Everything you need to know about the Grand Canyon Railway
Picture yourself seated on a train chugging through the desert plains, and just as the locomotive rounds a bend, a cowboy comes into your car strumming on his guitar and wailing into a harmonica as if he stepped out of the 1880s. It’s just part of what makes a trip on the Grand Canyon Railway so memorable. And atmosphere aside, the train also comes with the added perk of ditching your car and saving yourself a sizable drive. Wondering what else you get for your ticket, how much it costs to hop aboard, and whether the experience is worth the expense? Read on.
How to get to the Grand Canyon Railway
All aboard! The Grand Canyon Railway departs from Williams, Arizona, a tiny town along Historic Route 66 that’s best known for the railway, but it also has its own helping of outdoorsy activities, like mountain biking and fishing. Then there’s the charming drive-through wildlife park named Bearizona, a great spot to see—you guessed it—bears. But it also holds wolves, bison, jaguars, and several other large North American mammals.
The closest major town is Flagstaff, which is 40 minutes west of Williams. The easiest way to get to between the two is by car, though there’s also an Amtrak bus and Groome Transportation shuttle that run several times a day. Taxis are also available, though they’re pricier.
If you’re driving, head west on I-40 from Flagstaff/Historic Route 66. Take exit 160, then turn left onto N Grand Canyon Blvd and right onto W Franklin Ave. Using GPS? Plug in the following address: Grand Canyon Railway is located at 235 N Grand Canyon Blvd, Williams, AZ 86046. You can trust the results.
What to expect from the Grand Canyon Railway
What other train trip comes with a Wild West shootout? Before every departure, there’s a staged shootout at the depot, perfect for kids and kids-at-heart to get in the spirit. And some of those characters might join your train ride. Grab a selfie with the gun-slingers, and then find your assigned seat. Onboard, each car has an attendant to tell stories about the history of the West and answer every question you might have about the train, the journey, or what to do at the Grand Canyon. But your attendant isn’t the only friendly face you’ll see. Singers, accordionists, and other wandering musicians pass through the cars performing Western tunes, too, and a photographer will take a photo of you and your seatmates, which you can purchase.
In both directions on the train’s journey, you’ll be chug-a-chugging through Kaibab National Forest. It’s a beautiful sight, and quite different from the dramatic Grand Canyon, which isn’t visible from the train. Expect ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests with stretches of high desert plains rather than rust-colored cliffsides. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like elk, mule deer, bald eagles, and California condors.
Pro tip: You might want to have a few spare dollars handy for when the “robbers” come to hustle passengers on the ride back to Williams. You certainly don’t have to turn out your pocketbook for them, but it’s more fun if you do.
Departure times, holidays, and other logistics
Nobody wants to get to the train platform only to watch the caboose drop out of sight. Timing, especially when it comes to train travel, is everything. Most of the year, the train leaves from Williams at 9:30 am. (Boarding is done 15 minutes ahead of time.) Get there even earlier to watch the shootout.
Once you’re on your way, it takes just over two hours before you arrive at Grand Canyon National Park at 11:45 am. The train drops passengers off just a few hundred feet from the South Rim, and you’ll have at least three hours to explore. Grand Canyon National Park has several free shuttles during the busy seasons at the South Rim, you won’t need a car to see awe-inspiring viewpoints, like the it-barely-looks-real Mather Point or Yaki Point. You can also book a Rim tour for an additional fee through the Grand Canyon Railway or other tour groups.
The train heads back to Williams at 3:30 p.m. and you’ll arrive at 5:45 p.m., just in time for dinner at a local restaurant. (See below.)
Between November 1 and December 31, the train departs earlier (8:30 am) and also returns earlier (2:30 pm). Expect to be back in Williams by 4:45 p.m. The Grand Canyon Railway runs year-round except for Christmas Day.
On special occasions, you’ll be led by a Hogwarts Express-style train with plumes of steam powering you toward your destination. To experience this old-fashion locomotion, check the railway’s website. They’re often running on the first Saturday of the month. For train-lovers, this experience is a trip-maker, so it’s worth booking your trip around it.
And a few weekends a year, there’s a second train to give passengers even more departure and return options—check the Grand Canyon Railway schedule for details.
We know what you're thinking: Are there snacks onboard? And what about a bathroom? The answer is yes and yes. Every car on the Grand Canyon Railway has a bathroom, and there’s a snack-bar car with food, beverages, and alcoholic drinks for sale should you get peckish, though some tickets include snacks and beverages in their price. Also, every car has an attendant who can answer questions about the Grand Canyon or the train.
Don’t expect any Wi-Fi, though you may have cell service for stretches of the trip. Many of the cars have air conditioning, but not all. It depends on your ticket. And it’s a short trip—135 minutes—so there aren’t any sleeper cars with beds.
