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.

Anza Borrego: Sheep Canyon

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.

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.

Two Weeks in the Desert

Alamo Canyon. Organ Pipe National Monument.

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.

Mount Whitney

On December 28 it was time to hit the road for the journey home. I was at the end of my Eastern Sierra holiday trip, exploring photo locations and visiting with family. My destination for the day was the Alabama Hills with the intent of finding a camping site with a view of Mount Whitney as the sun was rising.

Sunrise on Mount Whitney

I spent some time looking for a camp site, knocking about on dirt roads and putting my four wheel drive to use. While there were plenty of camping sites, I did not find one that had the vantage point I wanted. Those sites were claimed. I decided to go to “Plan B.” To camp in the rocks just off of Movieland Road and get up in the morning for a 15 minute walk to a vantage point that would give me the view I was after. This was just as well since there was a fierce wind blowing and the rocks provided some shelter.

Camping in the rocks in the Alabama Hills

I set my alarm for 6:00 and at 6:30 I had my camera and tripod in position. It was a glorious event to watch the sun come up and strike the mountains.

While the Alabama Hills are an exceptional destination, there are also a few other interesting places to explore on the drive from Big Pine to Lone Pine include the Manzanar National Historic Site. A former concentration camp where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Here are a couple of more images from the morning dawn photo shoot; Lone Pine Peak and a detail of Mount Whitney.

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.

Holiday Getaway: Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay. Lake Tahoe.

With family already gathering is Big Pine in the Eastern Sierra for Christmas my plan was to join them and to take a few days to make my way over the mountains. My plan was to get away mid-morning on December 19 but buy the time I tied up all the loose ends, it was close to 2 PM.

My goal for the night was Grover Hot Springs State Park, 195 miles and a 3 1/2 hour drive from my house in Albany. Grover Hot Springs is one of the few places along the route that is open for winter camping. The Hot Springs are a popular spot year round. As I was approaching Lake Tahoe dusk was closing in and I was thinking it would be more fun to drive the mountains in the daylight. Seeing a sign for the Echo Lake Sno Park I decided this would be my stop for the night. Sno Parks provide a convenient place for overnight camping for RVs and such. I had anticipated the possibility of staying in a Sno Park and had purchased a Sno Park permit on-line.

In the evening while contemplating the next days drive I had the thought that it might be interesting to get up early and look for a photo vantage point to catch the early morning light on Lake Tahoe. I had in mind a view that would overlook Emerald Bay.

Treve and Carson at the Emerald Bay Overlook.

Not being all that familiar with Highway 89 along the western edge of Lake Tahoe, I wasn’t sure what I would find, but as luck would have it the vantage point that I was imagining materialized just south of the Eagle Falls trail head. I found a turn-out with a short walk to an overlook. I was too late for sunrise, but I did find some lovely light on the lake, and my dog Carson was happy to romp in the snow while I set up my camera and tripod to capture the scene. After the photo stop it was time to find coffee. It seems the fresh coffee I bought for the trip never made it on board the truck. So it was back to South Lake Tahoe to fill my coffee mug before heading down the east side of the mountain.