Out of all the National Parks camping trips I’ve taken this past year, including visits to some of the nation’s absolute best (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequioa, Death Valley, Saguaro, The Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon), my recent camping trip in Joshua Tree National Park was by far my favorite. While each of the National Parks offers something unique, Joshua Tree stands a cut above the rest as the most outlandish, most incredible, and most captivating of them all. And it’s just so easy to photograph.
To put it simply- Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t look like it should exist on Planet Earth. My advice to those people currently struck with “Avatar Blues” is to stop staring at glowing rectangles for long enough to get out of the house and visit a National Park- but especially to visit Joshua Tree. It may not be covered in waterfalls or rainforest, but it’s got a stark beauty that can only be found in rugged desert terrain. And just look at that deep blue sky!
A single trip to Joshua Tree National Park should be more than enough to stop those with Avatar Blues from complaining about our world being “dull”. But whether or not you’re upset about not being able to live on Pandora, you’d be doing yourself a huge favor to check the place out, because it’s certainly one that you wouldn’t want to miss.
Personally, I’ve never been so inspired by any other landscape, especially one so stark, and yet so full of potential. Perhaps that’s what I love so much about Joshua Tree though- that at first glance it appears desolate and empty, though upon further investigation, one finds it’s anything but that.
The sun-bleached rock piles and scattered gray shrubs littering the desert floor, mostly dead now, will soon return to full splendor with the rain and milder temperatures brought about by Spring and Summer (and the current wave of storms slamming into Southern CA). And as the Joshua Trees and wildflowers begin to bloom, they’ll fill that once barren landscape with a sea of incredible color and beauty. There’s nothing quite like it- the high desert in full bloom.
And though on this past trip I encountered mostly gray, thirsty shrubs, and scraggly looking JTrees, it was still one of my most powerful visits, taking me along for an emotional roller coaster ride- and stirring a deeply spiritual experience.
Our plan to explore the Park was simple, calling for everyone to meet up at Ryan Campground- one of the most popular of the Park’s many camping destinations. Since campgrounds are offered exclusively on a first-come first-serve basis, we decided that if it were full we arrived, everyone would then rendezvous at Jumbo Rocks Campground instead (which is far larger). We had to coordinate for 5 separate cars to arrive at the same location, within that vast expanse that is Joshua Tree, and since cell reception is lost just after entering the Park, I had little hope that it would all work out as neatly as it did.
Fortunately, like so many of my other recent trips- we seemed to have been blessed by Fate and all of the many many pieces of our camping puzzle fell quite neatly into place. Chaz arrived first and found Ryan Campground bursting at the seams with people, but was patient enough to wait a couple minutes to see if anyone would take off, was soon rewarded for the effort, and managed to locate us an excellent spot- seemingly meant to be- at number 26 (a number of special significance for me).
He also happened to paying our campground fee at the entrance just as I pulled up, which was a coincidence of exquisite fortune considering that I couldn’t remember what kind of car he drove, and most likely would have blown right past him on my way through the campground.
After setting up my gigantic tent, which was to serve as the beacon for our later arrivals, we decided to kill the next few hours by heading out to Jumbo Rocks Campground to shoot the area in the early afternoon-light. On our way we happened upon a Red-Tailed Hawk flying low along the road- another omen of particular importance for me- so I slowed my car to a crawl and watched for a few minutes, until it eventually perched atop a nearby Joshua Tree just begging to be captured on camera.
I strapped on my biggest lens (it’s only 200mm long unfortunately) and started my stalk. The bird was seemed on edge and didn’t want to let me get very close though, and took to the skies just as I got within a reasonable range for a good shot. It didn’t fly off however, and instead circled my head in a somewhat threatening, but certainly awe-inspiring manner. After a minute of two, it let out a fierce scream that echoed for miles around valley, then flew off into parts unknown, breaking us of it’s spell.
