Five o’clock in the morning my alarm goes off. I looked out the camper window and decided it was too dark to get up. I hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Ten minutes later I awoke again and was surprised how much the light had changed. I was quickly out the camper door. At 5:15 I had my camera pointed at the sky above the rocks. The brilliant and fleeting color lasted just a few minutes. By 5:25 the color was gone. Sunrise was 5:34, so the lesson is to get up early to catch the sun.
I’m camped in the Alabama Hills. The photos from the big camera will have to wait until I get home next week. I managed to get away without a card reader to transfer the images from the memory cards. Needless to say the iPhone does a good job for capturing images to share here.
The Alabama Hills is in the Eastern Sierra, in the Owen’s Valley, 375 miles from home. While it’s still in California, it seems like a world away from the anxious throngs of people in the Bay Area hunkered down with stay-at-home orders to avoid the risk of COVID-19. No masks here. There are quite a few campers considering the location, but we are all quite spread out. This is dispersed camping on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. No services, so you need to be prepared.
After a morning in the solitude of the rocks and desert, I’m feeling quite refreshed. Three months of shelter-in-place was taking a toll on my mental attitude, wondering if I’d ever get out in the camper again.
We brought the camper over to spend some time playing grandparents while our son and daughter-in-law work. My wife will spend several weeks. I’m spending a week and a half. We justified our escape from the stay-at-home order by considering our childcare services to be essential. So here we are. And while visiting, I’m inclined to go explore some of my favorite haunts in the Eastern Sierra.
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.
Several people have asked me about our venture into four-wheel camping, so here’s the story in a nutshell. On Monday, September 11, we drove our truck to the Four Wheel Camper plant in Woodland and returned with our new camper. We’ll be taking it on the road for a two week road trip later this month. The story behind this purchase started on our road trip to Utah in May. (Well in all actuality, it probably starts much earlier that that with many camping and backpacking trips.)
While our Subaru Forester was a capable vehicle for taking us on camping adventures, we started looking at other rigs on the road and thinking about what the ideal vehicle might be for us. We like to get off the beaten track, so a four wheel drive with a small footprint was a priority. We looked at Sportmobile, and with a year-long wait and a price tag that was a bit intimidating we decided to look at pop-up campers. The Four Wheel Camper facility is basically in our back yard, an hour’s drive. Everything we read seemed to give Four Wheel a top rating. We determined that a visit to the Four Wheel Camper plant was in order, so on Saturday morning, May 20th, we planned a visit.
A visit to the facility and a look at the features available and we were sold. Having decided on a camper, we would also need a truck. The sales staff at Four Wheel suggested a Toyota Tacoma. Following our morning visit to Woodland we stopped in Davis for lunch, and I suggested we stop at a Toyota dealer on the way home so we could look at a Tacoma. Long story short; we ended up driving a Tacoma TRD 4×4 Off-Road long bed, double cab off the lot. And now three months later we are ready to roll.