Verde Canyon Railroad: Desert Delight

An excursion train winds through spectacular scenery on the Verde Canyon Railroad near Clarksdale, Arizona. Photo by author.

As a writer you seek out superlatives and I recently found one: the best four-hour railroad excursion in America.

For those readers who didn’t catch the last column, it covered our recent dusty explorations in the desert around Prescott, Arizona. Of the numerous adventures described, we saved the best day trip for last: the Verde Canyon Railroad (VCRR).

The VCRR is a tourist railroad that runs from the town of Clarkdale into the namesake Verde River canyon. Accessible only by rail, the canyon is a scenic wonder that offers stunning vistas, history and wildlife at every turn and you see it all from either an air-conditioned Pullman coach or open-air cars. Riding those open-air cars through the awe-inspiring landscape is one of the most immersive, satisfying experiences you’ll ever have. But first, let’s back up.

Depending on your route of travel, you might go through the town of Jerome, Arizona. Having traveled mountainous areas across the U.S., I have to say that Jerome wins hands-down for the most unusual and death-defying city in America.

Pictures don’t do it justice. Literally perched at 7000 feet on the side of a mountain that is only a dozen degrees short of vertical, the town is both supremely picturesque and for those of us with height-induced vertigo, utterly terrifying.

If you don’t like thousand-foot drops protected by low-bidder guardrails, you won’t like the drive to Jerome. I also thought the place looked too quaint and artsy for my Neanderthal tastes: the man-bun, craft beer crowd from Sedona stretched as far as the eye could see, if the view wasn’t blocked by a poorly-parked Range Rover. We didn’t stop but you might enjoy the place and its charming shops, restaurants and galleries.

After the hair-raising trip, we dropped into the safety of the Verde Valley and found the well-kept railroad depot on the north edge of Clarkdale.

The VCRR was originally a narrow-gauge 38-mile long engineering marvel built in 1895, winding through the mountains like a spastic snake to bring mined copper to the Santa Fe Railroad mainline and freight and people back to the valley. The line, later changed to a standard-gauge railroad in 1911, required 250 men using picks, shovels, tons of black powder and countless mules to hew a roadbed through the nearly-impossible terrain.

In 1988 Santa Fe sold the line to railroad enthusiast David L. Durbano, who opened 25 of the most scenic miles to passenger excursions in 1990. Since that time, over two million people have ridden the rails on this sublime journey.

At the station we climbed aboard our coach, the “Tucson” and waited for the introductory briefing. After a humorous short speech explaining safety rules and the snack bar service, we were free to stay inside or head back to the open-air car. We immediately led the pack rearward. The open air cars are former flatbed cars with stout steel side rails and canvas awnings for protection against the skull-penetrating Arizona sun.

Once rolling, the first sight you pass is the slag field. The slag was a byproduct of the copper smelting process and was dumped, still molten, into a huge pile where it cooled. The train goes right through the middle of this strange 40-foot deep, 45-acre chunk of solid black man-made rock.

From there the track follows the cliffs that ring the valley, winding in sinuous curves as you clatter and climb through a Technicolor backdrop. Several times the car attendant pointed out Native American rock shelters dating from 600 B.C. hidden in the rock face. After crossing a 175-gorge on a bridge named S.O.B. (supposedly “Superintendant of Bridges”) the train enters the river canyon itself.

With a 360-degree view from the open cars traveling at 12 M.P.H., you can gaze from the clear green waters of the Verde River below to spectacular towering cliffs of sandstone, limestone and red granite, all overlain by a cerulean Arizona sky. During the ride we saw caves, eagles, elk, javelina, cactus, building ruins and the spectacular rock formations. Riding through the 680-foot long curving tunnel is also a unique, and smelly (due to locomotive exhaust), experience.

Once the train reaches the ghost town of Perkinsville, the engine is switched to the other end of the train and you make the reverse journey. Before you go, there is a quick run-by of the old depot ruins and remains of an original Santa Fe water tower that was blown up while filming an episode of the 1960’s television show How the West Was Won.

The trip isn’t inexpensive at $65.00 for a coach seat but for one of the most unique and scenic railroad excursions in the U.S., we highly recommend the Verde Canyon Railroad if you happen to be anywhere in the Southwest U.S.

I’ll definitely go again, once I find someone else to drive through Jerome.

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Brent Wheat
A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of WildIndiana.com

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