Deciding on the spur of the moment to take the train to the Grand Canyon is fine, but there's no reason to not be sensible about it.
I checked the forecast for a three-day period of clear weather. Warmer is better than sub-zero, but mainly I wanted to be certain that it wouldn't be raining or snowing. That done, let's go...
The Southwest Chief number 3 train leaves Newton at the most inconvenient time possible. But, at least it means that it's possible to get from Kansas to Williams, Arizona in a single day.
Probably the worst tracks of the entire route are just west of Hutchinson, Kansas--although the rest of western Kansas isn't much better. The train must slow to 30 mph for some stretches. When the tracks are welded and have a good foundation it'll run at 80 mph.
There's a crew change in La Junta and passengers are allowed to walk outside for ten minutes, or so. Avoid the smokers.
The small town of Raton is another place to get out. As you can see, there has been a fair amount of snowfall just a few days earlier.
The Trinidad to Albuquerque section seems only to be used by Amtrak. In any case, we never passed a freight. I understand that funds have finally been found to maintain the rails (BNSF not being obligated to do it), but one crewman told me he'd believe that when he saw the tracks being replaced.
The view is the best in this car, but the seats are much more comfortable in the coach.
Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The engine is refueled here. It's odd to see a tanker-truck drive up next to the engine to do the job.
Williams Junction is about four miles outside of Williams. The main tracks curve north of Williams (on the way to Los Angeles), so the train stops at this remote place to let out any passengers. There's nothing here: no lights, no bench, not even any pavement.
A van from the hotel was waiting for me. They've been doing it this way for decades.
Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. It's a very convenient system. The Railway Hotel is right next to the tracks for the Grand Canyon Railway. In fact, the hotel is owned by the same company that owns the railway, which is also the same company that owns the hotels on the south rim: Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which used to be known as the Fred Harvey Company.
Leave your luggage in the lobby of the hotel and board the train. They'll ensure that your luggage is loaded on the baggage car and you'll find it waiting for you in your hotel room at the park when you check in later in the day. If you were to drive to the park hotel, you'd be hauling your luggage from wherever you might have found a place to park (there is no parking at the hotel). This is easier.
There are first class cars and there are coach cars. I'm in coach. That's Amber, who is the car's hostess and guide to pretty much everything. If you have any questions about the park or the train or about places to eat in Williams, chances are she can answer them. Sing-along entertainment is part of the deal. He's an excellent banjo player.
There's a wye at the south rim (and one in Williams, too) so we turned the train around and backed into the station. Just up the stairs from the station is the El Tovar Hotel. It couldn't be easier.
El Tovar. This was the first hotel built in the park (by the Fred Harvey Company). Its unlikely mix of Scandinavian hunting lodge and Swiss chalet has set the standard for all other national park lodges.
The first view of the Canyon. I've been here several times (even an earlier trip by train years ago), but it's always astonishing.
I'll have three days and two nights, so there's no need to hurry about as most of the train's other passengers are doing. The train returns at 3:30pm.
It's time for lunch. I'm having French onion soup and whatever a Navajo taco turns out to be.
El Tover dining room, the main lobby and the wrap-around porch with plenty of rocking chairs. The lighted opening in the second floor of the lobby is the guest-only lobby, which is where I'll finish each evening.
This is my plan. Today I'll start at the hotel (near the Bright Angel Trailhead on the map) and walk east to Yaki Point. Tomorrow, I'll walk west to Hermits Rest (which will be fifteen miles round trip). My last day will be spent poking around the visitor center and the other buildings in the village area.
The rim trail is an easy one. Where there are places that require steps, there's always an alternate path that anybody with a wheelchair could use.
These big animals are not at all concerned with people. There are signs warning you not to pet them or otherwise do anything foolish. They might be calm, but they're still wild.
The path was dry, although there is still quite a bit of snow on the ground. But, today is clear (as are the next two days). It's cold, but it's nice.
That's Bright Angel Canyon running up the north rim. The north rim is higher and has a more gentle slope, so these side-canyons are quite extensive and long. The south rim (where I am) is lower and much steeper, so the side-canyons do not extend far at all.
Mather Point is the point closest to the visitor center, and is likely the place where most everybody who visits the canyon stops first. No other location will have as many people.
These guys hardly even bother to step aside for you on the path. I stood still, and waited for them to walk by.
Yaki Point is the end of my journey for today; I'll be turning back. I waited for the sun to drop to the horizon and couldn't help but notice the temperature fell just as rapidly. Nights are pretty chilly (twenties).
