For the Thanksgiving holiday, my family and I road-tripped to Southern California, via Las Vegas, from our Colorado mountain home. For the return trip, we took a different route, via the Grand Canyon, one of the U.S. national parks that’s long been on my family’s domestic travel bucket list.
My daughter had actually been to the Grand Canyon 14 years prior – in utero. Yep, I hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail below the canyon rim while 6 weeks pregnant. I have fond memories of spotting the majestic canyon for the first time, and couldn’t wait for my children (ages 13 and 11) to experience this natural wonder, as well.
Only they didn’t.
Because, on the day we visited – November 29, 2013 – the Grand Canyon was TOTALLY FOGGED IN.
We had arrived at the Grand Canyon just after sunset the night before, and we woke up early at the Yavapai Lodge with a plan to walk the paved Rim Trail for a few miles, stopping along the way at marked lookout points. We wanted to check out of our room by 11 a.m., in order to get back in our truck for the long drive home. Well, our plan was thwarted from the beginning – fog engulfed us everywhere, from the start of the trail about a half-mile from the lodge, all along the rim to Verkamp’s Visitor Center (about a 1.5-mile trek in total).
The gal working the desk at Verkamp’s Visitor Center, where we entered to get warm, said that the fog usually rolls off by 11 am or noon, so we decided to take some time looking at the historic exhibits there. The building is one of the oldest on the South Rim, dating back to 1905; John Verkamp opened a souvenir shop (tent!) nearby, selling souvenirs to tourists in the late 1800s. Exhibits describe how a small community – complete with railway station, school and post office – grew into bustling Grand Canyon Village.
From there, we decided to walk back to our lodge to pack up our belongings and check out, before driving to the main Grand Canyon Visitor Center, hoping that by the time we reached it, we could walk out to Mather Point and actually see the canyon. We weren’t optimistic: the drive was quite foggy along the way.
We packed into the Grand Canyon Visitor Center with a bunch of other visitors to check out the few exhibits and watch the 20-minute, big-screen movie, Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder (shown on the hour and half-hour). When it was over, we walked outside to more fog – and a handful of tourists returning from the lookout point to say, “No dice.”
On to Plan C: Lunch at El Tovar. And, frankly, I was delighted with this addition to our day. El Tovar, built in 1905, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its dining room is one of the nicest spots to eat: “the premier dining establishment in the Grand Canyon.” Who cares that it was only 11:30 a.m., and we hadn’t eaten breakfast that much earlier. I wanted a beer and a hot meal. (Did I mention it wasn’t only foggy but also about 35 degrees?)
Well, a lot of other visitors had the same idea; a line had formed when we arrived at the hotel dining room. There were tables available, but no menus! Everyone had converged on the restaurant at the same time. But we were quickly seated, and by noon, the place was totally packed. I loved my beef stroganoff over noodles and my Grand Canyon Pilsner; the kids were happy to have their own pots of hot chocolate.
I highly recommend the sophisticated dining experience at El Tovar; much more civilized than cafeteria dining at the Canyon Cafe at Yavapai Lodge. Plus, when the weather’s good (NOT the day we visited) you can enjoy great views of the canyon from El Tovar’s restaurant windows. (Our waiter said in the year he’d been working there, he’d never seen the fog so dense or last so long in the day.)
After lunch – at about 12:30 p.m. – we decided to hit the road. We really wanted to be back home in our own beds that night, and we had a nine-hour drive ahead of us. We took Desert View Drive east, along the canyon rim, hoping that perhaps we could pull over and have a great canyon view at some point, but we were out of luck. My kids were not meant to see a Grand Canyon vista that day. (This just means we’ll have to return; we have our sights set on a Grand Canyon rafting trip in 2015.)
However, the kids did get a consolation prize. About a half hour outside of Grand Canyon National Park, we stopped just off of Hwy 64 to get a look at a gorge formed by the Little Colorado River. Success!
Once we returned home, happily snug and warm inside, under sunny skies, we found out that the foggy day we experienced in the Grand Canyon was a highly unusual weather phenomenon. On the Grand Canyon’s Facebook page, the dense fog that we saw is described as a “once in a lifetime” temperature inversion. Apparently, rangers wait for “years to see the ground-hugging fog.” I wasn’t the only person on Instagram documenting the crazy climate that day.
Somehow, finding out that we just happened to be in the Grand Canyon on the day when this miraculous weather event occurred, made our failed attempt to see the canyon a little bit more palatable.