Over this winter break (I speak in school terms, since many of my vacations are planned around school schedules), I had the opportunity to spend a little less than 48 hours in Joshua Tree National Park.
Getting away on photo-only trips is one of my guilty pleasures. I love my family. I enjoy my family, and I enjoy travelling with my family. My kids have been travelling since they were tiny and do less complaining on eight-plus hour car rides than most adults I know. My son was about a month old (and mostly asleep) when we did our best to hold him up against a blank background for his first passport photo.
On most family trips, in an effort to allow me to focus on photography, my wife does pretty much everything: herding the kids and making sure they have food, water, and warm clothing; cooking meals; checking into and out of campground. I, on the other hand, do what I usually do: I fret over the time, struggle with compositions and equipment, and when the light starts to get good (and even when it doesn’t), I run around like a fool, alternately cheering and cursing myself aloud.
So in late December, when my wife and I were given the opportunity to make a quick mid-winter run to Joshua Tree with no kids, I had the slightest, tiniest twinge of guilt for a half second before I screamed “yes!” and immediately started packing the car.
A few hours later, we ended up in Joshua Tree just after sunset, missing what photographer’s called “the golden hour,” that hour of light before sunset when the lighting gets more interesting. This would bother many photographers, who choose to do the bulk of their shooting during this day, but it didn’t really phase me. The vast majority of the photos I took in the park (and I took around 2,000 or so) were taken, as the title suggests, beyond daylight’s borders. This is representative of my work in general–I guess I just find the world to be interesting during these times.
After quickly queuing up at the park’s northern entrance so that I could flash my annual pass, we made a beeline for the Jumbo Rocks area, because a) I know it be photogenic based on other photos I’d seen and b) because it was relatively close and the light was dimming quickly.
Created in 1994 (making it the dry, prickly grandson of Grand Canyon NP and the twin brother to Death Valley NP), Joshua Tree NP is named for the ubiquitous Joshua Tree, a type of yucca that grows at elevations between 1,300 and 6,000 feet. The Joshua Tree is notoriously slow-growing, with mature plants only growing an inch a year or so. This fact makes some of the park’s specimens wildly impressive, as I saw a few of the trees stretching over 20 feet in the air, likely making them around 150 years old. Even more curious to me was the fact that these things seemed to have bark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more tree-like plant that wasn’t a tree.
Aside from the noble and photogenic Joshua Tree, the upper part of the park is littered with giant smooth boulders, which make for both great climbing and great (in my opinion) photography opportunities. In many parts of the parks there are no trails, and visitors are left to spend hours (like my wife and I did) picking their way through a maze of strewn boulders, prickly chollas, and interesting geology. This fun stuff (and I’m not talking about the cholla when I say “fun”) was readily accessible: In fact, many of the campgrounds were situated very close to these boulder fields, making it a rock-climber’s paradise.
This was both good and bad for me. On one hand, there seemed to be plenty of parking close to the areas I wanted to photograph, which often isn’t the case in our national parks. On the other hand, the parking was limited to certain hours, and those hours were when I was not going to be shooting. But, with a little problem solving, I was able to find a workaround.
I kept shooting through the blue hour and twilight, until eventually nightfall. Eventually, as a result of my unfamiliarity with the park and the freezing cold (the overnight temperatures were below freezing and the winds were gusting around 30-35 miles per hour), I gave up taking photos, and we went to get a few hours of sleep before sunrise.