Williams, Arizona; The Gateway to the Grand Canyon
Things to do in Williams, Arizona
Williams, Arizona is a fascinating city to visit. Williams has been nicknamed “The Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” due to the Grand Canyon Railway that offers guests service between Williams and Grand Canyon National Park. I visited Williams over the summer, after a trip to Grand Canyon National Park, and found Williams to be a charming little town. Williams is a convenient city to stop at, especially if you are looking to save money on lodging. I booked my hotel in Williams through Priceline.com and chose an option where Priceline would choose one of three hotels for me at a discounted rate (the hotels were all near Grand Canyon National Park.) I stayed at the “Comfort Inn Near the Grand Canyon,” just off of US Route 66 in Williams, for a mere $83 for one night. Comfort Inn is always a great option, as the rooms are affordable, comfortable, and clean.
The city of Williams, Arizona was founded in 1881 and named after William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams (1787-1849.) William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams was a famous fur trapper, a trader, scout, and mountain man, who was often seen trapping in the area. A statue of “Old Bill” was erected in Monument Park, which is on the west side of the city of Williams. A large mountain was also named after “Old Bill.” Bill Williams Mountain is located south of Williams.
William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams statue in Williams, Arizona Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The city of Williams was incorporated on July 9, 1901. Williams was the last city to be bypassed by Route 66. Williams was bypassed by Route 66 due to lawsuits that blocked the final section of Interstate 40 in Arizona from being constructed around the town. “After settlements called for the state of Arizona to build three highway exits in Williams, the lawsuits were dropped and I-40 was completed.” On October 13, 1984, Interstate 40 was the main route to take through Williams, but the next day it was reported that a new interstate would bypass Route 66, causing Route 66 to become decommissioned in 1985. Williams Business District and Urban Route 66, Williams, were both added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and 1989. Today, Williams, Arizona is a great place to stop at and check out the history of Route 66.
Photo Courtesy Hermann Luyken/Wikimedia Commons
Grand Canyon Railway
Grand Canyon Railway is a popular route that takes customers from Williams to Grand Canyon National Park and back. The history of Grand Canyon Railway started in 1901, when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway constructed a second railroad line that would take passengers from Williams to Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The first scheduled train to take passengers on the Grand Canyon Railway took place on September 17, 1901. The train traveled 64 miles and tickets only cost $3.95 per rider. Naturalist John Muir praised the Grand Canyon Railway for its “limited environmental impact.”
Inaugural run, September 1901 Photo Courtesy The Cine Library Digital Archives/Wikimedia Commons
The Santa Fe Railway built the El Tovar Hotel, 20 feet from the Canyon Rim, as a way to offer lodging to travelers who wished to stay at the Grand Canyon South Rim longer. The El Tovar Hotel opened in January 1905. Although the Santa Fe was a popular route to take to the Grand Canyon, the rail line stopped offering service on the Grand Canyon Railway in July 1968, as business started to slow down, due to more people taking automobiles to the Grand Canyon. In July 1968, only 3 customers were on the last train from Williams to the Grand Canyon. However, Santa Fe Railway continued to use the tracks to run freight until 1974. The Grand Canyon Railway was able to resume business on September 17, 1989, due to new ownership. The Grand Canyon Railway is Trip Advisor’s #1 recommended attraction to visit in Williams.
May 14, 2011 Freight on the Grand Canyon Railway Photo Courtesy Drew Jacksich/Wikimedia Commons
Williams Depot is a privately owned train station in Williams. The first railroad to be built in Williams was the “western division of the transcontinental railroad built by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1882.” The first station to be built in Williams was completed by 1885. In 1887, the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad were constructed, as a way to move supplies and workers between Williams and the copper mines that were located near Anita, Arizona. “In 1901, the SF&GC was sold under foreclosure to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, who completed the remaining fifteen miles to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.” The name, Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railway, would be shortened to the Grand Canyon Railway, under its new ownership.
