Grand Canyon Adventure
...ride "The Train" and ride "The Mules"

Story & Photos by: Ed Stone

"My first experience of viewing the Grand Canyon was like walking into a giant, majestic, freshly painted oil canvas…"

The word “grand” is sometimes over used and over stated.  True, we have grand fathers, grand mothers, Grand Tetons, Grand Caymans, Grand Ole Opry, etc.  However, the Grand Canyon is truly, “grand.”  If you’ve never made the trip to view and experience it…it is a must for your “bucket list.”

The classic Monte Carlo Las Vegas Resort & Casino
Gaming in the comfortable Monte Carlo Las Vegas Casino

A recent visit to the South Rim allowed me to fly into Las Vegas with an overnight stay at the classic Monte Carlo Resort and Casino.  Anyone visiting the city that never sleeps should take the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful and lavish accommodations on the famous “strip,” check it out.  The Monte Carlo is very easy to maneuver in and out and offers reasonable rates.  It is close to everything on the strip and has all the amenities you will need for the Vegas experience.  (Please read our story on the Monte Carlo Resort Hotel by clicking here.)

 Visiting the Hoover Dam is a great experience.

From Las Vegas, take U.S. 93 to I-40 and exited #161 to Williams, Arizona.  The four hour drive is scenic with such stops as the gigantic Hoover Dam and Boulder City, Nevada about 50 miles from downtown Las Vegas.  The scenery changes from desert to small ponderosa pine as you get closer to Williams. 

Above: The cozy lobby area of the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.
Below: Entrance to the Hotel

An overnight at the 297 room Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is a special experience.  The spacious standard room features two queen beds, a coffee maker and full bathroom. The 10 suites include an additional separate living area with a pullout sofa. The living area has a microwave, refrigerator, wet bar and coffee maker.  The lobby area is cozy and inviting with an open fireplace, just perfect for those visiting in the winter months during chilly evenings and mornings.  Spenser's Pub is located just off the hotel lobby and offers adult beverages as well as pizza and appetizers. The centerpiece of Spenser's Pub is an antique bar hand crafted in the 19th century.  Grand Depot Café is located across from the hotel…a three minute walk.  The restaurant has a wide selection of menu items and complete buffets are served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Grand Canyon Depot constructed in 1909-1910 is part of the Grand Canyon National Park Historic District and is a National Historic Landmark. The depot was designed by architect Francis W. Wilson of Santa Barbara, California and is a two stories log and wood-frame structure. The first floor is used for railway passenger services. This is one of only three remaining log depots in the U.S.  It is estimated that only about 14 log depots were constructed.  Of the three, the Grand Canyon Depot is the only one in which logs were used as the primary structural material and still serves as an operating railroad.  The Depot's logs are squared on three sides creating bearing surfaces, flat interior surfaces and a rustic exterior appearance.

John Moore director of entertainment for “the train” and also mayor of Williams stand in front of one of the trains that carry passengers to the Grand Canyon
Characters in the "Wild West Shootout Show"

Thirty minutes prior to each train’s departure to the Grand Canyon, a “Wild West Shootout show” is presented for those taking the 2 hour and 15 minute trip to the South Rim.  John Moore, director of entertainment for “the train” and also mayor of Williams creates a wonderful slapstick presentation for young and old.  Well worth your time for this presentation.

Traveling by The Train to the Grand Canyon is a major part of the experience.  Train car hosts and hostesses and roving entertainers on the two hour-plus train journey are an absolute treat.  Amber was our hostess to the Canyon and Chris did the return shift.  Not only were they the best in customer service, but their personalities and quick wit, kept us in stitches the whole trip.

Servers and roving entertainers on the train to the Canyon are outstanding

As you walk from the Grand Railway station at the South Rim, there are some 40 steps that take you to the top and then ahead about 100 yards you arrive at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  For a few minutes, I felt as if I had walked onto a giant, majestic, freshly painted oil canvas…awe-inspiring.  The grandeur takes your breath away so you are unable to speak, creating a quiet and peaceful mood.  There are very few places I have been that had such an effect on me.

In speaking with Gordon Taylor, general manager of Xanterra South Rim, operator of lodges, restaurants and activities in Grand Canyon National Park, he indicated that there is a loyal group of visitors who like to visit during the off-season, especially between Christmas and spring break.  "Some of them come to photograph the Grand Canyon as the light comes in at a lower angle while others simply prefer the slower pace and the opportunity to stay in our lodges that are most popular in the summer," he said.