Beyond that, each car has its own perks, like an observation dome, entertainment center, or a free glass of sparkling wine, so choose wisely. (See the tickets section below for more info.) Whatever seat you reserve, you can expect musicians to wander through your car at some point on the trip to add to the entertainment.
Lodging and restaurant options
When you’re ready for a rest, there are quite a few hotel options both near the Grand Canyon and in Williams, where the trains departs.
The most convenient option is to go through the Grand Canyon Railway itself. The railway has a hotel in Williams, and it offers several train-hotel combos, which makes it even easier to arrive early for your morning train.
But note that most of these combos won’t have you overnighting in the park. If you’ve got your heart set on maxing out your time in Grand Canyon, look for deals from the railway that overnight at Maswik Lodge, which is inside the park.
You can also separately book a room overnight at one of the park hotels, but these tend to fill up far in advance—like, up to a year in advance—so you’ll want to make your plans early.
When it comes to restaurants, there are a few places to eat at the South Rim, including Yavapai Tavern, Canyon Village Market & Deli, and Canyon Coffee House. But note that these tend to be busy with tourists, and some, including El Tovar, require reservations booked up to 30 days ahead of time. Many visitors opt to pack a lunch so they can spend more of their hours exploring.
Back in Williams, you’ll find a larger selection and fewer crowds. Some local favorites include delicious diner breakfasts at Pine Country Restaurant, Italian eats at Station 66, and Arizona-brewed bevvies at Grand Canyon Brewing Company and South Rim Wine & Beer Garage.
Tickets and cost
The big question: How crazy expensive is this thing? Tickets range from $67 to $226 for adults. Children ages 2 to 15 can get a discounted rate, and children under the age of 2 are free (although they’re not allowed in some of the pricier cars). You’ll also need to pay for entry into Grand Canyon National Park unless you have a National Park Pass—you can check the current fees on the park website.
Specific ticket options (all six of them)
Each ticket class comes with different amenities. Here’s what to expect:
Pullman Class ($67 for adults): This car doesn’t have air conditioning but does have windows that open to let in the breeze. You can flip seats to face each other, too.
Coach Class ($82 for adults): This car has big windows and AC when temps are high. You can also book an adults-only version of this car, in case you’re not in the mood for kiddos. It’s ADA accessible, too.
First Class ($159 for adults): First Class has reclining seats, lots of legroom, big windows, and free snacks and drinks. (You’ll need to purchase boozy beverages separately.) It’s another ADA-accessible option.
Observation Dome ($189 for adults): For the price, you’ll get panoramic views on a glass-enclosed streamliner. Plus you’ll get snacks, drinks, and a sparkling white wine toast to start your journey. Sorry, new parents. Kids under 2 aren’t allowed. But those looking for ADA-accessible options can add this to the list.
Luxury Dome ($226): At the luxe level, you get the observation dome, snacks, a sparkling white wine toast, and a downstairs lounge with a private bar and exclusive cocktails (although they’re not included in the ticket price). Those looking for serenity may be happy to hear that kids under 15 aren’t allowed.
Luxury Parlor ($226): This is the same price as the Luxury Dome, but in addition to the observation dome, sparkling wine, private bar, and snacks, you also get access to the rear open-air platform to take in the desert air. Still no kids under 15 allowed, though.
Be sure to confirm ticket pricing on the official website.
Fact: Everyone loves a bargain. And any money you save here is money you can spend at the Yavapai Lodge Gift Shop. Lucky for you, the Grand Canyon Railway has several discounts available, including 1, 2, and 3-day packages that combine the train ride with overnight stays at a hotel inside or outside the park.
Senior discounts are a thing, too—people over the age of 50 get 15% off, as do current or retired armed forces or first responders.
AAA members also get 15% off of train, hotel, and RV park reservations year-round as well as bonuses like room upgrades and retail discounts. Good Sam members get 10% off, too.
And Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada residents get 20% off.
Keep an eye on their website, as you can sometimes snag a discount by planning a trip early in the year.
Is the Grand Canyon Railway worth it?
Our vote is a big yes. Where else can you get Wild West train shootouts, traveling musicians, and even sparkling wine with a heck of a view? Plus the train’s dedicated attendant is like a Grand Canyon concierge, ready to answer all your questions before you arrive.
Of course, driving in has its perks, too. It’s quicker than taking the train, it’s more flexible in terms of schedule (a must for early-morning hikers), and you’ll be able to take scenic drives along the Canyon. You can also opt out of both driving and the train by booking a guided tour. (Options abound including small group tours from Flagstaff and off-road tours of the South Rim.)
But this experience, which won our coveted Traveler’s Choice award, continues to earn rave reviews from Tripadvisor users. TheExplorerFamily said it’s a great way to “leave the ‘driving’ to someone else” and they recommend it to “other travelers who love historic trains.” CrysteZ said, “the views from the dome were amazing” and that “standing on the rear deck and watching the scenery roll by was breathtaking.” And SaraD wrote, “This is a bucket list item and should not be missed.”
We couldn’t agree more.