Travel

Best Way to Visit the Grand Canyon? Hop a Train from This Mountain Town

Where Route 66, the wild west, and a national park collide.

Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

In the days of yore, Williams had a rough reputation. The Arizona frontier town was a place where cowboys, loggers, and railroad workers would get rowdy, get drunk, and get into trouble-often at casinos and brothels, which were legal until 1907. Today, Williams is less known for its high noon scuffles and more for its proximity to the Grand Canyon. It’s a noteworthy stop on Route 66, which helped usher in a new era of road trip culture for Americans.

“Route 66 is what we call the mother road,” says Mayor John W. Moore over dinner at Miss Kitty’s Steakhouse. “It was the first road to reach L.A. from Chicago. It was the heyday of big Cadillacs and Buicks. There were a lot of roadside attractions. That’s what made it popular.” Williams actually became the last officially active stretch of Route 66-a footnote in history that’s evolved into a legacy the town celebrates today.

One of the closest cities to the south entrance of the Grand Canyon, Williams remains a great base for planning a trip to the national park, especially when a locomotive is involved. But don’t stop there. This charming destination feels like a trip back in time with much of its town center recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. So far, Williams seems comfortable balancing its Old West culture with a zipline, gift shops, and other contemporary touches that reflect a growing demand for tourism.

“We’ve still got an old feel for the way it used to be,” adds Moore. “I like to call it a little town with a big heart.”

Here are all the places to eat, drink, see wildlife, and base yourself for a Grand Canyon adventure.

Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Welcome to Williams-time to leave

Boarding a train with the Grand Canyon Railway is the most enticing reason tourists come to Williams. The ride is 2.5 hours each way with a three-hour layover at the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park. There’s a good chance of spotting wild horses, cattle, and maybe a fast-moving pronghorn, which is like a cross between a goat and antelope. You’ll even see a few prairie dogs popping their heads out of the ground to watch the train depart near the Williams depot. (Squint your eyes and look for ’em above small mounds of dirt. They’re tiny-and ridiculously cute.)

Splurge for a luxury cabin. It’s totally worth it to stretch out on a comfortable couch while watching the scenery go by, especially the pine trees of the Kaibab National Forest. It’s the best time to step out on the train’s rear platform and soak in all that fresh air. Plus the private bar is a nice bonus. Sip on a Bloody Mary (loaded with Worcestershire, Tabasco, and olive brine) on the way to the Grand Canyon and a Tequila Sunrise on the way back. The journey includes a Wild West show outside the station before departure, live music onboard the train, and a bandit holdup-so have your tips ready during the “robbery.”

Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Go on a South Rim binge

There are two ways to enjoy the South Rim of the Grand Canyon while in between train rides. Some opt to take a bus tour-but do you really want to sit down again so soon? Take matters into your own hands and explore the country’s largest hole in the ground sans tour guide.

Here’s how to maximize your time. The train depot is right by the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon Village. Hang a right and walk northeast along the rim to the Geology Museum at Yavapai Point. The views don’t get any better than this-and sadly any photo you take just won’t do the canyon justice.

Sweaty palms and anxious moments aren’t unusual with a two-foot stone barrier-and sometimes nothing at all-separating you from a steep drop and a potential fall that would guarantee certain death. So take it easy on ambitious selfies. (It’s odd that we trust human beings to be responsible here, but most of ’em actually are.)The entire walk is on a paved trail and little more than an hour round trip at a regular walking pace. When you get back to the Village, grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants, watch a short film at Kolb Studio, and visit Lookout Studio, a gift shop with a balcony platform and winding terrace carved into the canyon rock.

Whatever you do, get back to the train on time. It runs on a tight schedule and won’t wait around for stragglers. If three hours isn’t enough, spend the night at a cabin or the historic El Tovar Hotel and return via train the next day.

Photo by Rob Kachelriess
Photo by Rob Kachelriess
Photo by Rob Kachelriess

Walk the nostalgic streets of downtown Williams

With your Grand Canyon train ride out of the way, take an extra day or two to see what Williams is all about. The downtown strip is extremely walkable and easy to navigate with historically preserved buildings framed by a pair of one-way streets. Businesses come and go, but the atmosphere hasn’t changed much since road trippers began passing through in the 1930s.

