While the weather shows signs of breaking in the West, and at the tail end of a very hot and dry summer, having the kids back in school and the promise of cooler weather brings us to consider where to plan that perfect trip when the weather turns cold in most parts of the country. While most think of southern California as a beach paradise dotted with the excitement of Los Angeles, you may want to consider some roadside photography in one of America's most stark desert national parks, Joshua Tree National Park.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK - CALIFORNIA
Joshua Tree National Park sits about 140 miles east of Los Angeles and southwest of Las Vegas about 200 miles. The wealthy city of Palm Springs harbors the closest airport, and thankfully for those wanting fewer crowds, there is no public transportation to the park. This means that it is a bit less crowded than say Zion National Park and much less so than Yosemite National Park. There is a north entrance at the city of Twentynine Palms, a south entrance 25 miles east of Indio, and a west entrance at Joshua Tree Village on Highway 62.
The park boasts a long history of human involvement in a relatively desolate environment, stating that humans have been around for it for almost 5,000 years, with cultures like the Pinto culture, the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla. The area had become in modern times, somewhat of a haven for Los Angeles folks to poach cacti and other desert flora, and one Pasadena resident and activist, Minerva Hoyt, was instrumental in setting aside the area as a National Monument in 1936. The superintendent of Yosemite actually administered the area until 1940, and the area actually shrunk in size to allow for mining in the area. It wasn't until 1994 when the area was elevated to National Park status, even though most of it had been deemed wilderness in 1976 by Congress. Its current size is 792, 623 acres. It is known for its desert life (40 reptiles, 41 mammals, 240 birds, and 813 higher plant species), its climbing, and of course, its interesting photography.
PHOTOGRAPHING JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
One of the first images that I remember seeing of JTNP was in the Springdale, Utah area just outside of Zion National Park, which included Michael Fatali's gallery which was then located on next to my favorite pizza joint. His image of a small Joshua Tree in a cloudy mist and among the rounded rocks of the region was enchanting to say the least. Many people have searched for this particular location (funny how we all think we need to photograph the same thing!), but the short trails that meander around the park and are relatively flat will offer photographers excellent chances to find interesting compositions in the rocks. I thought these translated very well into black and white images, as they are often round and have a very nice tonality in the long light. In addition, it is hard to pass up the ubiquitous Joshua Tree itself. The tree offers an immediate sense of place, and can be placed in most landscape photographs either as a foreground subject or a wide, all-encompassing shot. I've included a silhouette image here from the sunrise, which had been absolutely spectacular in the mornings when some clouds were present. Their shapes give away the obvious region of the country.
Some things to note: this is a harsh desert environment, so plenty of water for you and extra in the car is probably a good idea with the usual notes about sunscreen, hats, and protective clothing. The fall and winter will be a bit more pleasant but daytime temperatures can still climb, so it is best to be prepared. As always, the sunset/sunrise in this park are fantastic when the sun is available (often), and the midday can still offer some great adventures into monochrome shooting. Many of the good trails are closer to the north of the park near Twentynine Palms.