The wild natural scenery along the Verde Canyon Railroad has inspired amusement park designers for decades to recreate the sights and sounds along their roller coaster tracks. Every summer millions flock to these amusement parks nationwide, where they wait in line for hours to enjoy a few moments on a roller coaster, go broke on officially-licensed souvenirs and eat too many stomach-churning treats. This season, families may wish to consider a journey away from fantasy and into reality: red rock hoodoos, untamed rivers, mining towns and real mountain vistas.
Disney fans visiting Sedona for the first time often experience a déjà vu “this place looks so familiar” vibe. Local legend has it that ‘ol Walt modeled the popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster after these stunning red rock vistas, including one area formation actually named Thunder Mountain. Locals also insist the Man behind the mouse found inspiration for “Fantasia” during an extended visit to Sedona, which may explain why the city boasts a street named for Disney.
Passengers trade imaginary landscapes for the real thing at Verde Canyon Railroad, as the rail route wanders into an enchanted panorama through a red-rock canyon near Sedona. The gentle grade of these tracks may not rouse with roller coaster speed, but different thrills cause hearts and senses to soar: eye-popping scenery, eagles cruising above, historic high trestles and a 680-foot tunnel blasted out of solid rock 100 years ago, pitch dark even during high summer.
Instead of giant mice and cranky ducks, catch a glimpse of the West’s true wild creatures from the rare vantage point of a heritage railroad. The perennially flowing Verde River is a valuable resource for area desert dwellers, human and animal alike. Southwestern residents all tend to be “crepuscular” during the summer months, (most active during the early morning and twilight times of day), making the Verde Canyon Railroad’s summer Starlight trip a perfect venue to spot wildlife.
Fireworks may be noisy good fun but they cannot beat the bright glow of the Milky Way filling the clear skies above Arizona’s remote high desert wilderness, distant from metropolitan areas. The Verde Canyon Railroad offers this monthly Starlight excursion June through September, departing the depot during the cooler temperatures of later afternoon and traveling through sunset and into the moon glow of twilight. Sandwiched between two protected national forests and adjacent to the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, Verde Canyon Railroad brings its passengers into an untamed and unspoiled terrain, an exceedingly rare ribbon where the high desert meets the river.
A train ride aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad also is a great alternative to a hot afternoon hike during the summer, allowing a wealth of wild scenery to be viewed all while riding in climate-controlled comfort, with river breezes cooling the sun-shaded open-air viewing cars. With an icy Prickly Pear Margarita in hand, or any of the signature cocktails, specialty craft beers or private-labeled wines from the first class cars’ amply-stocked bars, passengers relax to the leisurely sight of Great Blue Herons coasting effortlessly above the clear green river. Monsoon season in late summer adds another layer of drama to the route, with seasonal waterfalls cascading into the canyon and rainbows filling the afternoon skies.
A treasured bit of history traversing a rare and scenic Arizona wilderness, Verde Canyon Railroad is a fresh view into the unspoiled heart of the West. Postcard-perfect scenery is only part of the magic. The train provides a comfortable and exciting journey as it travels a leisurely four hours from the charming Clarkdale depot to the ghost ranch at Perkinsville and back. Awe-inspiring rock formations, historic trestles, ancient cliff dwellings and soaring raptors are just a few of the trip’s many highlights. The caboose is a luxurious, private car for you and five of your closest friends. First-class cars boast plush seating, complimentary appetizers and a full-service bar. Coach offers vintage Pullman-style seating, panoramic windows and snack bars. Everyone has access to open-air viewing cars offering 360-degree views and spectacular photographic opportunities.
A stone’s throw from the hillside mining town of Jerome, Verde Canyon Railroad’s Clarkdale depot is located in the heart of the Verde Valley, a diverse crossroads featuring amazing adventures in every direction. Only two hours from Phoenix and 25 minutes from Sedona, Verde Canyon Railroad is the perfect Arizona day trip. Reservations are accepted online at verdecanyonrr.com or at 800-293-7245.