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Verde Canyon Train Ride
November 14, 2009
by Chuck Parsons
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All Aboard!

Sixteen anxious Arizona Trailblazers are among a throng of riders preparing to board the Cottonwood Car on the Verde Canyon Railroad. It’s a gorgeous Saturday morning in mid-November, and the weather is finally cool enough to wear an extra layer or two against the chill autumn air in Clarkdale.

Ready to ride!

Chuck, Ted, Jacque, Sheila, Carrie, Dani, Dan, Mindy, Anne, and Barry pose for a quick group shot taken by a thoughtful passing photographer.

Six of our group are still browsing in the depot gift shop, looking for that perfect gift to take back home.

We sure hope they make it in time to ride the rails with us.

This long-abandoned facility comes into view shortly after pulling away from the train depot. Originally built as a power plant for the Clarkdale copper smelter, it was later pressed into service to manage the slag recovery process from the nearby 40-acre man-made mountain of black smelting slag. This is without doubt the ugliest “mountain” in all of Arizona and so toxic that not even the toughest weeds in the west can gain a foothold on its hot black slopes. Although it certainly doesn’t add to the otherwise spectacular scenery of the area, it stands as an important reminder of Arizona’s rich history in copper mining.

The Clarkdale smelter was built in 1915 just below the nearby Jerome copper mines and was the primary reason for the existence of the town of Clarkdale, founded in 1912 and named after Arizona Senator William A. Clark. By the early 20th century, the United Verde Copper Mine in Jerome was the largest producing copper mine in the Arizona Territory, producing over $500 million worth of copper during its lifetime.

power plant
The old Clarkdale power plant.

In its day, Clarkdale was the most modern mining town in America, with all the amenities, facilities, and infrastructures of any small American city. Both the Jerome mine and the smelter were closed in 1953, bringing an end to an historical and colorful era for Arizona.

Ancient cliff dwellings sit high on the cliffs overlooking the valley.

Just prior to entering the main part of Verde Canyon, we see several of these ancient cliff dwellings perched high above the tracks and constructed by the Sinagua and Hohokam Indians.

These are a people who lived and thrived in these great canyons for nearly a thousand years, before mysteriously vanishing from the scene around 1300 AD for no readily apparent reasons.

Drought? Disease? Warfare? Famine? We will probably never know for certain. We can only marvel at the legacy of their resourcefulness and imagination, as demonstrated in the numerous and often magnificent cliff dwellings such as this one, pictographs, and petroglyphs they left behind in their departure from these canyons throughout the American Southwest so many centuries ago.

The Verde Canyon Railroad travels the historic rail route from Clarkdale to the ghost ranch of Perkinsville and then back, all at a leisurely pace of 10-12 MPH. The four-hour, forty-mile round trip journey through spectacular Verde Canyon, sometimes referred to as “Arizona’s other Grand Canyon”, follows the Verde River for most of the route, crossing numerous bridges and trestles along the way before passing through a 680-foot tunnel bored through solid rock.

Instrumental in the development of the Verde Valley, the railroad (first called the Verde Valley Railroad) was completed in 1912 as a 38-mile branch line between Clarkdale and Drake and considered a miracle of engineering. 250 men, with 200 mules hauling their supplies including thousands of pounds of black powder explosives, constructed the line in a little over one year. Its purpose was to haul copper ore from the Jerome mines to the Clarkdale smelter.

Owned and operated by the Santa Fe Railway until 1989 primarily as a freight line hauling coal, cement, raw copper ore, and refined copper, the line was sold to the current owners who resumed full passenger service in 1990. The Verde Canyon Railroad has been carrying passengers through the canyon almost daily since then, now averaging over 100,000 passengers a year.

Bridge and trestle work on the Verde Canyon Railroad.
Rolling through the valley on the Cottonwood Observation Car [Ted]

These open-air observation cars offer the best seats in the house, with a totally unrestricted view of the valley and the canyon and protective overhead covering from the elements as well.

For the true photographers among us, this is the only place to be.

Even our adjacent cozy and warm passenger car with a well-stocked snack bar couldn’t beckon us away from this beautiful scenery.

It was cold and rainy when we pulled into the Verde Canyon Depot, picked up our tickets, and then drove to a good Mexican restaurant in Clarkdale for lunch. But by the time we boarded the train, the solid overcast had broken up, replaced with a mix of blue skies and fluffy cumulous clouds.

Ted and I spent most of our time out here, trying to capture that perfect Arizona Highways shot. With endless photo opportunities on the 20-mile ride to Perkinsville, including the spectacular fall colors in the canyon, I believe we both came very close.

Arizona Highways – are you reading this?

Two famous Arizona railroad buffs riding the rails.

