Desert, Dogs and Dutch Ovens

January 12, 2020. As I write this we’re nine days into an 11 day road trip, making a circuit through Joshua Tree, Mojave and Death Valley. It seems like the theme for this trip is desert, dogs and Dutch ovens. We like to travel with our dog Carson, and winter camping seems to be conducive to Dutch Oven cooking. After sunset I can put the camera away, start the coals for the Dutch Oven, and build a campfire.

We even used the Dutch Oven to thaw out Carson’s water dish after it had frozen solid one morning; that after we had fired up the oven to reheat some quiche from a previous breakfast. Our journey started on Saturday, January 4, with a drive to Red Rock Canyon State Park. Camp fees seemed a little steep there, but the location is worth it. Dogs need to be on leash, which is the rule for many of the places we visited. There is BLM land nearby where dispersed camping is available for free. We paid $23 for the night at Red Rock and that included a $2 senior discount. In the evening we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook cod with lemon and capers. Joann cooked a risotto dish to go along with it. A gourmet meal.

The next morning we were in no rush to hit the road so we fired up the oven again and cooked a mushroom and brie breakfast strada. Absolutely scrumptious, with enough left over to feed us for another breakfast and more.

From Red Rock we drove to Joshua Tree National Park. When we got to Hidden Valley Campground we were discouraged to see a “Campground Full” sign at the entrance, but we decided to take a look anyway and found one open site. We spent two nights and I took the opportunity to wander around for two mornings and one evening looking for early morning and evening landscape photography opportunities. Hidden Valley has interesting rock outcroppings as well as some nice stands of Joshua trees. As a popular spot for rock climbers, camping spaces are scarce. I’ll post more about the landscape photography in another post. It’s hard enough to condense eight days of travel into one blog post.

While wandering through Joshua Tree we managed to do the short nature walk at Hidden Valley. We alternated walking the trail while the other walked the dog around the parking and picnic areas. We also explored some of the other campgrounds and noted that there was plenty of camping available at Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We also drove down to the Cholla Garden which is an amazingly dense stand of cholla cactus.

On January 7 we drove to the Mojave National Preserve where we decided to camp at Kelso Dunes. This is a primitive campground with no running water or facilities except for a few fire rings. There was one other camper about a quarter mile from us. We took a hike up the sand dunes letting Carson wander off-leash, returning to camp just as the sky was going dark following a blazing sunset. With a near-full moon rising to the east we had light to find our way as darkness approached.

From Mojave we drove to Death Valley where we spent one night camped at the Oasis in Furnace Creek. Our motivation was to find hot showers and do some laundry. We camped at Fiddler’s Camp, an RV camp behind the gas station. $24 with showers and pool access included. We also took advantage of the food facilities and ate dinner and breakfast in the luxury of the Furnace Creek Ranch.

Furnace Creek is a good spot to spend a night or two if you want to see some of the more popular attractions of the park. We were intent on seeing some of the less popular locations. In the morning we drove the short distance to Twenty Mule Team Canyon which the park literature suggested was a good spot to walk a dog. We drove in the canyon a short distance, parked the truck and took a two mile walk with Carson on-leash. Dogs are not permitted on the trails in the park, but they are permitted on roads; this is a lightly used dirt road, perfect for walking the dog.

After walking the dog we topped off the fuel tank, anticipating a good 200 miles or so of driving before we could expect another gas station. From Furnace Creek we drove to Mesquite Springs Campground where we spent a very windy night. We were happy to be in the camper rather than a tent. With the propane heater going we were cozy even with a chilly wind blowing outside.

The next morning we drove to the Racetrack Playa with a stop for lunch at Teakettle Junction. The Racetrack is a perfectly flat playa. Near the southern end of the playa there are some truly bizarre trails left by rocks. When conditions are right a thin film of water freezes and thaws in such a way that fierce winds move the rocks leaving trails. Some of these trails go for hundreds of feet. It’s a truly mind bending experience to imagine how these rocks can move. We arrived at about 3 in the afternoon and found good lighting, using the glint of the sun on the playa to photograph the rock trails.

Getting to the Racetrack Playa is a bit of a chore. It’s a dirt road marked as a 4×4 road, and a two hour drive to cover the 27 mile distance over washboard and gravel.