The legacy of Route 66 is celebrated by Pete’s Gas Station Museum, a free collection of exhibits (donations welcomed) inside an old filling station. One room shows off vintage pumps and other travel-related antiques. The second room is a gift shop.

Wild West Junction is a hotel that seems to go even further back in time to the frontier days. You’ll find facades of a barbershop, jail, and other Old West businesses around a town square with picnic tables and string lights. The complex includes the four-room Drover’s Inn and Branding Iron Restaurant, which temporarily closed its dining room, but continues to serve BBQ at the neighboring Long Horn Saloon.

Station 66
Station 66
Station 66

Eat classic Americana burgers, steak, and pizza

The Red Raven is the dining spot locals always recommend first; and it’s the closest thing to a big city restaurant in Williams. It has a charming dining room with a brick wall, wainscotting, and a quirky mix of framed paintings and vintage china hanging on the walls. It doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, but the lamb sirloin is a nice surprise and the charbroiled duck breast is a satisfying dish that balances a sweet cranberry sauce with the savory combination of mushrooms and wild rice.

Miss Kitty’s Steakhouse isn’t fancy, but it’s a vibe. The main dining room is the larger, more buttoned-up option, with two levels of tables, tall ceilings, and floods of light from the huge windows. But the cocktail lounge is a little more fun: messy and worn-in with a touch of chaos and country music playing at just the right volume. Every steak comes with two sides and a salad, and you might get a funny look if you ask for oil-and-vinegar as your dressing.

For a few more quick-fire dining options, Station 66 serves wood-fired pizzas with a spacious patio and a rooftop deck. Cruiser’s Cafe 66 was originally a telegraph office and later a gas station, but is now a classic American diner that mesquite-smokes its own BBQ on the front patio. It also has one of the better gift shops in town. Anna’s Canyon Cafe serves breakfast all day with a heavy emphasis on Mexican dishes inspired by the owner’s family recipes and scratch-made sauces. The Huevos Rancheros have an off-menu “Christmas-style” option with red and green chili on the same plate. Whereas Pine Country Restaurant is also popular for breakfast, but best known for a killer lineup of homemade pies. If you’re short on time, ask for a slice to go.

Bearizona
Bearizona
Bearizona

Get up close to wildlife in Bearizona

Not counting the Grand Canyon Railway, the top tourist attraction in Williams is Bearizona, a wildlife park that operates in two parts. First, guests drive their own car through a series of (mostly) fenced-in outdoor areas with an up-close look at bears, bison, reindeer, and other animals. The wolves know their role best, walking around the cars and letting out a howl when the time is right for maximum drama. The animals have been doing this for a long time. They know the deal. Follow instructions, stay in your car, keep your windows rolled up, and you won’t get any trouble.

After the safari-style drive-thru, visitors park their cars and venture into the park for an on-foot zoo experience. It generally features smaller animals (like foxes, beavers, and bobcats), but a few elk and younger bears have their own enclosure. If you don’t see the racoons, look up into the trees. The otters love an audience, playing it up with near-Olympic levels of synchronized swimming. You’ve got dining (restaurants and food trucks), plenty of room to relax and yes, booze, including a localized take on a Bloody Mary with Arizona Hot Sauce. Tickets are reasonable ($20-35), but an annual pass provides the most value while challenging the limit of how many people you can fit into a single car.

Historic Brewing Company
Historic Brewing Company
Historic Brewing Company

Drink beer made for the outdoors

Williams is definitely a beer town. When visiting South Rims Wine & Beer Garage, you’ll hear lots of details about the brew on tap (proudly Arizona-made) and little about the vino (a few options posted on the wall). Either way, it’s a cool little hangout renovated from an auto garage. An elevated stage was built over the alignment racks, but the best seats are on the patio.

