Exploring Joshua Tree National Park (2023)

by Raeburn MacDougall

For me as a photographer from eastern Canada, putting together the words “desert” and “photography” brings to mind images that could only come from motion pictures or someone else’s still pictures. Then, one day in January, I found myself hiking with my daughter Beth and my son-in-law John in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. The desert was just as we had envisioned it, with a huge boulders and the picturesque Joshua tree thrown in for good measure.

Exploring Joshua Tree National Park (1)

The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), which gives the park its name, is the largest member of the Yucca’s. They belong to the Lilly family of plants. These Exploring Joshua Tree National Park (2)trees are found only in the southwestern United States, primarily in the Mojave Desert. The tallest Joshua tree in the park grows in an area called Queen Valley Forest. It stands 40 feet high. Since Joshua trees grow an average of one-half inch per year, experts estimate that this specimen is more than nine hundred years old (40 feet x 12 inches / 0.5 inches = 960). Joshua trees play an important role in the desert ecology, providing shelter for birds, mammals, insects and lizards. Some grow straight, with no branches, an indication that they have never bloomed.

When they saw these plants, especially those with branches, the early pioneers crossing the desert were reminded of the Old Testament prophet Joshua waving the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Therefore, they called these yuccas the “Joshua tree.” Photographically, they often present a graceful reference point in the desert landscape.

My camera gear consisted of a Nikon F5 camera body with 20mm f2.8 and 28-200 mm Nikon lenses and a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens. I made sure I had plenty of Fuji’s Provia 100 film. Of course, I would not be without my tripod, a Manfrotto (Bogen) model 055. I was willing to carry the camera gear, heavy as it is, because Beth and John could help with water, snacks, first aid kit, and some warm clothing for an emergency overnighter. Water, absolutely essential, can be particularly heavy. One gallon weighs 8.3 pounds, and it is recommended that each person drink at least a gallon per day in the desert. John played Gunga Din. We felt well prepared.

We chose our day hike carefully from the 111 well-described hikes in a book entitled Hiking California’s Desert Parks by Bill Cunningham and Polly Burk (Falcon Publishing, 1996). This book has a wealth of information besides the description of the hikes. It is well worth the $10.95 U. S. price. Thinking we would be on the trail by 11:00 A. M., we decided upon hike 42—Keys View Road to Park Road 11. The distance was about 10 miles since we planned to cut off on the “Geology Tour Road” and finish at a campsite called “Big Rocks.” We had a topographic map and a child’s old compass. We were all set. We thought. John’s parents and my wife dropped us at the Ryan Campground at noon. John’s father warned us not to stray from the trail no matter what. He backed up his warning with stories of people who walked into the desert and were never found (it happens). They would meet us in the Big Rock campground parking lot between 5:00 and 5:30 that afternoon.

The day was beautiful and clear—70º F with just a few wispy clouds adding depth perception to the sky (use a polarizing filter). Sunrise and sunset, with warm light and lengthening shadows, are favorite times for the photographer, but in the desert, the deep shadows and high contrast of midday seem appropriate for making pictures. Sunset and twilight can be fleetingly short in the Joshua Tree National Park. The sun approaches the western horizon. Shadows lengthen. The air chills. Blackness descends. Suddenly, it is “show time.” Stars begin to shine in all their brilliance. Desert creatures emerge from sanctuaries that have sheltered them from the day’s heat.

This desert holds many surprises for a keen observer. I used the “macro” lens to capture the blue flower of the little “chia plant” (Salvia columbariae), which is usually not found here. Moreover, the bloom that I photographed in January would be considered “early.” Various Exploring Joshua Tree National Park (3)species of cacti, such as the prickly pear, make interesting foreground material in wide-angle views. A cholla (pronounced choy-ya) cactus called the “jumping teddy bear cactus”(Opuntia bigelovii) can be painfully dangerous. Its soft, silvery bristles, each tipped with a sharp barb, provide wonderful opportunities to perfect backlighting technique, but don’t get too close! The myriad shapes and hues of boulders and sand are sufficient to get anyone’s creative juices flowing. Although we did not see any animals, the park is home to coyotes (we saw lots of scat), burrowing owls, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and rattlesnakes, among others.

We photographed Joshua trees, stunning vistas, unique rock formations, various cacti, and ourselves on the trail. What a great time! The trail was well marked with arrows and measured mile markers. Everything was going according to plan, but by 3:30 P. M., when we were supposed to arrive at the Geology Tour Road, it was nowhere in sight! Either it was not there, or we were not there! Consulting our topographic map, we were sure we were right on target. However, after we pressed on a bit further, we still did not see the road. All we could see was sand! The sun would soon be going down. We had to make a decision. Should we go back or press on? Remembering the order to stay on the trail, we turned back. If we hustled, we could reach the Ryan campground shortly after dark. Perhaps someone there would give us a ride to Big Rocks. In any event, we knew that my wife and John’s parents would be worried when we did not show up as scheduled.

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The end of day brought the blue and pink of the setting sun. Although our concern to get back repressed thoughts of photography, I could not help but fire off a few frames. There was no time to make a star-trail image, but the desert would be the place I would choose to make one. We had to walk at least half the way in the dark. I was thankful that eight batteries power the Nikon F5! We used up half of them in my pocket flashlight just hiking out. I will never again complain about the power requirements of my favorite camera, because without those batteries we would have been spending the night in 20º F temperatures. Stumbling around in the dark would have been dangerous, surrounded as we were by the “jumping teddy bears.” It was a relief to see the campground lights. A friendly camper gave us a ride to Big Rocks Campground. The reunion was joyful. The “worried ones” did not have to notify the Rangers, and we did not have to spend a cold night in the desert.


There is no lodging in the park, There is lodging in the nearby cities, see below


Click on cities to get (Rates, availability and reservation online) There are resorts, hotels and motels in Palms Springs, Indio Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list.

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