Last revised: December 31, 2023
By: Adam Burns
When most folks think of Arizona, fall foliage is not the first thing which comes to mind. Surprisingly, the state does have a bit of color each autumn when cottonwoods, sycamores, velvet ash, Arizona alder, box elder, oaks, and willows come alive in a vibrant display of yellows, reds, and burnt umbers.
Due to its location in the southwest, the trees here typically do not peak until late October, and usually last through the first few weeks of November. There are currently two heritage railroads in Arizona offering public excursions through the fall season, the Grand Canyon Railway and Verde Canyon Railroad.
Both of these organizations not only run through the autumn but also offer some of the highest class of service anywhere in the country with climate-controlled cars and food available on-board.
The Grand Canyon Railway operates the former Santa Fe Railway's 64-mile Grand Canyon Branch from Williams to the South Rim. The railroad began in 1989 and along the way passes through the Kaibab National Forest. Unfortunately, this section of the forest, along the South Rim, does not contain the vibrant colors found on the North Rim.
The railroad, nevertheless, does offer trips during the fall, typically geared towards the kids with their Pumpkin Patch Train. If you are truly after a fall foliage train ride in Arizona, be sure to stop by the Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale.
They operate another section of the former Santa Fe; while the region is generally devoid of ground cover the railroad operates through the fertile Verde River Valley, which contains trees such as cottonwoods, Arizona sycamores, mesquite, desert willows, maples, junipers, and netleaf hackberry.
Each fall, these species turn various shades of reds, yellow, vermillion, and brown. In fact, the valley is such a popular location each autumn, the railroad's fall foliage trains regularly sell out. Finally, some of the locations in Arizona where the fall colors are worth checking out include.
(Grand Canyon Village): One of our country's finest tourist trains, the Grand Canyon Railway's location unfortunately does not subject it to spectacular fall foliage. However, its luxurious accommodations and gorgeous desert scenes of canyons and open vistas more than makes up for it.
Few other places offer the chance to step back in time to experience rail travel as it was in the 1950's with freshly prepared meals on-board, dome car viewing, lounge service, and reclining seat coaches. In some instances trains are even pulled by steam locomotives.
Each fall they host the Pumpkin Patch Train where kids can ride out to the secret patch and pick out their favorite pumpkin. Upon returning to the Williams Depot their new addition can be decorated while enjoying refreshments such as hot cider, cocoa, pumpkin pie, and more.
Other activities available include arts & crafts, a Haunted Train Car, and hay bale maze. Dressing up in Halloween costumes is strongly encouraged!
(Clarkdale): Arizona is often thought as having only arid deserts, devoid of trees and foliage. However, the state is actually filled with woodland and at one time several logging railroads could be found there.
Notable regions include the Prescott National Forest, Tonto National Forest, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and the Coconino National Forest. The Verde Canyon Railroad is found in the latter, operating 20 miles of ex-Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe trackage near the very popular tourist destination of Sedona.
The attraction, which runs over freight line Arizona Central Railroad (which owns the entire 38 mile branch of the old Santa Fe), has become a popular tourist destination since it began in 1990.
During October and November they host special fall foliage trips in relaxing, climate-controlled cars. Trains snake their way northward along the fertile Verde River; during the trip guests are treated to a dichotomy of arid deserts, distant mountains, and vibrant fall colors.
The Verde Canyon has blossomed into a fine upscale experience, worth riding any time of the year.