In the spring of 2015 my son moved his family from Bishop to Big Pine, a town of about 1800 people in the Eastern Sierra. Consequently we’ve been making trips to visit and, with the pandemic, those trips have been extended so that we can provide child care while my son and his wife work from home.
We like to walk, and with our dog in tow, our morning walks often take us out to the desert just beyond the edge of town. And while the stunning view of the snow capped Sierra is a dominating presence, I often find myself fascinated by more mundane objects. Our usual walk takes us by the old dump site and here somebody has recently recovered some items to create two assemblages, one I call Rings and Glass, a collection rusted iron rings and bits of colored glass.
The second I call Bottle Bush. I can’t say why these assemblages fascinate me. Perhaps it’s the curiosity about who might do this and what story they are trying to tell. I’m also challenged by the idea of trying to capture these in a photograph that makes them look more extraordinary than they first appear. The Bottle Bush is a particularly interesting challenge, since the pieces of bottle do not show up well. To make them show up I try to get a low vantage point to put the assemblage against the sky. And then to apply some post-production wizardry to make the pieces of glass stand out. These two assemblages have become some sort of shrine for me and I make a point of checking on them each time I visit.
In addition to these two assemblages there is parcel of private property that catches my attention, with the remains of a couple of cars and a variety of other rusty items.
Among the other things that caught my attention were the blue door of an abandoned Ford pickup truck, a plate telling the story of a Christmas past and a kitchen sink, true to my theme of Rust in the Desert. You can see additional photos here and some of these images may be appearing in my art store at www.store.treve.com.
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.
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.
February 2. Our adventures today took us through the Diablo Mountains on the Ajo Mountain Drive in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is a scenic drive that takes you on a loop around the mountains, going up a canyon and around the rugged crags. If you have limited time in the park this is one of those must-do items. The drive is 21 miles on a one way dirt road. It’s a graded road and easily negotiable in a car although there are some very winding sections and the drive is restricted to vehicles under 25 feet in length. We used the guide book we picked up at the visitor center and we stopped at the designated locations to read about the natural history of the Sonora Desert. The guide suggests allowing two hours for the drive. We spent a good four hours, stopping to take photos and to hike. This is a spectacular drive, passing through stands of Saguaro and Organ pipe cactus and up into the rugged and mountainous terrain. The canyons with slightly higher elevation and it capture a bit more rain then the lower elevations which results in lush desert vegetation. At the top of the loop you can take a two mile round trip hike up Arch Canyon. We took turns, one of us hiking while the other kept our dog Carson company. Once again, dogs are not permitted on the trails. A number of wildflowers were in bloom including poppies. You can see additional photos of the drive here.
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.
January 30. With two of us and our dog Carson, we decided we’d take turns hiking. Dogs are not permitted on the trails in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Many of the trails run through canyons that are home to wildlife. Joann hiked the trail the previous evening and reported seeing sheep. I opted for a morning hike thinking I’d be more likely to see sheep then, and I thought the soft morning light might be conducive to photographing wildlife. Once the sun was over the canyon I imagined the lighting would be harsh.
It’s a mile and a half from the trail head at the campground to the palm oasis. Along the trail there are numbered post that correspond to descriptions in a printed guide. I had picked up a guide at the visitor center the previous day and I used the guide to learn more about the desert environment.
For this hike I decided to carry my Nikon D800 and a 28-300mm lens. For day hikes I usually carry a little Sony RX 100 which is a great camera for travel and hiking. For this hike I thought the opportunity to photograph wildlife warranted the bigger camera.
I wasn’t too far down the trail before I heard rock falling which I interpreted to mean sheep were near. Sure enough, scouting the cliffs above the trail I could see sheep cavorting in the rocks. Then I rounded a bend in the trail and I could see a ram ahead hidden partially through the bushes. I stopped and slowly brought my camera up to my face and started taking photos. The ram didn’t seem to take much notice of me. Then I spied a ewe with a baby lamb making way down the hill side. I found a palm log to sit while I took a few photos, trying to be quiet and still so as not to startle the animals. After a few minutes I could hear breathing behind me, almost down my neck, I turned slowly and there were two rams munching on the grass just five feet away. I was in awe. These animals are supposed to be shy and reclusive, but it seems here they have become habituated to people. They just seemed to go about their business munching the lush grass while people walked up and down the trail taking photos.
After watching the sheep for some time, I decided I better continue to the palm grove. If I were ever going to get back to camp at a reasonable time I needed to get moving. At the end of the trail is a lush oasis of palm trees.
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.
We’re on our return trip from two weeks in the desert. Our adventures have taken us through Red Rock Canyon State Park, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Mojave Desert Preserve. Organ Pipe represents the Sonoran Desert with the iconic Saguaro Cactus, while Joshua Tree stands as the icon of the Mojave Desert. In Organ Pipe I was hiking in shorts and T-shirt, while in Mojave we woke to snow and 22 degree temperatures with howling winds.
We have WiFi access at the moment, so I thought I’d put up a short post to give you a preview of what to expect as I cue up the posts for the various segments of our trip. We’ve been traveling in our Four Wheel Pop-up Camper which has proven to be a comfortable way to travel. Stay tuned as I cue up more photos and stories about our trip.
For the last night of my Eastern Sierra trip, the evening of December 30, I thought it would be fun to camp in the Joshua Trees. This leg of my journey took me South from Lone Pine on US Highway 395 and then west on 178 over Walker Pass. There is a campsite at Walker Pass, but having camped there before I knew that there were no Joshua Trees at the campground. My plan was to camp at Walker Pass if I didn’t find something suitable on the way up to the pass. Just a few miles east of the pass I saw a dirt road going off into the desert. There were no gates, no fences or nor any signs indicating that it was private property so I assumed it was BLM land, part of the California Desert Conservation area. I put the truck in four wheel drive and drove a short distance where I found a spot where I could camp in a grove of Joshua trees with a minimum of impact on the environment.
As the sun was setting I grabbed my camera and captured a few images. Then after dark I thought it would be fun to try some night photography, playing with lights on the trees and trying my hand at capturing the Milky Way.
In the morning I got up early to capture the sunrise, and to watch the play of early morning light on 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.