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.

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.

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.

Calella to S’Argo

Continuing our walking tour of the Costa Brava, this post covers our walk from Calella de Palafrugell where we spent two nights at the Hotel Sant Roc, the nights of June 16 and 17 and on to S’Argo where our tour ends.

At Hotel Sant Roc we had a lovely dinner on the terrace with a view of the town below with some color in the sky as the sun set. With a day off from walking we spent some time exploring the local environs including the the beautiful botanical gardens at Jardins de Cap Roig; also the home of a renown music festival. A trip to the beach was in order also where I rented mask, fins and snorkel from a local dive shop to explore some of the underwater life around the rocks just off the beach. We could easily have spent a few more days here, or a few weeks. A beautiful spot overlooking a picture postcard city. And even though we weren’t on the walking route we logged 9 km just touring the gardens and the town.

Alas, on June 19 we put our hiking boots on and continued our walking tour, hiking over rocky headlands, and along the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, past quaint fishing hamlets and beautiful beaches. It seems that swimsuits are optional on many of the beaches along this stretch. We observed that nude sunbathing seemed to be more popular with middle age men.

The evening of June 18 found us at Hotel Ancora in La Fosca. Having logged 10 km. With some of the day left we walked to the waterfront in Palamos where we were hoping to watch the fishermen unload the day’s catch. We arrived well after the last boat had unloaded, so we toured the Museu de la Pesca, which turned out to be quite an exhibit and well worth the time and the cost.

June 20 we were once again on the trail, walking from La Fosca to Hotel San Pol in S’Argo. This stretch of the tour took us along miles and miles of white sand beaches, walking along the promenades adjacent to the beach. Many apartment buildings and hotels that line the beaches have their windows shuttered with the tourist season yet to come. Many carnival rides and vendors were setting up on the beach, and it looks like this is going to be a busy place soon.

Between the long stretches of white sand we climbed up steps, over trails, across rocky headlands down steps to tiny sandy beaches, up more steps, around more rocky headlands. Up and down, up and down. Each headlands giving a postcard view of the beaches below and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.

Along the promenade in Palamos we ran into several other people that were on the same walking tour as us. They recognized us by the “Macs Adventure” luggage tags we had on our day packs. We walked with them for several miles for the last stretch of our walk to S’Argo. They were staying in a different hotel, the S’Argo Hotel, having booked a “deluxe” package through Macs Adventures, we went on to Hotel Sant Pol which while not “deluxe,” certainly met our needs. We had walked 20 km (12.4 miles). In the evening we raised a glass of wine to toast completing our “Hidden Gems of the Costa Brava” walking tour having logged 77.4 km (48 miles).

Llafranc and Kayaking

On Friday, June 15 our walk took us from Begur to Llafranc, hiking along rugged cliffs and past small fishing hamlets. There were white caps on the Mediterranean with a strong wind blowing out of the north east and waves crashing on the rocks and beaches. We had hoped to rent kayaks and paddle out of Llafranc the next day, Saturday.

As it turned out the wind let on Saturday and the sea was calmer. We rented kayaks and paddled out of Llafranc, past the town of Calella de Palafrugell and on the Cap Roig. There we turned around and headed back. We had a very pleasant paddle, even with a five foot swell running and sending waves crashing on rocks and beaches. The lumpy water had us feeling like we were on a coastal paddle along the California coast. The outfitter commented that it was extremely rare to have such rough water.

By evening when we dined along the waterfront the the water on the harbor in Llafranc was looking flat calm.

Costa Brava and the Walking is Easy

June 12 our day starts with a ride from Girona to Begur where we begin our next adventure, a walking tour titled Hidden Gems of the Costa Brava. While we booked this tour through Macs Adventures, Macs contracts with a local tour operator Catalan Adventures. Our driver for the trip to Begur is Steve, the owner of the tour business. It’s about an hours drive.

Once we arrive at Hotel Rosa Steve spends half an hour with us going over the tour details including reviewing the maps, walking routes, suggestions for places to eat and such. Breakfast and lodgings are included in our tour package but for lunch and dinner we’re on our own. We have two nights in Begur. It’s market day and the main square is full of vendors selling shoes, cheese, clothes, beach towels. We buy cheese since we’ll have a picnic lunch on our first day of walking. I also buy a pair of sunglasses, since that’s one thing that didn’t get packed.

We spend the afternoon walking around town exploring the history and architectural details. The Hotel Rosa is in the older part of town. Just across the street are two restaurants, Plattios and Fonda. With two nights in town we try them both. Plattios was highly recommended. The advise was to make reservations as soon as we checked in to the hotel, so shortly after arrival I called, but got no answer. This went on for several attempts and finally I went down to consult with the hotel manager who informed me that they don’t answer the phone before 6:30 pm. Most restaurants don’t open before 8 pm. The manger was happy to make reservations for us. A small place, I counted 16 seats. The food was exquisite. One of our best meals on our trip. While we didn’t come to Catalonia for the food, the food and wine experience has been one of the highlights of our trip.

By the way. After several days in Costa Brava I have to say the walking is easy compared to the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Rocky Paths

On June 9 our walk takes us to the top of a mountain, Mare de Deu del Mont where we spend the night in simple hotel that had been a monastery. The next day we hike down the other side of the mountain to Besalu.

A word about rocky paths is in order. After several days of hiking mountain trails Joann said she didn’t realize how rocky the Pyrenees are. I replied that if the Intuits have 200 words for snow, then the Catalonians must have 200 words for rocky paths. Here are some of my favorites.

Steep trail with loose rocks, ploughed by wild boars. This looks like a tilling machine had gone down the trail and turned over the dirt and rocks, making everything in the trail loose dirt and rocks.

Then there are the rocks that roll around under your feet, the steep, slick limestone slabs with a sprinkling of oak leaves and pine needles to challenge your confidence in secure footing. Fist size rocks, ankle high rocks, rock falls with knee high boulders. The list could go on.

Many of the trails we walked are little used, little maintained and  sometimes subject to erosion.

At several places on our walks we saw branches that had been cut, presumably to clear the trail for walkers, but the cut branches are usually left in the middle of the trail. Initially I would pick these up and cast them aside, and then I had the revelation that perhaps erosion control is more important than personal convenience. Perhaps the branches are left to help control erosion.

 The walk up the mountain was easier than we had expected. Even so we logged 11.2 miles  (17.5km) with close to 3000 feet of elevation gain. It was 6:30 pm when we reached to hotel, overcast and starting to rain lightly.

June 10 we start down the mountain to Besalu. Another long day, neither of us are very fast going down hill with aching knees. Joann had thoughts of taking the taxi down with our baggage, but we persevered and took our time. Near the top of the mountain we were hiking through lovely pine forests with lush grass and wildflowers. By mid-day the pine forest had given way to the oaks of the lower elevations.

At 4 pm we reached the little town of Beuda. We were hoping to buy a snack here. In this part of the world business close after the lunch hour and remain closed to 6 pm or so. Nothing is open, and there isn’t much here to begin with. We see a couple of people leaving a restaurant, so we step inside, The manager takes pitty on us, and we have coke and fruit salad.  There is also an ancient church here, Church Sant Feliu de Beuda first documented in 1004.

It’s 7:35 pm when we reach Casa Marsial, our accommodations for the night. We logged 12.7 miles (19.2 km). Even so, after dinner, I have to explore the bridge which was well lit and looked like an invitation for some nighttime photography.