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What to Do at the Grand Canyon When You Can’t See the Grand Canyon

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.

Grand Canyon fog

Kids on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon – really.

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).

Grand Canyon fog

I was being optimistic with the weather, wearing my sunglasses for our hike. But no sun. No view.

grand canyon fog

Daddy isn’t usually one to be that disappointed – but even he was bummed out.

The sun was trying to come out, but fog kept rolling in.

The sun was trying to come out, but fog kept rolling in.

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.

Historic timeline showing the development of Grand Canyon Village, and a replica of the original tented souvenir shop.

Historic timeline showing the development of Grand Canyon Village, and a replica of the original tented souvenir shop.

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.

Grand Canyon fog

The scene along Desert View Drive – more like Foggy View Drive

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.”

At the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, see one of the original boats taken down the Colorado River during the first full expedition of the Grand Canyon.

At the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, see one of the original boats taken down the Colorado River during the first full expedition of the Grand Canyon.

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?)

Historic El Tovar Hotel - in the fog.

Historic El Tovar Hotel – in the fog.

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.

Hot chocolate by the fire at El Tovar - heavenly

Hot chocolate by the fire at El Tovar

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!

Perched above the Little Colorado gorge.

Perched above the Little Colorado gorge.

Yay! We didn't see the Grand Canyon, but we saw a grand canyon.

Yay! We didn’t see the Grand Canyon, but we saw a grand canyon.

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.

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13 Responses to “What to Do at the Grand Canyon When You Can’t See the Grand Canyon”

  1. 1
    akshay says:

    Hilarious, didn’t see the Grand canyon but saw a canyon! I went to LV a few years ago and wanted to do the helicopter tour down the canoyon, what are your thoughts on that? is it worth it?

    • 1.1
      Kara Williams says:

      Great question – I’ve not done the helicopter ride to/in the Grand Canyon, so can’t comment on it. (Though I have done helicopter rides in Hawaii, and those are pretty spectacular…)

  2. 2

    Major bummer, but I’m glad you and your family got to see at least part of the Canyon. And it’s great you took the “lemonade out of lemons” perspective with mentioning this happens so rarely, even the rangers wait for it. Every time I’ve gone there (about four times so far), the weather was so hot, cooler weather would’ve been nice. But definitely not fog!

  3. 3

    I’m not going to lie. I would’ve been massively disappointed. At least it happened as part of a larger trip instead of just a trip to the Grand Canyon.

    • 3.1
      Kara Williams says:

      Yes – if “the trip” was *only* the Grand Canyon, it would have been horrible. I would have stayed until the ^&%#$ fog lifted! But… truly… I believe the kids will be back someday. They’re young. ;-)

  4. 4
    Jennifer Miner says:

    Oh man, I just got around to looking at your photos now — disappointing but kind of hilarious too, don’t you kinda sorta think?? At least you can start planning fora return trip. I mean, what are the odds this’ll happen again,right?

  5. 5

    Oh we love the Grand Canyon, but haven’t taken the kids yet. We have that on the to do list at some point. I would have been so sad to see all of that fog. You all seemed to have had very bright spirits. Good for you!

  6. 6

    Thank you for sharing this great post. I really enjoyed reading it; it’s very informative. keep up the great work!

  7. 7

    At least you got to have hot chocolate at El Tovar! Love the pic of the backlit foggy trees (pinning!). This gives you an excuse to go back someday. I am holding off bringing my kiddos until they are a bit older…hopefully we won’t be fogged in when we do go!

  8. 8
    Charles Rahm says:

    How dare the Grand Canyon to be foggy when you visit! :-)

  9. 9
    Di says:

    We were there a few years back and it was in the midst of a CA wildfire… Haze and smoke, and couldn’t see clearly. We still had fun. We kept saying, “well no one else we know had that experience!” Makes it more of a reason we have to go back on another Vegas trip and take the GC side trip!

  10. 10
    Amy says:

    This happened to me too, back in 2001. I was only there for one morning and missed the whole thing. Saw a view of “a” canyon similar to your pics but that was about it!

  11. 11
    Hugh says:

    From NYC, living in France… Waited 60 years to see the Grand Canyon. When we arrived it there was hail and thunder storms; ditto next morning! we never saw it. We visited visitor’s center, watched the film, ate in the lodge, etc. When we arrived in Tucson, everyone told us how lucky we were to see such weather!

    While we are certain that they are correct… disappointment in not seeing THE GRAND CANYON remains with us back here in France.

    P.S. Good post! And, as you only live 9 hours away you’ll make it back, I’m sure!

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