BY ROBERT MIMS
Photos by Barbara Mims
You?ve heard the cliches about the Grand Canyon. They usually include words like ?breath-taking,? ?majestic,? ?panoramic? or ?eternal.? All apply to this massive, millions-of-years-in-the-making rift in northern Arizona that enfolds 277 miles of the Colorado River, which lies 5,000 feet below the south rim.
No cathedral can match its overwhelming vistas for evoking awe. From its dizzying heights, you can watch the sunlight chase the shadows across layers of rocks exposed by geologic forces, rain and eons of river flow cutting through limestone, sandstone, shale and other deposits. These formations span the colour spectrum from deep grays to tans, golds and oranges ? all accented by the greens of pines and the distant Colorado River itself, shifting from white-capped green rapids to calmer, watery ribbons of blue below.
But to these stereotypical yet true expressions about the Grand Canyon?s beauty add one more clich?: It?s not the destination, but the journey. Or, I?ll amend that ? the destination is amazing, but in our case, it would not have been complete without the journey.
Barbara and I, our two dogs, a 23-foot travel trailer and our 2000 Dodge Ram pickup truck had set out from Salt Lake City two days before. It was mid-May but already warm as we drove 300 miles south on Interstate 15 into southern Utah?s red rock deserts, staying that night at the Temple View RV Resort in St. George.
Early the next morning it was back on I-15 for the remaining 340 miles to the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams, Arizona. Our route that day took us through the arid northwestern corner of Arizona and into northeastern Nevada?s high deserts via I-15 and US 93 and then back into northern Arizona, with small towns like Paradise, Searchlight, Kingman and Bullhead City being the only breaks to the long, lonely yet starkly beautiful vistas.
Williams, population 3,000, has a couple claims to fame: It was the last town to have its section of the historic Route 66 bypassed in 1984 when the new, multi-lane I-40 opened (though you can still travel a mile or two of the old, crumbling 66 just outside of town if you wax nostalgic); and it is the terminus for two railroads ? Amtrak?s Southwest Chief line, and the Grand Canyon Railway, which offers visitors a 130-mile round trip ride to the Grand Canyon for a day of sightseeing.
The lure of meandering through forests and mountain passes past antelope, deer and buffalo ? in classic, restored Pullman cars pulled by a vintage locomotive ? was too good to pass up. Barbara and I splurged, putting the dogs in the RV park?s pet resort for the day and buying the $140 first-class tickets for the train.
Before the cry ?All aboard!? brought us to the station, we joined our fellow travelers nearby in watching a frontier-themed skit, complete with a shootout between ornery cowboys and the town marshal, in appropriate period costume. But once the train arrived and its steam whistle sounded, we were escorted to our assigned cars and soon were winding our way out of Williams.
Our hostess kept us supplied with food and beverages and entertained us with stories of the Old West, local folklore and the train?s history (Grand Canyon Railway goes back to 1901); cowboy musicians sang requests, accompanied by harmonicas and guitars; and on the way back, we were ?robbed? by bandanna-wearing, six gun-toting desperadoes ? before they were run off by a tin-starred lawman, who also packed a mean looking shootin? iron. All of the actors were happy to pose for photographs with the passengers.
Best of all, though, were the moments man and wife could cuddle, rocking gently with the train, listening to the wheels clickedy-clacking past rangeland and into the mountains. Though the trip is two hours, 15 minutes both ways, the ride seems to end all too quickly when the experience is so pleasant and restful.
Arriving at Grand Canyon Village, we were given time to visit the shops and, as we chose to do, take a bus tour of the prime viewing locations along the rim. In addition to the expected eye-popping canyon scenarios, we got a special treat: the sight of California condors, recently returned to the region, soaring on the canyon?s thermal columns; their nine-foot wing spans making them seem to drift with ease into wide, lazy circles overhead.
Back in and around Williams, there was much to do, too. The town has a thriving arts and crafts community and clean, reasonably-priced restaurants downtown. A few minute?s drive outside the community are numerous hiking trails and historical sites ? among them several sites offering petrogylphs carved into canyon walls by ancient Native Americans, and remarkably well-preserved cliff and rock-hewn dwellings at Montezuma Castle Park that comprised a thriving community ? in 900 A.D.
Are you a fisherman? Then grab a pole and head to nearby angling sites like Santa Fe Dam, Cataract Lake, Kaibab Lake, White Horse Lake or Dogtown Lake.
If you?re looking for a laid-back RV vacation amid some of the Southwest?s prime scenic wonders, Williams, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon region have our enthusiastic vote.?