WILLIAMS, Ariz. — The train was rumbling across a lonely plain dotted with rabbit brush when we noticed them. Three men, standing close to the tracks, staring up at us as we roared by. About 10 minutes later we saw more. A group of four this time, staring and pointing. They jumped into a battered black Jeep as we passed, and a small dust cloud rose as the driver hit the gas.
A railroad employee was in the aisle next to me, and I turned and looked at her quizzically. "They're trying to get ahead of us so they can watch the train go by again," she said.
"Why would they do that?" I asked.
"They're foamers," she said, laughing. "Every time they see a train, they foam at the mouth."
To a train fanatic, we must have seemed like nirvana on wheels.
We were aboard the Grand Canyon Railway, a restored 100-year-old line that provides service to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Our Wild West-style Pullman cars were being pulled by a 1920s locomotive, steam belching from its stack. We could hear the wail of the whistle and feel the vibration of the rails as we negotiated the 65 miles of Arizona high country between Williams and the South Rim.
We saw train fans all along the route. We had unintentionally booked our trip during the mid-August convention of the National Railroad Historical Society, so train lovers were everywhere.
We enjoyed the train too, but when we arrived at the rim, we turned our attention to the mile-deep canyon that's considered one of the natural wonders of the world. The four of us--my co-worker Gail Fisher, her 12-year-old son, Zack, and his friend Kyle--were taking advantage of a $602 railway package that included two nights' accommodation, two meals, a canyon tour and the round-trip train ride. (The cost for four will decrease to $435 during the low season, Oct. 15 to March 15.) Besides being inexpensive, the trip was easy to arrange. One phone call took care of booking the train, one night at the Maswik Lodge at the South Rim and another night at the railway-owned Fray Marcos Hotel in Williams.
The train offered a fun way to introduce children to the canyon--and to do our part to keep vehicles out of the park. On a peak summer day, as many as 6,000 drivers try to wedge their cars into 2,400 parking places. Consequently, drivers may do more circling than parking. Visitors don't really need cars. The train stops steps away from the rim; free buses go almost anywhere else you might wish to go.
Our biggest mistake was bad timing: We left the Los Angeles area at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday--just in time to wallow in heavy get-out-of-town-for-the-weekend traffic. We spent more than eight hours driving to Williams. The return trip Monday took only six hours, and that included a bit of shopping at the outlet mall near Barstow.
The Grand Canyon train runs daily, steaming out of the depot in Williams at 10 a.m. while railway employees--as many as 30 strong--stand on the platform waving goodbye. Incredibly hokey, but seemingly no one aboard complains.
There are five classes of service, including coach, where we rode, and an upper-level observation dome. The dome offers a fun ride; it's air-conditioned and has a 180-degree view of the passing countryside. But the price difference is substantial, especially considering that the ride is only about 2 1/4 hours. If we had not purchased our coach seats as part of a package, they would have cost $54.94 for each adult and $24.94 for each child, round trip. Seats in the dome section cost $129.94 for an adult and $99.94 for a child.
Regardless of class, passengers receive beverages, are serenaded by strolling musicians and meet the Cataract Creek Gang, a smiling band of Old West characters. A club car sells alcoholic beverages, and passengers can buy snacks in a cafe car. The diversions are worthwhile, especially for kids, because riders are mostly paying for the novelty of the experience, not breathtaking scenery whizzing by.
The train arrives at the rim's historic log depot shortly after noon. Day-trippers have about three hours to glance at the canyon, visit a couple of shops and gulp down a quick lunch before the "All aboard" sounds for the return trip to Williams. Too much to see, too much to do. We were glad we had an extra day.
The Grand Canyon, 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide at points, draws as many as 5 million visitors a year. Most of them see it from the 7,000-foot-high South Rim, which is open year-round. They gaze down at its colorful walls, straining to see the Colorado River below. Some will try to make the 22-mile, three-day hike up and down steep trails to the North Rim. Others will drive 215 miles to the less developed north side. But most will be content to stand on the rim and watch the shifting shadows on its buttes and towers.