The Grand Canyon Brewing Company shows what the town is capable of when making its own booze. The homegrown 40-barrel brewhouse is responsible for eight core craft beers with a few rotating seasonals. The company also makes its own small-batch spirits and has the best cocktails in town. Substitute the Bond Fire smoked single malt in the Old Fashioned. The two-level bar is decked out in wood decor from top to bottom for a Wild West cabin feel.

The Historic Brewing Company Barrel House is a showcase of Flagstaff brews in a building that was once a saloon. Choose from one of 16 beers on tap while having fun with Skee Ball and a shooting gallery game. The bar also makes cocktails to go-convenient for when it’s time to head back to your hotel room.

If you really want to do what the locals do, spend time at the Canyon Club and Sultana Bar. Both places are total dives, but have a heavy social energy with crowded pool tables, late-night hours, and ratty dollar bills among the cluttered decor clinging to the walls. The former hosts regular karaoke nights, and the latter has no shame in cranking up ’80s heavy metal.

Okay… so you want some wine after all? Williams has the only public tasting room for the Grand Canyon Wine Company with a cozy mix of rustic and Mid-Century Modern decor. The company’s full lineup of wines, distilled in nearby Verde Valley, is available along with an outstanding light-bodied Mourvedre.

Grand Canyon Deer Farm
Grand Canyon Deer Farm
Grand Canyon Deer Farm

Find out what a zonkey is

If you didn’t get enough time with the animals at Bearizona, follow up with a visit to the Grand Canyon Deer Farm. It’s a much more personal experience–and maybe even more endearing–where guests are invited to hang out with dozens of European fallow deer, who love to eat out of your hand. Don’t worry, they’re born without top teeth, making the whole process safe and easy for all involved. The deer can get a little pushy, but that’s part of the fun, when they tug on the back of your shirt to get your attention. The Japanese Sika deer tend to hang back and play it cool. Either way: cuteness overload.

The farm follows a simple format, allowing guests to wander at their own pace, crossing paths with other animals, including larger ones like elk, reindeer, a zonkey, (zebra + donkey = zonkey), and a camel bottle-raised on the farm from when she was a calf 14 years ago. Most of these creatures are equally friendly and adorable-a testament to the owners, who often rescue animals abandoned or facing hardship in the wild. For a few extra dollars, you can have a “custom encounter” with the wallabees or porcupines (yes, actually petable) with 15 minutes of private feeding.

Photo courtesy of Canyon Coaster Adventure Park
Photo courtesy of Canyon Coaster Adventure Park
Photo courtesy of Canyon Coaster Adventure Park

Roller-coast down a mountain

The newest attraction in Williams is the Canyon Coaster, a small adventure park that opened in April. The main attraction is Arizona’s first-ever alpine roller coaster with individual cars controlled by its passengers-push the handles forward to accelerate, pull back to brake-with gravity doing the work. The ride can reach up to 35 miles per hour at full speed, but it’s more about the scenery than the thrill, with the track twisting and turning down spectacular mountainside and pine tree views. The cars have computerized sensors to prevent collisions-but there’s enough room in between each one to not worry about it.

The park also has a tubing hill with conveyor belts bringing guests to the top. Slide down snow during winter or a specialized track between spring and fall. Wax can be added to the bottom of your inflatable sled for a little extra zip. Canyon Coaster is rolling out a full kitchen and lounge (with sandwiches, salads, chili, and mac n’ cheese stations) and a second-level outdoor deck to enjoy the views and firepits with a drink.

Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection
Photo courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection

Where to stay in Williams

The main strip in Williams is dominated by motels and discount hotels. You’re better off at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, right next to the train depot and a close walk to almost everything in town. The hotel hosts Spenser’s Pub, a cocktail lounge with a few Arizona wines and spirits served from a dark oak English backbar handcrafted in 1887.

The previous hotel is not to be confused with the Grand Canyon Hotel, which is another fantastic option and dates back to 1891, making it the oldest hotel in Arizona. Each of the 29 rooms has its own design and theme. A few share a bathroom, so choose carefully when placing a reservation.

