Riding the Rails: An Arizona Treasure

A trip aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona provides an amazing view of nature and step back into the state’s past.

My wife’s mother was visiting us from Wales for three weeks in May, and part of her stay happened to coincide with Mothers Day. In all our years in Arizona, my wife Elizabeth and I had heard about the Verde Canyon Railroad—a 38-mile stretch of track starting from Clarkdale, Ariz., to the Perkinsville ghost ranch and back, right through the heart of Arizona’s ruggedly beautiful Verde Valley—but never found time to take the tour. Since it was nearing the end of my mother-in-law’s stay with us, what better way to cap off her vacation than with a scenic tour of Arizona’s pioneer past?

We decided that instead of going online for tickets, it might be better to speak with a reservations agent and see whether the train was accessible. After viewing pictures online, we were quite sure we wouldn’t be able to comfortably access the coach car, so we asked about reserving three first-class seats.

The agent said the train had a wheelchair lift capable of loading my chair onto the open-air viewing car, but to access the first-class car my chair’s width should not exceed 24 inches. After carefully measuring it, we made our reservations.

Heading north from Phoenix on Interstate 17, the Sonoran Desert of Arizona is a spectacular wildflower show in May, ranging from orange mallow and red blooming prickly pear cacti, to the white flowers crowning the majestic saguaros.

In Clarkdale, the train depot bustled with activity. People were still lining up purchasing tickets for the 1:00 p.m. departure. We were able to collect our tickets quickly, having purchasing them ahead of time.

The rest room has an ADA-compliant stall. It’s not a bad thing to take advantage of before leaving for the tour. The depot also housed the Boxcar Gift Store, which sells quality merchandise, and the Copper Spike Café, which serves a highly recommended buffalo burger.

We ate our lunch outside at tables in the shade, admiring the two FP7 vintage locomotives, only two of 12 remaining in North America, and imagining the tremendous horsepower that would pull the luxuriously renovated and climate-controlled cars. Clarkdale lies at an altitude of 3,600 feet and on this bright and sunny day it was pretty warm, but a cooling desert breeze came through the canyon and off the river.

After lunch, wheelchair passengers were able to preboard. The lift looked very rustic, indeed, and had some funky pioneer feel to it. Yet it did a great job elevating the chair up and onto the wonderfully shaded open-air car, which, even with seating benches, was a snap to navigate.

Going toward the door to the enclosed car, I couldn’t help noticing the standard hospital wheelchair parked at the corner of the car, obviously too wide to fit through the narrow doorway. Well, it was a tight squeeze, but my chair made it through the narrow entry into the welcome coolness of the first-class car.

Tables and comfortably upholstered chairs were easily moved by the helpful staff to give me maximum space and allow me to not block the spacious aisle to the door or all-important full-service cash bar. The Pullman-style car was indeed air conditioned, and overhead fans provided a constant breeze. Chilled water was available, and complimentary champagne or chilled apple cider was offered. I ran up a hefty tab drinking the ice-cold prickly pear lemonade! It wasn’t alcoholic, but was just too refreshing to resist on a 97° day. Complimentary snacks were also provided.

The train pulled out on schedule and moved at a leisurely pace. One of the narrators offered to hold the door open for me to move onto the open-air car, shaded by a canopy over the benches. Off in the distance on the side of the mountain was a magnificent view of Jerome, an old mining town.

The train meandered along the side of the mountain, following the path of the upper Verde River. Built in just one year (1911–1912) and financed by Senator William A. Clark, it took 250 men, 200 mules, and an enormous amount of black powder explosives to lay down the line.

The scenery was indeed magnificent with nature putting on her best show. We saw horses watering at the cool river, shaded by massive cottonwood trees, and lush mesquites and sycamores. Not only were the prickly pear flowering yellow, but the hedgehog cacti were in full, brilliant bloom, as were the ocotillo.

The train passed near ancient ruins, once occupied by the Sinagua (meaning “without water”) peoples dating back to 600 B.C. The train took a brief stop on top a fortified trestle to allow passengers a photo op. Our narrators were quick to alert us when we were passing a nest that was home to a productive pair of American bald eagles. At one point, I was thrilled to see an eagle perched on top of a dead cottonwood and scanning the river below.

At one point the train went through a 680-foot-long man-made tunnel where daylight briefly faded. We passed a huge mountain of slag, reminders of a not-so-long-ago mining era. Our narrators again alerted us to a small group of mule deer. If I hadn’t seen their white backsides, I would have missed them completely.

Not long afterward we reached the end of the line at Perkinsville, where we had a 15-minute wait while the engine disconnected and reconnected itself to the caboose.

The return trip was just as lovely; it just seemed to go too fast. I did find some time for a pressure relief on the way back.

Whatever season you decide to take the Verde Canyon Railroad, you’re in for a treat. Winter is best for eagle watches, while in spring the canyon is a garland of multicolored wildflowers and blooming cacti. In the summer the trees are in full bloom, and early evening thunderstorms can drape glistening waterfalls over red rocks. In autumn you can enjoy the railroad’s Fall Color Tours. The Verde Canyon Railroad has numerous types of tours, with the caboose designed for private parties of six or fewer adults.

Accessibility was great, although I felt the restroom aboard the train was more suited for the walking wounded. But even an old train has its limitations.

What a privilege to have ridden on a designated Arizona treasure.

 

Contact: 800-293-7245 (toll-free) / info@verdecan yonrr.com.

 

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