Best Way to Visit the Grand Canyon? Hop a Train from This Mountain Town

Where Route 66, the wild west, and a national park collide.

Williams, Arizona
Git your kicks. | Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Git your kicks. | Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

In the days of yore, Williams had a rough reputation. The Arizona frontier town was a place where cowboys, loggers, and railroad workers would get rowdy, get drunk, and get into trouble—often at casinos and brothels, which were legal until 1907. Today, Williams is less known for its high noon scuffles and more for its proximity to the Grand Canyon. It’s a noteworthy stop on Route 66, which helped usher in a new era of road trip culture for Americans.

"Route 66 is what we call the mother road," says Mayor John W. Moore over dinner at Miss Kitty's Steakhouse. "It was the first road to reach L.A. from Chicago. It was the heyday of big Cadillacs and Buicks. There were a lot of roadside attractions. That's what made it popular." Williams actually became the last officially active stretch of Route 66—a footnote in history that's evolved into a legacy the town celebrates today.

One of the closest cities to the south entrance of the Grand Canyon, Williams remains a great base for planning a trip to the national park, especially when a locomotive is involved. But don't stop there. This charming destination feels like a trip back in time with much of its town center recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. So far, Williams seems comfortable balancing its Old West culture with a zipline, gift shops, and other contemporary touches that reflect a growing demand for tourism.

"We've still got an old feel for the way it used to be," adds Moore. "I like to call it a little town with a big heart."

Here are all the places to eat, drink, see wildlife, and base yourself for a Grand Canyon adventure.

Children on a train look our the window at bandits on horseback
Not sure I’d be as happy to see this sight out the window. | Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Welcome to Williams—time to leave

Boarding a train with the Grand Canyon Railway is the most enticing reason tourists come to Williams. The ride is 2.5 hours each way with a three-hour layover at the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park. There's a good chance of spotting wild horses, cattle, and maybe a fast-moving pronghorn, which is like a cross between a goat and antelope. You'll even see a few prairie dogs popping their heads out of the ground to watch the train depart near the Williams depot. (Squint your eyes and look for 'em above small mounds of dirt. They're tiny—and ridiculously cute.)

Splurge for a luxury cabin. It's totally worth it to stretch out on a comfortable couch while watching the scenery go by, especially the pine trees of the Kaibab National Forest. It's the best time to step out on the train's rear platform and soak in all that fresh air. Plus the private bar is a nice bonus. Sip on a Bloody Mary (loaded with Worcestershire, Tabasco, and olive brine) on the way to the Grand Canyon and a Tequila Sunrise on the way back. The journey includes a Wild West show outside the station before departure, live music onboard the train, and a bandit holdup—so have your tips ready during the "robbery."

South rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset
Definitely worth a three hour pitstop. | Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Go on a South Rim binge

There are two ways to enjoy the South Rim of the Grand Canyon while in between train rides. Some opt to take a bus tour—but do you really want to sit down again so soon? Take matters into your own hands and explore the country's largest hole in the ground sans tour guide.

Here's how to maximize your time. The train depot is right by the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon Village. Hang a right and walk northeast along the rim to the Geology Museum at Yavapai Point. The views don't get any better than this—and sadly any photo you take just won't do the canyon justice.

Sweaty palms and anxious moments aren't unusual with a two-foot stone barrier—and sometimes nothing at all—separating you from a steep drop and a potential fall that would guarantee certain death. So take it easy on ambitious selfies. (It's odd that we trust human beings to be responsible here, but most of 'em actually are.)

The entire walk is on a paved trail and little more than an hour round trip at a regular walking pace. When you get back to the Village, grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants, watch a short film at Kolb Studio, and visit Lookout Studio, a gift shop with a balcony platform and winding terrace carved into the canyon rock.

Whatever you do, get back to the train on time. It runs on a tight schedule and won't wait around for stragglers. If three hours isn't enough, spend the night at a cabin or the historic El Tovar Hotel and return via train the next day.

Vintage gas pumps at Pete's Gas Station Museum
Memorabilia galore. | Photo by Rob Kachelriess

Walk the nostalgic streets of downtown Williams

With your Grand Canyon train ride out of the way, take an extra day or two to see what Williams is all about. The downtown strip is extremely walkable and easy to navigate with historically preserved buildings framed by a pair of one-way streets. Businesses come and go, but the atmosphere hasn't changed much since road trippers began passing through in the 1930s.

