The Magic of Joshua Tree National Park

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by J.T. MacMillan

     Joshua Tree National Park is a study in contrasts - beautiful and surreal, rugged and tortured, relaxing and sublime. It’s too hot and too cold, and often too windy. Its namesake trees are unwieldy and Suessical and would be forgettable if they weren't so odd. The giant granite rocks scattered throughout are striking, as if the gods had tossed them into the desert in huge random piles. And the skies are epic.

     Straddling the Mohave and Sonoran Deserts, the park is located 120 miles east of L.A., about 35 miles up Highway 62 northeast of Palm Springs. 
We were introduced to it by neighbors many years ago when my son was a young boy, and we tried to make it an annual trip throughout his childhood. Many of the campsites here are planted amid the picturesque granite rocks, and the combination of interesting terrain, dramatic desert vistas and unusual plants make Joshua Tree perfect for day hikes. Places with names like Hidden Valley,  Lost Palms, Skull Rock and Oasis of Mara beckon to be explored.

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(Click Photos To Enlarge)

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Camping and Rock Climbing

     I was in my mid-30s the first time I came to Joshua Tree, but as soon as we drove up to our campsite at Indian Cove Campground I was a kid again. Our site was surrounded by magnificent boulders that were so inviting and easy to climb that we spent the first half hour scampering around the site before unloading our camp gear. If you like bouldering, this is your place. There are challenges available for more serious climbers, but we generally stick to the simple stuff. Gloves are a must, because the grippy hard granite will quickly shred hands, shoes and clothes.

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     The "comfort window" for camping here is short. It’s blazingly hot in the summer, and cold enough for snow during the winter months. Late-March through April and October through November are your best bet. And the temperatures can change fast. On our latest trip this November we had high 80s during the day and mild nights in the mid-50s, perfect for sleeping. Three days after we left the high was 59  and the low in the mid-30s. On one trip it was so windy and loud in our flap-flap-flapping tent we abandoned camp to finish the night in a nearby motel.  Timing is everything, and the protection provided by trailers and RVs can make the weather variables more tolerable. 

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Day Hikes

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Barker Dam 

     The Barker Dam Nature Trail is a popular and easy 1.3 - mile loop through a picturesque desert landscape, including  some  large Joshua Trees. Built by cattle ranchers in the late 1800s, it serves as an important water source for the desert wildlife here. Though many Indian petroglyphs do exist here, sadly these were painted over to enhance them for a movie made in the 60s. And yes, that is a tarantula. 

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Hours are compressed to seconds in this time-lapse video at Indian Cove Campground. (Click Above)

Twilight and Desert Nights

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(Click Photos To Enlarge)
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    Every so often an interesting image just falls into your lap. During a visit a few years ago we were sitting around the campfire watching the crescent moon setting over the rocky valley walls. I had my long lens out and noticed this illuminated tent on a little hill at least 300 yards down the valley. I just had to scoot my chair about 5 feet for a unobstructed view, with time to catch a half-dozen frames of the silhouetted rocky connection between our valley and the moon, offset by the tent.  While the crescent part of the moon was blown out, the rest of the face was illuminated by "earthshine," the reflection of sunlight from the earth, and perfectly matched the light coming from the tent. It's not hard to manufacture a shot like this with multiple images in photoshop, but the only post-production on this one was a little low-light noise reduction and sharpening.  20JT22Fnl20JT22Fnl

     Golden light from campfires hundreds of yards away are enough to illuminate the cliffs during a time exposure of the Milky Way. 

j063DNj063DN These trips have always been about reconnecting with nature, friends and family. The kids in this photo from 2010 are now grown, but the fond memories linger. We'll be back again soon to make some new ones. 

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J.T. MacMillan is a long-time San Diego-based photographer who got his start in metro-newspaper work and has been providing editorial, commercial, portrait and event photography services to some of San Diego’s most recognized public and private agencies for 27 years. To learn more and see other samples of our work click on the links below:

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