Between the physical fatigue of hiking and the rushing creek, our first night at the base of the campground was the best sleep either of us has had in years. Admittedly, that might have as much to do with the lack of children in our tent.
We were lucky enough to reserve a place for breakfast at Phantom Ranch, so the day began with a feast of eggs, pancakes, and bacon served with plenty of happy-camper cheer.
Both Joe and I awoke to severe pain in our calf muscles and the arches of our feet. I had an impressive bruise along my back from where my pack rested, and both of us had a few blisters. So we doped up on Ibuprofen and shuffled along the paths along Bright Angel Creek while our muscles warmed up… and, eventually, they did.
We found ourselves suddenly launched into spring, and we relished the time to appreciate it. The trees were just beginning to leaf out. The delightful smell of the river, of wet dirt and growing things, seemed almost like an old memory, something long forgotten over the winter.
As wilderness enthusiasts accustomed to the unique offerings of the Boundary Waters, a few things stood out about the Bright Angel Campground:
- Coffee was available in paper cups for your early morning hike! Since we didn’t bring a stove, it was a nice treat, along with the massive dinner and breakfasts at the ranch.
- Flush toilets, sinks, and a separate designated sink for dish washing were available, in stark contrast to the, um, thrones in the BWCAW.
- People, People, People. On a typical Boundary Waters trip, you run into others here and there for a brief passing along the trail. The close quarters of the Bright Angel Campground lent a real summer camp feel to the entire weekend. Most of our fellow campers chatted with us several times along the descent, even more around the campsite, and we saw at least one couple in the restaurant celebrating after the climb.
It was a little difficult to reconcile the busy atmosphere with the concept of a solitary wilderness experience, so we avoided the flood of people trekking the 12 mile loop trip to a nearby waterfall (sure, sure, we didn’t hike that because of the crowds… 12 miles otherwise sounded totally reasonable for our day of rest.)
Instead, we hiked a couple of miles up the Clear Creek Trail to a spectacular overlook point.
It was a short hike though, climbing us nearly 1,000 feet back out of the inner gorge. That is another reason we chose this trail. When you’re in gorge, around Bright Angel Campground, you can only see the . I wanted the panorama of the canyon again, even if it meant more inclined hiking.
Who knew rock formations could be so fascinating.
Unfortunately, we encountered little wild life. We shared the trails with those famous mules (and smiled with no small amount of pride as they carried less ambitious tourists past us). We shared the grassy places along the river with exceedingly tame mule deer.
And we unintentionally shared some peanut butter and jelly with the South Rim squirrels, who have become gladiators thanks to the many visitors they get each year.
We had one last breakfast at Phantom Ranch to look forward to, and unfortunately it was scheduled for 5:30 AM. While we settled in for an early bedtime, one question kept circling through our conversation.
It was a question several different fellow campers asked us.
How did you train for the hike out?
Gulp. Train? I did the stair-master a couple of times. And the elliptical machine for a half hour here and there. Never with a pack or boots. Can a lot of yoga (for me) and a lot of basketball (for Joe) count?
Others had hiked hilly or even mountainous trails near their homes, carrying fully stocked packs for at least four hours each weekend for a month or more. They climbed bleachers. They walked backward on inclined treadmills!
And they were mostly hiking out in two days.
Here we were, facing a day of hiking 9 miles up hill with no way to predict how well it would go. Of course, to fall asleep, I came up with a back up plan. If the going was too difficult, we would simply become squatters at Indian Gardens (half way up) and change our flight to Tuesday. With a plan in place, sleep came… eventually.