For many passengers on the excursion trains of the Verde Canyon Railroad, viewing majestic bald eagles becomes a treasured memory of the trip. The eagles usually patrol overhead, often pacing the train as it rolls along the Verde River and through a colorful wilderness canyon. The birds frequently perch on trees or rocks close enough to the train for passengers to get thrilling photos. Stylized representations of these iconic symbols of freedom adorn the front ends of the vintage locomotives that power the Verde Canyon Railroad's trains.
Located in north central Arizona, the Verde Canyon Railroad runs scenic excursions all year from Clarkdale to tiny Perkinsville on four-hour trips that start at 1 p.m. Southern Nevadans riding the train drive about 300 miles to get there. Head east toward Arizona on U.S. 93 over the new bridge near Hoover Dam. In Kingman, get on Interstate 40 and continue to Flagstaff, about 245 miles from Las Vegas. Exit toward Sedona onto I-17, then Highway 89. Highway 89 follows a scenic 55-mile route through spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona to the depot at Clarkdale.
The tourist trains continue a railroading tradition that began a century ago when the original line carried ore, freight and passengers from the rich mining area around Jerome, which overlooks the Verde River from its steep perch on a mine-scarred mountainside. For 20 years, the popular excursions have exposed thousands of passengers to the area's gorgeous scenery and its fascinating past.
The painted eagles adorning the engines recall a pair of eagles resident in the canyon when the scenic excursion trains began rolling. That pair successfully raised young that also swooped through the canyon. Before long, train riders spotted other kinds of eagles in the canyon, particularly during winter. Migrating eagles seeking winter refuge seem to be increasing.
Train operators recognize that the business of the eagles enhances the business of the trains. To commemorate the railroad's landmark 20th year, the line purchased a life-sized bronze eagle named Ricochet that now perches on a slice of railroad track near the depot. Unveiled on the railroad's anniversary in early December, the statue is the work of Utah artist Greg Woodward. Woodward developed his lifelong interest in railroading and wildlife as a boy living at Promontory, Utah, site of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
During the anniversary celebration, funds raised by raffling another Woodward sculpture of an owl benefited Liberty Wildlife, a raptor rescue center in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rehabilitated wild birds rescued by the group will be released in the Verde Canyon to make their own way when they are ready.
After a January lull of trains just twice a week, February launches the railroad's busy spring season, when trains run nearly every day except Tuesdays. Additionally, the line plans special events such as the Valentine's Day Chocolate Lovers' Festival from Wednesday-Feb. 14, and events themed for St. Patrick's Day and Easter. For special event details and costs, check with the railroad at (800) 382-7245 or with its website at verdecanyonrr.com.
The powerful eagle-painted locomotives pull a string of restored passenger cars, gondolas and a caboose, a piece of history now lost to modern trains.
The railroad's caboose is available for charter for small groups. At $600 for up to six people, this pricey charter boasts a valet to see to guests' comfort. The rest of the train accommodates first class and coach passengers who enjoy great views and narrated information about sights along the way.
First-class passengers are seated inside in elegant social cars with loveseats or bistro seating and outside in open gondolas with benches for seating. Amenities include a champagne toast, complimentary appetizers and a cash bar. First class fares cost $79.95 for all seats.
Coach passengers ride in traditional cars with Pullman-style seating and access to open gondolas with benches. Snacks and drinks are available for sale. Coach fares cost $54.95 for adults, $34.95 for children and $49.95 for seniors. Make reservations by phone or online.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.