The legacy of Route 66 is celebrated by Pete's Gas Station Museum, a free collection of exhibits (donations welcomed) inside an old filling station. One room shows off vintage pumps and other travel-related antiques. The second room is a gift shop.

Wild West Junction is a hotel that seems to go even further back in time to the frontier days. You’ll find facades of a barbershop, jail, and other Old West businesses around a town square with picnic tables and string lights. The complex includes the four-room Drover's Inn and Branding Iron Restaurant, which temporarily closed its dining room, but continues to serve BBQ at the neighboring Long Horn Saloon.

Hot pizza with spinach
Because Americana stole pizza from Italy. | Station 66

Eat classic Americana burgers, steak, and pizza

The Red Raven is the dining spot locals always recommend first; and it’s the closest thing to a big city restaurant in Williams. It has a charming dining room with a brick wall, wainscotting, and a quirky mix of framed paintings and vintage china hanging on the walls. It doesn't do much to reinvent the wheel, but the lamb sirloin is a nice surprise and the charbroiled duck breast is a satisfying dish that balances a sweet cranberry sauce with the savory combination of mushrooms and wild rice.

Miss Kitty's Steakhouse isn't fancy, but it's a vibe. The main dining room is the larger, more buttoned-up option, with two levels of tables, tall ceilings, and floods of light from the huge windows. But the cocktail lounge is a little more fun: messy and worn-in with a touch of chaos and country music playing at just the right volume. Every steak comes with two sides and a salad, and you might get a funny look if you ask for oil-and-vinegar as your dressing.

For a few more quick-fire dining options, Station 66 serves wood-fired pizzas with a spacious patio and a rooftop deck. Cruiser's Cafe 66 was originally a telegraph office and later a gas station, but is now a classic American diner that mesquite-smokes its own BBQ on the front patio. It also has one of the better gift shops in town. Anna's Canyon Cafe serves breakfast all day with a heavy emphasis on Mexican dishes inspired by the owner's family recipes and scratch-made sauces. The Huevos Rancheros have an off-menu "Christmas-style" option with red and green chili on the same plate. Whereas Pine Country Restaurant is also popular for breakfast, but best known for a killer lineup of homemade pies. If you're short on time, ask for a slice to go.

Grizzly bears lounging in a wildlife preserve
Get on the grizzly train. | Bearizona

Get up close to wildlife in Bearizona

Not counting the Grand Canyon Railway, the top tourist attraction in Williams is Bearizona, a wildlife park that operates in two parts. First, guests drive their own car through a series of (mostly) fenced-in outdoor areas with an up-close look at bears, bison, reindeer, and other animals. The wolves know their role best, walking around the cars and letting out a howl when the time is right for maximum drama. The animals have been doing this for a long time. They know the deal. Follow instructions, stay in your car, keep your windows rolled up, and you won't get any trouble.

After the safari-style drive-thru, visitors park their cars and venture into the park for an on-foot zoo experience. It generally features smaller animals (like foxes, beavers, and bobcats), but a few elk and younger bears have their own enclosure. If you don't see the racoons, look up into the trees. The otters love an audience, playing it up with near-Olympic levels of synchronized swimming. You've got dining (restaurants and food trucks), plenty of room to relax and yes, booze, including a localized take on a Bloody Mary with Arizona Hot Sauce. Tickets are reasonable ($20-35), but an annual pass provides the most value while challenging the limit of how many people you can fit into a single car.

2 friends drinking beer while looking into the distance
The way nature intended. | Historic Brewing Company

Drink beer made for the outdoors

Williams is definitely a beer town. When visiting South Rims Wine & Beer Garage, you'll hear lots of details about the brew on tap (proudly Arizona-made) and little about the vino (a few options posted on the wall). Either way, it's a cool little hangout renovated from an auto garage. An elevated stage was built over the alignment racks, but the best seats are on the patio.

