A short jaunt from any number of locations in and around Arizona and bordering states, Williams is a living testament to the impact transportation has had on the U.S. and its citizens. In just over one hundred years, Williams saw trains and cars make their way west, opening up wide expanses of American countryside to the general public. Today, Williams showcases the most well-preserved stretch of Route 66 and historic railway access to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon – thus preserving its place in history as a gateway to both the Grand Canyon and to the west. Travelers of the 21st century can catch a glimpse of those bygone eras with a weekend trip to Williams. Here are just a few of the things they can explore.
Meander along Historic Route 66
At first glance, the charming little town of 3,000, offers only a short two-mile loop of Route 66 through the heart of Williams. However, once visitors park and start walking, they’ll find that there’s plenty to see and do. Historic buildings erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries crowd the streets. On weekends, 50’s and 60’s music spills from the loud speakers, mingling with the live music from local bars and the constant rumble of engines (both gas and diesel). The delicious scent of the wood-fired meat smokers from restaurants like Cruiser’s Café 66 and the Historic Brewing Co. (once know as the Cabinet Saloon) fills the air. Ambling along Route 66, visitors will find plenty of souvenirs to take home. One shop after another showcases the history of Williams, Route 66, and the heritage of Arizona – Native American pottery, jewelry and blankets; leather goods such as saddles, boots, and hides; t-shirts, hats, jackets and sweatshirts; kitschy 50’s and 60’s memorabilia; and locally-made and U.S.-made goods at stores like Old Glory, DeBerge Saddlery & Western Wear, and Copper Canyon Trading. Restaurants like Station 66 Italian Bistro or Cruiser’s Route 66 Café at the corner of 3rd and Route 66 pay homage to their building’s original use. Once a gas station called Bennett’s Auto, the Café has nestled its tables among the vintage gas pumps. Others such as Pine Country Restaurant have created a reputation for delicious home-made fare (be sure to save room from a piece of their mouth-watering pies). Visitors can stroll into Pete’s Gas Station Museum for a blast from the past. For a more heart-thumping experience, families can walk over to Railroad Avenue and ride the Route 66 Zipline 110 feet above town.
Discover the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
Today, the Grand Canyon Railway shuttles more than 200,000 visitors annually from Williams to the Grand Canyon, reducing automobile traffic and preserving a piece of history and the environment. The hotel and its train-inspired entertainment is family-friendly. Kids of all ages – even sulking teens – find themselves delighted by the amusing antics of the Cataract Creek Gang and the Marshal who won’t give up. The two-hour ride is packed with history, entertainers, an old-fashioned train robbery, tasty treats from the cafe car and a look at the Arizona country-side. The 65-miles of track travels through the Arizona high desert and into the towering pine forests before it reaches the Rim. Bring a couple of dollars to tip the entertainers; and kids will be delighted to participate in the “robbery” if they have a dollar or two on-hand.
Tour the Grand Canyon’s South Rim
Once guests arrive at the historic log cabin train depot at the South Rim, they can opt to explore the park on their own (there are free shuttles that take visitors to the various lookout points) or book a bus tour through Grand Canyon Railway (with or without the buffet lunch) for guided stops at some of the park’s most breathtaking vistas. Tour guests also get a bit of history and some fun trivia facts like why mules are the animal of choice for traveling into the Canyon. At 7,000 feet, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park offers countless trails and lookouts as well as historic buildings like the historic El Tovar hotel and the Hopi House (both built in 1905), and Bright Angel Lodge designed by architect Mary Coulter and built in 1935. On hot days, visitors brave the line for an ice cream cone at the little cafe just outside Bright Angel Lodge. To preserve the pristineness of the park, outfitters do not sell plastic bottles. Guests are advised to bring re-usable water bottles and refill them at the water stations throughout the park.
Drive through Bearizona
The drive through Bearizona Wildlife Park can be done by car or by tour bus and offers an up close and personal look at some of the country’s wildest animals. So wild, drivers are asked to keep their windows up and doors locked during some of the drive. Visitors find themselves mere steps away (with only sheets of glass and metal in between) from Alaskan timber wolves, black bears, Arctic wolves and the massive American and white bison. They also catch a glimpse of much tamer animals such as Rocky Mountain elk and bighorn sheep, mule deer and the American burro. Once through the park, guests are invited to park and travel on foot through the main gates of Fort Bearizona where they will find bear cubs, river otters, and beavers as well as foxes, jaguars, ringtail cats and birds of prey. Guests should be sure to make time for the show, it is both educational and awe-inspiring.
Explore the Outdoors
From the downtown area, visitors can see the pine tree-covered mountains – home to seven lakes and cross country and alpine skiing. Aside from its place in history, Williams’ natural setting offers plenty to see and do in its own right. Located at the base of Bill Williams Mountain, Williams sits at almost 7,000 feet and offers a host of outdoor adventures. Visitors can book an outdoor family adventure through the pine trees with local businesses such as Williams Forest Trails ATV Rentals, located on Route 66. There is also Kaibab National Forest where the adventurous can fish, hike, camp, picnic and go horseback riding. For a map of hiking trails and lakes through the surrounding areas or a list of area tour operators (everything from helicopters to jeeps to bicycles), visitors can check out the Williams Visitor Center.
Christine K. Bailey is an Arizona-based author and freelance writer. Her latest book 100 Things to Do in Phoenix Before You Die is in stores now.