Due to the Grand Canyon Railway and Williams Depot, Williams started to become a popular tourist town, attracting visitors who wanted to visit The Grand Canyon. The sudden popularity of Williams, Arizona happened because the former Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was becoming part of the Santa Fe’s Southern Transcontinental main line between Chicago and the West Coast. In 1908, a brand new Williams Depot was constructed by the Santa Fe. One of the first Harvey House hotels, the Fray Marcos (named after Spanish missionary, Marcos de Niza, “who explored the southwest in the early 16th century”) was built inside Williams Depot.
Today, visitors can see the original Atlantic and Pacific station building, which is on the opposite side of the tracks and has been serving as the Williams Chamber of Commerce since 1994. In 1960, another route for trains called the “Crookton Cutoff” was built that eliminated the “sharp curves and steep gradients of the line between Williams and Ash Fork.” Once “Crookton Cutoff” was finished, trains no longer stopped in Williams and a new station was built at Williams Junction, replacing Williams Depot as the connecting hub for “main line services and trains to the Grand Canyon.” In 1969, both stations in Williams closed down because the Santa Fe stopped offering passenger service to the Grand Canyon and Phoenix, Arizona via the Peavine in 1968.
In the summer of 1974, a Santa Fe works train rode on the tracks, eliminating track equipment and destroying most of the line side structures. The Santa Fe works train would be the last train to run on the line for fifteen years. Eventually, the station building at Williams Depot wasn’t being used at all. 2 separate companies, and entertainer Arthur Godfrey, had (unsuccessfully) attempted to resume service on the Grand Canyon Railway and preserve the line. In each attempt to save the line (attempts happened in 1977, 1980, and 1984) the Grand Canyon Railway was able to avoid demolition, without bringing back trains on the route.
The railway was restored after Max and Thelma Biegert, a couple from Phoenix, purchased it. The Grand Canyon Railway and the stations at Williams and the Grand Canyon South Rim were reinstated and reopened under a separate company (formed by Max and Thelma), independent of the Santa Fe. The first run of the restored railway was on September 17, 1989, “exactly 88 years after the first train to the Canyon was run.” Max and Thelma Biegert kept the Grand Canyon Railway until March 2006, when they announced they were selling the railroad, along with the hotel and restaurants associated with it. Xanterra Parks & Resorts of Denver, Colorado, became the new owner of the Grand Canyon Railway, after submitting the highest bid. Today, Xanterra still owns the Grand Canyon Railway and Williams Depot.
Today, Williams Depot is the southern terminal for the Grand Canyon Railway and includes a “gift shop, coffee stand, rest room facilities, ticket counter, and restaurant.” While the Fray Marcus Hotel shut down in 1954, the original building is still in tact and “is the oldest poured-concrete structure in the state of Arizona.” The Fray Marcus Hotel is listed on the register of Arizona State Historic Properties and The Grand Canyon Railway is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Williams Depot is Trip Advisor’s #2 recommended attraction to visit in Williams.
Fray Marcus Hotel, 235 N. Grand Canyon Blvd, Williams, Arizona Photo Courtesy Steven C. Price/Wikimedia Commons
Williams Depot in Williams, Arizona Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Grand Canyon Deer Farm
The Grand Canyon Deer Farm is a privately owned business that has been in operation since 1969. Grand Canyon Deer Farm is an entertaining and affordable attraction that is great for families with small children. The Grand Canyon Deer Farm has plenty of deer to watch for, but the farm also includes baby kangaroos, porcupines, and llamas. The Grand Canyon Deer Farm is open from 9am-6pm from March 16-October 15, and from 10am-5pm from October 16-March 15. An adult ticket costs $14; senior tickets (62+) cost $12.50, and tickets for children 3-13 cost $8, while children 2 and under get in for free. The Grand Canyon Deer Farm is Trip Advisor’s #3 recommended attraction to visit in Williams.
Grand Canyon Brewing Company
Grand Canyon Brewing Company is a brewery/tap house/distillery/restaurant that was founded in 2007 by John Peasley. Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s distillery offers a selection of hard liquors that include Vodka, Prickly Pear Vodka, Orange Blossom, Rum, Gin, Thundersnow Unaged Whiskey, and different flavors of Vodka Soda. The Grand Canyon Brewing Company is Trip Advisor’s #4 recommended attraction to visit in Williams.
