Verde Canyon Railroad – Ghost Towns and an Enchanting Excursion

All aboard! See what it's like to ride a heritage excursion train near Sedona, Arizona.

Ever since I heard there was an abandoned Mountain Lion Zoo on Route 66 it was on our itinerary.

Fortunately, unlike some of my other “WE HAVE TO GO THERE” spots (like Tonopah, Nevada), this one was slightly more convenient.

Two Guns, Arizona, was a town that thrived and died in a span of about fifty years. It began as a trading post named Canyon Lodge, grew into a stop along the National Trails Highway, and became a full-blown tourist destination in the early 1920s due to the efforts of Earle and Louise Cundiff and a nefarious scofflaw they partnered with named Henry “Two Guns” Miller.

Before shooting Earle dead with one of those guns, Miller convinced them to change the name of the stop and built a tourist trap that included a zoo containing mountain lions and bobcats held back by chicken wire.

Part of his entrepreneurial activities included selling the skulls of Apache warriors who had perished in a cave on the property.

Forget how disturbing it is that people would actually buy them – the ghosts of the Apaches got their revenge in 1929 when Miller’s store burned down and Louise built her own.

By that time the National Trails Highway had become part of Route 66. When the alignment was moved in 1934, Louise and her new husband moved Two Guns, including the zoo, with it.

The land changed ownership a couple more times until the town, which never became much more than just a trading post with a few tourist attractions and captured animals, burned down – again – in 1971.

We took the Two Guns exit off I-40 to a rutted road and decaying buildings. The only structures that weren’t covered in modern-day petrograms were the last remaining pieces of the zoo.

The water towers and gas station and gift shop, or what remained of them, were littered with graffiti and surrounded by random debris, including a contorted and rusted bed frame. Previously there had been a caretaker and an attempt to keep the defacement to a minimum, but those were long gone.

Two Guns, Arizona
Mountain Lion Zoo at Two Guns, Arizona, on Route 66
Mountain Lion Zoo in Two Guns, Arizona
Two Guns, Arizona

We didn’t stay long. That morning I had awakened at 4:30 with lyrics from Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” cycling through my brain, rumbling along like so much tumbleweed:

“It was an early morning yesterday.
I was up before the dawn.
And I really have enjoyed my stay.
But I must be moving on.”

For the tenth straight day that’s exactly what we were doing: enjoying our stay, getting up early, moving on. We had already seen so much it was almost mind-numbing. We’d traveled over 2100 miles and were in our seventh state; we’d crossed the Mississippi, the Rio Grande, and the Continental Divide, and our next leg would take us into the heart of Arizona.

We entered the Coconino National Forest east of Flagstaff and caught our first glimpse of white-capped peaks. Turning south on I-17, we drove through a mountainous landscape of Ponderosa pines until we picked up SR 89a, a winding road that descends from nearly 7,000 to 4,300 feet.

Each hairpin turn and switchback revealed another incredible view as we followed Oak Creek through its eponymous canyon. Here and there we’d see cabins and campgrounds alongside the picturesque stream.

It’s just as well we had no time to pitch our tent, because there were still spots of snow on the intermittent shoulder and my toes get numb when it’s 31.9 degrees (-0.05555556 for you Celsius-speakers).

By the time we reached Sedona the transition from evergreens and limestone to cacti and sandstone was complete. It would have been nice to hike, but it was a cloudy day so we didn’t mind too much that we only had a moment for a quick stop. Besides, we had a train to catch. Next time, we’ll make sure we have at least 3 days in Sedona.

We needed to be in Clarkdale (not Clarksville, or I totally would have made – I mean, asked Jim – to sing “Last Train to Clarksville”) by noon so we could take the Verde Canyon Railroad.

I had learned of this excursion train at the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show. When I saw their booth I was absolutely ridiculous. “Hi my name’s Theresa and I’ve got a booth over there and my husband and I are going on a road trip to San Diego and back and I’m going to write a book and can we go on your train please please please.”

I did everything but tug on her sleeve. And then I learned her name was Teresa and I was all “My name’s Theresa too did I say that I think I did hehe that’s awesome guess I won’t forget your name now will I?”

Absolutely ridiculous.

