspired by Arizona’s ancient Orabi Pueblo Hopi dancers who performed each evening.
Just east of Hopi House is the Verkamp’s Visitors Center that can be found in one of the oldest buildings from 1906.
I recommend that you walk the 1.3 mile Trail of Time along the rim between Verkamp’s and the Yavapai Geology Museum. It has some great vistas. The Geology Museum offers some excellent exhibits that allow visitors to see and understand the complicated geologic story of the area.
Lookout Studio: This is another historic site that Mary Colter designed in 1914 to allow visitors to see, photograph and understand the complicated geologic story of the area.
Hermits Rest is a structure designed by Mary E.J. Colter in 1914 at the western end of Hermit Road. The Hermit Trail, a hiking trail that extends to the Colorado River, begins about ¼ mile beyond the shuttle bus stop at Hermits Rest.
Where to Eat
There are a number of restaurants to try on the South Rim. My recommendations include:
El Tovar Dining Room: Located in the historic El Tovar Hotel, the Dining Room has a rustic, classic and traditional ambience that was built with native stone and Oregon pine. There are historic murals on the walls reflecting the customs of four Native American Tribes – the Hopi, the Apache, the Mojave and the Navajo. The menu is traditional, integrating both international and local Southwest influences. Past guests have included President Teddy Roosevelt, President Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney. I enjoyed my dinner there and breakfast the next morning as I was staying in the hotel. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I recommend that you book your lunch and dinner reservations well in advance since it is very popular with hotel guests and those visiting for the day.
Yavapai Tavern: This is a great spot for outdoor dining at the Yavapai Lodge. I chose it for lunch, as the elk burger looked excellent. I was so glad that I tried it. The burger came with two cheeses along with a kale slaw. There is also the Yavapai Coffee Shop & Ice Cream on site along with the Yavapai Dining Hall.
The historic Bright Angel Lodge has two restaurants, a bar and a coffee shop. I enjoyed the atmosphere and my salad at the historic Fred Harvey Tavern. The historic murals really made the experience. There is also Fred Harvey Burger that has a menu of burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads, The Bright Angel Fountain coffee shop and the Arizona Steakhouse with burgers, barbecue and more. I advise that for lunch or dinner that you stop by early to get your name on the list as it is very popular, particularly with people visiting for the day. You can book the Steakhouse reservation online prior to your trip. They recommend 30 days in advance.
Another casual option is the Maswik Food Court located in the Maswik lodge.
Where to Stay
El Tover: El Tovar is an historic hotel opened in 1905 by the Santa Fe Railway directly on the rim of the canyon. It was part Victorian lodge and part rustic cabin built to be a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa. Many of the features remain today in the lobby and front desk. With 78 rooms and suites, it is considered the premier lodge at the South Rim. It was one of a chain of hotels and restaurants owned and operated by the Fred Harvey Company in conjunction with the Santa Fe Railway. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and was one of the most elegant hotels west of the Mississippi River.
I really enjoyed the experience. I booked my room a year before, to guarantee that I could stay there as it is very popular. There is the El Tovar Dining Room and the El Tovar Lounge, their rustic bar. Make sure to sit in a rocking chair on the covered porch overlooking the canyon to soak up the beauty!
Bright Angel Lodge designed by architect Mary Coulter and built in 1935. The lodge also has cabins, one of which is the “Bucky O’Neill” cabin owned by the man who helped make the original Grand Canyon Railway a reality.
Book both these hotels through Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, a part of Xanterra Travel Collection. I recommend staying close to the canyon rim so you can easily walk out to see the stunning sunrises and sunsets. In addition to the hotels, lodges and restaurants, they offer sightseeing tours and activities, including mule rides, bus tours and rafting tours.
To stay at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a friend recommends Phantom Ranch. This is the only lodging below the canyon rim, and can only be reached by mule, on foot, or by rafting the Colorado River. Built in the 1920s, it has dormitories and cabins. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available.