Remnants of Fall Color

Willows and tree in Big Pine

We’re taking an extended weekend to play grandpa and grandma in Big Pine, a town of about 1800 people in the Eastern Sierra, elevation 4000 feet. Home to our son, his wife, and our granddaughter Annabelle. It’s a 310-mile drive and the shortest route takes us through Yosemite National Park on Highway 120. The highway closes in winter for snow but, this being a very dry year, the snow has yet to come. We arrived at 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 16, just as darkness was setting in. After the seven-hour drive we were happy to pull the truck into the driveway and pop up the top on our Four Wheel Camper. Then it was dinner time. We had a very pleasant meal and, following some family time, we turned in for a quiet and peaceful night’s sleep.

Sunday morning we awoke to a bright, sunny day and after breakfast we ventured out for a walk on the desert in shirt-sleeve weather. Five of us and two dogs. Our walk took us out the front door, down the street to open land managed by Los Angeles Water and Power; a great place to walk dogs off leash and to enjoy the view of the mountains to the east and west.

Talking about walking, our granddaughter Annabelle was a trooper at testing out her new skill of walking. She did manage to take a spill, planting her face on the trail, and getting her lip a bit bloody. It wasn’t long though before she was back in good spirits. After the walk it was time to check the chicken coop, and sure enough, we found four eggs.

I did not expect to see much fall color on this trip. We did see some color in the black oaks driving over the mountains, and in the willows and rabbit bush on the desert.

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.

Ajo Mountain Drive

February 2. Our adventures today took us through the Diablo Mountains on the Ajo Mountain Drive in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is a scenic drive that takes you on a loop around the mountains, going up a canyon and around the rugged crags. If you have limited time in the park this is one of those must-do items. The drive is 21 miles on a one way dirt road. It’s a graded road and easily negotiable in a car although there are some very winding sections and the drive is restricted to vehicles under 25 feet in length. We used the guide book we picked up at the visitor center and we stopped at the designated locations to read about the natural history of the Sonora Desert. The guide suggests allowing two hours for the drive. We spent a good four hours, stopping to take photos and to hike. This is a spectacular drive, passing through stands of Saguaro and Organ pipe cactus and up into the rugged and mountainous terrain. The canyons with slightly higher elevation and it capture a bit more rain then the lower elevations which results in lush desert vegetation. At the top of the loop you can take a two mile round trip hike up Arch Canyon. We took turns, one of us hiking while the other kept our dog Carson company. Once again, dogs are not permitted on the trails. A number of wildflowers were in bloom including poppies. You can see additional photos of the drive here.

Organ Pipe

January 31. We arrived at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just as the sun was setting. Just in time to find a campsite before dark and to grab a few quick photos with my point-n-shoot Sony RX100. The photo above was taken on our third night in camp, using a Nikon D800 on a tripod. I only had to walk to the perimeter trail just east of the camp to capture this image. The Sony photos are posted below.

Not knowing what the camping situation was we decided to reserve three nights at Twin Peaks campground. Twin Peaks Campground has 34 tent-only sites and 174 RV sites. There is also a primitive camp at Alamo Canyon with four sites. More on that in a later post. It seems this time of year there are plenty of open campsites, so perhaps reservations aren’t needed. I would expect later in the season the camp may fill up. There is also dispersed camping north of the park on BLM land. We appreciated the hot showers at the camp. We’re often in primitive camps without water.

As with most national parks, dogs are not permitted on the trails, although there is a perimeter trail that loops around the camp and dogs are permitted on that trail, on a leash, as well as the trail to the visitor center. There were plenty of dogs in camp. We managed to log close to four miles with Carson just walking to the visitor center and back and around camp.

In the morning we fired up the dutch oven, Joann prepared the fixings for Hash Brown Crusted Goat Cheese and Scallion Quiche. Another recipe out of Robin Donovan’s book The Camp Dutch Oven Cookbook. We put the oven in the coals and 45 minutes later we had breakfast.

After visiting Anza Borrego, Organ pipe is a whole different experience. This is the Sonoran Desert, with it’s iconic Saguaro cactus. The Sonoran Desert is relatively frost free and it get’s a bit more water than the other deserts of the southwest. Organ Pipe National Monument boasts the highest biodiversity of any north american desert. That means there’s plenty to see in terms of both plant and animals.

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.

Borrego Springs

On the evening of January 29 I decided I wanted to check out some of Ricardo Breceda’s sculptures, While Borrego Springs is notable for spring wildflowers in the surrounding desert, it’s also home to a collection of amazing sculptures, called the Metal Sky Art Sculptures. There are more than 130 sculptures here that represent everything from a 350 foot serpent that crosses the road, to dinosaurs and historical figures. I was hoping to find an opportunity to photograph a few of these on this trip. After a quick visit to a few of the sculptures the previous morning, I decided that afternoon or night time might afford some interesting photo opportunities. Our timing was a bit off though since we reached the serpent just as the shadows from the mountains were creeping across the valley floor. We only needed to wait a few minutes for sunset though which lit up the sky with color that seemed appropriate for a fiery serpent.

The sculptures were part of the vision of the late Dennis Avery, heir to the Avery Dennison label fortune and a self-made success on his own. Mr. Avery envisioned ‘free standing art’ on his property, Galleta Meadows Estates,. The steel welded sculptures were created by ‘Perris Jurassic Park’ owner/artist/welder Ricardo Breceda.

The sculptures are spread out around the north end of Borrego Springs. I had to search on-line for a map to help me locate them. They are all easily accessible and there is no fee to view them.

We noticed that bikes seemed to be quite popular in Borrego and I discovered a couple of places you can rent bikes including electric fat-tire bikes you can ride up the some of the sandy dirt roads. There are also tour operators that will take you on an off-road adventure.

You can view more photos here.