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.

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.

Rust in the Desert

Today’s adventures didn’t take me far. I walked out the front door of my son’s place in Big Pine, walked the short distance to the end of the road and out into the desert. My goal was to walk the dog. There are plenty of trails and open space where Carson can run off leash here. Instead of walking the dog though, I got fascinated by some junk in the desert. Carson was on his own while I explored the junk. I like to think I can find interesting photos just about anywhere. I think photography is about seeing what’s in front of you. Hitting the road for a grand landscape destination is one thing. Creating interesting photos in the local junk yard, or your own back yard is a different sort of challenge.

I’ll be back on the road looking for more photo opportunities in the Eastern Sierra and the Highway 395 corridor shortly. Today is’s about junk. Let me know what you think.

Git Along Little Dogies

On Saturday we took a break from grand-parenting for a quick hike in the mountains. It’s 11 miles from our son Aaron’s place in Big Pine to the Glacier Pack Station. We were just a few miles up the road when we had to stop for a cattle drive. Cattle and cowboys (and cowgirls) coming down the middle of the road. Seemed like they deserved the right of way so we stopped the car to let them pass.

Once the cattle had passed we continued on to the end of the road. Once you reach the end of the road there’s a campground and a trail head. The trail leads to the Big Pine Lakes Basin in the John Muir Wilderness with a number of lakes surrounded by spectacular mountains and a view of the Palisade Glacier. It’s about 5.5 miles into the first lake. From there you can hike to a number of other lakes.  If you want to make it more than a day hike you can backpack in or hire the packers to carry your gear. We did a pack trip here two years ago. More on that in future post. For the ambitious there’s also a trail up to the Palisade Glacier.

We were just out for a short hike, so we grabbed our day packs and hiked up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek until it was time to turn around. It felt good to be in the High Sierra, with the cool clear air surrounded by the sharp jagged peaks of the Sierra.  Our dog Carson was thrilled to be in the mountains able to run off-leash.  We saw a few signs of fall with Rabbit Bush, a few aspen and the willows showing some yellow. It’s still early for the aspen.