Viewing, hiking, getting up close and personal is the reason you visit this 5 billion year old marvel of nature.  First time visitors may not realize the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is 7,000 feet above sea level.  Thus, it is possible to encounter some snow during the winter months.  However, for the most part, it is sunny and dry with low humidity causing temperatures in the 30s and 40s to feel warmer.  Hikers exploring below the rim into the depths of the Grand Canyon will experience progressively warmer temperatures as they descend in altitude.

Viewing, hiking, getting close and personal with the 5 billion year old marvel of nature.
Mule riders gather for detail instructions before Canyon adventure
A mule's view of the Grand Canyon and the decent.
Below: Wrangler Mike Brown

The height of my Grand Canyon experience was taking the eight hour-plus mule ride to the bottom of the Canyon.  It was a brisk and cool morning in late November.  Our surefooted, experienced, mules arrived a little before 8 a.m.; Wrangler Mike Brown called us to order and gave very specific instructions on how the trip would be conducted.  At the end of his comments, he explained their impeccable safety record and declared he did not want to ruin it on this trip.  Mike stated if anyone wanted to drop out, they would get a full refund.  No one came forward.  It was time to mount our assigned mule (mine was named Tank) and descend some 5,000-plus feet on the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point near the bottom of the Canyon.  Gradually, we could feel the changing of the temperature from cool to warm, and our confidence building as we bonded with our mules.  It was very important not to leave a space between each mule. 
About three hours into the mule ride, we enjoyed a very much needed rest stop at an oasis called Indian Garden.  Here we found water, restrooms and our walking legs again.  This was one of the few places where we saw fall foliage and grasses that were growing because of the availability of water in the area.

At the further end of our trail, a delicious box lunch was served overlooking the dramatic Colorado River, the water source responsible for creating this incredible landscape.
The ride back to the top was most enjoyable.  Our group now chatted more and became better friends…we now knew each other a bit better from the ride down, the rest stop and lunch. Upon returning to the top and receiving my “Order of the Master Mule Skinners” certificate which reads in part: …having faced the precipices, descended and ascended the perpendicular walls at and in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, endured the vicissitudes of this magnificent journey, and borne the whims and caprices of his gentle, faithful, educated, individualistic, long-eared mount – part horse, part jackass and all mule named “Tank” is now a member of the renowned ORDER OF THE MASTER MULE SKINNERS OF THE GRAND CANON TRAILS, with rights and privileges to boast of this accomplished feat forevermore.

TOP: Maswik Lodge offers comfortable accommodations and reasonable prices
BOTTOM: The 100 year-old El Tovar Hotel offers a Romance Package

In addition to the mule rides and hiking, visitors can jump on a shuttle that will take them to all places within the South Rim.  Motorcoach tours are available for very reasonable prices and I would encourage all visitors to take one for a great orientation of the Grand Canyon.  Ranger-led walking tours are also offered of the historic Grand Canyon Village. 

Depending on the season, packages are offered at most of the accommodations.  The obvious off-seasons rates can be most enticing.  For instance in the winter at Maswik, Bright Angel and Yavapai Lodges rates can be as much as 30 to 40 percent lower than high-season or summer rates.  The 100 year-old El Tovar Hotel offers a Romance Package that includes accommodations, sparkling wine, fruit basket and dinner for two with a bottle of Grand Canyon label wine in the El Tovar Dining Room.

As I boarded the Grand Canyon Railway for the trip back to Williams for overnight at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, it was a bittersweet feeling that I would be leaving this extra-special place on Earth, but I would also be going back home to extol the experiences encountered.  The trip back on the train allowed time to reflect on how awesome this trip was and also what beautiful places we all have to visit in this World.

Monte Carlo Resort & Casino
3770 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Room Reservations: 888-529-4828
General Information: (702)-730-7777  or (800)-311-8999

Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
233 North Grand Canyon Boulevard
Williams, AZ 86046
Phone: 1-800-843-8724
Phone toll-free 1-888-297-2757
or 303-297-2757

Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Central Reservations
For same day reservations call: 928.638.2631.
Phone: Toll-free within the U.S. 888.29.PARKS (888.297.2757) or
Outside the U.S. 303.29.PARKS (303.297.2757)
Fax: 303.297.3175

Grand Canyon National Park Service