Destination Report: The Grand Canyon by Train

Grand Canyon  tonda/iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images
Photo by tonda/iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images

We have visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona many times. My husband requested a train trip for Christmas and one of my clients who recently lost her husband asked could she come with us. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and gets 5 million visitors a year.

We went by train from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles, a 10 hour journey down the coast, and stayed overnight in Los Angeles. We then got the train for an overnight journey to Williams, Arizona.

The best part of the trip is the train ride from Williams to the Grand Canyon. An old steam train has a robber on board, and the sheriff comes and puts him in handcuffs. Banjo players roam the two and a half hour journey, and the refreshments and drinks are excellent. Scenery is spectacular, and it is one of the top five train journeys in the world. This train has been running for over one hundred years and the classic coaches are extremely comfortable. It departs at 8.30 am and arrives at 11.45 am.

In December, they run the Polar Express, a journey from Williams to the North Pole, a spot along the route to the Grand Canyon. It's an absolutely wonderful experience for children and adults. I love to see everyone in their pajamas and robes, many being carried by their fathers, as they take the train to see Santa’s village. Everyone stays at the Grand Canyon Hotel, and it is a fun night out. They carry a list of what they would like for Christmas, and they are jumping up and down with excitement to get on the train.

My husband was on a walker, and I found the staff everywhere we went anxious to be of assistance.

Of the hotels on the rim, the best is the El Tovar, which gets booked up very quickly. Even if you don’t stay there, go to lunch or dinner and enjoy the elegance of years gone by. My second choice would be Bright Angel Lodge. It has an excellent restaurant, and the individual cottages are all along the rim. I find that the Yavapai Tavern Lodge and the Maswik Lodge were not in a good location. You have to get the shuttle bus to get to the rim which I don’t like doing. I don’t like using a cafeteria for all meals.

We had a few days of heavy snow, and had to ask for a car and driver to take us between the hotels for meals, since it was impossible for my husband to get around with his walker.

This is a very organized National Park. No traffic is allowed, so you must use the shuttle to get around. They have three different routes, so you can plan on where you want to go.

If you drive yourself in from Las Vegas, which many people do, heaven help you if it snows, since you cant find your car in the parking lot. I would recommend that you don’t rent a car since you can't use it in the park, but take a bus in from Las Vegas.

I am always surprised at the number of people from overseas visiting the park. It was packed.

Even in the winter months, there are lots of hikers. One sign made me grin. At the head of the trail there is a sign, “If you can’t run the Boston Marathon (25miles in length) then you can’t take this trail. Don’t even think about it."

They don’t want you carrying plastic water bottles so encourage you to carry your own water container, and there are many places for you to fill up with water.

The only lodge at the bottom of the canyon is the Phantom Ranch, which gets booked up 12 months in advance. The websites are and

This is one of the most difficult hiking areas in the world. The walk to the Phantom Ranch is eight miles down the South Kaibab Trail. The average hiking time is four to five hours down. It's 10 miles on the Bright Angel Trail (average hiking time down is four to six hours, and hiking time up is six to 10 hours). Summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees and winter conditions can be very icy and treacherous. I saw people putting snowshoe racks on their boots. There is no water source on the trails and no shade. The south Kaibab Trail is not recommended for hiking out of the canyon. People are shocked at how steep these trails are, and even if you are extremely fit, it is difficult.

Another option is to do the journey by horseback, or do a river raft in the warmer months, which means camping.

High altitude (9,000 ft) sickness can cause fatigue, dizziness and vomiting. To be air lifted out by helicopter is jolly expensive. It is too difficult to hike to the river and back in one day.

You have to see the Grand Canyon to believe it. Photos don’t do it justice.