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.

Shakedown for Spain

These boots are made for walking

In the weeks ahead we’ll be walking about 100 miles along the Costa Brava and in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. We’ll be following two self-guided tours offered through Macs Adevntures:  Foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees and Hidden Gems of the Catalan Coast. As a shakedown I decided to put a few miles on my new hiking boots so on May 12 we put the dog in the car and drove to Briones Regional Park. The goals were to give our Carson some off-leash time, log five miles and check out the wild flowers. Briones Regional Park is a 6,225-acre park in the hills of Contra Costa County. It’s about a 20 mile drive from our house. In spring it’s a stunning park with oak canyons, and green rolling hills. The ridges along the top of the hills afford wide sweeping panoramic views. Later in the year the green grass becomes a golden brown and the temperature can be quite warm.

At one point on our hike Carson decided to get a drink in one of the cattle watering troughs and ended up taking an unintentional swim. Along one of the ridges we passed a herd of cows, and Carson did his best to hike in Joann’s shadow acting a bit shy. There were a couple of steep sections of trail where I was glad I had my hiking poles, and even so, I took my time descending the steepest sections of trail.

Over the course of our walk we logged 4.9 miles. You can see a map or our course above or view more details about the track here.

On the Trail to Spain

We’ll be on the trail in Spain in June. It’s time to limber up the legs. We’ve had a very wet winter, which has kept us off the muddy trails, but with a few days of sun I decided to stretch my legs in Tilden Regional Park. It’s just three miles up the hill with 26 trails ranging from less than a mile to close to 14 miles, spread out over 2079 acres. Many of the trails are dog friendly with dogs off leash, so it’s a favorite for hiking with Carson. Tilden Park also boasts a steam train, a merry-go-round, a botanical garden and a lake to swim in. And one of the roads that transits the middle of the park closes each winter for the newt migration. The newts are not dog friendly though, they are poisonous to dogs.

In June we’ll be following two walking routes in Spain Foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees and Hidden Gems of the Catalan Coast, both walks are through Macs Adventures. In the fall of 2017 we did a walking tour of the Dordogne region of France care of Macs Adventures.

Slow Food

Joann at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Slow Food Breakfast in the Dutch Oven.
Joann at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Slow Food Breakfast in the Dutch Oven.

We’re home and and with an internet connection I can share some of the adventures from our recent desert trip.

January 27 marked day two of our trip. 9:25 AM I opened the lid on the Ditch Oven to serve up breakfast; Mushroom and Brie Breakfast Strada, a recipe out of Robin Donovan’s The Camp Dutch Oven Cookbook. We were ready to eat. Breakfast had been in the works since 8 am when I started the coals and the aroma coming from the oven was mouth watering.

I’ve become a fan of Dutch Oven cooking and the cookbook was a Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law. The Dutch oven seems appropriate for winter trips, hot food on chilly mornings and evenings. And with short days, the oven can cook after dark, after I’m done messing about photographing the sunset.

Our Campsite at Red Rock Canyon State Park

After breakfast it was off to Anza Borrego, but not before we made a stop at Home Depot in Landcaster for a quick repair on the camper. It was dark when we arrived at Red Rock Canyon. While positioning our rig in we backed up into a Joshua Tree and knocked out the window in the rear door of the camper. Even with the backup camera located on the bumper we couldn’t see the tree limb that was threatening our rig. A lesson to pay close attention and perhaps have a spotter watch what’s happening when setting up camp in the dark.

We’re off to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, then on to Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, with our return trip taking us through the Mojave Desert. We have our dog Carson with us, so it will be interesting to see how we manage since many national parks and state parks for that matter do not permit dogs on trails. Here’ at Red Rock Canyon me managed with Carson on the leash.

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.

