Nestled among pine-forested hills and expansive meadows at an elevation of 6,780
feet, Williams proudly proclaims itself "Gateway to the Grand Canyon." The town
(pop. 2,800) offers a better choice of accommodations and restaurants at lower prices
than those at the Grand Canyon, which lies just 58 miles north. The exceptionally
well-preserved downtown recalls a bygone era when people moved at a slower pace
and when Route 66 carried motorists across the West.
In yet another reminder of the past, the popular Grand Canyon Railway puffs its way north to the Grand Canyon daily from the old station downtown.
Also, try not to miss the pretty country surrounding Williams—splendid Sycamore Canyon, tall volcanoes, small fishing lakes, forest drives, and hiking trails. Fans of Route 66 can drive segments of the old highway east of Williams and mountain bike two loops on old alignments west of town; the Visitor Information Center and the Forest Service office have brochures with maps.
Charles Rodgers, the first white settler here, started a cattle operation in 1878. The railroad town founded several years later took its name from Bill Williams Mountain just to the south. The mountain in turn honored mountain man Bill Williams, who roamed the West from 1825 until his death at the hands of Utes in 1849. He earned reputations as a skilled marksman, trapper, trader, and guide—and, some say, as an accomplished horse thief, preacher of profane sermons, and prodigious drinker. An 8.5-foot statue of "Old Bill" stands in Monument Park at the west end of downtown.
Today the Bill Williams Mountain Men perpetuate his adventurous spirit. The group dons buckskin clothing and fur hats, stages a 180-mile horseback ride from Williams to Phoenix most years, and works to keep the history of the mountain men alive. The Buckskinners, a family-oriented group, puts on frontier-era garb for black-powder shoots.
A more recent period of Western history came to an end at Williams in October 1984, when I-40 bypassed the last section of old US Route 66. A sentimental ceremony, complete with songwriter Bobby Troup of "Route 66" fame, marked the transition. The famous highway from Chicago to Los Angeles had carried many families to a new life in Arizona and California. Its replacement, I-40, now travels an unbroken 2,400-mile path from Durham, North Carolina, to Barstow, California. Local businesses suffered when traffic bypassed Williams, but they have since bounced back as travelers stop in town to sample the history and hospitality.
Grand Canyon Railway
Passenger trains first steamed out of Williams to the Grand Canyon's scenic splendor in 1901, replacing an expensive and arduous stage ride. Railroad service ended with the last passenger train carrying just three customers in 1968, but it started anew after a 21-year hiatus. Once again, Canyon visitors can enjoy a relaxing ride through the forests and ranching country of northern Arizona to the historic log depot in Grand Canyon Village, just steps away from the rim. Grand Canyon Railway (800/843-8724 "800-THE-TRAIN," www.thetrain.com) runs trains pulled by vintage diesels roundtrip daily except December 24 and 25 from the 1908 Williams Depot downtown; the depot is half a mile south from I-40 Exit 163 on Grand Canyon Boulevard, or it can be reached via either of the other two I-40 Williams exits to downtown. Wheelchair users can access the depot and some of the train.
The restored 1923 Harriman coaches have reversible seats; roundtrip fare is $58 adults, $25 ages 2–16. You can also luxuriate in four additional categories: Club Class (same as coach but with a bar and complimentary morning coffee, juice and pastries) for $79, $46 ages 2–16; First Class (oversized reclining chairs, air-conditioning, extra-large windows, continental breakfast, and afternoon appetizers and champagne or sparkling cider) for $116, $83 ages 2–16; Deluxe Observation Class (First Class with dome views; ages 11 and up only) for $137, $104 ages 11–16; or Luxury Parlor Car (First Class with seating in overstuffed divans and an open-air rear platform) for $147, $114 ages 2–16. One-way fares are available too. Add tax and park entry fee (let reservations staff know if you have a park pass). The Grand Canyon Railway also offers packages with train tickets, a room at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, and some meals, with options for Grand Canyon tours and accommodations.
Before the ride starts, you can take in the Grand Canyon Railway Museum, outdoor train exhibits, and a Wild West show; all these are free and open to the public. The depot also has a coffee bar, gift shop, and nearby Max and Thelma's restaurant.
Recommended check-in is 8 a.m. or earlier, in time to have breakfast, see the museum and Wild West show, and board the train for its 10 a.m. departure. The train arrives at Grand Canyon, across the street from El Tovar Hotel and canyon rim, about 12:15 p.m. Boarding time for the return trip is 3:15 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. departure and 5:45 p.m. arrival back in Williams. South Rim tours are available at extra cost when you make reservations. The three hours at the Grand Canyon is enough for only a quick look, so you may wish to arrange to stay and ride back another day.
Once underway, you will be entertained by strolling musicians and Wild West characters. On the return trip you can expect a little excitement during a staged horseback chase and train robbery before "the law" catches up with the outlaws.
Other Downtown Sights
Stroll along Route 66 downtown to soak up the atmosphere. The commercial buildings here remain much as they were decades ago. Many of the shops have restored interiors and selections of Native American work, antiques, or Route 66 memorabilia. Railroad Avenue also has some fine old structures.
You can see prehistoric Native American artifacts and exhibits of town history and forestry in the Visitor Information Center (200 W. Railroad Ave., 928/635-4061 or 800/863-0546, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, to 6:30 p.m. daily in summer, free).
See many of America's famous wildlife on this drive-through park (1500 E. Rt. 66, 928/635-2289, www.bearizona.com/, $10 + tax children 4-12 years, $20 + tax adults, $18 + tax seniors 62 and older). Highlights include Rocky Mountain goats, Dall sheep, wolves, bison, and, of course, bears. A walking area has smaller creatures, including birds of prey and bear cubs. If you arrive by motorbike or bicycle, you get to use a free car. The park is open every day except Christmas, though hours change seasonally; check the website for the current timings and for daily adventure shows. It's on the east side of Williams, just south of the I-40 turnoff for the Grand Canyon: from I-40 Williams/Grand Canyon Exit 165, go south for 0.25 mi. and Bearizona is immediately on your left.
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