On June 7 we hopped in the truck for the drive from our house in Albany, California, to Big Pine. Our route crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Sonora Pass, Highway 108, a windy two-lane road. As we approached the pass, we found ourselves in clouds with light snow flurries, an uncommon occurrence for June. Once we arrived in Big Pine, we set up “camp” in the driveway using our Four Wheel Pop-Up Camper as our bedroom for our visit.
I spent the better part of 10 days in Big Pine. During our stay we made a few outings – a picnic lunch in the Inyo Mountains, and a picnic dinner on Big Pine Creek at an elevation of 8000 feet to escape the heat of the Owens Valley.
Other adventures included morning walks in the desert and paddle boarding on nearby Klondike Lake. On June 16, it was time for me to head home to tend to business; I left Joann to continue playing grandma, providing childcare while our son and daughter-in-law worked. On the trip home I made a quick overnight stop at a favorite dispersed camping spot near Mono Lake, which afforded the opportunity to practice social distancing in a quiet spot off the beaten track. On June 27 I’ll be heading back to Big Pine for the next installment of grandparenting. Stay tuned.
Five o’clock in the morning my alarm goes off. I looked out the camper window and decided it was too dark to get up. I hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Ten minutes later I awoke again and was surprised how much the light had changed. I was quickly out the camper door. At 5:15 I had my camera pointed at the sky above the rocks. The brilliant and fleeting color lasted just a few minutes. By 5:25 the color was gone. Sunrise was 5:34, so the lesson is to get up early to catch the sun.
I’m camped in the Alabama Hills. The photos from the big camera will have to wait until I get home next week. I managed to get away without a card reader to transfer the images from the memory cards. Needless to say the iPhone does a good job for capturing images to share here.
The Alabama Hills is in the Eastern Sierra, in the Owen’s Valley, 375 miles from home. While it’s still in California, it seems like a world away from the anxious throngs of people in the Bay Area hunkered down with stay-at-home orders to avoid the risk of COVID-19. No masks here. There are quite a few campers considering the location, but we are all quite spread out. This is dispersed camping on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. No services, so you need to be prepared.
After a morning in the solitude of the rocks and desert, I’m feeling quite refreshed. Three months of shelter-in-place was taking a toll on my mental attitude, wondering if I’d ever get out in the camper again.
We brought the camper over to spend some time playing grandparents while our son and daughter-in-law work. My wife will spend several weeks. I’m spending a week and a half. We justified our escape from the stay-at-home order by considering our childcare services to be essential. So here we are. And while visiting, I’m inclined to go explore some of my favorite haunts in the Eastern Sierra.
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.
Looking forward to a New Year and new adventures with the opportunity to provide inspiration and insight into the wonders of the world. We’re about to hit the road again for a ten day road trip through the deserts of Southern California and contemplating this quote from John Muir:
I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains.
“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is an exhibit currently running at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland. The exhibit runs through February 16, 2020.
Burning Man had its origins in 1986 when Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a human effigy and burned it on a San Francisco beach. The fire drew a crowd of 35 people. Since then the event has moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where it now draws over 70,000 people from all over the world.
An entire city rises out of the dust of the desert and provides a canvas for experimental art installations. Some of those art pieces along with a glimpse of the history and culture of Burning Man are on exhibit. Burning Man is governed by ten principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.
Having not been to Burning Man, I found the exhibit quite enlightening; I recommend it to anybody with an interest in culture, art and creativity.
The ultimate goal of Burning Man is to encourage the culture of creativity. -Marian Goodell
You can view more photos from the Oakland Museum exhibit here. Burning Man now has a network to facilitate and extend the culture that originates with the Burning Man event into the larger world.
If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. – Leonard Cohen
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.
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.
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.
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.