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.

A New Year and a New Decade

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.

Ancient Trees

Some of the oldest trees in the world grow in the White Mountains above Big Pine. Since we were staying in Big Pine for a few days, we decided make a visit to the Patriarch Grove. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is open in the summer but closed in the winter for snow. Some hearty souls will venture into the forest on skis or snowshoes.

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva). At the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Many of these trees exceed 4000 years in age, displaying fantastic forms. The Patriarch Grove is situated at 11000 feet of elevation. It’s quite a climb from the 4000 feet at Big Pine. Leaving Big Pine shortly after 11 a.m. on Monday, November 11, we drove about 15 miles into the Inyo National Forest and pulled off onto a dirt forest service road to find a spot for our picnic lunch. We also wanted a spot where our dog Carson could run off leash.

After lunch we continued our drive up to the Patriarch Grove. The main visitor center is at the Schulman Grove, 24 miles and a 45 minute drive from Big Pine. We were intent on visiting the Patriarch Grove, another 12 miles on a dirt road which took us about another 45 minutes. It’s a windy, bumpy road. Our bouncing around caused a jar of jam to upend in the refrigerator in the camper.

As we left the pavement and ventured onto the dirt road we were surprised to see a sign declaring the road a National Forest Scenic Byway. A sign at the entry station indicated that four-wheel drive was advised for the drive and, while we were equipped with four-wheel drive, the road looked manageable for a two-wheel drive. We reached the grove at 2:15 p.m., and we were the only people there. The grove looks like a moonscape with gnarled, weathered trees scattered about. We spent about an hour exploring the grove before heading back to Big Pine.

For landscape photography I usually prefer morning or evening, although with the sun low in the sky this time of year I found some nice shadows and textures. By experimenting with multiple exposures and using some Lightroom wizardry I managed to capture some interesting images.

There is camping at the Grandview Campground and dispersed camping nearby. In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, dogs are permitted on leash and visitors are encouraged to stay on trails or boardwalks.

Back in Big Pine we again “set up camp” in our son’s driveway.

Our “camp” in Big Pine.

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.

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.

Anza Borrego: Sheep Canyon

January 28 marked our first day in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, having arrived the previous evening. We thought it would be fun to take a drive up Sheep Canyon. I had been following the wildflower reports and it looked like we might find Ocotillo in bloom in the canyon. We were thinking it would be a short drive and we would be back in camp for lunch. The park maps shows the road as a “Primitive Road,” and the road was in good shape for the most part. A few miles in we stopped at Desert Garden where the ocotillo were putting on a display. The Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, is large shrub with long spiny stems. Like most desert plants it is uniquely adapted to heat and drought. In the heat of the summer it looks like a bunch of dead thorny sticks. Following a rain, if there is sufficient moisture it will sprout leaves., sometimes the leaves will appear within 48 hours of rain. It will then drop it’s leaves when conditions warrant conservation of water. The flowers look like flames bursting from the tips of the stems. I was happy to discover that a number of ocotillo were in bloom. Usually they bloom later in the year.

As far as Desert Garden the road is smooth and easy to manage. A few miles further we stopped to scout a stream crossing. We had some question about whether we could manage the crossing. We were informed by a woman that seemed to know the route quite well that we should have no problem with this stream crossing, as well as two additional crossings. She also told us that there was a section of road that required a good clearance and bit of rock-climbing. So undaunted we continued on. When we got to the rocky section we put the truck in four-wheel low and crawled up the rocks and continued on to the end of the road in Sheep Canyon. There we found a primitive camp with pit toilets. We had half a mind to simply pop up the camper and spend the night. It was a lovely spot with a trail heading further up the canyon into a palm grove. Dogs are not permitted on most of the trails in Anza Borrego, and since we had our dog Carson, and we had already paid for camping in the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, we ate lunch took a walk around the bottom of the canyon and headed back down the canyon. It was late afternoon when we returned to our campsite. Like so many adventures, there’s just so much to see along the journey. You can see more photos of Sheep Canyon here.

Here’s a clip from the dashcam showing some clips we captured on the drive back down the canyon.