Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
California has nine national parks—more than any other state in the nation—and the southernmost of them, Joshua Tree National Park, is located near the northern end of the Mohave Desert. This great desert park is easy to reach, easy to hike and lots of fun.
The calm beauty of the desert is near its peak here. Being out and immersed in the delicious solitude present before dawn is one of the great joys of nature photography. In such special moments, it is easy to feel the rhythms of the Earth and reconnect with Nature.
Despite its name, the Joshua tree isn’t a tree at all. This somewhat strange looking plant is actually a yucca. More to the point—in the bright light of day—it is immediately plain to see that it is not all that photogenic. The best images of these unique yuccas show them in silhouette, emphasizing their interesting and graceful forms, which are often backlit against a brilliantly colored sky.
Each tree has its own individual shape. Finding a camera position showing a tree with one of the many rock formations—which exhibit a complimentary angle in the background—makes for compositions that can work very well.
Fabulous and ancient rocks are in abundance at Joshua Tree. They are among some of the oldest rocks around and are full of character and photographic potential. While they may look somewhat bland in full sun or overcast light, they photograph very well with the warm, long rays of the sun when it is close to the horizon. This is easy to do at sunset. For a sunrise shoot, however, it is best to do your scouting the day before when you can nail down your compositions in daylight. With a little planning, you can employ the aesthetic interplay of light and shadow to make some really dramatic images. Side lighting is a great way to show the rough and dimensional texture of the rocks.
One of my very favorite spots in Joshua Tree is the Jumbo Rocks Campground. From the entrance to the back of this small area, the rocks readily present themselves.
In contrast, the perfectly formed rock arch, unimaginatively called Arch Rock, is concealed just behind the edge of the White Tank Campground. It will take a little scrambling to really explore. Frame your shot and be ready when the rising sun just begins to poke through the opening in the arch. It’s well worth the effort.
Another great sunrise location is the small cholla garden right along the road. These short cacti look best backlit, but beware! These babies are not dubbed “jumping cholla” for nothing. Wearing tightly woven smooth gaiters over your lower legs can help to protect you from their ankle-seeking needles. Carry tweezers just in case.
In addition to the many natural subjects in Joshua Tree, don’t miss the buildings and artifacts at the historic Keys Ranch. There might even be a chance for a photo walk. Check at the visitor center.
The main entry to Joshua Tree National Park is through the gateway town of Twentynine Palms, California. There you will find a few good motels and a small assortment of eateries. There are additional park entrances farther west along Rt. 62. One of these leads to the Indian Rocks area, a great favorite with climbers.
A glance at the map reveals that the suggested locations mentioned above are all in the northwestern area of the park. While there is also a southern entrance off I-10, which may be convenient for some visitors, there is not much down there to hold your interest.
For those arriving by air, San Diego, Ontario (CA) and LAX airports will work equally well. Since all roads are well-paved, renting a standard passenger car will do just fine.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was a national park artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oops! Last month’s column on Capitol Reef National Park included an image of a Native American pictograph. Due to my filing error, this image was made at Sego Canyon east of Capitol Reef, rather than being within the park. My thanks to the reader and Utah resident who pointed this out and my apologies for this error.—Jerry Ginsberg