Photography Guide: Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Joshua Tree National Park has captured my heart as an adventurer and a photographer. It’s stout traditional and sport climbing classics will make even seasoned climber’s hands sweat. Jtree also offers great hiking opportunities, four-wheel-drive roads to explore, unique campgrounds, wildlife, and endless amounts of solitude. Above all else, Jtree has dramatic and unique photography opportunities around every corner.
- 35mm or wider lens
- Water…lots of it
This list of locations and subjects is by-no-means exhaustive and should only serve as a starting point for photography enthusiasts who are planning to visit this amazing National Park. I’ve included Google and Park Service maps (below).
1. The Cholla Garden
Cholla are mean little buggers so cover your legs and watch your step. Stay around the Cholla Garden for sunset to see the densely-packed, yellow spines of the Cholla light up when they are back-lit by the sun. Alternatively, turn and shoot with the sunset to your back for a different perspective, capturing hues of purple and blue as dusk envelops the desert landscape.
The quickest access is from the Southern entrance to Jtree (Cottonwood Springs rd). Drive for 25.6 miles and you’ll encounter this expansive patch of Cholla cacti, which cover the gentle slopes of Fried Liver Wash, on the upper West-Northwest corner of Pinto Basin before you enter Wilson Canyon.
- Best time to shoot: Sunset
2. Keys View
Keys view is the highest view point in Joshua Tree, offering unobstructed vistas of the Cochella Valley. It is an exposed high point and an isolated area requiring a bit of a drive: go prepared with warm layers, food, and rain gear so you can stay long enough to capture some nice images. Bring a tripod and intervalometer to produce amazing time-lapses (#protip).
The quickest access to Keys View is through the West entrance to the park (via the town of Joshua Tree). Set your trip odometer to ‘0’ as you pass Rainbow Bridge Rd, just before entering the park (the turn onto Keys View Rd is 10.5 miles from this point). Drive along Park Boulevard, passing Quail Springs and Hidden Valley. Look for signs directing you to Keys View and turn right onto Keys View Rd heading West (if you get to Ryan Campground you’ve passed Keys View Rd). Continue on Keys View Rd for 5.5 miles to the parking area.
- Best time to shoot: Late afternoon/Sunset
3. Old Dale Rd & Black Eagle Mine Rd
Old Dale road and Black Eagle Mine road are 4WD roads leading the ambitious explorer to a remote region of the park that is only visited by a select few. Don’t expect crowds, expect wide open spaces and seclusion. A few words of caution: These roads are listed as 4WD. Parts of these roads were manageable in my Honda Accord, but I did have to stop eventually. A high-clearence vehicle with four-wheel-drive will give you a much better chance at exploring these roads to their ends (or will at least reduce the amount of walking you have to do). Above all else, be safe. Go prepared with the appropriate gear and know what to do in the event of becoming stranded! For those that do make the journey to this side of Jtree, expect the unexpected. Wildlife, historical artifacts, and other ‘attractions’ can be found. Respect the park – take only photos, leave only footprints.
From the Southern entrance (Cottonwood Springs Rd) drive 12.5 miles into the park. Old Dale and Black Eagle Mine Rd will be on the right (East). The turn-off starts as one road that splits into two. There is an interpretive sign at this intersection.
- Best time to shoot: All day
4. Hidden Valley Area
Hidden Valley offers more than just climbing and camping. This highly-concentrated collection of giant boulders and rock outcroppings lends itself to great photo opportunities. You’ll find climbers, lots of Joshua Trees, and if you go and explore the rocks you might find a secret cave.
The quickest access to Hidden Valley is through the West entrance to the park (via the town of Joshua Tree). Set your trip odometer to ‘0’ as you pass Rainbow Bridge Rd, just before entering the park. Drive along Park Boulevard for 9 miles. There are parking options right along the main road or you can turn left onto Baker dam road and then left again to get into the camping or picnic area.
- Best time to shoot: Sunrise/Sunset
5. The Night Sky
- Bring a tripod – alternatively you can prop your camera up with rocks, sticks, etc.
- Use a remote (or know how to use the self timer on your camera).
- Compose your shot – then use the live view feature and magnify your view as much as possible, next manually focus to make sure the stars are sharp.
- The settings that have worked best for me: f/2.8, 1/15th sec, ISO 6400.
- If you REALLY want mind-blowing night sky photos, explore software like Deep Sky Stacker.
Anywhere inside the park! Joshua Tree National Park is isolated which is GREAT for astrophotography (little to no light pollution).
- Best time to shoot: Late Night (on a new Moon)