Williams: Gateway to the Grand Canyon & Much More

Cowboy shootouts. A bear and bison park. Historic Route 66. Welcome to unexpected fun in this gateway to the Grand Canyon

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s, rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. And that’s fortunate for Grand Canyon-bound visitors seeking a fun, full-service spot as a base before and after a trip to the canyon’s South Rim, 56 miles north.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon, is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway, an excursion train that traverses the scenic, high-desert plateau between a historic depot and the canyon.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if you’ve been to Williams before, you might not be aware of these surprising facts and how they can enhance the visitor experience.

On the Right Track

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers on one of America’s most picturesque train journeys. Departing each morning from the station beside the RV Park, the train chugs north out of Williams for a ride up and over the massive Colorado Plateau.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At just over two hours, the journey gives RV travelers the chance to take a 65-mile shortcut and leave the driving to the engineer. It’s a perfect way to arrive at Grand Canyon National Park rested and relaxed without worrying about navigating an RV through the twists, turns, and often dense traffic that concentrates at the park’s south entrance.

Get Your Kicks On Route 66

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams boasts the final stretch of Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40 (on October 13, 1984). The original “super-highway,” as Route 66 was known in 1926, spanned more than 2,300 miles from Chicago to Long Beach, California and opened up the West to road travel. (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 singer Bobby Troup marked the day Route 66 was bypassed, October 13, 1984, by plunking out the 1946 tune on a piano in the middle of America’s most iconic byway—called “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels, which preserve a bygone era.

Shootouts On Main Street

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a nightly shoot-out downtown at 7:00 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day in which classic Old West “outlaws,” the Cataract Creek Gang, get killed (civic boosters prefer the term “plugged”) as hundreds of “witnesses” (i.e., visitors) look on. The costumed bad guys—cowboy hats, spurs, and all—bounce back and come back the next day to perform their evil deeds again. And get plugged again.

See the Forest and the Trees

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams is surrounded by the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest. You can explore the Kaibab National Forest’s 1,100 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads via mountain bike, all-terrain vehicle, or four-wheel drive. Elevations range from about 3,000 feet to 10,418 feet on top of Kendrick Mountain. Hikers can explore more than 300 miles of trails, some along the rims of the Grand Canyon.

Where the Wild Things Are

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bearizona Wildlife Park on the eastern outskirts of Williams is a rare spot where you can see bears, bison, wolves, and other North American critters, seemingly wandering free in the 160-acre facility. Guests view them from the comfort (and safety) of their cars through three miles of Ponderosa pine forest in the drive-through park.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A separate 20-acre walking area set up like a more conventional zoo is home to otters, beavers, porcupines, and more. The park also features a Bearizona Barnyard petting zoo, a special exhibit of “kindergarten” bears not old enough for the adult enclosure, and a high-country raptors show of hawks, owls, falcons, and other birds of prey.

Fill ‘Er Up

Remember when gas station attendants wore jumpsuits? Remember when there were gas station attendants?

Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum (101 E. Route 66) does. The cheerful red and white vintage building contains car-culture memorabilia harking back to another era. It’s open daily in summer.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort in Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.

—Major John Wesley Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons