Sunday, July 03, 2016


Almost exactly one year ago, when Poulami and I were still newlyweds and were just getting to know each other's likes and dislikes, I happened to mention that I once spent two nights in a tent in Grand Canyon National Park.

"Oh, can we do that again?" she asked.

"I guess so. We don't have a tent though."

"Then let's buy one. And let's go on lots of camping trips."

"Yes, I suppose it could be done."

"We could start with Shenandoah National Park. That's not too far." (We were living in Virginia at the time)

"Yes, but the problem with camping in Shenandoah is that there are too many black bears around who may..."

"What fun!"

And so, a campground was reserved in Shenandoah National Park for a Saturday night in mid-July. A tent was purchased, along with a tarp, an ice-box, an LED lantern, a bug spray and a flashlight. I already had a sleeping bag, so we just had to buy another one. Finally when the day came, we packed some marinated meat, salmon, vegetables and charcoal for our portable grill and drove to Shenandoah.


Our very first camping experience together was a great success.

Cooking by the tent
 We had gone by car, so we had carried every possible article that we thought we might need. We had carried home-cooked lunch which we promptly gulped down. The campground at "Big Meadows" was very small, but it had a fire pit and a picnic table. We set up the tent for the first time and went for a walk. Our green-coloured tent was light and easy enough to set up, but the walk in the stifling heat tired us out and made us hungry. The weather office promised rain, but we were counting on them being wrong. Our three-person tent was one of the smallest tents that we saw. But while the inside of this tent was nothing like the Weasley's tent from Harry Potter, it was large enough for the two of us with our sleeping bags, backpacks and my camera and laptop. It even had net windows for ventilation.

The inside of our tent
We spent all afternoon in lighting the charcoal grill and grilling corn, vegetables, chicken and two pieces of salmon. We ate some of it, and put away the rest in the ice box and locked it in the car (to prevent bears from finding it out). Then we bought some wood from the nearby camp store and tended to the campfire all evening. Although the temperature did get chilly in the night, it did not rain and we got a beautiful view of the night sky. We also saw some deer around the campground.

The birds woke us up early next morning. We were too lazy to light the grill again, and so had cold grilled meat and vegetables from the previous night. We hiked around the park a little, bought some souvenirs, saw a bear and came home.

The sky at Shenandoah


Shenandoah's experience made us bolder. We had already planned our much-awaited honeymoon trip in the southwestern United States and had decided to camp in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. Now we were looking forward to the trip.

This camping experience would be slightly different from the Shenandoah experience though. Firstly, since we were flying to Vegas and then driving to these parks, carrying everything that we could possibly need was not an option. Also, since we didn't have the grill, we wouldn't be doing any cooking unless we actually wanted to cook over campfire. So we only packed the tent, the lantern, the flashlights, the sleeping bags and the bug spray for this trip. This was enough to fill a suitcase. We also meant to pack a lighter, but we forgot that. A store in Las Vegas was selling lighters, but it was priced so high that we could have bought a lighter and a bundle of firewood and maybe a bottle of lighting fluid for that price elsewhere. So we just let it go and bought one at Grand Canyon.

Elk (female)
The camp site at the Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park is very different from the one in Shenandoah. Firstly, there are more trees on and around the site itself, though the trees are mostly of the evergreen-but-everdry juniper variety. Secondly, the ground here was not covered with grass but gravelly and littered with rocks. Thirdly, instead of the small deer of Shenandoah, we saw elk. The elk is the largest member of the deer family and the males, who can be quite aggressive, have huge antlers like reindeer. I had seen a male elk in my earlier trip in 2009, but this time we only saw females in the campground. We set up the tent, then went and saw the sunset, had dinner at the restaurant in Grand Canyon Village, and bought wood, lighting fluid and a lighter. Although the rim of the canyon and the village are both walking distance from the campsite, repeated walking can get tiring. Besides, walking back with a bundle of firewood was out of the question, so we took our rental car that we had driven from Vegas.

Our tent at night

We spent the rest of the evening tending the fire. The firewood wasn't good and the fire kept going out. We took turns poking it and prodding it and dousing it with the lighting fluid. Pouring the fluid usually caused it to flare up and burn brightly for a few minutes. Then the whole process would start again.

Before we turned in for the night, we put the fire out and looked up at the night sky. Stretched across the sky, we saw the Milky Way after a very, very long time.

The sky at Grand Canyon

When making plans for our trip, we had not planned two successive nights of camping at any place. That was because we were not so sure of our ability to sleep well in the tent, and we didn't want to go two consecutive nights without sleep in the middle of a tiring trip. Also, it was summer and we wanted to use the better shower in the hotel. In retrospect, reserving a room in the Yavapai lodge for the second night of our stay at Grand Canyon was the wisest thing that we could have done. We woke up early the next morning and went to see the sunrise on the rim. But when the sun came up, we realized it was an overcast day and we barely had time to roll up our tent before it started raining. It kept raining throughout the day and night and although we were able to hike down a trail into the rim during a dry hour-and-a-half, we were thoroughly drenched in the thunderstorm that followed. If we didn't have that hotel booking it would have been a difficult night at the campground in the torrential rain. The next morning, we left Grand Canyon by car.


Our road trip was taking us to Antelope Canyon next. From there we would drive to Moab, Utah the same day to see Arches National Park. We had a reservation at the Apache motel in Moab for two nights, so our camping story will skip these stops like an express train and we'll fast-forward our narrative two days ahead. We were leaving Moab and Arches National Park at six in the morning to go to Bryce Canyon National Park, our next camping destination. We had to leave so early because the campsites in Bryce Canyon were first-come-first-served and we had to go there early if we expected to get a site. However, we had spent all the previous day hiking in Arches and half the previous night photographing the Milky Way and watching the Perseid meteor shower. As a result, I was trying hard not to fall asleep at the wheel while driving at ninety miles an hour. We took one break after driving for over two hours, but we were afraid to stop too long lest we missed the campsite. We did not have a concrete plan B for that scenario, but I was hoping to find motels right outside the national park. However, staying outside a park is never the same as staying inside, and we desperately wanted to get that campsite.

As we neared Bryce Canyon, we encountered more cars on the road with tents and camping supplies. We could see that they had the same destination as us. We overtook some of them when they stopped at a scenic spot on the road to take pictures, but others stayed on the road ahead of us.

Sunset Campground

Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds - North and Sunset. The first one comes right after the entrance, but the reviews were better for the latter, so I kept driving towards it after entering the park. I had no idea what to do at a first-come-first-serve campground. So when I reached the campground entrance, I started reading the instructions on the wall. As I was staring stupidly at the wall, another car screeched to a halt next to ours, a woman ran out, picked up an envelope from a box kept there, and ran back into the car again. The car immediately drove off towards the campsites. I realized what I had to do and I drove off with an envelope too. That envelope actually had two parts. On finding an empty campsite, we would have to tear off half of it, write our details and stick it to the campsite pole. In the other half, we would write our details again and deposit it in another box after putting the campsite fee in cash inside it. We found an empty site upon entering and immediately took possession of it. It was 11:20 by my watch. Five minutes later, we saw a car enter and leave after looping through the campground. We had captured one of the very last campsites that day.


Sunset Campground at Bryce Canyon National Park is the most beautiful campground that we have been to so far. Set amidst tall pine trees and just about walking distance from the rim of the canyon, it offers enough view around to give a feel of openness, yet has just enough privacy that you don't feel crowded. A herd of deer visited us as we were setting up our tent. We had lunch at the beautiful rustic restaurant at the historic wooden lodge in the park and then spent the afternoon traveling from viewpoint to viewpoint on the rim by bus. All the viewpoints are too far apart to walk at once, and finding parking at one of the viewpoints is nothing short of a miracle. So the best way to travel is by the free buses run by the park authorities. We wanted to see the sunset, but we were too tired for it. So so bought a large pizza and some firewood and came back to our tent. Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of 8300 feet above the sea level, and the temperature fell below 10 degrees Celsius that night. The warmth and glow of the campfire felt good.

I emerged shivering from the tent late in the night to take some photos of the night sky after the campfires had gone out everywhere. The Milky Way was visible from here as well but the tall pines all around us were a noticeable difference from the barren desert and rocky arches of the previous night. Next morning we went to see sunrise from the canyon rim, then returned and had breakfast with leftover pizza and started for Vegas again after wrapping up our tent. By the time we left, another couple was standing by our campsite, waiting to occupy it as soon as we stepped out.

The sky at Bryce Canyon, Utah


So far, we have enjoyed every one of our camping trips. Other than these three national parks, recently we also camped for a night at the Meramec State Park in Missouri with a family of friends. Here the temperature fell to 4 degrees in the night, but otherwise it was every bit as fun as the other trips. And next week, we are going to the Rocky Mountains National Park and then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, both in Colorado. We'll be staying in our tent in both places. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a designated International Dark Sky Park and I am looking forward to doing some night photography from there. I even bought a new camera for this very purpose. We just need a little warm weather and cloudless skies for the camping be enjoyable.

That, and a lack of bears. On second thoughts, now Poulami agrees that visiting black bears are not that much of a fun occurrence when you are only protected by a dome of umbrella-like cloth. So now we'd also like bears to stay away from us.

Meramec State Park, Missouri