From the playa we drove the short distance to Homestake campground, another primitive campground with no facilities. We had the campground to ourselves. Here we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook Eggplant Parmesan and we ate dinner by the campfire while we watched the full moon rise over the mountains to the east. With nobody else in sight we let Carson have free run of the campground.

Fall Color: Eastern Sierra

We’re on a short road trip to look for fall color in the Eastern Sierra. We’re also visiting family in Big Pine. Our trip took us through Yosemite National Park and over Tioga Pass to Mono Lake where we spent the night of October 2. The word was that the best fall color might be in Bishop Creek, so we started our tour at Mono Lake, driving South, avoiding some of the popular spots north of Lee Vining including Lundy Canyon and Virginia Lakes.

At Sagehen Summit we found some pockets of color with large swatches of Aspen still green. Having four wheel drive, we were able to negotiate some of the sandy terrain, although we did encounter some fellow leaf peepers that managed to get stuck. We were able to help them by using our leveling blocks and a shovel. They were quite happy for the assistance. From Sagehen we headed south to Bishop Creek were we set up camp at the Sabrina Campground and then drove the windy, narrow, one-lane road to North Lake. We were disappointed that there was very little fall color at North Lake. In years past, the mountain side above the lake is ablaze with orange and yellow.

Some fellow leaf peepers we consulted with said this was the worst year they can remember for fall color. Nevertheless, I can always find something to photograph, and I was particularly struck by a small grove of Aspen along Bishop Creek, adjacent to the campground. I returned to this site several times for late afternoon, dusk and dawn photos. My favorite from those efforts was the morning image. I was reminded how much I enjoy the soft light of dawn and dusk for photography. I find the harsh contrast of mid-day sun and dappled shade hard to work with. Back in camp after the morning photo venture we had breakfast and then took a short hike along the north side of Lake Sabrina. We found some nice color in the Aspen groves along the north side of the lake.

Overall we found the fall color conditions quite mixed with occasional pockets of color and many Aspen groves still showing green. There is some speculation that unseasonably warm weather followed by a sudden cold snap a week ago has delayed the display of color for the most part, with the sudden cold creating pockets of color. There could be good opportunities to see fall color over the next few weeks.

We’re now in Big Pine playing grandparents. More news to come. Stay tuned.

Birthday Weekend

So much has happened in the past few weeks that I’m going to have to back up to July 25. That’s the day we climbed in our truck-camper and headed to Markleeville for an extended weekend of camping and birthday celebration. The main event was our Granddaughter Annabelle’s first birthday.

Birthday Girl Annabelle is in the middle

We made it a five day weekend, leaving our place on July 25 and driving to Markleeville, a small town on the Eastern Sierra located at 5500 feet elevation. It’s about a 200 mile drive, taking us about four hours with a quick stop for a picnic lunch on the way. Our destination was the Markleevile Campground, a US Forest Service Campground with 10 sites. A lovely location with a stream running through it and a very attentive and helpful camp host.

Having settled into camp it was birthday time. July 25 is Joann’s birthday so we broke out the cake and celebrated.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday our campsites filled up. By Saturday evening we had 24 people, five dogs and one parrot. These folks are all seasoned campers and quite adept at entertaining and feeding a crowd.

We had pork shoulder cooked in a dutch oven on Friday evening. It’s a mystery to me what seasonings went into those ovens, but the resulting pulled pork was beyond compare and it made delicious tacos. Sunday morning was a Mushroom and Brie Breakfast Strada and Sunday evening was Chicken Cordon Bleu on Sunday evening.

And of course no camping experience is complete without Smores. So the evening found us toasting marshmallows on a campfire and making a sandwich of the hot toasty marshmallows with chocolate and graham crackers.

In addition to family fun in camp, we did manage to get in some hiking, take in a blue grass concert at an event in town and visit Grover Hotsprings. To see more photos click here.

Alamo Canyon

February 3. We woke up to rain. After three nights at Twin Peaks Campground in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument it was time to move on. Our plan for the day was to check in to the visitor center to see what the road conditions might be for the Puerto Blanco Drive, a 41 mile loop drive on a one-way dirt road. We were advised that the road might not be passable due to the rain and opted for the suggestion to drive as far as the Red Tank Trail Head and take a short hike.

When we got to the trail head, Joann set off to hike the one mile. I popped the top up on the camper and pulled out my laptop to edit photos and write. Again, with Carson, our dog, we were obligated to take turns hiking. Dogs are not allowed on the trails. When Joann returned I grabbed my rain coat and struck out on the trail hiking in the misty rain.