The Red Garter Inn has its share of history too. It was once a saloon and bordello, and its four rooms are decorated to match the furnishings of more than a hundred years ago-proving the more things change in Williams, the more they stay the same.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Rob Kachelriess is based in Las Vegas and has been a Thrillist contributor for more than eight years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, Leafly, Las Vegas Magazine, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.

Travel

Airbnb’s New Tool Makes it Easy to Discover Homes You Didn’t Know Existed

And provides comprehensive protection in travel, included for free with every stay.

airbnb new features

We’re living in a new world of travel, which means we’re looking for new destinations and new ways to find places to stay. Airbnb is one of the most popular booking platforms for travellers, and for the first time in a decade, they’ve launched their biggest change yet.

The new tools help travellers find unique homes and provide more options for longer stays.

“The way people travel has changed forever. We’re introducing the biggest change to Airbnb in a decade,” said Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-Founder of Airbnb.

Airbnb Categories

Millions of people are now more flexible about where they live and work. But travel search has been the same for 25 years—you enter a location and dates into a search box. Most of us can only think of a few dozen cities to type into the search box, but there are Airbnbs in 100,000 towns and cities worldwide.

When you open Airbnb, you’re presented with 56 categories that organize homes based on their style, location, or proximity to a travel activity. When you search for a destination, your search results are also organized by categories relevant to that destination. As you view different categories, the map intelligently zooms to show you where the homes are located.

Airbnb Categories uses machine learning to analyze titles, written descriptions, photo captions, structured data from Hosts, and reviews from guests. Airbnb’s curation team members review listings and hand-pick featured photos—so if a listing is in the Amazing Pools Category, the first photo shows a pool. Then, each category goes through a final check to help ensure consistency and photo quality.

The 56 Airbnb Categories include more than 4 million unique homes that are made possible by Hosts all around the world. Airbnb Categories organize homes by what makes them unique, which helps people discover places they wouldn’t have otherwise found. This can help alleviate over-tourism by redistributing travel to new locations beyond the same popular destinations.

Split Stays

In the last three months, nearly half of the nights booked on Airbnb were for a week or more trips. Split Stays is an innovative new feature that splits your trip between two homes. With Split Stays, you will typically see around 40% more listings when searching for longer stays.

When searching a specific destination, Split Stays automatically appear in your search results. They also appear within 14 categories—including Camping, National Parks, Skiing, and Surfing—to inspire you to stay in two destinations as part of a longer trip. For example, when browsing the Skiing Category, Split Stays might suggest a pair of homes near Thredbo and Mt. Hotham.

When viewing Split Stays on a map, an animated line visually connects the two homes to show you the distance between them and the sequence of the stays. Once you select a Split Stay, you’re guided through an easy-to-use interface to book each stay, one home at a time.

MORE: These Are Australia’s 10 Most Wishlisted Airbnb Stays

Aircover for Guests

This northern and southern winter, millions of people will travel for the first time since the pandemic’s start. AirCover is the most comprehensive protection in travel. AirCover is always included and always free, and it represents the biggest upgrade to Airbnb customer service in a decade.

With AirCover, you’re covered by four protections every time you stay on Airbnb:

  • Booking Protection Guarantee – In the unlikely event a Host needs to cancel your booking within 30 days of check-in, Airbnb will find you a similar or better home or refund you.
  • Check-In Guarantee – If you can’t check into your home and the Host cannot resolve the issue, Airbnb will find you a similar or better home for the length of your original stay or get a refund.
  • Get-What-You-Booked Guarantee – If at any time during your stay you find your listing isn’t as advertised—for example, the refrigerator stops working and your Host can’t easily fix it, or there are fewer bedrooms than listed—you’ll have three days to report it and Airbnb will find you a similar or better home or refund you.
  • 24-hour Safety Line – If you ever feel unsafe, you’ll get priority access to specially-trained safety agents, day or night.

AirCover has been designed directly into the Airbnb app and website, making it easy for you to contact an agent and resolve issues quickly. There is a team of specially trained agents for last-minute rebooking assistance. Airbnb also has significantly expanded its 24-hour safety line to cover 16 languages.

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