Southwest 2015 – The Grand Canyon Railway

with No Comments

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
Julia and I got up very early to get ourselves some breakfast and prepare for a ride on the rail to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We were so close to the train station that we could walk there. When we arrived, I picked up our prepaid tickets and we made our way to a small arena where we could catch a quick gun show before we boarded the train. It was a comedic gun slinging performance between the infamous Cataract Creek Gang and the Sheriff. They even got someone from the audience participate as they cheat on him in a game of poker. Eventually the Sheriff set everything straight with a duel.

“Julia and Cutter, the leader of the Cataract Creek Gang”

The Grand Canyon Railway

In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway completed a branch line from Williams to Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim. The first scheduled train to carry paying passengers of the Grand Canyon Railway arrived from Williams on September 17th of that year. The 64-mile (103-kilometer) long trip cost $3.95, and naturalist John Muir later commended the railroad for its limited environmental impact. To accommodate travelers, the Santa Fe designed and built the El Tovar Hotel, located just 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the Canyon Rim. El Tovar opened its doors in January 1905.

Competition with the automobile forced the Santa Fe to cease operation of the Grand Canyon Railway in July 1968 (only three passengers were on the last run), although Santa Fe continued to use the tracks for freight until 1974. Plans by entertainer Arthur Godfrey to resume service in 1977 fell through. In addition, two other companies attempted to resurrect the line in 1980 and 1984, with each attempt helping to maintain interest in preserving the line and saving it from scrapping.

The railroad went through a few owners and on September 21st 2006, it was announced that Xanterra Parks & Resorts of Denver, Colorado, submitted the winning bid (for an undisclosed sum) and was selected as the new owner for the Grand Canyon Railway. Xanterra is the corporate name and identity for what was originally known as the Fred Harvey Company, a legendary company with restaurant, hotel and service ties to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway as far back as 1876.

Xanterra said that it intended to keep all 480 of the railway’s current employees, and planned to focus on growing the business and increasing the coordination between the railway and Xanterra’s other services in the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim. In the press release, the railway and Xanterra reported over 225,000 passengers and over $38 million in revenue in calendar year 2005. The purchase of the GCR included all of the railway’s assets, land, depots, hotels, RV park, rolling stock, shops and linear pieces of land along the 65-mile (105 km) line. The Biegert family’s 480-acre (194.2 ha) ranch near Gonzales Lake in north Williams was not included in the sale to Xanterra.

In September 2008, Trains magazine reported that Xanterra would no longer operate its steam locomotives. The decision came as a result of the 2000s energy crisis and the late 2000s recession conspiring against passenger numbers, although it was claimed to be an environmental decision. The railway’s policy of always running a diesel with a steam locomotive as backup however does render the decision environmentally friendly. As part of the end of steam, 20 employees were laid off.

“Engine 29 is now permanently parked at the South Rim”

Around that time, both steam engines 29 and 4960 were placed on static display on the Williams Depot platform. Limited steam operation returned on September 19, 2009, with the engines being powered by waste vegetable oil. According to the GCR website, the service will be available during the 2011 season with engine 4960. Over the winter of 2011/2012, engine 4960 underwent its 15-year overhaul and inspection, and returned to service in February 2012 for a special Centennial Run on February 14, 2012 celebrating 100 years of Arizona Statehood. Since then, engine 4960 continues to pull GCR excursions once per month during the summer months from May through September, and for special occasions.

On June 24, 2008, it was announced that Philip Anschutz would buy Xanterra. Negotiations for the sale began on June 5[9] and the sale was completed on September 25.(source: wikipedia)

“All aboard!”

Julia and I walked to our designated train car, tickets in hand and ready to ride this railway for the first time. I had personally not ridden a real train since I was about 10 years old, so this was going to be extra awesome, especially since I have a love for trains. Our trip would be a 65 mile (104.6 km) trip with an average time frame of 2 hours, 15 minutes each way. The railway offer six classes of travel, The Pullman Car, Coach Class, First Class, Observation Dome, Luxury Dome Class, and Luxury Parlor Class. Julia and I wanted to keep it simple, so we went for the First Class option ($152 per person plus a 20% AAA discount) and were treated to a breakfast of juice, coffee, danishes, and fruit. For entertainment, we had a wonderful serenade by Cody the country guitar singer.