While I was gone, the carbon monoxide alarm in the camper decided to malfunction sending off a false alarm. The sound was too much for Carson and Joann ended up abandoning the camper and walking Carson up and down the road on a leash.

When I returned, we hit the road again, this time looking for a campsite in Alamo Canyon. Alamo Canyon is a primitive camp with four sites, first-come-first-served. We were happy to find a site open. Two of the sites were occupied with pop-up truck campers like ours, so we felt right at home.

As we were setting up camp the clouds parted and the sun shone through providing some dramatic afternoon light for some landscape photography. The next morning we took turns hiking the 1.8 mile trail up the canyon beyond the campground. More photos of the day’s adventures are available here.

Arroyo Salado

January 31. We are camped at Arroyo Salado Campground on the eastern edge of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Arroyo Salado is a primitive camp. Pit toilets and that’s about it. No water although we’re well provisioned with our camper. Our campsite, while in the middle of the badlands of the Anza Borrego Desert, is a garden of wildflowers. It’s unusual to see so many wildflowers this early in the year and given the rains of mid-January the expectation is for a spectacular display in March and April. I had been following the DesertUSA wildflower report and came here hoping to find desert lilies. Some years ago when we were living in San Diego we would come out to the desert with hopes of finding desert lilies. They can be elusive, and the blooms depend on rain. I find the lilies to be quite striking, sending up stalks of white lily flowers that just seem out of place in the desert. This year the lilies are everywhere. Hundreds of plants in bloom and hundreds of new buds popping up.

We were up at 6:30 before sunrise. The sky was showing some signs of sunrise color and having gone to bed early it was easy to get up, although even with the mild weather it’s a challenge to climb out of a warm cozy sleeping bag. Temperature was about 54 F when we got up. At 9:30 it’s 60. You can see more photos of Arroyo Salado here. Once we had finished our wildflower explorations it was time to hit the road for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 300 mile drive.

Slow Food

Joann at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Slow Food Breakfast in the Dutch Oven.
Joann at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Slow Food Breakfast in the Dutch Oven.

We’re home and and with an internet connection I can share some of the adventures from our recent desert trip.

January 27 marked day two of our trip. 9:25 AM I opened the lid on the Ditch Oven to serve up breakfast; Mushroom and Brie Breakfast Strada, a recipe out of Robin Donovan’s The Camp Dutch Oven Cookbook. We were ready to eat. Breakfast had been in the works since 8 am when I started the coals and the aroma coming from the oven was mouth watering.

I’ve become a fan of Dutch Oven cooking and the cookbook was a Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law. The Dutch oven seems appropriate for winter trips, hot food on chilly mornings and evenings. And with short days, the oven can cook after dark, after I’m done messing about photographing the sunset.

Our Campsite at Red Rock Canyon State Park

After breakfast it was off to Anza Borrego, but not before we made a stop at Home Depot in Landcaster for a quick repair on the camper. It was dark when we arrived at Red Rock Canyon. While positioning our rig in we backed up into a Joshua Tree and knocked out the window in the rear door of the camper. Even with the backup camera located on the bumper we couldn’t see the tree limb that was threatening our rig. A lesson to pay close attention and perhaps have a spotter watch what’s happening when setting up camp in the dark.

We’re off to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, then on to Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, with our return trip taking us through the Mojave Desert. We have our dog Carson with us, so it will be interesting to see how we manage since many national parks and state parks for that matter do not permit dogs on trails. Here’ at Red Rock Canyon me managed with Carson on the leash.

Two Weeks in the Desert

Alamo Canyon. Organ Pipe National Monument.

We’re on our return trip from two weeks in the desert. Our adventures have taken us through Red Rock Canyon State Park, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Mojave Desert Preserve. Organ Pipe represents the Sonoran Desert with the iconic Saguaro Cactus, while Joshua Tree stands as the icon of the Mojave Desert. In Organ Pipe I was hiking in shorts and T-shirt, while in Mojave we woke to snow and 22 degree temperatures with howling winds.

We have WiFi access at the moment, so I thought I’d put up a short post to give you a preview of what to expect as I cue up the posts for the various segments of our trip. We’ve been traveling in our Four Wheel Pop-up Camper which has proven to be a comfortable way to travel. Stay tuned as I cue up more photos and stories about our trip.