No; I didn't walk back. A shuttle bus comes every twenty minutes (or so). This one returns to the visitor center, and I'll catch another that will take me back to the hotel. You do not need a car.
I'm back at the hotel in time to see the colors change during sunset at El Tovar viewpoint.
On the right is the El Tovar guest lounge on the second floor. There were generally people here writing in their journals, reading or playing cards. There was a bridge game both nights I was here.
Breakfast. During the high season, finding a table can be a problem. This time of year? It's nothing to worry about.
Today's my day for walking to Hermit's Rest. Am I up for fifteen miles? We'll see.
That's the tunnel for the Bright Angel Trail (left) and over there (right) is El Tovar on the edge. It only looks precarious from this side of the rim. It's actually not that close.
I started out on the trail, but unlike the trail I was on yesterday, this less-used trail is not cleared of ice and snow. Perhaps it's better to just walk on the road.
Notice the footprints in the snow. Now, why would anybody be so foolish as to slip and slide out to that cantilevered bit of rock? For a photograph?
Bright Angel Trail viewpoint. You can see a bit of the trail on the left.
What can you do? This family positioned the young boy on that ledge. If he slipped it'd be a good hundred feet before he stopped on the rocky slope of the canyon wall. For a photograph?
Maricopa Point. This (or perhaps Hopi Point) is my favorite.
Powell Monument Point.
Hopi Point. Stunning. I stayed at each of these view points, sitting on available benches. There were very few people, and I had all day.
Condor information. California Condors have been introduced to the Grand Canyon, and are doing well. I looked often, but never saw one.
The Abyss. For reference, I'm standing on the rim (to the left) in the above photograph. It's a long way down, which I suppose explains the name.
Monument Creek Vista.
Hermit's Rest is one of many famous buildings in the park designed by Mary Colter. She designed for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad (but, she did not design the El Tovar).
I sat on one of those chairs by the fireplace and ate my sandwich. My feet are sore and my muscles are warm, but I've still got to walk back.
More (seemingly) tame animals.
Another sunset back at the village.
I could eat in the restaurant, but I preferred to just get some food in the bar. That's chili (without beans) in the middle, and that's Kaibab Coffee--a Grand Canyon version of Irish Coffee.
It's my final morning. I'm told to place my bag just inside the room door (keeping the original tag attached). The staff will ensure that the bag is loaded on the afternoon train and that I'll find it in my hotel room in Williams. And, so I did.
The Bright Angel Lodge is one of Mary's buildings. She was very particular about all the details. That fireplace? (below right). It's made from canyon rock taken from the base to the rim and reassembled in that order.
There's a nice museum of the Fred Harvey Company in this hotel. Remember that the Bright Angel Hotel and El Tovar Hotel are both under the same company.
I had no intention of riding a mule to the bottom of the canyon. Short (two hour) guided rides are offered on top, but I was happy enough to just take their photographs. They all seemed sleepy.
Catching the Blue Route bus to the visitor center.
All the best places now have these illuminated globes (below). Through a clever system of projectors, it appears that the globe is rotating. This was a fifteen minute presentation on the geology of the canyon.
The more conventional theater showed a longer movie of the park. Our guide back on the train said to skip the center if you only have one day (instead, focus your energy on seeing the canyon). But if you have extra time, then you should see the visitor center.
The Geology Museum is right on the edge, and gives the presenters an excellent way to point things out to their audience no matter the weather.
Not Condors. Keep looking.
Another Colter building (below), this is Hopi House, which is a trading post.
My train is waiting for me. I'm hoping my bag is loaded (it is).
Our entertainer for the return trip was a French-Canadian playing this six-string guitar/banjo. He was terrific.
I'll have dinner in Williams. Downtown is just steps away from the train station.
The hour isn't quite so horrible as when I left Kansas, but I still had to set the alarm for 3:30 am. I was the only passenger waiting for the train to arrive, although six got off from this eastbound Southwest Chief.
Rolling at eighty mph while the sun comes up in Arizona.
That's Sandia Peak in the distance and Albuquerque is at its base.
I couldn't go through New Mexico without having a green chili cheeseburger, so during the fuel stop (same as coming out) I took the opportunity of having lunch off the train.
Rolling towards Raton Pass. We're not moving so quickly through this section.
Gliding down the Colorado side of the pass as the sun sets.
La Junta, Colorado.
Dinner on the train. Each time, I've always met interesting people. The dining car attendant will ensure that each table is full before seating people at the next open table.
Excellent. Take the train to the Grand Canyon, walk around a bit, stay in a wonderful old hotel, and then come back the same way. Easy.