“Rudy the Bear poses with Cody the Country Guitar Singer, Meanwhile, the Sheriff tells stories on the Observation Deck upstairs”

When Cody left to serenade some others, The speaker system on the train continued spitting out neat facts about the plateau and the railroad history of this area. After a short while, the automated voice over the speaker system went off line and into our car arrived Caleb the Conductor, he was one of the coolest guys we’ve met on this trip so far and he told us some great information about the San Francisco mountains to the east, home of the highest peak in Arizona, Mt. Humphry’s at 13,993 ft (4,265 m). The entire scenery changes a few times as you leave the station, from the Ponderosa pine forest surrounding Williams, to a gentle drop in elevation down to the wide-open prairie before climbing back up to the Pinion pine forests near the Grand Canyon itself.

“After about an hour and a half, we hit the Pinion pine forests that line the edge of the plateau at the Grand Canyon.”


“Getting near the end of the line, Julia captures me checking the charge on my iPhone. They had power outlets on the wall near your feet.”


When we arrived, Julia and I grabbed all our gear and headed out the exit. The funny thing is that we were surrounded by folks who traveled light with small day packs, point and shoots, and camera phones, Then here’s Julia and I armed to the teeth with DLSR’s Big Lenses, Large Camera Bags and Tripods hanging off them. They kept asking “Are you both professionals?” and I would just say, Nah, we’re just traveling camera gear addicts and glutton’s for punishment…lol. Before leaving the train, Caleb the Conductor reminded us that we had about 3.5 hours to walk around and that it is imperative that we return on time, because otherwise we’d be stuck out here or facing one gigantic taxi fare for the ride back to Williams, AZ. With that said, I set my alarm and kept tabs on the time the entire way.

“Julia makes her way to the back of the train and over the tracks to our destination.”


“Julia snaps another shot of me in front of the Grand Canyon train station.”


The breakfast we had this morning was a bit on the light side and the pastries and fruit didn’t really do much to satiate our desire for a tasty meal, so Julia and I stopped at a place called the Bright Angel Restaurant where we stuffed our faces with some very savory burgers. The place wasn’t bad, I’d definitely give it a 4 out of 5 stars for the food and the service. We must have arrived at a good time because there were only a few other groups there.

“Julia excited to dig in so we can get out and explore the rim of the canyon.”


Once we wrapped things up at the restaurant, we started our way out to the rim and it was just an awesome site. The last time I had visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was when I was just a young teenager, so seeing this place again with my seasoned eyes and refined mind was a super awesome treat.

The Grand Canyon

GPS Coordinates: 36.1036° N, 112.1296° W
The Grand Canyon (Hopi: Ongtupqa; Yavapai: Wi:kaʼi:la, Spanish: Gran Cañón) is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Colorado River in the state of Arizona in the United States. It is contained within and managed by Grand Canyon National Park, the Kaibab National Forest, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, the Hualapai Tribal Nation, the Havasupai people and the Navajo Nation. President Theodore Roosevelt was a major proponent of preservation of the Grand Canyon area, and visited it on numerous occasions to hunt and enjoy the scenery.

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,093 ft or 1,857 m). Nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. While some aspects about the history of incision of the canyon are debated by geologists, several recent studies support the hypothesis that the Colorado River established its course through the area about 5 or 6 million years ago. Since that time, the Colorado River has driven the down-cutting of the tributaries and retreat of the cliffs, simultaneously deepening and widening the canyon.

For thousands of years, the area has been continuously inhabited by Native Americans, who built settlements within the canyon and its many caves. The Pueblo people considered the Grand Canyon (“Ongtupqa” in the Hopi language) a holy site, and made pilgrimages to it. The first European known to have viewed the Grand Canyon was García López de Cárdenas from Spain, who arrived in 1540.(source: wikipedia)

“The view from here was spectacular, I could sit here and watch the canyon for hours.”


The Grand Canyon is part of the Colorado River basin which has developed over the past 40 million years. A recent study places the origins of the canyon beginning about 17 million years ago. Previous estimates had placed the age of the canyon at 5–6 million years. The study, which was published in the journal Science in 2008, used uranium-lead dating to analyze calcite deposits found on the walls of nine caves throughout the canyon. There is a substantial amount of controversy because this research suggests such a substantial departure from prior widely supported scientific consensus. In December 2012, a study published in the journal Science claimed new tests had suggested the Grand Canyon could be as old as 70 million years. However, this study has been criticized as “[an] attempt to push the interpretation of their new data to their limits without consideration of the whole range of other geologic data sets.”

