WILLIAMS, Ariz.—If you’re looking to chase away a case of Christmas Bah humbug, you might consider a ride on the Polar Express at the Grand Canyon. It combines the best of two worlds: the wonder of Christmas and the Grand Canyon itself, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. There’s something magical about a wintry ride on a vintage train, seeing incredible scenery and experiencing the holidays afresh.
Across the country, there are several Polar Express train rides recreating Chris Van Allsburg classic children’s book and Warner Bros. movie with the same name. In Williams, Arizona, the Polar Express is a little more than an hour ride, with the train winding its way 17 miles from the historic, 100-year-old Williams train depot to the North Pole. It’s longest of the Polar Express train rides in the country.
Just like the story, steam from the train billows up in against the cold, wintry sky. Dancing chefs serve up hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies to kids in pajamas and read the story to them as the iron horse gallops down the track. The Polar Express winds its way through pitch-black woods and down the tracks until it slows and visitors can see Santa’s workshop and a complex of buildings appear, twinkling with brilliant Christmas lights. As the train hisses and chugs to a stop, Santa boards the train and makes his way through the cars to greet everyone and hand out jingle bells.
A Holiday Tradition
For some families, the Christmastime Grand Canyon ride has become an annual pilgrimage. Crystel and Oliver Botar from Southern California drove eight hours to ride the storied train. Five generations of family members, including the matriarch of the family in her 90s, drove 660 miles. All 18 family members dressed in matching black and red checked pajamas. The family first began visiting the Polar Express about eight years ago when Crystel’s daughter was young. It’s since become an annual tradition. Crystel loves the family atmosphere, the time to be together and the Christmas feel.
“It’s just magical,” she said.
Crystel’s husband, Oliver, a UPS delivery driver, finds the real spirit of Christmas here. His cellphone is home to photos of Christmases past with Santa and the entire family gathered in front of the great fireplace at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.
The Grand Canyon
If there’s a downside to the Polar Express-Grand Canyon, it’s that it’s a nighttime ride, and you can’t see much of the natural surrounding beauty. That’s remedied by taking a day trip on the Grand Canyon Railway, a 65-mile ride from Williams to Grand Canyon National Park. In 1989, passenger train service was re-opened following a 20-year hiatus, when passenger train service ceased. Now, 225,000 visitors ride the passenger train to the Grand Canyon each year. The Grand Canyon Railway features a collection of vintage rail cars, such as 1950s-era domed coach cars along with 1920s-era Pullman car.
The 90-minute train ride from Williams to the Grand Canyon National Park makes its way across the grassy sagebrush-covered plains of Northern Arizona and through wooded areas, pulling into the rustic Grand Canyon Depot. From there, visitors leave the train and have about four hours to explore the Grand Canyon until it’s time for the return trip back. Visitors can explore the Grand Canyon on foot, tour bus, or a guided ranger walk, to name a few possibilities.
This was my first time to the Grand Canyon, so I opted for a walk at my own pace along the South Rim to take in the sights. I didn’t know quite what to expect. I braced myself for something possibly overly familiar. I wasn’t, however, prepared to be completely taken in and overwhelmed by the immense natural beauty.
Upon seeing the expanse of the Grand Canyon for the first time, like many, I was stunned into silence. The massive rocky carved canyon, the beautiful desert red and earthen colors against the brilliant winter sun and pale blue sky took my breath away. A wave of memories and thoughts flooded over me. Growing up, my father used to take me and my brother and sisters to Audubon films and nature talks in an effort to instill in us a love for wildlife. As I saw an eagle soar above the canyon, all I could think of was how much my father would have loved it here. The afternoon became a sort of quiet meditation, drinking in the view.
I walked along the trails, looking out over the canyon. (Seriously, it’s shocking and a bit terrifying how close to the edge some folks pose for pictures, something park officials discourage.) I visited the Lookout Studio, a rustic studio of stone and timber logs designed by Mary Colter and built in 1914, a prime spot to observe the natural beauty of the canyon. At one of the park’s bookstores, I became completely absorbed in books on canyon wildlife and the Native American culture of the Navajo, Hopi, and Havasupai. As the afternoon wore on and my visit came to a close, I boarded the train to head home, I wanted to hold on tightly to my visual memories and file them away in a special place in my mind.
For this Michigan gal, my point of reference for Christmas has always been a snowy white holiday. But this year, the innocence of a children’s storybook train ride and the pale white winter light of the American Southwest against the jagged canyon has become one of the best Christmases I can remember.
Martha Modeen worked as a news reporter for 10 years in Seattle, and now lives and works in sunny Arizona. As an avid swimmer and traveler, she has visited some of the world’s best destinations for snorkeling and scuba diving.
If You Go:
Runs nightly through Jan. 5, 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Prices start from $43 per adult and $33 per child.
Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
235 N. Grand Canyon Blvd, Williams, Ariz.,
By the Numbers:
277 miles: the length of the Grand Canyon
18 miles: the width of the Grand Canyon, maximum width, rim to rim
3-6 million years: time to form the Grand Canyon, carved by the Colorado River
6 million: the number of annual visitors to the Grand Canyon
225,000: the annual number of passengers who ride the Grand Canyon Railway
150: the number of gallons of hot chocolate served weekend nights on Polar Express-Grand Canyon
3,500: the number of chocolate chip cookies served nightly aboard Polar Express-Grand Canyon
(Sources: Grand Canyon National Park; Xanterra staff)