By Don Heimburger
Photos courtesy Verde Canyon Railroad/Teresa Propeck
A lot of people—railfans included—think there’s only one big canyon in Arizona, the famous Grand Canyon.
Sure, there’s only one really big canyon like the Grand Canyon, but the rugged Verde Canyon near Clarkdale is also a remote, wild canyon that gets favorable reviews—and the century-old Verde Canyon Railroad pierces the heart of the canyon to offer visitors a spectacular experience.
With a chill in the air coming to most states starting in November, the Verde Canyon Railroad, about 40 minutes from Sedona and two hours from Phoenix, can provide some warm weather rail thrills, instead of cold chills.
Last of 10 FP-7s in USA
Leaving from Clarkdale station, which is the third depot on the same site (the first was built in 1912), diesel-powered trains, using some of America’s last FP-7 diesels (#1510 and #1512 originally built in 1953 by EMD for the Alaska Railroad), crawl through the picturesque canyon walls at a leisurely 12 miles an hour. Renowned wildlife artist Doug Allen painted both diesels, showing bald eagles in flight; a few years later the scheme was rejuvenated by Damien Pezzi, a California artist.
The four-hour train trip takes you through untamed wilderness, between two national forests, adjacent to a national wilderness area and to the now-deserted Perkinsville Ranch. If you don’t take the train there, you’ll need to walk to Perkinsville Ranch, because there are no roads; the area is definitely remote and secluded—just like the Grand Canyon. Thus, while on board the train, you might see bald eagles, Great Blue Herons, all manner of waterfowl, mule deer, antelope, javelina, fox, coyote, or maybe even a mountain lion.
Watch for the 175-foot-long railroad trestle over a deep gorge, as well as the Perkinsville covered bridge.
Following the upper Verde River, the railroad route slowly reveals “layers of time” as it passes massive rock formations and stratums of lava, granite or sandstone. Rich volcanic soil yields vegetation, and monoclines or “folds” in the rocks can be seen during the trip. Ancient Sinagua Indian dwellings are carved into the surrounding rocks, native flora and fauna are abundant, and check out the eye-opening vistas while en route.
For more fun, the 42-acre Tuzigoot National Indian Monument includes guided tours, pueblo ruins and nearby hiking trails.
On the rail route, you’ll likely see no one living in the area. An old remnant of a homestead is found where the Verde River meets Sycamore Creek, where the Packards settled in 1895; the family provided fresh vegetables to the workers in the close-by mining town of Jerome.
The Alvarez Ranch, many structures of which were built with railroad materials including railroad ties, is the last human habitation in the canyon. Train passengers will see this ranch from the comfort of the railroad cars.
Speaking of railcars, they are modern and air-conditioned, or passengers can step into the open-air viewing cars for a better sight line. Narration and food—and even original music—will add to the experience as you ride along.
If You Go…
Clarkdale is located on the eastern slope of the Mingus Mountain in the Verde Valley at 3,200 feet elevation.
While there, also visit Jerome, Arizona, the sight of a once prosperous mining town built on the side of a large hill. Railroads once figured heavily in the development of this small mining complex as well. Today the town—with many of the original structures still standing—provides a rich heritage of mining in the West. Stores, art galleries, restaurants, and historical displays of the mining district abound.
For more info on the Verde Canyon RR, go to www.verdecanyonrr.com or call 800-320-0718.