Ted and Jacque Tenny pose for an intimate portrait shot, bundled against the chill canyon wind blowing across our open observation car.

Although a bit chilly, especially on the return trip, the cool clean air of Verde Canyon is a breathtaking and delightful relief from a seemingly endless summer of +100 degree days for us desert dwellers from another famous, but much hotter, Arizona valley about 100 miles to the south.

Hundreds of huge cottonwood and sycamore trees, ablaze with the crisp bright colors of fall, line the Verde River along this stretch of track.

The train stopped in this area for several minutes to give everyone a good view and a chance to capture the magic of the moment on camera without the noise or movement of the train or simply to soak up and revel in this hushed and peaceful setting along the Verde, with all of our senses sharply attuned to one of the greatest shows provided by Mother Nature in all of Arizona.

This is my third fall excursion into Verde Canyon and by far the most colorful and scenic of the three. We seem to have timed this trip almost perfect for maximum fall colors and gorgeous scenery. It just doesn’t get too much better than this. The sun keeps ducking in and out behind thickening clouds as we roll along in the canyon, but is cooperative enough most of the time to provide near excellent lighting for the majority our pictures.

Fall colors are peaking in Verde Canyon.

The unique confluence of the Upper Sonoran Desert and Verde River wetlands, coupled with breathtaking fall colors that spread as far as the eye can see, makes this the most scenic and panoramic stretch of the entire trip. This remarkable geological wonderland of rugged, craggy rock faces and colorful towering cliffs, infused among one of the richest riparian habitats in Arizona, creates one of the most distinctive environments in the state, bountifully rich in both flora and fauna.

Bounded by both national forests and a designated wilderness area, this is a special and unique environment that deserves to be protected for all future generations to enjoy. The Verde Canyon Railroad is serving to do its part by providing the perfect viewing window into this amazing slice of Arizona paradise that many people would never get to see and experience otherwise.

magnificent More magnificent fall colors in the canyon.
Blue skies and Red Rock country.

As the train follows the Verde River in a northwest direction toward Perkinsville, we are approaching the southwestern edge of the sprawling Redrock-Secret Mountain Wilderness.

Soaring cliffs of redwall limestone, the same rock found throughout the Grand Canyon, line the river along these last few miles of rail approaching Perkinsville.

The beautiful contrast between these colorful limestone cliffs and the bright yellow cottonwoods and sycamores lying at their base provides some of the best scenery of the entire trip.

Somewhere along here we spot a lone bald eagle soaring high above the train, as it rides the thermals and looks for its next meal.

Several nesting pairs of resident bald eagles make their home in the Verde Canyon year around, relying heavily on the river for their food supply.

From December through March, they are joined by several dozen migrating bald and golden eagles that stop over in the canyon for rest and refueling before making their way further south.

The Red Rock country’s autumn glory.

The train comes to a stop at the old Perkinsville Depot, while the two diesel engines are switched over to the other end of the train for the return leg of our journey back to Clarkdale.

magnificent End of the line at Perkinsville. [photos by Ted Tenny]

Although often referred to as a “ghost ranch”, the Perkins Ranch is still very much a working cattle ranch occupying almost 38 square miles of the Verde Valley.

When the Santa Fe Railway constructed this rail line in 1912, it went right through the middle of the ranch, and the depot was built close to the old ranch headquarters.

For many years the Perkins Ranch raised beef to feed the hundreds of hungry miners working in the Jerome copper mines.

Of all places, Perkinsville also once had ties with the Hollywood movie industry. In 1963 the final scenes from the classic western movie How the West Was Won were shot right here around the Perkinsville Depot.

Engine 1512 is one of the two diesel powered, standard-gauge FP7 locomotives that power this train.

These engines are a rare breed and represent two of the 12 remaining FP7s in all of North America. These two engines were originally built for the Alaska Railroad and still sport their snowplows out in front, although they certainly haven’t done too much snow plowing here in Arizona. As the locomotives slowly roll by, the engineer transfers a large insulated bag of ice cream sandwiches over to the snack bar proprietor for our enjoyment on the return trip.

Engine 1512 rolls by. [photo by Ted Tenny]
Ride’s end and one last group picture.

After the train trip we finally manage to get everyone together for a last group picture in front of the train. From left to right: Chuck, Chip, Michy, Barry, Jacque, Ted, Carrie, Brian, Denise, Willette, Sheila, Lisa, Anne, Dani, Mindy, and Dan.

From here, we part company and go our separate ways, with some of us going into Clarkdale or Cottonwood for dinner and others heading for home. It’s been a great day for riding the rails of the Verde Canyon Railroad through spectacular Verde Canyon.

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updated December 2, 2009