All Aboard the Wilderness Train

If you are a fan of train travel, as I am, you know that seeing a landscape by rail is a relaxed, unhurried and deeply satisfying experience. It’s a time to let someone else take the wheel as you settle in to watch the countryside roll by, one frame at a time, with plenty of space for the eye and mind to rest.

On the Verde Canyon Railroad (in Arizona’s Verde Valley) train travel goes well beyond a casual glance out the window. It is a ringside seat at a spectacular nature show—an uninhabited canyon lush with riparian and desert vegetation, wildlife, towering rock formations, Indian ruins, and nostalgic remnants of bygone eras.

The Verde Canyon Railroad is a wilderness adventure. On its four-hour run across 5,200-feet of track, the train follows the winding Verde River between the Clarkdale Depot and Perkinsville, a sparsely populated town that was once a movie set for “How the West Was Won.” The 40-mile round trip ride goes across old-fashioned trestles, through a 680-foot man-made tunnel, and past cottonwoods, willows, white-barked sycamores and desert vegetation, such as banana yucca, which were used by the Sinagua Indians to make baskets, sandals and soap.

Because the train comes and goes through the canyon with predictable regularity, animals go about their business unalarmed. This makes it possible to spot waterfowl, deer, antelope, javelina, great blue herons and an occasional fox, coyote and mountain lion. On my trip we were surprised to see an eagle perch on a branch only 30-feet away from the train’s panoramic windows. Bald and golden eagles visit the Verde Canyon each winter, and Black and Decker (the canyon’s resident bald eagles) have been nesting their young in the cliff walls for more than a decade.

On the first leg of the trip everyone is intent on the scenery and all its many features. Passengers can listen to the milepost-by-milepost piped-in narration in the comfort of the train or go to the open-air viewing cars, where they can use all their senses to experience the landscape.

The conductors, who know every inch of the land, take pride in pointing out the canyon’s special features, such as its geological history, the remains of a Hohokam Indian pit house on a hill, abandoned homesteads and caves, and fanciful rock formations shaped like an elephant, turtle or a bathtub on a ledge. They also suggest where to take the best photographs.

On the return trip from Perkinsville (the turn-around point), passengers get a second chance to spot sights they might have missed. They also take time to converse with other riders, another pleasure of train travel.
The Verde Canyon Railroad has been running since 1912, when the railroad was built to support the mining activities in nearby Jerome. The 38-mile stretch of rail from Clarkdale to Drake (the end of the line) took 250 men one year to lay, using 200 mules, picks, shovels, and DuPont explosives.

The present incarnation of the railroad began in 1990, after David Durbano bought the Verde Canyon Railroad sight unseen. When he made his first trip through the canyon, he was inspired to convert the train into a wilderness excursion. It has become a must-do activity for visitors to the Verde Valley ever since.

Train buffs will delight in the train’s authentic, vintage cars, which have been refurbished. There are Pullman Standard coaches, Budd Stainless Steel cars, and a six-passenger AC & F caboose, a favorite venue for small parties, as well as two FP7 locomotives (only two of 12 running in North America).

Riding the rails on the Verde Canyon Railroad is a luxurious experience. Each car is climate-controlled and has its own distinctive ambiance with Frontier-West murals, hand-painted by Sedona artists Ann Rhinehart and Richard Drayton.

The train, which runs all year round, features both first-class and coach travel. Coach-class cars have rows of comfortable seats on each side of a center aisle and well-stocked snack bars with plenty of goodies and beverages. There is even an ice-cream sandwich hawker on the way back to the Clarkdale depot.

First-class cars have plush, living-room-style seating, a full-service cash bar and complimentary appetizers and desserts. “This is truly a deluxe experience,” noted Bonnie, a fellow traveler from Wisconsin. “No stress; no worries. All you see is beauty.”

Each season has its particular highlights, such as fledgling eagles peaking out of nests in spring, waterfalls in summer, rainbow leaves in fall and unimpeded views of rock formations and wildlife in winter. There are even several specialty trains, including holiday runs, wine-tasting on “grape train escapes” and the popular summer starlight tours (a look at the canyon at night).

Visit VerdeCanyonRR.com for more information.

— by Sylvia Somerville