Head West: Take the train to the Grand Canyon

With the shriek of a steam whistle, the train starts its clickety-clack. Characters in old-time western costumes wave, whoop and holler, making your send-off even more exciting. Look carefully because these are the same hombres who turn into outlaws and stage a train robbery on your return trip.

Your family is off to Grand Canyon National Park.

The Grand Canyon has been a family travel favorite since our great-grandfathers time, when most tourists arrived by train because highways and motorcars were few in the Wild West. Today's smart travelers still take the train, which goes straight to the South Rim while highway travelers are still idling in long lines at the park entrance miles away. It's just a short walk from the rails to the rim, and suddenly the canyon gapes before you. It's breathtaking.

Millions of years old, the canyon is more exciting today than ever. The Grand Canyon Railway has added an eco-engine that runs on used cooking oil. New lodgings have been added, and the historic El Tovar hotel has been elegantly upgraded. Hopi House, built in 1905 to house Hopi Indians who sold their wares to visitors, is part museum and part gift shop. The train makes a round trip in one day, or if you are staying in one of the hotels, baggage goes right to your hotel room while you go straight to sightseeing.

To get the most from the trip, start planning early. Reservations for The Polar Express and El Tovar are especially hard to get. Before leaving home, rent the Judy Garland musical "The Harvey Girls." Corny, clean and catchy, it's based on the real story of Fred Harvey, the man behind the park's hotels and restaurants. Over a century ago, he transformed western tourism by insisting on clean meals served by pretty girls in white aprons.

Fly into Phoenix, and spend a night or two to see local sights and recover from jet lag. Then rent a car for the trip to Williams, where the train trip begins. Along the way you'll see dramatic scenery, including red rock country around Sedona. If time allows, spend a night and do some hiking in the area. Then spend another night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel at the rail depot in Williams. After a big Depot breakfast, there's a Wild West show in the amphitheater before you board the train.

Enjoy passing scenery and complimentary fruit, cheeses, crackers and beverages until the train arrives at the rim at 11:45 a.m. Within walking distance are scenic overlooks, dining at El Tovar or Bright Angel Lodge, and shopping at Hopi House. Don't miss the third floor, where Hopi Indians lived in the early days.

It's easy to hop off and on the park's free shuttle buses, stopping here for a short hike and there for an ice cream cone. You can also get off at one spot and hike to the next bus stop. If you're on a one-day trip, keep in mind that the train leaves promptly at 3:45 p.m. If you stay in the park, there is enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. Hike, attend educational programs given by park rangers, photograph the canyon in all its moods, take a mule ride along the rim or into the depths, rent bicycles to explore the sprawling park and learn about geology, ancient Indian history and the park's unique flora and fauna.

The train gets back into Williams at 5:45 p.m., so spend another night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, or drive back to Phoenix for an overnight stay before catching an early flight back to Florida.

For years to come, memories of the canyon will enrich your children's school lessons in many subjects at many age levels. Yet all that time, the kids thought they were just having fun.

If You Go
For more information: www.thetrain.com, 800-THE-TRAIN. Many options are available: three classes of rail cars, hotel add-ons in both Williams and in Grand Canyon National Park for one or more days, an RV package and much more. During winter holidays, The Polar Express, based on the beloved movie, rides these rails. Parents and older teens should check out "Appetite for America,"  a book about the history of Fred Harvey and railroad hospitality.

Tipping: You may want to save it for a surprise that there will be a train robbery on the return trip, or if your children may be frightened, tell them when the shooting starts that it's all in fun. In any case, have a few dollars ready for the robbers. This is how the actors, who perform the morning show as well as the train robbery, earn their tips. They're good-hearted varmints, willing to pose for your camera.

Warnings: Many of the overlooks have either no walls or are protected only by very low walls. Bring a harness for toddlers, and strictly supervise all children at all times. Buses have racks for strollers, and there are many stroller-friendly paths.

Janet Groene is a professional travel writer who lives in Florida. She develops healthful homemade trail mix recipes found at www.CreateAGorp.blogspot.com.

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