Before we left on our trip aboard the Grand Canyon Railway I must have read 100 reviews at various travel sites, a lot of them good and some pretty bad. After having had the experience myself I realized that a lot of the problems people had were of their own making thanks to bad planning or unrealistic expectations. That's why I decided to do a review of my own for those considering the trip, and also answering some questions I had before I got there.
The Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) is based in Williams, AZ, and runs a daily train to the South Rim, 65 miles north. The trip leaves at 9:30 am and arrives at the South Rim at 11:45. The train leaves for the return trip at 3:30, arriving back in Williams at 5:45. It's much more than just a train ride, though.
GCR offers a variety of packages, ranging from a simple day trip to the Canyon to a 4-day/3-night trip, which is what we took and which I highly recommend. Our package included the first and third nights at the GCR Hotel in Williams, and the 2nd night at the Maswik Lodge in the Grand Canyon National Park, just a 5-minute walk from the South Rim. If you're really going to see the Grand Canyon right, you've got to spend the night. You just can't do it justice in 3 1/2 hours.
In addition to the hotel stays the package includes two dinners and breakfasts in Williams, and if you buy the package through AAA a lunch along with your 90 minute bus tour at the Canyon. Also included with the AAA package is a coupon for $20 per person good at the GCR gift shops in Williams.
The GCR Hotel in Williams is a two story complex with several different classes of rooms. We had a Deluxe room which includes two queen beds and a decent amount of space. I didn't get to see any of the other classes of rooms, but everything seems very nice and clean. For those of us who need to stay connected, free WiFi is available in the hotel lobby and depending on where your room is, you might be able to pick it up there. I wasn't able to get a consistent signal in our room, so I spent quite a bit of time in the very nice lobby (photos are available here). It's just a short walk to the train platform and the Depot Cafe where meals are served.
When you check in the front desk handles your room assignment and then you head to the train office to pick up the rest of your package, including the tickets you'll need for the rest of the trip for the train, meals, bus tours, etc. It's all very efficient and the staff is very helpful.
The package we bought included dinner the first night and breakfast the next morning, both served buffet style in the Depot Cafe. There was a lot of good food, including a made-to-order pasta bar at dinner and a made-to-order omelette bar for breakfast. One of the complaints I saw from others was the length of the lines at the Cafe, but long lines are easily avoided if you simply plan well. If you head to dinner before 7pm and breakfast before 7:30 am, you should be fine. After that the place really backs up.
At the South Rim accommodations are at The Maswik Lodge, a complex of 2-story buildings a short distance from the South Rim and the Train Station. Maswik is not as nice as the GCR Hotel, but certainly sufficient for an overnight stay. It's a little more like going to camp rather than staying at a hotel. Again, WiFi is available in the hotel lobby but not in the rooms.
Lunch the first day was included with our package and was served in the cafeteria at Maswik. The food was definitely a couple of steps down from the GCR Hotel, but with all the excitement of arriving at the Grand Canyon lunch wasn't a huge priority. The rest of the meals at the Canyon are on you, but there are many many options from a pizza place at Maswik to a very fancy restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. We had a good lunch our second day in the Arizona Room of the Bright Angel Lodge.
Maswik is only a five minute walk from the Rim Trail and from there you can head to all the South Rim hotels and shops. It's also located on the free shuttle bus line that will take you all the way out to the Grand Canyon Visitor's Center or connect with other bus lines. It's a great way to get around town.
With three different hotels in three nights one of my fears was having to drag luggage everywhere we went. Not so. The GCR has that all figured out. On the morning of your train trip you tag the stuff going to the Canyon with the tags they give you and drop them off in the lobby before 8:30 am. The next time you'll see them is in your room at the Maswik Lodge. The bags don't ride the train, but are driven up to the Canyon and distributed to the rooms for you.
The same thing happens in reverse on the day of your trip home. You simply call the front desk at Maswik and let them know you're checking out. You leave your bags in the room and they're picked up and driven back to Williams and are waiting for you in your new room at the GCR hotel (you probably won't have the same room in Williams both nights, so you can't leave extra stuff in your room).
Our package included a 90 minute guided bus tour that made three stops at scenic overlooks in areas that are off-limits to other vehicles. Our guide was very knowledgeable and helpful and took us to some really great spots. Lots of photos here.
The Train Ride
Finally, the central point of the trip is the ride aboard the Grand Canyon Railway to and from the South Rim. GCR offers several classes of service: Coach, First Class, Observation Dome and Luxury Parlor Car. We chose the Dome Car and I wouldn't consider doing anything else. You get the best views of the scenery and it's very quiet and peaceful up there. You're probably not going to find families with screaming kids in the Dome. Frankly, most of the time it was like a library up there, which for me was great.
Each car has a high energy Passenger Service Agent. We had Sasha on both trips and she did a great job keeping everything loose, serving goodies, and letting us know everything we needed to know. They also have musicians who stop by once during the trip and do about a 20-minute set. They were alright, but I could have done without it. I preferred the peace and quiet of the trip.
The train travels through several different types of scenery, from pine trees to prairie to scrub. The train winds through wooded canyons as you approach the South Rim. We saw elk and pronghorn antelope on the way home. The trip home also includes a silly train robbery. I could have done without that too.
They will also take your picture on the ride north so they can sell it back to you in a package for $35 on the ride south. We weren't that impressed with the photo and passed on the offer. Seems a little overpriced for what you were getting.
The trip is pricey but well worth it. Spend the extra money for the overnight stay at the Canyon and the better class of train service. You'll be glad you did.