We arrived a little early (because I was a wee bit excited) and while I picked up a couple of sandwiches from the cafe, Jim bought a Verde Canyon Railroad hat for me, which proceeded to make an appearance in 90% of the pictures I was in from that point forward.

We boarded the train and were escorted to a table for two and given some champagne. As the train left, the host told our car about the four-hour tour we were about to experience.

Verde Canyon Excursion Railroad
Welcome champagne on Verde Canyon Railroad

You might think that after spending as much time as we were in a moving vehicle that the last thing we’d want to do would be to spend an entire afternoon in another moving vehicle.

Except this was a train in a canyon that followed a river, with one National Forest on one side and another National Forest on the other, that had a full bar and appetizers and entertaining hosts and open-air cars that we could visit any time we wanted. It was an afternoon of sublime leisure, and may have been the only time on the road trip that we were truly relaxed.

Little Miss History Geek (that would be me) was in her element. The Verde Canyon Railroad excursion train runs on tracks that were laid down in 1912 to service the booming copper mine in Jerome.

Built in just one year at a cost of $1.3 million, the 38-mile stretch carried the copper from the Verde Valley to Drake, Arizona, where the trains could then connect to the busy BNSF line that would deliver that copper across the country.

When the train burrowed into the 680-foot long tunnel, I wondered at the effort it must have taken to blow that hole into the mountain. Like the roads at Palo Duro Canyon, and the scenic blacktop we’d driven along Oak Creek to get to Clarkdale, this was dangerous, backbreaking work.

Verde Canyon Excursion Railroad entering the tunnel in the mountain
Verde Canyon Excursion Railroad exiting the tunnel in the mountain

The train itself is moving history. The cars are completely restored vintage coaches, either Pullman-Standard or Budd Chair Cars. One carried passengers on the Super Chief train between Kansas City and Chicago in 1946, another in 1957. The engines are diesel FP7s, two of only ten remaining in North America, and ran the Alaska Railroad.

The scenery is what truly makes this train excursion remarkable. After slowly rolling by 50 million tons of slag – 40 acres worth of smelter waste – the train passed cliff dwellings and steep walls of basalt, and trundled over trestle bridges and steel bridges built above the Verde River.

The cottonwoods and sycamores were just beginning to bud, and their light green tips contrasted with the red rocks of the canyon. Below, green grasses grew at the banks of the stream. Daniel, one of our hosts, pointed out rock formations that looked like animals. Turtles, dinosaurs, bears. Sometimes we’d see them, and sometimes he was just making stuff up.

Cottonwoods budding in the Verde Valley
Verde River in the Verde Canyon
Dinosaur rock formation at Verde Canyon

We went back and forth between the open car attached to our cabin, and gazed out the picture window while sipping on a prickly pear margarita, or a glass of private label chardonnay.

Those two hours to Perkinsville passed quickly as we ate, drank, and soaked in the wilderness around us. Once we arrived in the ghost town several of us stepped out to the open car. Daniel pointed out places where How the West Was Won was filmed.

We learned that John, a fellow passenger, was Airborne and had served in Korea twice and Alaska once. He found out that one of the engineers was Airborne as well, and we eavesdropped as they shared stories of their service.

The engine shuttled from one end of the train to the other and the same engineer joined us in our car. Learning that Jim was classically trained, he belted out the opening of Man of La Mancha in the middle of the cabin. Turned out Dennis was also a classically trained musician, has a range of three octaves, and had performed in many musicals.

Verde River near Cottonwood and Sedona, Arizona
Perkinsville, Arizona
Eagle Engine at Verde Canyon Railroad
Verde Canyon Engineer

It was magical. It was enchanting. It was absolutely ridiculous.

The return trip was more social than the way out. We met people from Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the UP, for short). Like our conversation with Scott and Monty in Old Town Albuquerque, it was relaxed and companionable, with no expectations beyond enjoying a shared experience.

Throughout the journey, music was mixed with narration on the overhead speakers. Sometimes we tried to listen,  and other times we just rocked with the car as it went clickety-clack.

When we pulled into Clarkdale it was as if we were two new people, refreshed, relaxed, and ready for an evening in Cottonwood. The next two days would be spent in Yuma and then we’d reach our halfway point. While it seemed like we were nearly there, we still had a long way to go and a lot to pack in over the next three days. Arizona wasn’t going to let us off that easy.

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