Winter Photography at Joshua Tree National Park

Not what you expect

My last visit to Joshua Tree National Park was twenty years ago in late spring. This time, opportunity arrived under different circumstances: "the dead of winter" as we say in my home state of Minnesota. The most common reaction I initially received from friends is "You're going to southern California? It'll be nice to get away from the cold for a while." I soon learned a few truths: in winter, Joshua Tree National Park is neither dead nor warm. 

Why Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park is symbolic of rugged eccentricity, unifying those who came before the park, those who founded it, and those who visit it. This spirit is infectious. You feel it instantly soaking into your veins as you enter the park. Everything looks unfamiliar, beautiful, and new. I could only drive a few hundred yards on the entrance road before pulling over to take my first photo. 

The landscape is luscious with unfamiliar forms and an odd sort of disarray. It looks either half finished or long ago abandoned to decay. In any case, within the park, you will find your senses soaring and time slowing down. People come here to drink in the scenery and discover an endless landscape of surprises. Walk in any direction for any amount of time, and you will find your worldview delightfully challenged. 

Rock formations

Rock formations

Plan to be spontaneous

A lot can change over a couple of decades. On my last visit, I didn't pack a digital camera, a cell phone, an iPad, nor an LED flashlight. The internet couldn't be carried in my pocket. Big names like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest were not yet coined. However, inside the park, none of this matters. There is no connectivity, no power outlets, no gas, and no food. You are like a time traveler sliding back to a lonely but serene past. You have only what you bring with you, and it must include enough electrons to see your way through the journey.

My team began the Joshua Tree journey with typing in #JoshuaTree. Instagram and Twitter are like a time traveler's guide to time and space. Every search result is loaded with amazing photography by professionals and amateurs alike. A hashtag search is a great way to identify and plan for the shoots you would like to get. My big "wow" was the starry night photos I saw at Joshua Tree National Park. Although many of the posted images were the cliché images iconic of every natural wonder, I decided to pick my favorites and work for unique versions. 

For photographing in the park, you should mix a few targeted destinations with an openness to spontaneity. Most of the best photography features are surprisingly tiny within this vast landscape. Read up and plan out 3 targets. These will depend greatly on your own tastes. Once you have your 3, here is the key: plan to visit them at sunrise, sunset, and in the darkest hours of night. This assures your capturing a trove of unique images.

On the spontaneous side, embrace exploration. There are many great pull-off areas along the paved roads to stop and hike for a while. Change your vantage point by walking and climbing through rock formations or wandering out amongst the Joshua Tree forest. Here, the forest is transparent, and there is no need for paths. 

Make the most of Winter

Joshua Tree is legendary for its dark skies. The eastern portion of the park is a certified dark sky area. The trick is to shoot for the new moon, which requires a carefully timed visit. In my case, the last week of January looked workable. Clear and dark are what I hoped for, but clear and dark in the winter also mean cold.

Night sky in Joshua Tree National Park

Night sky in Joshua Tree National Park

The weather forecast for my new-moon weekend held a surprise: low temperatures in the 30s each night. As a Minnesotan, I'm undaunted by cold, but my hopes for shorts and t-shirt weather were quickly quenched. I realized my trip to southern California would feel like a winter photography hike in Minnesota.

However, winter also signifies lighter crowds and less congestion at the most popular landmarks. Popular landmarks will always host high traffic, but in winter, this becomes merely an inconvenience. More important, winter gives an opportunity to meander through the park on your own. Sunrise and the night sky will be yours and yours alone. 

Contrary to popular belief, deserts do in fact have water; you just need to know where to look or when to look. Winter is the "when" to look for water at Joshua Tree National Park. Winter rains wake up the desert, but they also collect in key areas. Snow and ice can be found in shaded ravines and rock gardens. Barker Dam collects water, and cooler temperatures prevent rapid evaporation that would happen in the warmer months. The best delight of all is a frozen layer of ice at sunrise on the dam's reservoir.

Play the light. In winter, the sun sits low, making for redder light. The light changes all day long in a noticeable way, and in most hours, you can find many different conditions as you drive up or down in elevation. Rock formations create a playground of shadows and light all day long.

Mountain view in the park

Mountain view in the park

Top 5 Tips for Winter Photography at Joshua Tree National Park

1. Go during a new moon. The northern hemisphere is darkest in winter, and at one of the darkest places in North America, this makes for a world-class sky gazing opportunity.

2. Bring extra battery backups. Pack extra camera batteries. Batteries don't last as long in the cold and also recharge more slowly. Bring a cell phone charging pack for the same reason. Pack extra memory capacity. 

3. Dress for the cold. When the sun goes down, temperatures plummet. Add a brisk wind, and you will feel a serious wind chill factor. Gloves, hat, and layers are a must.

4. Wrap your technology for the cold. Some cell phones and tablets are notorious for battery drainage and shutdown when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. Hand warmers can be great for your devices too. Keep a hand warmer in your jacket pocket to keep your phone warm.

5. Keep your car running. Now, this may sound wimpy, but try it before you judge it. At sunset, night sky hours, and sunrise, set up your equipment a few feet outside your car. Use your wifi and remote operating features to take photos and download them for review from the comfort of your heated vehicle. 

"The dead of winter," they said. Yep... it's a beautiful thing. 

Remember to caption your photos with #AmazingTravelBeauty so that the beauty can be maximally enjoyed.  

By: Jim Weglewski