The canyon is the result of erosion which exposes one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet. The major geologic exposures in the Grand Canyon range in age from the 2-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 230-million-year-old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim. There is a gap of about a billion years between the 500-million-year-old stratum and the level below it, which dates to about 1.5 billion years ago. This large unconformity indicates a long period for which no deposits are present. Many of the formations were deposited in warm shallow seas, near-shore environments (such as beaches), and swamps as the seashore repeatedly advanced and retreated over the edge of a proto-North America. Major exceptions include the Permian Coconino Sandstone, which contains abundant geological evidence of aeolian sand dune deposition. Several parts of the Supai Group also were deposited in non–marine environments.

The great depth of the Grand Canyon and especially the height of its strata (most of which formed below sea level) can be attributed to 5–10 thousand feet (1,500 to 3,000 m) of uplift of the Colorado Plateau, starting about 65 million years ago (during the Laramide Orogeny). This uplift has steepened the stream gradient of the Colorado River and its tributaries, which in turn has increased their speed and thus their ability to cut through rock (see the elevation summary of the Colorado River for present conditions). Weather conditions during the ice ages also increased the amount of water in the Colorado River drainage system. The ancestral Colorado River responded by cutting its channel faster and deeper.

The base level and course of the Colorado River (or its ancestral equivalent) changed 5.3 million years ago when the Gulf of California opened and lowered the river’s base level (its lowest point). This increased the rate of erosion and cut nearly all of the Grand Canyon’s current depth by 1.2 million years ago. The terraced walls of the canyon were created by differential erosion. Between 100,000 and 3 million years ago, volcanic activity deposited ash and lava over the area which at times completely obstructed the river. These volcanic rocks are the youngest in the canyon.(source: wikipedia)

“I got a shot with Rudy sitting at the very edge”


“Then Julia got a shot with Rudy and I.”


Julia and I started a pretty swift hike to Hopi Point because it was the furthest that we knew we could get to that would give us enough time to take some shots and then head back to the Grand Canyon train station on time so we don’t miss our ride. There were a lot of small elevation climbs along the way and the fact that we were already at 7,000 ft (2100m) explained why we were both huffing and puffing more than normal, not to mention the fast paced hike and the heavy gear weighing us down. We took a small break and then continued until we reached Hopi Point. According to my clock, we had 15 minutes of photo time here, so Julia and I started shooting immediately.

“Julia’s such a trooper, not even a little elevation exhaustion will stop her from smiling, Meanwhile I spotted a pack mule team coming up the Bright Angel Trail below.”


“The view to the eat from Hopi Point was pretty amazing!”


I took one final shot of Julia near Hopi Point and once our time was up, we had to start making our way back quickly. Julia’s back was starting to hurt, so being the gentlemen that I am and all the weight training that I’ve been doing allowed me to haul her heavy camera bag as well as mine. She knows that I love doing this for her =D

“We made it back with enough time to swing by the gift shop and then get to our train car.”


Well, our stay at the South Rim was brief, but it was fun and now we head back to the Railway Station at Williams while we enjoy the beautiful sunset and the relaxing ride. Julia and I reviewed a lot of the shots we took and decided that since our trip was pretty flexible, that we would drive to the South Rim tomorrow and explore everything to the east of the Bright Angel Trail. This way we could start our day early again and get there faster with many more hours to spare for exploration and photography.

“Leaving the Pinion pine forest and entering the prairie during sunset was a great experience, Julia and I sat up in the observation deck for a little bit.”


“We went back down to our First Class seating and enjoyed the sunset with a Pink Lemonade refreshment while we waited to get robbed by the Cataract Creek Gang.”


It was pretty dark by the time the train robbers rode alongside the train on their horses and boarded. The train came to a stop and car by car the comical characters and their antics came in and robbed everyone for tips and even posed with some of the lovely ladies onboard our car. Julia got robbed for $20 bucks and then she posed and giggled with her robber as I took some video of this awesome event. The ride back was also spent being serenaded by another Country Guitar Singer who sang some really great older country songs. Both country singers from the morning and the evening received very generous tips from Julia and I. When the sun had finally disappeared and the train started to slow, we knew that we had finally arrived back in town.

“The Grand Canyon Railway also operates the famous Polar Express which was on a set of service tracks awaiting it’s journey to the North Pole with many families.”


“We had a great time, I highly recommend this experience to anyone who loves trains and national parks!”
“It was time to get back to town for some dinner and hit the hay early for round 2 of the Grand Canyon tomorrow.”


Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



©Indigoverse Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.