The Grand Canyon Railway passing through the pine forests

The Grand Canyon Railway is a fun & stress-free mode of transportation to the magnificent South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The train departs daily from the historic depot in Williams (built in 1908 by the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad) and makes the 2 hour, 65 mile journey to the Grand Canyon Depot (built in 1909-1910) within the Grand Canyon National Park.

Since 1901, millions have used the railway as their means of transportation to this must-see natural wonder.

The Grand Canyon Railway Depot

The Railway is a great option for anyone who is tired of driving, especially if you have just made a lengthy road trip out west to see the canyon. Why not let someone else do the driving so you can relax a bit? Aboard the train, you can kick back, order a few snacks & drinks, and enjoy the unique landscapes of Arizona’s high desert.

Welcome to the Wild West!

Before your journey, an entertaining 15 minute Wild West Shootout show will welcome you to the west. The cowboys also stage a train robbery near the end of your ride (a smart idea to get extra tips). I highly recommend arriving in time as this show was the best part of the experience. If you have extra time, you can also browse the large gift shop for Grand Canyon souvenirs and pick up a cup of coffee.

Wild West Shootout show at the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona
Wild West Shootout show at the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams, Arizona

Along the route to the Grand Canyon, you will enjoy live country western entertainment and music. On the attached Cafe Car, you will be able to purchase drinks and snacks (coffee, beer, wine, chips, ice cream, and candy). Water is available for free (be sure to drink up as you are in a high altitude area).

Front of the Grand Canyon Railway

Choose your car

When booking your tickets, you will have the opportunity to choose amongst a variety of budget and luxury passenger cars. The most frugal option is the $67 pp Pullman car, which was built in 1923. Below I have given a brief overview of the various options available.

Pullman Car – The most budget friendly option, the Pullman, is $67 per adult and $32 for children. The seating is a bit tight, although the ability to flip the seats and sit across from your family/friends is pretty cool. There is no air conditioning, although the breeze along the way is more than enough where you should feel pretty comfortable. Western entertainers will keep you entertained on the long journey. Light snacks and drinks can be purchased in the Cafe Car.

Coach Car – The coach cars are $82 per adult and $51 per child and include everything the Pullman offers, in addition to air conditioning and handicap accessible features.

First Class Car – The more luxurious First Class Cars are $159 per adult and $121 per child and feature oversized, reclining seats with more leg room, air conditioning, larger windows to take in the views along the way, complimentary fruit, coffee, juice & pastries in the morning, and complimentary snacks on the return route.

Observation Dome Car – For those who want to get a really good look at the scenery along the way, the panoramic views available on the Observation Dome cars are the way to go. Rates are $189 per adult and $153 per child. Luxury features include air conditioning, panoramic dome style windows, comfortable padded chairs, lounge style seating, complimentary coffee, juice, and pastries in the morning, and snacks and white wine on the return journey.

Luxury Dome Car – The luxury dome car features the same luxuries as the Observation Dome, with the added benefits of a full bar, entertainment center, and cozy furniture. Children under 16 are not permitted, so you can enjoy a more refined, quieter ride. Rates are $226 per adult.

Luxury Parlor Class – The ultimate luxury experience is a ride aboard the Luxury Parlor car, which includes cozy seating and an open air rear platform for enjoying the views, in addition to amenities found on the observation dome car. Children under 16 are not permitted. Rates are $226 per adult.

All cars include a bathroom on board and all have air conditioning with the exception of the Pullman car. No matter which car you choose, you will be able to relax and take in the diverse scenery as you let someone else do the driving for once. The scenery will vary from high desert to prairie to pine along the way.

*Pricing updated as of 2023.

Pretty mountain views along the Grand Canyon Railway

Flora & Fauna

The elevation changes along the way with a high at around 7000 feet in Williams and at the Grand Canyon. At high elevation, you will take in great views of ponderosa pine, spruce, aspen, and douglas fir. As the journey drops in elevation, you’ll take in relaxing views of sagebrush, live oak, salt brush, mountain ash, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In addition, wildlife is plentiful with opportunities to see proghorn, mountain lion, mule deer, and more along the way.

Desert landscapes along the Grand Canyon Railway ride
A house out in the pines seen from the Grand Canyon Railway
The first glimpse of the Grand Canyon as you enter the Grand Canyon Railway Depot

On the return route, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks, which at 12,633 are the highest in Arizona.

The San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Grand Canyon Railway

Cowboys greeting you as you make your way back to Williams

Cowboys greeting you on the side of the Grand Canyon Railway
Cowboy on horseback greeting you as make your way back to Williams along the Grand Canyon Railway

The Itinerary

The train will depart Williams at 9:30am and arrive at the Grand Canyon at 11:45am (during peak periods the times may vary a bit). Be aware that you will only have until 3:30 to explore this magnificent natural wonder. By the time you eat, take photos, explore gift shops and museums, and take a short walk along the Rim Trail, you are pretty much out of time. If you want to extend your time at the Canyon, I recommend booking a room at one of the various Grand Canyon lodging options (well in advance), and taking the train back the next day. This will give you more time to explore everything that the South Rim has to offer.

During your train ride, you can browse the map of activities available at the South Rim (a newspaper and map will be set out on your seat for your convenience). You will not have time to see everything. Here is a highlight of the best sights to see during your limited time. Also be sure to check out my full guide to exploring the South Rim.

Must-see attractions at the South Rim

Lookout Studio – Lookout Studio is a gift shop and observing area which was built back in 1914. Because it is located on the very edge of the rim, you can get some great panoramic photos here.

