Arizona is where my family fell in love with trains, or rather, where I finally got what all the excitement was about.
I’d never thought about the wonders of locomotion before toddlers filled my living room with wooden train tracks, and the grandparents ended up as excited about cabooses and switching tracks as the kids were.
While planning a family trip, we were looking for activities that were accessible, comfortable, and entertaining for all of us. Normally, we choose museums, hikes, and mountain adventures, but with our new passion for trains, we decided to climb aboard the state’s two famous, scenic train rides.
Both were one-of-a-kind journeys that were worth the cost and showed us new pockets of the state we hadn’t seen before. The kids loved it. The grandparents loved it. And I had two outings where I got to look out the window and feel what life must have been like a hundred years ago (with a cocktail in hand). Yup. Trains are magic.
Verde Canyon Railroad – Clarkdale, Arizona
40 minutes outside of Sedona, the Verde Canyon Railroad offers an exclusive eyeful of Arizona with a four-hour, 20-mile ride. This delightful train winds along the Verde River and into the canyon. The Verde Canyon is only accessible by foot and rail, so this ride is a special look at an untouched riparian habitat in any season.
The train often hugs the mountainside and goes over fortified bridges, making for spectacular views of red rock and cottonwood. The route includes a scoot through a tunnel carved straight through solid rock that hugs the train and track perfectly. It’s super dark, thrilling, and a moment of walking (well, chugging) back in time.
Each passenger car has air conditioning, but the real gems are the open-air cars where you can feel the breeze and have unobstructed views. On our ride, most folks lingered in these areas. There was also a wide array of snacks and drinks available for sale.
Overall, it was a great day out for the family and is perfect for anyone wanting some stunning views of the state.
The Grand Canyon Railway – Williams, Arizona
The Grand Canyon Railway is an all-day affair that manages to pack in a shootout, live music, the Grand Canyon, and a train robbery. It’s certainly one of the most unique ways to experience a National Park.
I usually recommend spending at least two days at Grand Canyon National Park, but this train ride made a day’s outing to the park very manageable with young kids. A fantastic option if you only have one day in the area, or part of your crew loves nature, but would rather not sweat. Plus, you don’t have to think at all about where to park.
The train departs from Williams, AZ, a small town right on Route 66, thirty miles outside of Flagstaff. The train then takes a two-hour ride out to the South Rim of the park, where you are dropped off at the Historic Village. You’ll have three hours to explore the park, and then another couple of hours on the ride home. In that 3 hours, try a portion of the Rim Trail, which also passes several shuttle stops if you don’t want to walk back.
Part of the fun of train travel is choosing your car. The railway offers 6 different cars including a budget 1920’s Pullman car, a 1950’s coach, observation domes, and luxury parlors. It’s fun to choose a different car for each leg of the journey, though children under 16 are not allowed in the luxury cars.
Snacks and cocktails are available for purchase. I can’t explain why it’s so much fun to eat on a train, but we were all giddy with our snacks. My kids also loved the open windows in the Pullman car, even though, in my humble opinion, the AC in first class was much more comfortable.
The train takes you through Kaibab National Forest, but I would say this train is more for access and ease to the park than it is for wild scenery. You’ll be passing through a lot of flat scrub, bush, and pine with very little elevation change, but know that the destination will more than make up for it.
Why Arizona Train Journeys Are Totally Worth It
These two scenic train offerings gave us a new way to encounter the Arizona landscape. The mix of novelty, history, and convenience makes them both wonderful options to explore these gorgeous canyons.
They’re also a great way to bring our family together, allowing everyone from different generations and abilities to see America’s stunning and beautiful Southwest.
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