Williams, Arizona

As you drive along Interstate 40 west of Flagstaff, you may not think much when you come to Williams. There are three exits, and a few businesses are visible, but most likely you'll not see anything remarkable as you cruise along at 75 miles per hour. At that speed you only have about a minute to see Williams anyway!

Williams, Arizona
Downtown Williams, Arizona has plenty of restaurants and bars, guaranteed to refresh after a long day at the Grand Canyon. Photo by Bonnie Fink

If you venture into town, you’ll probably begin to develop a different opinion about the place. While Williams is not exactly Orlando, there’s plenty to do if you look around a bit, especially if you decide to stay a couple of days. Known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, Williams is the home of the Grand Canyon Railroad; a train that takes over 200,000 visitors to the Canyon every year. Sure, you can drive to the Canyon much faster, but this unique offering is a great way to get out of the box a bit and see some country.

Williams had its start in the old west, with ranching and mining. It was incorporated into a city in 1901 after a massive fire ran through town and demolished over thirty businesses, two hotels and eleven homes in about an hour. Within a week, the people had incorporated into a city and formed their first fire district. Later that year – in September – was when the Santa Fe Railroad established the Grand Canyon spur. For many decades this challenging route was the principal way into the Grand Canyon. The Santa Fe would send their new engineers to the Grand Canyon to learn how to operate steam engines under challenging conditions.

In 1926, Route 66 was established through town, and Williams became one of the many stops along that famous route. In 1984, they became the last town in America to be bypassed by Interstate 40. It was later that year that Williams was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. A year later, Route 66 was decommissioned.

So why exactly would you want to stop in Williams? The practical side is that it’s a great in-between stopping point when you’re traveling to or from California. Westbound, you quickly get into lower, and much hotter climate, and while moving east, it’s the first good stopping point as you leave California. For those reasons, we’ve stopped at Williams on several occasions.

But once you’re there, what can you do? Your activities can range from simply going to dinner at one of the several restaurants downtown, to spending several days exploring the area.

Grand Canyon Railroad
The Grand Canyon Railroad is a great way to travel to the Grand Canyon. Photo by Bonnie Fink

What to do – If you have at least one full day, the obvious choice if you’re not otherwise doing so is to go 60 miles north and visit the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of ways to get there. You can drive, or you can take the Grand Canyon Railroad. Driving has its advantages, but the railroad seems like an interesting idea, especially for a one day trip out to the south rim.

Railway tickets this year range from around $59.00 to $199.00 depending on the amenities you want along the way, and amenities they have. From the Pullman Class as the least expensive end of the spectrum to the Dome and Parlor cars in first class, these world war II era coaches are worth the ride in themselves. Added to the fact that they take you to the Grand Canyon, you’ve got a real day’s worth of entertainment. The trains lay over at the Canyon from between three hours and fifteen minutes to three hours fourty-five minutes depending on the schedule.

The Grand Canyon Railway has turned into an all-in-one destination. With their hotel, restaurant, RV park and kennel at the Williams end, there’s very little excuse to not take a ride with them to see the canyon.

If you have children with you, and don’t want to take them all the way to the Canyon on a rail car, you might want to take them to the Deer Farm. Deer farm is just what the name implies. It’s a petting zoo featuring deer that you can touch and feed. It’s located east of Williams by about 8 miles at exit 171 (Deer Farm Rd). This is a good side trip if you only have a couple of hours and want to entertain your young ones.

Golf anyone? Elephant Rocks Golf Course features 18 holes in northern Arizona’s tall Ponderosa Pines.

There are many other activities that are sure to entertain and amuse you if you’re in Williams. Whether your stay is just a few hours or a few days, there’s plenty in and near this little western town to keep you occupied. Check the Williams Chamber web site for more information.

How to get there – Getting to Williams is not difficult. It’s located on I-40 west of Flagstaff by about 35 miles. It’s well marked from the freeway with three off ramps that will all get you to town. If your goal is the Grand Canyon Railway or their RV park, take Exit 163 near the west end of town.

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