Beautiful views from Lookout Studio at the Grand Canyon South Rim
More pretty views from the Lookout Studio overlook at the Grand Canyon South Rim
Great views from the Lookout Studio overlook at the Grand Canyon South Rim

El Tovar hotel – The El Tovar, built just 20 feet from the rim of the canyon, was the first major building in the Grand Canyon Historic Village. The hotel, which opened in 1905, is open year-round. Due to the immense popularity, you must book in advance. You may remember seeing this hotel featured in the classic movie “Vacation.” The scene where Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) tries to cash a check may come to mind.

The El Tovar hotel at the Grand Canyon South Rim - photographed from Lookout Studio

The Trail of Time – This fun, paved interpretative trail showcases rocks that are millions of years old, in addition to offering numerous scenic overlooks. The trail is actually only a small portion of the 13 mile Rim Trail which stretches all the way from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest. The course is a bit hilly, so make sure you are up for a bit of a workout.

This rock is 1713 million years old!

Horn Creek Granite Rock on the Interpretative Trail at the Grand Canyon South Rim

Great views along the trail!

Gorgeous views along the Interpretative Trail at the Grand Canyon South Rim
Amazing views on the Interpretative Trail at the Grand Canyon South Rim
Endless breathtaking views on the Interpretative Trail at the Grand Canyon South Rim
Yavapai Lookout at the Grand Canyon South Rim

Is it worth the price?

Although the cheapest option at $67 seems a bit pricey, those who desire a break from driving should be satisfied. In addition, by taking the train, you will save on the $35 entrance fee to the Grand Canyon, therefore, reducing the price a bit.

In my opinion, the more frugal Pullman Car is definitely the way to go. The scenery, although pretty, is not spectacular enough to justify the higher prices of the luxury cars. In addition, you have to pay for your own drinks (with the exception of the wine toast on the dome cars), so you really are not getting much more for your money other than a few snacks, larger windows, and more comfortable seating. If these amenities are worth an $85-150 up charge per person to you, then by all means go for it.

Overall, I would recommend the Grand Canyon Railway to anyone seeking a hassle-free, relaxing ride to the Grand Canyon South Rim. However, I would highly suggest booking a hotel for at least one night to maximize exploring time at the canyon. Plus, views are even more stunning at sunrise and sunset, as are wildlife viewing opportunities! If you have the opportunity, consider hiking within the canyon. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to explore the canyon in such an isolated setting. My South Kalibab trail post details my experience hiking the canyon.

Where to Stay While in Town

If you need a hotel for the night, there are plenty of options in Williams and nearby Flagstaff. Both these charming mountain towns are within a 30-40 minute drive. Additionally, both towns are home to historic downtowns with numerous restaurants, bars, and shops. Why not extend your trip and visit some of the other fantastic sights in the area? Be sure to check out Bearizona in Williams, Walnut Canyon in Flagstaff, Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, and one of the many fabulous hiking options in the area.

Tips for a Smooth Visit

*Visit during the off season for fewer crowds. The spring and summer months see the greatest traffic.

*Be prepared for seasonal weather changes. Summer temperatures are generally in the low-mid 80’s, although it can feel hotter as there is not much shade. In addition, daily monsoons are always a possibility in July and August. Spring temperatures are generally in the 70’s. Fall temperatures are usually in the 50’s-60’s. Winter temps can dip into the 40’s and snow is possible. This is the ideal time to visit due to dramatically fewer crowds and amazing views of the Canyon covered with snow.

*Remember that both Williams and the Grand Canyon are located at 7000 feet. Due to a combination of high altitude and dry weather, you will need to drink plenty of extra water. There is a complimentary water station located on each train compartment, so drink up. Take it easy and do not overexert yourself if you are not used to the high elevation.

*Book a night at one of the Grand Canyon lodging options well in advance, as each hotel/cabin tends to fill up well in advance, sometimes even months out. 3 and a half hours at the Canyon just isn’t enough time to see everything. You can stay overnight without purchasing another train ticket.

*Skip the restaurants and pack your own lunch. If only staying for the day, you do not want to waste your precious time at a restaurant. The El Tovar room is very popular and often has a wait. Even The Arizona Room took an entire hour to get in and out, and the food and service were mediocre.

*If you need allergy friendly options, be sure to bring your own lunch. I was not impressed with the handling of food allergies, or general knowledge of the staff at The Arizona Room. We were told that the Enchiladas were dairy-free, only to have to reorder 10 minutes later when the waiter said he just found out that cream cheese was mixed into the ingredients. In addition, we found cheese on our salad when we requested dairy-free.

*Bring with a tripod for your camera so you do not have to repeatedly ask others to take your pictures. It’s a beautiful place and you want to take the best photos possible!

*Don’t waste too much time in the gift shops at the canyon. Much of the same stuff is sold as the large gift shop located at the Williams depot. You will have plenty of time to browse around after your trip back.

*Book your train tickets in advance. Tickets can sell out during the prime season.

*Bring with a reusable water bottle. You can refill it with natural Grand Canyon spring water at several stations along the South Rim.

*Arrive at least an hour early to give yourself time to browse the gift shop, get coffee, and get a good seat for the Wild West show.

*Wear good gym shoes or hiking shoes. You will be doing plenty of walking on the Rim Trail.

*If limited on time, take the free shuttle to get to and from various attractions.

Have you ever taken a ride on the Grand Canyon Railroad? How was your experience? What were your favorite sights to see at the South Rim?