Williams -“Gateway to the Grand Canyon”

Rt 66 nostalgia in Williams, Arizona

Williams is a tiny little town of just over 3000 about 40 minutes west of Flagstaff. As the last town to be bypassed by I-40, Williams offers lots in the way of Rt 66 nostalgia. The small town is jam packed with old-fashioned diners, Rt 66 museums, and souvenir shops. Asides from Rt 66 memorabilia, the town is most well-known for being home to the Grand Canyon Railway. The small town swells up with tourists both summer (as this is prime season for Grand Canyon tourism), and again in the winter for the popular Polar Express ride based on the classic children’s novel.

Williams Arizona Route 66 sign

The Grand Canyon Railway

Polar Express lit up for holidays in Williams, Arizona

The seasonal Polar Express train ride lit up for the holidays

The drive from Flagstaff to Williams is pretty short and actually pretty scenic with views of both the pine forests and wide open views of the countryside. Obviously, the main reason you would head over this way is to conveniently enjoy a stress free mode of transportation to the Grand Canyon. While the ride is okay, in my opinion, it’s a much better value to drive yourself and stay as long as you like as your time is severely limited when you take the train. Plus, the ride is not especially scenic (especially if you have ever taken an incredible trail ride like the Durango Silverton) and the only real views occur just 15 minutes or so prior to your arrival.

Grand Canyon Railway entering the South Rim

The Grand Canyon entering the South Rim

Williams does offer a number of amenities of its’ own and is still worthy of the drive regardless of whether or not you intend to take the Grand Canyon Railway. Bearizona, a wonderful drive-thru wildlife park is definitely a must visit. And for outdoor lovers, there are a number of trails and parks in the area. Being located in the high altitude Kalibab National Forest, the trails are doable during the summer season as the weather tends to stay in the 80’s. Check out the Bill Williams, Sycamore Canyon, Kendrick Mountains, and Keyhole sink trail featuring a seasonal waterfall.

Group on buffalo at Bearizona in Williams Arizona

A group of Bufffalo and pretty views of the surrounding pines on a lovely drive around Bearizona.

Black bear climbing a tree at Bearizona in Williams AZ

Black bear climbing a tree at Bearizona in Williams AZ

Beautiful views from the Keyhole Sink trail in Williams AZ

The short and scenic Keyhole Sink trail is just a short drive away.

Distance from Flagstaff: 40 minutes

What to do: Bearizona, Stroll around historic Main Street, Grand Canyon Railway, Hiking in the Kalibab forest, Lunch & homemade pie at Pine Country restaurant

Why it’s great: Close proximity to the Grand Canyon, national forest land surrounding the city, high altitude 4 season climate, not as crowded and congested as Flagstaff, cheaper lodging than Flagstaff, a nice base for exploring the wonders of Northern Arizona

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon – “The 8th world wonder”

River view from Skeleton Point - Kalibab Trail at the Grand Canyon

Flagstaff is the most popular lodging choice after the Grand Canyon itself due to its’ close proximity to the canyon and bountiful amenities found in town. While staying at the canyon is awesome, it’s often booked months in advance, and therefore, Flagstaff is your next best option. Flagstaff is just an hour and a half away from what has been called one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Strangely, the Canyon is not considered to be one of the 7 wonders of the world, however, it is one of the 11 Eighth World Wonders. This beauty is one of the deepest gorges worldwide with a depth of 1 mile and a width of 18 feet! And the colors are so magnificent, especially at sunrise and sunset. The Grand Canyon is simply one of those places you must see in person, and thus, one of the top places anyone should add to their Western US travel bucket list.

Views of the Grand Canyon from an overlook at the South Rim

Grand Canyon National Park is split into 2 sections: the South and North Rim. The South is the more crowded park, while the North is almost 4 hours away, but much more beautiful and peaceful due to the further trek required. The South Rim also offers more dining and lodging options. As it is the more convenient choice, I recommend visiting the South Rim first and visiting the North Rim if you have the extra time. Be aware that the North Rim closes sometime in early winter.

There’s so much to do at the Canyon that it is impossible to see everything in a single day. Luckily, your pass is good for 7 days! Scenic overlooks, museums, galleries, gift shops, hiking trails, interpretative centers, ranger programs, mule rides, and white water rafting are some of your options for exploring this natural gem. These are all great, however, the most unforgettable way to explore the canyon is to hike one of the wonderful trails which go deep into the heart of the scenery.

Mule rides along the Kalibab trail at the Grand Canyon

Mule rides are a great alternative for anyone not up for a big hike! Enjoy the same views without all the effort!

The South Kalibab trail allows you to see this spectacular natural wonder in a new light- and absent are the many crowds hovering at the overlooks, particularly the further you go out. For the ultimate in adventure (experienced hikers only) complete the strenuous, yet totally rewarding hike to Skeleton Point. Don’t worry if you are not up for a major hike, you can simply complete the short trek to the first overlook (Ooh Ahh Point) which definitely offers no shortage of spectacular scenery. Be prepared for a high altitude adventure, which means packing plenty of extra water (fill up a camelbak at one of the free spring water stations) and bring with plenty of food.

Walking down the trail along the Kalibab trail at the Grand Canyon

The trail is pretty steep as you can see and narrow so not a great choice for those afraid of heights!

Monsoon rolling over the Grand Canyon

Monsoon storms come on rapidly with no warning during the summer season.Be prepared!

Skeleton Point - the South Kalibab trail at the Grand Canyon

The hike to Skeleton Point and back is steep and challenging, but so worth it for the peace and quiet and extraordinary views!

Distance from Flagstaff: 1.5 hours

What to do: Hike the South Kalibab Trail, Stroll along the Rim Trail, Dinner at the El Tovar Lodge, Smooth whitewater trips, Mather Point overlook, Yavapai Point Overlook

Check out my full guide to visiting the South Rim 

Why it’s great: It’s widely recognized to be one of the top sights to see before you die! No travel bucket list would really be complete without a trip to the Grand Canyon!