If you're a rock climber or high-liner, you've probably heard of Joshua Tree National Park. This gem of a National Park sits nestled between rocky mountain ranges just behind the Yucca Valley, a short drive from Los Angeles and Palm Springs. The park is truly a jewel for landscape photographers, and even offers subjects for the determined macro shooter. Having just returned from a four day trip into the park, I'll detail my experience below.
Night 1, Day 1 - Arrival
As it turns out, finding campsites in Joshua Tree (or "J Tree" as it's affectionately called by climbers) is near impossible this time of year. After a 9 hour drive, myself and a good photography friend found every campsite in the entire park having been booked (most are walk-in only). Luckily, thanks to a mutual friend and a canceled reservation, we were able to find a campsite just outside the park in the Blackrock Campground area. A Cup-of-Noodles later and we were headed into "J-Tree" to test out the night skies. Suspended dust in the air made for a unique effect on star trails.
Day 2 - Feeling it out
I've been to both Death Valley, and the Mojave in the past, but never Joshua Tree. As is the usual for any photographic trip I take, the first day is largely spent scouting locations, with very few images taken.
True to that, we headed into the park and began looking for unique locations. Every towering pile of boulders became a potential canvas, a character just waiting to tell its story. The more I surveyed the park and its sprawling landscape, the more I realized that four days could not do it justice.
Come evening time, our party had relocated to a beautiful campsite dead-center in the park. The evening was spent recalling places of unique potential as we planned the rest of our stay.
Day 3 - Getting down to business
Outside of macro images, if there is one type of photograph I truly enjoy taking, it's star trails. The patience needed to capture a full-bodied exposure is challenging, and the scale of subjects is nothing short of cosmic. Tools such as light painting offer a unique opportunity to highlight particular subjects, and composition is king. After enjoying a six mile hike through the backcountry, we made plans to photograph a part of the park rarely seen at night due to limited access.
Parking on the main road, we grabbed our kits and headed once again into the backcountry. Hiking through trails walled by granite monoliths, I recalled how the day before both of us had seen the location and knew it warranted a second trip after dark. Unique rock piles, vertical cliffs, and scattered Juniper trees all begged to be photographed under the night sky, and we intended to deliver.
Scampering over boulders, laden with lenses and tripods, we finally reached our destination some fifty feet above the valley floor. I set up my gear, composed the image, and got to exposing what I consider my favorite image of the entire trip. Stars above afforded me a solid hour of relaxation as I laid down atop my granite spire and watched the universe pass by.
Day 4 - Finishing strong...or, small?
After a productive night of star trails, morning came late, bringing with it a sense of accomplishment. I knew I had captured the image I wanted. "That" photo which makes a trip all worth it, and puts a smile on your face for the entire drive home.
Setting out in the afternoon, we headed for a concentrated patch of cacti in the far reaches of the park, hoping to capture some macro images of the creatures which call these plants home. Hours later, and quite a few cactus spines in places I'd rather not have them, we had found no such denizens. Beautiful as they were, the cacti held no life for us. No living subjects of any kind, not even a lone fly or spider.
Turning the car back towards camp, we set out once again, conversing on how to best approach the coming sunset. Along the way, an isolated clump of roadside plants caught our attention. What's this? Flowers? This was a brilliant change of pace, because to any macro shooter flowers mean pollinators, and pollinators are fantastic subjects. Sure enough, a few moments of careful inspection yielded bee's, ladybugs, microhyms, flies, and ants. A virtual oasis of life compared to the surrounding landscape.
Having had our macro appetites satiated, we headed off back towards camp and the coming sunset. Stopping at Mt. Ryan (~5,000 ft) we decided on an impulse that hiking to the top would be great for a final sunset. Racing, we hurried along rocky trails to the top arriving just as the sun began to sink beneath the distant mountains. Clouds were sparse, the sky offering little contrast, but I set out on capturing a panorama regardless, which I will post when completed.
All in all, my trip to Joshua Tree was a fantastic one. Each day brought with it new adventures, new photographic opportunity, and a new outlook on finding beauty in an otherwise desolate landscape. The nine hour drive home slowly melted away as we discussed the week's findings and looked back on all that we had experienced over the past four days.
I hope you get the chance to visit this beautiful landscape, and I hope you enjoyed the images. I know I will certainly be returning in the future. One trip to such a vast wilderness simply doesn't do it justice.