Urban Route 66, Williams
Urban Route 66, Williams started out as a dirt road in the center of the street. While some (minor) modern improvements have been made to Route 66 over the years, most of Route 66, Williams is surrounded by historic properties. Williams Historic Business District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 20, 1984. Urban Route 66, Williams is filled with motels, service stations, and restaurants that date back to the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. U.S. Route 66 in Williams still looks the same as it did during its heyday. Be sure to check out Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum (Trip Advisor’s #5 recommended attraction to visit in Williams), which looks exactly like a gas station from the 1950s. Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum also has some classic cars on display. U.S. Route 66 is a popular street to walk along and explore in Williams.
Williams Motor Hotel on Route 66, Williams Photo Courtesy Steven C. Price/Wikimedia Commons
Pete’s Rt. 66 Gas Station Museum, Arizona Photo Courtesy Steven C. Price/Wikimedia Commons
Red Raven Restaurant
Red Raven Restaurant is a casual fine dining restaurant located in historic downtown Williams, Arizona. Red Raven is open Wednesday-Saturday from 11 am-2 pm for lunch and from 5 pm-9 pm for dinner. Red Raven’s lunch menu serves up some tasty House Specialties such as Baja Tacos, New York Strip Steak, Chicken Parmigiana, Fish & Chips, and Shrimp & Chips.
The lunch menu also offers a section dedicated to Sandwiches and Burgers including a Spicy Shrimp Po’boy, Smothered Steak Sandwich, The Reuben, Cheeseburger, Salmon Burger, and Turkey Burger. The dinner menu at Red Raven includes Grilled Breast of Duck, Basil Butter Salmon, Pork Cilantro, Ribeye Streak, Lamb Sirloin Steak, Red Raven Pasta, Spicy Shrimp & Pasta, and Chicken Breast & Pasta. Red Raven Restaurant is Trip Advisor’s #1 recommended restaurant to dine at in Williams.
South Rims Wine and Beer Garage
South Rims Wine and Beer Garage is located on historic Route 66 in up-town Williams. South Rims Wine and Beer Garage is proud to offer over 20 types of wine, 12 Arizona craft beers on tap, and a menu of meats, cheeses, and small plates to go along with your beverage. South Rims Wine and Beer Garage offers indoor dining and outdoor dining on their courtyard and patio.
South Rims Wine and Beer Garage Photo Credit:Scottb211/Wikimedia Commons
South Rims Wine and Beer Garage also has a full dinner menu with appetizers including a Pretzel Basket (Specialty gourmet jumbo pretzel sticks, served fresh and hot, with spicy mustard dipping sauce), Stuffed Mushrooms (Medium sized Portobello mushrooms stuffed with crab meat, and topped with Parmesan cheese), and Crab Cakes (Two large crab cakes drizzled with chipotle ranch sauce.) Some of the entrees include Anaheim Chicken (Chicken breast topped with a spicy Anaheim and red bell pepper cream cheese sauce), or the Pollo Rosa (Chicken breast stuffed with Swiss cheese & bacon, topped with a sautéed mushroom, with basil and lemon butter sauce.) South Rims Wine and Beer Garage also offers a selection of steak, pasta, sandwiches, and burgers. South Rims Wine and Beer Garage features tasty desserts such as Cheesecake, Chocolate Pecan Torte, and Crème Brulee. South Rims Wine and Beer Garage is a tasty restaurant to sit back and relax at and is Trip Advisor’s #2 recommended restaurant to dine at in Williams.
South Rims Wine and Beer Garage Photo Credit:Scottb211/Wikimedia Commons
Williams, Arizona is fun little town to take a break at and explore, the next time you find yourself headed towards Grand Canyon National Park. For more information on Williams, checkout the official Williams travel guide or hire a travel planner to coordinate it.
Williams, Arizona Photo Credit:Roman Eugeniusz/Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons