The Grand Canyon Train: the “right track” for your Grand Canyon vacation?

Good morning travelers. Well, it’s been almost 25 years since the Grand Canyon Train (formally known as the Grand Canyon Railway) rebounded from a 20-year dormancy. I was there to witness its rebirth, but that’s a story for another time. Today, in this age of hybrid cars and phones that fire up with a click instead of a crank, a mystique still surrounds the Grand Canyon’s old iron horse. Every year, passengers of all ages line up by the thousands to experience this fascinating piece of Grand Canyon history. Of those thousands, unfortunately a small percentage of them come back a bit disappointed. For us here at GrandCanyon.com, even a small percentage is too big a percentage.

So why would this happen? It all comes down to one word: “misinformation.” A lot of it still pervades the public image of Grand Canyon Train Tours. We’re talking about it on TripAdvisor.com right now.

TripAdvisor.com: Flagstaff to Williams Hotel 

Original Poster “Carol P” states:

“I am told the Grand Canyon Train also has activities on the train along with a guide explaining what to look for and see. And if we upgrade we can get a glass dome enclosure where we can see all the way around for pictures. It also stops at the rim of the Grand Canyon where I believe I would head for anyway.”

To which Destination Expert “RedRox” replies:

“You are being subjected to aggressive marketing by the Grand Canyon Train. The views you’ll have from the train will be the same boring high desert views that you’ll get from the car, except the train will take 3 hours whereas your car will only take an hour. That’s time that you could better spend at Grand Canyon National Park on the rim, exeriencing the canyon.”

It’s readily apparent to the TripAdvisor panel that Carol P is under the impression that she’ll see the Grand Canyon from the train. The truth: that is NOT the case. The Grand Canyon Railway departs daily from Williams, Arizona, which is 60 miles due South of Grand Canyon Village.

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Therefore you do not see the Grand Canyon while riding the Grand Canyon Train. You will not see the Grand Canyon at all, until you get to the park and get off the train. You then have the option of exploring the Grand Canyon Village Historic District and Rim Trail on your own, or taking part in a 90-minute guided motorcoach tour.

Another potential disadvantage to using the Grand Canyon Train to get to the South Rim is time: the Grand Canyon Railway is pulled by an antique diesel engine, so it takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to make a journey that would take you just 1 hour by car. Once at the park, you only have 3 hours or so to explore the Grand Canyon before you have to re-board the train for the trip back to Williams. So it gives you enough time to get a small sampling of the views that await you at the Grand Canyon, but you only touch the “tip of the iceberg.” There are even more beautiful Grand Canyon views on the East Rim drive, but the layover provided by the Grand Canyon Train doesn’t give you enough time to get there. And forget about trying to squeeze in another activity such as a Grand Canyon helicopter flight or airplane tour. The logistics of getting out to the airport and back will not only eat up your time on the rim, it may even risk delaying your arrival back in the park for the departure of the train. If you’re late, it will cost you a very expensive taxi ride. Don’t try it!

Whether or not to make the Grand Canyon Train a part of your Grand Canyon vacation is a question that has been asked and answered many times here at GrandCanyon.com. So, we made a video about it! Watch it for more detailed answers to the “train vs. drive” debate.

6 Responses

  1. Not sure if anything has changed since the previous comment, but the web page has a schedule that (as far as I know, from having watched it arrived and leave from Grand Canyon Village just today) is relatively accurate:


    Not exactly a 3 hour affair (more like 2:15) each way, but still, it’s true that this is aimed for the kind of tourist that would like to take a not-too-early-morning train+entertainment to the Canyon, do some light hiking and maybe shopping for the next 4 hours or so, and then return in time to start thinking on dinner.

  2. Firstly, regarding misinformation, I did not get the impression we would see the canyon from the train. I pictured it taking you to an area about 1000 feet from the canyon, at a depot. I am unclear how someone could believe there’s a railroad that runs along the rim of the canyon.

    I like the idea of going for a ride and chatting, moving around to look out the windows and enjoy beverages while seeing the landscape and talking, as opposed to driving and paying attention to the road.
    However, the train website is not as immediately forthcoming that this is a 3-hour ride, one way. I’m afraid that nixes it for me. I don’t have 6 hours to blow in my day. They’d need to cut an hour off each end of that for me to reconsider.

    If I were recommending this trip to someone who REALLY wants to see the canyon all day, take the train from Williams and stay overnight. Return the next day. Otherwise, stay in Williams and drive.

  3. My wife and I took our 2 year old to the Grand Canyon. She is very much into trains thanks to the children’s show “Chuggington” In planning, we decided to stay at the Railway hotel. We checked in late in the afternoon and the person that checked us in recommended we wait until the morning to go up to the canyon. We ended up leaving the hotel at 6am the next morning and spent nearly 12 hours at the park, visiting sites overlooking the canyon. We parked by the Maswik lodge and walked to Hermits road and visited several of the viewpoints, both walking and taking free shuttles. Once we reached Hermit’s Rest, we took the shuttle back to our car and headed for the east side of the village, stopping at the grandview overlook, the Tusayan Ruins and the Overlook Tower. We then headed to Cameron and had dinner at the trading post. After eating, we thought we might have enough time to make it back to the park for sunset, but unfortunately just missed the sun setting back by the Overlook Tower.

    The next day, we decided to go ahead and ride the train. It was a nice relaxing adventure for our family after the long day we had the day before viewing the canyon from different areas. My daughter loved being on the train and she loved the musical entertainment. The Passenger Service Attendant we had was absolutely wonderful. She was very knowledgeable about the area, but also spent a great deal of time interacting with all the traveling guests. Our car was about half full, so it was easy for us to move to the back to allow our child some room to move about. At the canyon, we spent the day inside the village seeing all the things we skipped the day before. There’s a lot of older buildings and good views that overlook the canyon. There’s plenty to do just walking around, but you can also take a free shuttle bus over to the visitor center or geological center if you find that more interesting. My daughter wasn’t overly impressed with the “entertainment” on the way home – A wild west showdown, she just stared down those nasty criminals and they moved on. 🙂

    If you want to take the train, go for it! It’s a great time, but also plan to either stay at a hotel in the canyon for the night or be sure to have an extra day or two to spend inside the park. There’s plenty to do and see! The park pass that you buy ($30) is good for 7 days, so use it as many times as you can and have fun!

  4. My family booked the train ride also thinking we would see the grand canyon from the train. The ride was boring for the most part. I felt rushed at the canyon and ended up running with my family to get as many views as possible. To add to our lack of time, the train only used one engine for the 10:30 am trip. This created a problem when arriving at the canyon. It took an extra twenty minutes to back up three times to get up to the train depot. This is twenty minutes of time we lost on our expensive trip. We were loaded into a bus and immediately taken to a buffet lunch. After an hour of eating, we went to our first stop. We had 20 minutes. Not enough time. You can’t just sit and enjoy this magical canyon. We quickly loaded back into the bus and off to our second and last 20 minute stop. Again rushing to see the views and take pictures. We then were dropped off at the train depot at 4:00 pm. We quickly ran up the hill for one last look and try to look in several of the buildings along the rim in 15 minutes. We then boarded the train and left at 4:30. This is where the fun begins. About 20 miles out of Wiliams, the train’s only engine broke down. No electricity, no AC and stuck out in the desert area. Due to the sarcastic train employee, we really didn’t know what really happened at first. “This never happens”, was his running joke all day.

    The employees on the train then decided it was wise to let people off the train. We were standing in the high desert area for 15 minutes. People started to ask about snakes and other animals and the train people asked us to get back on. No train employee there to help people back on the train. There were also people smoking in a very dry climate. Talk about fire hazard!

    We were supposed to get back around 6:15-6:30 to the depot. We then could check-in, tour the town and eat before bed. We got back at 8:30pm. The train employees were nice and apologized but the Grand Canyon railway hotel employees were not as nice while checking-in at 9:00 pm.

    I have two kids who were melting down and then the Wi-Fi didn’t work. Awesome fun the rest of the night.

    If your kids love trains and you don’t really care about a quick visit to the Grand Canyon, this is for you. My first and properly last visit to the Grand Canyon was not that great. I also thought when booking the hotel that it sat right at the Grand Canyon. I guess I should have done more investigation but Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel in the title kind of made it sound like we were right at the Grand Canyon and would tour around the canyon on the train. If I would have booked a more expensive train car for the scenes, I would be asking to a full refund.

    Not impressed!!!!!

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