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.

Between Storms

Thursday, December 5, we had a lull between storms which gave us the opportunity to go paddling. We joined a few of our Bay Area Sea Kayaker (BASK) friends and launched from Ferry Point in Richmond. Our plan was to circumnavigate Brooks Island with a lunch stop along the way. From Ferry Point we headed southwest around the end of the breakwater that protects the Richmond harbor.

Once around the breakwater we headed east, passing Brooks Island, watching the harbor seals that were resting at Bird Rock and continuing to the Albany Bulb. We had hoped to land at a little beach on the Albany Bulb, but the tide was so low that there was no beach, only rocks. We decided to check Point Isabel, a short distance away, but before we got there we found a little pocket beach we dubbed Twin Towers Beach. There we landed and broke out our lunches.

Back on the water we headed towards the Richmond waterfront, paddling past the Red Oak Victory. The quiet water and soft lighting with clouds made for some interesting lighting effects for photography.

At one point I was mesmerized by the pattern of ripples forming behind the boat in front of me. Like dropping a pebble in a pond creating radiating concentric rings, each dip of the paddle would create such a pattern, with the rings drifting off behind the boat and alternating on the left and right; the rings expanding and merging together. It seems the still water and the particular quality of light created a dance. It was a subtle effect and not something I could capture with the camera.

As we neared Ferry Point on our return we speculated about the graffiti which reads “KEEPS” on the old Terminal One building. It seems this piece of real estate is destined to become luxury condominiums. Our paddle covered 8.8 miles. Please feel free to explore more photos here. Fellow BASK members will appreciate the gallery since I made a point of capturing “portraits” of paddlers, taking advantage of the soft light which I find ideal for this kind of photography. You can also view the track log here.

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.

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.

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.

Mendo Madness

Each year our kayaking club, Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK), takes an extended weekend in Mendocino to do what we do best, eat food and paddle. Some members say we are an eating club with a kayaking disorder. Nevertheless, the event is great fun in a beautiful location with great camaraderie and fellowship. We headed to Mendocino on Wednesday September 18 making our way to Van Damme State Park. The next morning we were on the beach at Van Damme with our boats ready to get on the water. There was a good swell running and a number of paddlers opted to go hiking or paddle on calm water rather than deal with the wave energy being displayed on the coast. Joann and I took up the invitation to follow some of the more experienced paddlers who were offering a “Newbie Paddle,” for those new to the Mendocino coast.

This gave us some exposure to the rocky coast and we got to feel what it’s like to play in the rocks with waves with water surging this way and that and waves crashing on rocks. Mind you we stayed clear of the really active water. See my previous post Through the Washing Machine for more about that.

The next day, September 20, we opted for some quiet water after our rather adventuresome day on the coast. We joined a group of paddlers for a paddle on the Big River. The round trip paddle up the river and back was 11 miles and we were back in camp mid-afternoon to drink beer and soak up the sun.

Friday evening marks Bourbon and Brine, a social event with bar tenders concocting some unique mixed drinks. I had a Storm Cag with rum, ginger liqueur, Averna and orange juice. Joann had a Sea Palm with Gin, lemon juice, elderflower liqueur , celery bitters and a sprig of sea palm. Nathan and Krista, two club members hosted the event. Nathan outdid himself with his creativity as a mix master.

With most of these folks wishing to get on the water in the morning without suffering hangovers, drinking was done with moderation. I for one, did not want to find myself sloshing about in the waves suffering the after effects of alcohol.

Saturday night marked the club potluck dinner. With some 70 or so kaykers in camp it was an amazing feast.

Sunday was another flat water paddle on the Albion River. Our journey took us up the river past several houseboats, stopping to was river otters at play. We had a quiet paddle on smooth calm water. The paddle up and back covered six miles

You can view more photos of the BASK Mendo Madness activities here.