Merry Christmas from the Alabama Hills

Merry Christmas from the Alabama Hills.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas. We are camped in the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra with what appears to be an annual ritual. We were here last year. This year we represent three generations of Johnsons, the the newest addition, Annabelle, being five months old. We arrived the afternoon of Christmas Eve, set up camp, got the camp fire going along with the coals for the Dutch Oven. Dinner was Chicken Cordon Bleu, with wine to wash it down.

We were surprised by a rain storm passing through in the middle of the night, but we were snug in our beds when the sound of rain on the roof woke us. We woke to find that water that had collected in the camp chairs had frozen solid. Even so we took our time getting the campfire and Dutch Oven coals going, being torn between the photo opportunities of the early morning light and the anticipation of breakfast. Breakfast was quiche cooked in the Dutch Oven. After breakfast we poked around the hills and rocks, A cold wind was starting to find it’s way through our jackets, so we broke camp and headed back to Big Pine.

The Alabama Hills are located in the Eastern Sierra, just west of the town of Lone Pine. The Alabama Hills is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as the BLM Alabama Hills Recreation Area. There is no fee for camping and there are also not much available for services. No picnic tables, no outhouses, no water. It is also dog friendly; our two dogs were happy to wander around camp off leash. I’m always surprised to see how many people camp here over the Christmas holiday, but that said there is no shortage of spaces to camp. Last year we picked a spot that was exposed and had had a view of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain peak in the lower 48 states. This year, with the prediction of wind we found a more protected spot with an outcrop of rocks to block the north wind.

This is a popular spot for photographers who wish to photograph the classic morning light on Mount Whitney, Lone Pine Peak and the adjacent Sierra Nevada Mountains. The granite outcroppings also provide endless opportunities for photography. This is also a popular filming location, especially Westerns. Since the 1920s, 150 movies and a dozen or so television shows have been filmed here. There are also dozens of natural arches, with one of the more popular arches being Mobius Arch. The location is also noted it’s dark skies which makes it poplular for astronomy and astro-photography. Not far the North on Highway 395 is the Manzanar National Historic Site, another location worth a visit.

Anderson Valley

On Saturday November 24, with Thanksgiving behind us, we decided to hit the road for a three day trip to Mendocino. We grabbed a few items of food, a change of clothes, hopped in the truck and headed north, taking Highway 101 to Cloverdale where we turned west onto Highway 128. We logged 126 miles from our house to Mill Creek Retreat, where we had reserved a camp site ahead of time.  The drive took us four hours, since we’re inclined to take our time and enjoy the drive.

As we headed west on Highway 128 we were surprised at the color along the route. Oaks and willows were putting on a show of yellow. We stopped to take a few photos. We just drove past many wineries and tasting rooms along the way. Being preoccupied with the color and beauty in the valley we didn’t stop for wine tasting. We did stop at the market in Boonville to pick up a bottle  of wine from one of the local wineries,  a bottle of Husch Pinot Noir which proved to be quite nice.  There are dozens of wineries along this drive, so you could easily spend a day or more just visiting wineries. 

Treve, Carson and our Four Wheel Camper at Mill Creek Retreat

We arrived at our intended camping destination at 3:30, set up camp and let our dog Carson loose to roam free. One of our criteria for selecting Mill Creek Retreat was the fact that it’s a dog friendly and dogs can be off leash. We found this location through Hipcamp.com, a website that lists camping locations on private property that may not be listed on other camping directories.  

The next morning, before heading off to explore the town of Mendocino we walked down to the creek. I was curious to see what photo opportunities I might discover. I can usually find something close at hand. 

Sure enough there was some color along the creek, and with the soft-misty light of the clearing fog, I captured a few pictures. I had to improvise a camera support, since my tripod got left behind. I jury rigged three trekking poles with with a little  Ultra-pod. This seemed to be sufficient for my Sony RX 100.

At the end of the day we found ourselves at Van Damme Beach where we watched the sun sink into the ocean before heading back to camp.

Sunset at Van Damme Beach. Mendocino

More on Mendocino in the next post.