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.

Bunny Foo Foo

Bunny Foo-Foo at Hall Wines

On Monday, November 11, I had a reason to drive to Saint Helena, 50 miles north of our house in Albany, California. Saint Helena is in the midst of the Napa Valley. A client asked me to scout a location for a photo shoot. Rather than drive up and back alone I took my wife Joann and we combined the work trip with a dinner date.

Joann did some research ahead of our visit. Being that it was a Monday a few restaurants were closed and we thought it best to plan ahead, select a restaurant, and make reservations. We settled on the Farmstead restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch, a farm-to-table restaurant with a general store, cafe and tasting room.

After the client meeting we headed to Farmstead. While driving north on Highway 128 we were struck by a giant bunny leaping out of a vineyard; Bunny Foo Foo at the Hall Wine Tasting Room. The late afternoon sun glinting off the bright surface of the bunny was arresting. We stopped to grab a few snapshots. From there it was s short drive to Long Meadow Ranch.

With time to spare before our dinner reservation we took advantage of the tasting room and wandered the grounds while we sipped wine. Dinner was fabulous. I had the special of the day, bacon wrapped meatloaf. Joann had trout. I’ve never considered meatloaf to be a gourmet item, but with our waiter’s recommendation I’ll have to say this dish was out of this world.

Halloween Paddle

Thursday, October 31, found me on the water again paddling with several of my BASK buddies. One of the members of the group, Steve, decided to embellish the map of our track. See the image below.

We launched from Point San Pablo Harbor. Point San Pablo is at the north end of San Francisco Bay, separating San Francisco Bay from San Pablo Bay. It’s also on the route for ships going up the Sacramento River. Once on the water we headed for deeper water out towards the shipping channel hoping to hitch a ride on the flood tide. At Point Pinole Regional Shoreline we found a beach where we landed for lunch.

We paddled in near-perfect conditions with little wind and smooth water. After lunch we gathered around to sing Happy Birthday to two members celebrating October birthdays, Susan and Jen.

On our return with the current still flooding we paddled closer to shore, taking advantage of an eddy to carry us back in the direction from which we came. Over the course of our paddle we covered 9.4 miles.

Back on the beach we put put our boats on our cars, changed out of our dry suits into our street clothes and gathered up at Nobilis restaurant for snacks and drinks. Point San Pablo Harbor is a sleepy little yacht harbor with a funky collection of houseboats and public art. While not on most people’s tourist roster, it’s worth the visit, even without a boat.

You can view more photos here and view the track and stats here.

Quixote Winery: A Hidden Napa Valley Gem

The Quixote Winery is a hidden gem among the better known wineries of the Napa Valley. It’s located on the east side of the valley in the Stags Leap District. Having returned from Spain in June with a fascination for Antoni Gaudi’s designs, a friend suggested we check out the winery.

The whimsical architecture is like nothing else in the valley. The original winery owner, Carl Doumani, was fascinated by Don Quixote the Novel by Miguel de Cervantes. In his search for somebody that could create a winery to fit his vision he commissioned Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a Viennese artist and architect.

We visited the winery on August 27, having made a reservation the day before. Tasting is by reservation only, although you might be able to get same day reservations. We signed up for the White Label Experience that included an estate tour and a tasting of five wines paired with a plate of gourmet cheeses. With just two of us we had a rather exclusive tasting. It was a delightful experience and we left with three bottles of wine. This is a small winery. The estate vineyards cover 27 acres with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

If you are planning on visiting the Napa Valley keep in mind that there are some 400 wineries with tasting rooms, and the valley includes some 16 distinctive appellations, each with it’s own distinctive soils and climate that lend themselves to different varieties of grapes.

The Los Carneros AVA at the southern end has a cool climate moderated by marine winds from the Bay and soils dominated by a clay-hardpan. This region produces Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Thirty miles to the north the Calistoga AVA with warmer temperatures and rocky volcanic soil is better suited to thicker skinned grapes such as Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah.

If you are thinking about wine tasting check out the Napa Valley Winery Map and the Napa Valley Vintners.

Oh, and after our wine tasting we drove the short distance to Yontville where we split a Pulled Pork Sandwich at the R+D kitchen; a delight to the palate after the wine tasting. There’s no shortage of options for wine and food in the Napa Valley and the surrounding areas.

More photos here.

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.

Olot: Gateway to the Volcanoes

Olot is a bustling town of 34,000 located in the foothills of the Pyrenees about 70 miles north of Barcelona. It is surrounded by the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. There are over 40 ancient volcanoes and lava flows in the region which are now cloaked in thick woodland. We were in Olot as part of our Macs Adventure walking tour, arriving by foot on June 5. The town provides an excellent base for hiking and exploring the Zona Volcànica.

We spent two nights at Hotel Can Blanc, pictured above, a lovely converted Catalan farmhouse that now serves as a hotel. It’s located right next to the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica so it provides easy access to excellent hiking.

For dinner we walked the short distance to La Due Restaurant. Here we discovered Patatas de la Deu, which has to be the most amazing potato dish I’ve ever tasted, and unique to the volcanic cuisine of this region of Catalonia. We didn’t expect the food to be such a highlight of our trip, but such as it is, we gained a real appreciation for Catalan food. The website for Cuina Volcanica says “a regional cuisine based on a traditional, creative and daring recipes, which increases the restlessness and culinary curiosities of the area. ” If you’re visiting Olot, the La Due Restaurant is worth a visit for dinner.

And of course the architecture is always interesting. The architecture of Olot runs the gamut from traditional Catalan farmhouses to Modernista architecture such as Casa Gaieta (the pink house below) to modern.

And on the subject of architecture, the market, Mercat D’Olot, is worth noting. A glass jewel box full of glamorous displays of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and everything else you’d expect to find in a local market. The South side of the market has a green wall covered with lush vegetation.

We bought fruit and snacks and had coffee on the outdoor plaza. You can see more photos of Olot here.

Mercado de la Boqueria

The Mercado de la Boqueria in Barcelona is a fascinating place. The intro on the website says “Welcome to the best market in the world.” I’m not going to argue. With over 200 vendors selling everything from Iberian ham, to chocolate covered strawberries, to exotic spices the Boqueria is a feast for the eyes and ears and likely to pique your appetite as well. And as a photographer, there’s no shortage of photo opportunities. Well worth a visit if you are in Barcelona, and it’s something you can do on a moments notice, unlike many venues that require buying tickets in advance. The market does close for a number of holidays, so check the schedule before you visit.

The market is open from 8 am until 8:30 pm and easy to get to on foot or the metro. We visited the market on two occasions and made it our lunch stop. We noticed that many of the stalls, particularly the fish vendors start to close up shop in later in the afternoon. We feasted on Iberian ham, bread sticks, fruit salad, empenadas, oysters on the half-shell, chocolate dipped frozen fruit bars and a variety of other foods. The fish market offers every kind of sea food you can imagine; fish, sea urchin, clams, shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels and more.

It’s a busy place with both the locals buying food and tourists taking in the visual feast. I went crazy with my camera capturing the vendors, the stands and people shopping. You can see more photos here.