The Grand Canyon Brewing Company shows what the town is capable of when making its own booze. The homegrown 40-barrel brewhouse is responsible for eight core craft beers with a few rotating seasonals. The company also makes its own small-batch spirits and has the best cocktails in town. Substitute the Bond Fire smoked single malt in the Old Fashioned. The two-level bar is decked out in wood decor from top to bottom for a Wild West cabin feel.

The Historic Brewing Company Barrel House is a showcase of Flagstaff brews in a building that was once a saloon. Choose from one of 16 beers on tap while having fun with Skee Ball and a shooting gallery game. The bar also makes cocktails to go—convenient for when it's time to head back to your hotel room.

If you really want to do what the locals do, spend time at the Canyon Club and Sultana Bar. Both places are total dives, but have a heavy social energy with crowded pool tables, late-night hours, and ratty dollar bills among the cluttered decor clinging to the walls. The former hosts regular karaoke nights, and the latter has no shame in cranking up '80s heavy metal.

Okay… so you want some wine after all? Williams has the only public tasting room for the Grand Canyon Wine Company with a cozy mix of rustic and Mid-Century Modern decor. The company's full lineup of wines, distilled in nearby Verde Valley, is available along with an outstanding light-bodied Mourvedre.

A mix between a zebra and donkey
How in the world did its parents meet? | Grand Canyon Deer Farm

Find out what a zonkey is

If you didn't get enough time with the animals at Bearizona, follow up with a visit to the Grand Canyon Deer Farm. It's a much more personal experience–and maybe even more endearing–where guests are invited to hang out with dozens of European fallow deer, who love to eat out of your hand. Don't worry, they're born without top teeth, making the whole process safe and easy for all involved. The deer can get a little pushy, but that's part of the fun, when they tug on the back of your shirt to get your attention. The Japanese Sika deer tend to hang back and play it cool. Either way: cuteness overload.

The farm follows a simple format, allowing guests to wander at their own pace, crossing paths with other animals, including larger ones like elk, reindeer, a zonkey, (zebra + donkey = zonkey), and a camel bottle-raised on the farm from when she was a calf 14 years ago. Most of these creatures are equally friendly and adorable—a testament to the owners, who often rescue animals abandoned or facing hardship in the wild. For a few extra dollars, you can have a "custom encounter" with the wallabees or porcupines (yes, actually petable) with 15 minutes of private feeding.

2 people on a rollercoaster at Canyon Coaster Adventure Park
Preferable to hiking. | Photo courtesy of Canyon Coaster Adventure Park

Roller-coast down a mountain

The newest attraction in Williams is the Canyon Coaster, a small adventure park that opened in April. The main attraction is Arizona's first-ever alpine roller coaster with individual cars controlled by its passengers—push the handles forward to accelerate, pull back to brake—with gravity doing the work. The ride can reach up to 35 miles per hour at full speed, but it's more about the scenery than the thrill, with the track twisting and turning down spectacular mountainside and pine tree views. The cars have computerized sensors to prevent collisions—but there's enough room in between each one to not worry about it.

The park also has a tubing hill with conveyor belts bringing guests to the top. Slide down snow during winter or a specialized track between spring and fall. Wax can be added to the bottom of your inflatable sled for a little extra zip. Canyon Coaster is rolling out a full kitchen and lounge (with sandwiches, salads, chili, and mac n' cheese stations) and a second-level outdoor deck to enjoy the views and firepits with a drink.

Inside the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
Rustic on rustic. | Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Where to stay in Williams

The main strip in Williams is dominated by motels and discount hotels. You're better off at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, right next to the train depot and a close walk to almost everything in town. The hotel hosts Spenser's Pub, a cocktail lounge with a few Arizona wines and spirits served from a dark oak English backbar handcrafted in 1887.

The previous hotel is not to be confused with the Grand Canyon Hotel, which is another fantastic option and dates back to 1891, making it the oldest hotel in Arizona. Each of the 29 rooms has its own design and theme. A few share a bathroom, so choose carefully when placing a reservation.

The Red Garter Inn has its share of history too. It was once a saloon and bordello, and its four rooms are decorated to match the furnishings of more than a hundred years ago—proving the more things change in Williams, the more they stay the same.

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Rob Kachelriess is based in Las Vegas and has been a Thrillist contributor for more than eight years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, Leafly, Las Vegas Magazine, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.