It was an encounter I won’t soon forget, and I snapped one of my favorite wildlife shots ever during the ordeal.
We spent the rest of the afternoon tromping around Jumbo Rocks shooting the formations and just generally enjoying the tranquility of the area until it was time to return to camp to greet the next wave of arrivals. It was around 1:30 by the time we pulled into our campsite. We decided that a round of Beer Pong was in order and quickly got to work on setting things up on the conveniently-level picnic table at the site. Chaz and I each shot incredibly well, making over half of our throws in the early rounds, but I managed to eek out the win with just a single cup left, right as Sean and Tanya arrived- apparently on cosmic time.
Cassie showed up soon afterward and the Beer Pong game officially took center stage for the rest of the evening. Darkness fell swiftly during a group walk through the near desert, so we got a massive fire going to stay the cold. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that chilly out there this time- failing to even dip below freezing. Then just as we’d given up hope on their arrival, Jacob and Travis appeared with their dogs (and an interesting story about an encounter with the local cops).
We went to bed after shushed to quietness by a member of our neighboring site, and to be honest- I think we deserved it. It may not have been that late, but it certainly seemed late. Night in the desert lasts an eternity.
I got up the next day and did some quick shooting under the early morning light, quickly visiting the Wonderland of Rocks and the Barker Dam parking area to see if either would be worth returning to later. When I got back to the campsite, we all packed up then discussed what to do next.
There was a consensus on going for a hike, but we limited in options since the Ranger explained that dogs are not allowed on most trails in the park, enforced by an expensive ticket at something like $75. We decided to try some bouldering and drove to the Wonderland of Rocks area, where the dogs would be allowed to roam with us.
It was mostly empty, and quite an interesting part of the Park. The mountains here are all made of smaller rocks, piled up on top of each other- with larger formations, but smaller individual component rocks. Hiking about a half mile into the surrounding hills, we stopped at one and began a long climb toward that top that only Sean completed.
I’m not gonna make any excuses for my failure to reach the pinnacle- and I won’t complain about my camera serving as a ten pound pendulum swinging about neck. I was intent on making it there until Fate itself seemed to intervene on my behalf, making the dog bark just as I was set to execute my most dangerous move of the climb. I almost want to go back just to get to the top. I still say this looks quite similar to Weathertop from the Lord of the Rings movie. It was a great hike, but I was still hungry for additional exploration.
Chaz and got our fix by walking the trail around Barker Dam. And it was entirely worth it! This short hike produced some of my favorite images from the trip. The trail also hosted little signposts explaining the local flora and fauna. I would highly suggest touring this loop as it is chock-full of stunning scenery.
It even contains a beautiful set of original Native America Pictographs. I was saddened to read that they had been defaced by having some of then chipped out of the rocks to be taken as personal possessions, and that many of them had been colored in recently with spray paint. It’s such a shame that people just don’t understand the simple concept of leaving things alone.
The pictographs were still some of the best I’ve seen in recent years, and I spent a while looking at them, trying to figure out what they meant. It seems to me that some sort of story of an adventure is being told here- perhaps of a migration from one part of the land to another. I haven’t been able to find an explanation for them in online searches.
Chaz took off following the Barker Dam hike, as he wanted to get off the road before darkness fell. His tires were extremely bald, with the metal strings clearly sticking out of the rubber. Someone in the parking lot even walked by his car and told that it was “Not good at all”, and that he “wasn’t going to make it very far”. I did a little bit more shooting in the surrounding area, enjoying the changing light of the late afternoon that bathes everything in a rich yellow glow.
I put away my camera and decided to sit for a few minutes in complete soaking, soaking in the sun and the beauty of Joshua Tree. I felt at peace, and inspired to share the beauty surrounding me with others. That’s what I like so much about Photography- I really hope my images will inspire people to get outside and enjoy the natural environment. I left just as the sun began to truly set, making, affording me an excellent view of the young New Year’s most beautiful sunset.