Southwest USA by train

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Gaze out your window at the plaintive desert of New Mexico and Arizona, stroll downtown Santa Fe and Flagstaff, bed down in historic hotels, and choo-choo up to the canyon on a vintage train. In an age of rising fuel costs and city sprawl, riding the rails can be easy and economical.

Begin with a few days exploring Santa Fe’s historic landmarks, museums and galleries, most within walking distance of La Fonda hotel. Surround yourself in Southwestern charm here or, for a less expensive option, try the El Rey Inn, a short cab ride from downtown Santa Fe.

The westbound Amtrak departs Lamy, 20 minutes south of Santa Fe and accessible via a prearranged Amtrak shuttle from your hotel, daily at 2:24pm. One-and-a-half hours later, the train arrives in Albuquerque, where vendors sell turquoise jewelry and Navajo-style blankets from the platform and new passengers board. You sit with a glass of wine as the train pulls away from the city’s outskirts, and stare out at the massive red-rock mesas and plateaus of Navajo country, your book lying open and unread in your lap. The train rolls on, through the flat desert plains of western Arizona, and, in about five hours, up into the Ponderosa surrounds of Flagstaff.

Disembarking, you'll notice as soon as you step onto the platform that it’s colder here; even in summer you'll need to pull on your fleece before heading to your hotel for the night. The streets of this welcoming college town are busy as you walk to the Weatherford Hotel. The wraparound 2nd floor porch off the bar is a great place to kick back with a cold beer after the train ride.

Wake up for tofu scrambles and coffee at Macy’s European Coffee House, a popular local hang-out. If you’re feeling ambitious, rent a bike and pick up a bike-trail map at Absolute Bikes. Head west on Route 66 from the shop and follow it for about 3 miles to S Woody Mountain Rd; take a left and ride 4 miles through pines and meadows to the Arboretum at Flagstaff. Here, trails wind around gardens with more than 2300 species of plants; it’s a beautiful spot for a picnic.

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Jump on the 8:57pm Amtrak or the 3.45pm Amtrak bus shuttle to Williams, a tiny tourist town 35 miles west of Flagstaff, and sleep at the Lodge, an updated Route 66 classic (or stay in Flagstaff and take a shuttle or cab in the morning). The Grand Canyon Railway departs from Williams. Catch the predeparture Wild West Show at 9:30am, with silly banter, goofy cowboys wearing spurs, and an Old West facade, before boarding the vintage train for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to the canyon.

As the train slowly chugs north out of town and descends into the shrubbery of the desert, the mountains softly arch in the distance, nothing but shaded silhouettes, and the coolness of morning fades. The train lulls you along, passing a landscape devoid of cars and buildings, and with few other hints of the 21st century. Cowboy singers pass through the train, plucking Johnny Cash, and someone walks down the aisle with bottles of soda and water. Folks exchange stories and talk politics until the train pulls into the station at Grand Canyon National Park, a short walk from the canyon rim.

Some people resist the train, thinking they need the flexibility of a car, and perhaps feeling anchorless without it. But this trip is easy, with no middle-of-the-night departures. True, you don’t have the same freedom you have in your own car, but this kind of travel offers a different kind of freedom. You don’t have any choice but to slow down and enjoy the ride.

This is an abridged version of 'Southwest by train' chapter from Lonely Planet's Arizona, New Mexico & Grand Canyon Trips.