A Weekend in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree Sunrise and Moonrise

Summer is coming to a close and its time to start planning your fall and winter trips.  One of the premier deserts in Southern California is in Joshua Tree National Park.  Josh is, actually, two large ecosystems – The Colorado Desert with stands of spike-like ocotillo plants and cholla cactus and the Mojave Desert which has extensive stands of Joshua Trees.

The prime time to visit Joshua Tree is October through April.  The late Spring and Summer are unbearably hot – in the low 100s many days.  However, in the cooler late fall and winter, it is really mild, sometimes even very cold, and very beautiful.  Besides better weather, photographing Josh in the winter also is advantageous for the lower sun and flatter light, as well as reasonable sunrise and sunset times.

Josh is about three hours east of Los Angeles.  Just take the I10 toward Palm Springs and follow the signs.  I have probably been to Josh more than a dozens times, mostly to rock climb as a young man, but now to make photographs.  Here is an itinerary you can do in a weekend.

Photograph Joshua Trees

Joshua Trees make fantastic silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.  This is truly the best time to photograph them.  Get to your spot early and take your time to find just the right one.  You want lots of arms, but you do not want too much of the arms crossing or touching.  This is where I really learned the lesson about photography and “spacing” from Jack Graham.  You have to have space between your Joshua Trees and your Joshua Tree arms.  If you have too much or too many touching, you lose the silhouettes and it just looks like black blobs.  There are great stands of Joshua trees near the Hidden Valley Campground, Sheep’s Pass, and the Hall of Horors.  In the photograph above, the space between the trunk of the main Joshua Tree and the ones in the background really “makes” this shot.  The moon doesn’t hurt.

Joshua Tree Sunset

Photograph Cholla Cactus and Ocotillo Plants

The main cholla cactus and ocotillo patches are right in the middle of the park.  Cholla is an especially sticky cactus and almost impossible to remove after it sticks to you.  You CAN NOT touch it.  If it gets on your clothes, shoes, or skin, you must use pliers to remove the barbs or you are in for more sticks.  The classic shot is the cholla backlit with some mountains in the background.  Don’t forget to get some close-ups and macro shots.

The Cholla Cactus Garden
Close -up of Cholla

Photograph Rocks

After cactus, Josh is all about the rocks.  The place is filled with jumbles of orangey brown quartz monzonite.  This volcanic or igneous rock is ideal for rock climbing because it is so coarse.  Climbing shoes stick really well, unfortunately, the rock is also so sharp that you can cut up your hands if you are rock climbing, or just accidentally rub your hands on a rock.  Gloves are not necessary, but be careful.

There are a number of “famous” rocks to capture.  One of the most popular is the Arch Rock.  We worked this subject, but never really got an image we liked.  If you look on Flickr, you will see hundreds of photos of the Arch Rock.  Arch Rock is located near the White Tank campground.

Arch Rock

The perfectly spherical rock below does not have an official name that I know of.   It is a very popular subject and is located in the Jumbo Rocks campground.

Jumbo Rocks Campground

This rock-tree combination is located in the same campground and I have seen quite a few different interpretations of it on Flickr.

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Photograph a Lake

I have known the Barker Dam area for years.  There are several popular climbs in the area.  However, I always wondered why there was a dam since I had never seen water there before.  It was quite a different story the last time we visited.  The dam area was full of water and gave us a rare and unique opportunity to create reflection shots in the water.  Below was one of the best sunrises, I can ever remember.

Barker Dam Sunrise
Barker Dam Sunrise

Make Natural Abstracts

With all of the rocks, trees, and sky, Josh is a great place to search out natural abstracts.  As I have said before, Mary is especially good at “seeing” these.  Here are a few examples below.

Rocks and Sky
Barker Dam Reflection
Yucca Close-up

Josh is one of my favorite places.  It is easy to get to.  There are plenty of hotels and restaurants in Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms.  AND it is a great place to hike, rock climb, and photograph.  To see more of Joshua Tree and our other photographs, go to www.pamphotography.com.


  1. Bill

    This is very useful info for my upcoming trip. Thank you so much for taking the time to provide such great detail and outstanding images.

  2. pamphotography

    Hi Bill – thank you for the kind words. You will love Joshua Tree. I have to admit, I had a hard time getting my eyes used to the scenery, it was chaotic. Once I started isolating intimate landscapes, it was a blast. Happy shooting :).

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