Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
A Ride Through History
Verde Canyon Railroad takes passengers on a remarkable journey deep into Verde Canyon's rich and storied past.
By David Carmichael
From the Spring 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Journal
While it’s true that the Greater Phoenix area has endless and diverse cultural explorations to indulge travelers, step out beyond its borders and you’ll find even more distinctive adventures to sate your taste for the extraordinary.
There are the magnificent red rocks of Sedona; there’s the rich and storied history of Yuma, southwest of Phoenix proper; and of course, the geological wonder that is the Grand Canyon, north of Sedona.
But for a truly unique adventure that combines stunning views with vibrant history and elegant comfort, head down to the Verde Canyon and soak in one of the most magnificent tours in the Greater Southwest.
Just south of Sedona lies the celebrated Verde Canyon, passageway for the sleepy copper mining community of Jerome, Arizona, a town that—in its heyday—produced 33 million tons of ore (from copper to silver to led), a cache worth a billion dollars at one point. Powering the early mining towns of Clarkdale and Jerome, these communities relied heavily on the Verde Canyon for transport of their commodity.
In 1912, a commercial train route was established as part of a north–south branch line linking a copper smelter at Clarkdale and the copper mines at Jerome. And thus, the Verde Canyon Railroad was born.
Today, visitors access the scenic and historic valley via a 20 mile passenger excursion that takes guests up through the valley, into Perksonville just shy of the freight line’s destination of Drake and back through picturesque landscapes, fascinating wildlife and remarkable stories of the original settlers of the territory told by the capable staff that marshal you through the four-hour expedition.
The experience is nothing short of breathtaking. From the moment you step aboard the fully-restored vintage train, you are transported to a time-gone-by, where luxury and leisure ruled the rails. Pulled by the muscle of two of only 10 remaining FP7 locomotives left in North America, guests plunge deeply into 100 years of the history—at times, brutal history—that made the imposing Verde Valley what it is today.
Posited neatly between the two protected sanctuaries of Coconino and Prescott National Forests, the journey takes you through high desert and river banks that encompass just 2% of the Arizona landscape. Passengers view the stunning harbor scenery of the great canyon gorges etched indelibly with the tales of their past and towering cliffs dotted by the nearly hidden openings of caves of the Navaho tribes that one called them home.
Spy clandestine eagles nests (and, if you’re lucky enough, their residents) high atop towering trees at the canyon’s center. Step out onto the open-air cars and take in the extraordinary vistas as the train stretches out toward the red rocks of Sedona, and take in the powerful stories of hearty early pioneers and ancient settlers as conveyed by well-informed staff.
The vintage train offers three types of cars: coach, with comfortable Pullman seats; first class, with living room-style seating; and the caboose, for an exclusive luxury experience. An assortment of appetizers await guests from the moment they board, along with an open bar with a very able mixologist on every car. Accoutrement for purchase range from assorted treats to a comprehensive tour magazine to the railroad’s very own private label wines.
And at the end of your trip, back at the train depot, browse the John Bell Museum, where you’ll view some of the original early canyon ephemera like railroad spikes and lanterns from the late 1800s found along the canyon’s bed. Shop the Boxcar Gift Store, which has everything from home décor and souvenirs to the distinctive works of local and regional artists in jewelry, sculpture and books. It's a great way to bring home a bit of the Verde Canyon with you, but the memory of this extraordinary journey into history needs no assistance etching itself into your one-of-a-kind experience of Arizona's expansive adventures.
Engine view of the Verde Canyon Railroad (photo courtesy of Verde Canyon Railroad).