Grand Canyon Railway: Tracking the Wild West in comfort

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WILLIAMS, Ariz. -- Contrary to what the Grand Canyon Railway brochure implies, you wont see the slightest crack of canyon from the comfort of your vintage train car. Panoramic views from the Deluxe Observation Dome dont reveal the big draw, either.

For that youll have to wait until you disembark at the Grand Canyon Depot -- not a bad deal, though, considering the train moves you comfortably through a glorious montage of desert, prairie and pine.

Grand Canyon Railway received AAA Travels highest ratings in customer satisfaction, including a Preferred Partner of the Year award in 2004, the same year the train carried a record-breaking 210,866 passengers to the South Rim.

Thats quite an improvement over an earlier incarnation of the Railway, which made its final run in 1968 with only three passengers on board. Multimillion-dollar restoration efforts saved the train and its rails from the scrap yards, getting the legendary line back on track by 1989.

A convenient alternative to the Grand Canyon National Parks notoriously congested roads and parking lots, the train is credited with reducing park traffic by an estimated 59,000 vehicles a year.

Visitors can find ample parking near the old train depot in Williams, Ariz., about 30 miles west of Flagstaff on Interstate 40. There they board one of an assortment of vintage cars ranging in class from Coach, a 1923 Harriman-style Pullman with reversible seats and ceiling fans, to Luxury Parlor, the air-conditioned rear car with an open-air platform, full bar and complimentary champagne in the afternoon.

A tip for those torn between thrift and opulence: Enjoy the scenery from Coach on the morning ride out. Upgrade to the cushy Parlor for a relaxing afternoon ride back.

Grand Canyon Railway also maintains a fleet of locomotives, both steam and diesel.

Depending on which is in use, the train either chugs or thunders through 65 miles of ponderosa pine forest and high desert plains.

Cowboy actor Wolf Smith on the tracks of the Grand Canyon Railroad. Photo by Stephen AushermanRoving musicians, gunslingers and outlaws punctuate the 135-minute journey with entertaining performances.

(One group of elementary school students reacted to every show with glee, while older travelers at the Club Class bar seemed to regard it as camp.)

Upon arrival at the Grand Canyon Depot, just a few hundred yards shy of the South Rim, passengers disembark for a three-hour layover -- enough time to stroll along the rim, shop and dine at Grand Canyon Village, ride a free shuttle bus as far as Mather Point or take a narrated tour via motorcoach.

Grand Canyon Railway also offers packages with overnight lodging in Grand Canyon National Park as well as add-on tours of Sedona, the Colorado River and Native American monuments.

For more information, call (800) THE-TRAIN or visit www.thetrain.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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