Last revised: March 29, 2023
By: Adam Burns
The Verde Canyon Railroad is a tourist railroad operating over ex-Santa Fe trackage in central Arizona, near the very popular tourist destination of Sedona.
And like Sedona the Verde Canyon has become a popular tourist attraction itself since it began operations in the early 1990s.
Today the railroad offers several different excursions and special trains for visitors and although prices average a little higher than what you might expect on other tourist railroads the scenery afforded in climate-controlled, comfortable coaches is well worth the cost!
So, if you are visiting Sedona, or Arizona in general I would very much recommend a visit to the Verde Canyon Railroad, especially since you can often witness Bald Eagles on the journey and it is the only way to see Arizona's breathtaking Verde Canyon.
The Verde Canyon Railroad actually dates back to a railroad of a very similar name the Verde Valley Railway, which was chartered in November of 1911 and built by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe), opening in 1912.
The purpose of the railroad was to haul copper from the rich deposits found around Jerome along with supplying the region with coal.
The AT&SF would eventually own a few hundred miles of secondary lines in west-central Arizona with this particular branch running from a connection at Drake, southeastward to Clarkdale, a distance of exactly 38.0 miles according to the Santa Fe's timetable.
With little in the way of passenger business the line now hosting excursions predominantly handled freight under the AT&SF.
The original Verde Valley Railway line remained a branch of the Santa Fe until 1989 when it decided to sell corridor to the Durbano Family, which named the new route the Verde Canyon Railroad.
Today, the railroad takes you on a 40-mile roundtrip from Clarkdale to the ghost town of Perkinsville, along the way passing through two national forests and the spectacular Verde Canyon.
However, passenger trains aren’t the only trains running on the line. Also owned by the Durbano Family is the freight hauling, Arizona Central Railroad (reporting mark, AZCR), operating the same trackage between Clarkdale and Drake where it connects with the BNSF Railway (which still operates the original AT&SF line south of Drake to Phoenix).
As for the train ride itself, it is a normally a long, 5-hour trip where you can ride either first class coach or standard coach.
You also have the option of the enjoying the views from the caboose!
According to the railroad this latter option is an exclusive, upscale treat:
"...designed for one private party of six or fewer adults. Its luxurious appointments include oversized chairs, large picture windows, cupola seating for a birds-eye view and private outdoor viewing platforms.
A personal valet pours your complimentary Champagne upon boarding and serves sumptuous freshly-prepared appetizers."
Trains depart from the railroad’s rebuilt depot in Clarkdale (designed in the Southwest, adobe style), which also contains the John Bell Railroad Museum.
This museum is thanks to local resident John Bell, a local historian and collector of antique railroad pieces and photographs, which are now featured at the depot. If you ride the train, don't miss this little treat!
The railroad also operates special trains which include Chocolate Lovers and Grape Train Escape. Lastly, be sure and ask about their caboose rentals available during trips!
For power the Verde Canyon Railroad usually employs one of two streamlined EMD FP7 diesel locomotives, originally owned by the Alaska Railroad in 1953. They are adorned in an interesting teal green livery with the depiction of a bald eagle running along the carbody.
The railroad's fleet of restored, streamlined, and climate-controlled passenger cars allows one to simply lay back, relax, and enjoy the passing views.
If the outdoors are more your thing, however, they also feature open-air cars for maximum visibility and viewing.
Perhaps best of all, because much of Arizona remains so mild (if not downright hot) year-round, the Verde Canyon operates throughout the year although be sure to check out their schedule to what's happening month-to-month.
Today, the railroad sees around 100,000 visitors annually. Part of the train's success is due to the region it is located, as Sedona, Flagstaff, and are all less than three hours away.
However, the incredible views and geography of western Arizona are also a major draw for passengers as there are not many similar excursion trains offered anywhere in the country featuring such splendid desert scenery along the banks of the Verde River.
For more information about the Verde Canyon Railroad please click here to visit their website. Once there you can find out when their trains operate, pricing, special trains and events ongoing, and their on board accommodation options (such as first class, caboose, etc.).
Their site also provides information regarding how to reach the railroad, what you can see and do around the area, local accommodations, and a history of the line they operate. Finally, be sure to check out their special package deals if you want to plan your trip in advance.