joshua tree

Discovering Joshua Tree National Park

This was the last image I was able to capture when I visited Joshua Tree National Park. How I got here though is what made this day even more spectacular.

It all started the night before when I was researching some great spots to catch a great sunrise photo. After researching a few different beaches through Google and Google Maps I had come to my decision. I was going to go to Terranea Beach in Rancho Palos Verdes.

That wasn't the only location I had been researching as I was also interested in visiting Big Bear for a great shot of the lake or some mountains early in the morning. The other location that had been in mind was Joshua Tree because it's not too far from my house, about one hour and fifty minutes. 

So I set my alarm at 4:15 am (which my wife hates by the way, haha) for the next day so I could catch the sunrise. I woke up the next morning, had some black coffee and grabbed a bagel to go. My destination of choice turned out to be a traffic nightmare, it was going to take me a little over 2 hours just to get to Terranea Beach so I decided I would head to my number 2 spot, Big Bear Lake. For the record, I'm still going to go to Terranea Beach but I'll have to get up even earlier to beat the 91 fwy traffic. 

The drive towards Big Bear Lake was great, it's amazing to see so little people driving around that early in the morning. Heading up the mountain was a really fun drive until you start getting up there in elevation, mainly because the fog was extra thick (thick like Carl's Jr. biscuits thick). Thankfully my car has a pretty cool lighting system so it wasn't too bad but I still drove carefully since I was really unfamiliar with the road. I finally made it up to Big Bear when the light was finally starting to come in, I'd say it was about 6 am when I finally reached the lake. 

Here's when it got tricky, before I left the house I sort of prepared for beach weather, not necessarily the same as Big Bear Lake in the Winter type weather. I had on enough layers but what I wasn't prepared for the cold my hands and face would experience. I got out of my car at a nice little park by the lake and tried to set up a shot but my hands were so numb I could barely adjust any settings on the camera. I started to notice my hands were starting to turn red and as much as I tried to warm my hands they just weren't getting warmer. I decided to grab my camera and run back to my car before my hands fell off. I know, maybe they weren't going to fall off but I haven't been in 30 degree weather before, not to mention the wind chill. The only cool thing was that I experienced snow fall for the first time in my life, that was cool.

So I had a decision to make here, should I grab all my gear and go back home or should I keep driving to see if I could find a shot somewhere else on the mountain? Of course I decided I would keep going, haha. I looked at Google Maps and noticed there was a back way to Joshua Tree from Big Bear and since that was one of the places I wanted to go, I decided to start driving there. This is where I started noticing some awesome views and found some compositions I wish I could capture in Big Bear, only problem was that my hands couldn't function so this too would be for another day. 

The road down the mountain was great and was fun to drive on as well.

This is where I captured a couple of cool shots, well I thought they were cool. Since it was still early in the morning this road wasn't so busy so I was able to get in the middle of the road and even cross it a few times to capture the angles I liked. I loved how the morning dew and fog was present in the second shot.

I continued down the road and that's when I found myself in between some great mountains and I stopped to catch some more shots with my car as the main subject.

This is when the adrenaline started pumping because I really felt like the day was going to be special, the views were spectacular and I really felt like I was capturing the essence of the little getaway. I think subconsciously I was photographing as if I was going to write this blog even though that wasn't the initial plan.

I then got to the bottom of the mountain and the last 40 minutes of the drive were mainly uneventful but there were a few roads I wished I had photographed and even some abandoned houses I wish I had stopped at (next time). Continued on and then I finally reached my destination, Joshua Tree National Park. My first stop was the visitor's center because I had to pee, hey I had a lot of coffee and water in the morning. Grabbed a map and headed into the entrance, I felt like I was arriving at a theme park because this place is really cool. Paid for my entrance, should've gotten the annual pass but now I've learned my lesson.

This was my first ever visit to the park and let me tell you entering the park offers some awesome views, I'm talking big rocks, little rocks, boulders and trees, THE TREES are amazing!

These trees were much bigger than I expected and I really felt like I was in a different world. Even though this picture was taken right off the main road I immediately felt like I was away from everything. I made the first stop that kind of interested me and that's when I reached the Hidden Valley Campground.

Yes, that's a person all the way up on that rock formation, how they got there I'll never know. I wanted to go take some more pictures of the boulders here but there were so many tents and RV's I felt like they were going to be distracting, after about 5 minutes of walking I headed back to my car but not before....

...Capturing some more shots of my Black Beauty against this wonderful landscape. After taking these shots I decided on heading to the Lost Horse Mine Trail, just kind of caught my attention. At this point I didn't know how long I was going to stay so I decided to stop at a few different view points to grab some more photos.

One thing I loved about this shot is this was taken through the branches of a fallen Joshua Tree. It was sad to see because you can tell it was a beautiful tree when it was standing. No worries though because that tree will feed the same soil to grow more lovely Joshua trees. I walked in my car then left to the trail, which I have to say was not easy to find. It was hard to find because I didn't realize you had to drive down a dirt road to reach the beginning of the trail. I didn't see many Mercedes-Benz going down this road but I know my car was capable of anything, after all they say it's the Best or Nothing right? Road wasn't too tricky at all and it had just enough solid dirt to not cause any problems for my car. Reached the parking lot, grabbed my camera bag, tripod, water and phone then headed onto the trail.

This is where the true adventure began, I read a small little sign at the beginning of the trail and read the Lost Horse Mine was only 2.6 miles away so I thought hey easy peazy (is that how you spell that?). Now I started feeling good about myself, Alan Villasenor, the explorer. No, no, no, I was staying on the trail because I heard some stories of people getting lost in the park and I wasn't going to let that be me. Nevertheless I started seeing some amazing compositions and I started snapping away, click, click, click.

This trail starts off really flat and was super easy for any skill level (more on that later). I really started to get a feeling of solitude here, I mean there was no sounds anywhere, just wind blowing branches and plants around. I must admit it was so refreshing to not hear anything but I kind of wish I had seen more wildlife, like a bobcat or something. Instead I got a few squirrels here and there, which now that I think about it was better than encountering a bobcat. I kept hiking and right around the time I found that beautiful tiny Joshua tree that I photographed from above, I started getting a bit worried. Not because I wasn't finding great photo opps but because I hadn't found the Lost Horse Mine and I could've sworn I had trekked 2 miles already.  

I kept seeing trail signs and then finally some people hiking from the other direction so that was comforting because I knew I was heading in the right direction. The trail has some really interesting things to see, like that fireplace in the middle of nowhere and those beautiful red and black rocks that were everywhere. Then finally after some more climbing I get to a little past the halfway point and was rewarded with an amazing view. 

I stopped and admired this view for a little while, it was truly stunning and I wish I was able to capture the view so much better. I loved seeing the shadow of the clouds down in the valley and how small everything looked from above. I would definitely come to this trail just to witness this view again. It was right after this when I saw a few more people coming from the other direction. One of the gentleman was nice enough to stop and talk to me for a couple of minutes, he said he had been working outdoors his whole life. Then he notified me that I was doing the loop the wrong way, or at least the hard way because of the huge climb I had ahead of me. Gosh I felt dumb but he said I wasn't too far from the Lost Horse structure so that was nice to know. As he was climbing the other direction I decided to take a quick snap of him in the distance.

This guy just looked like he knew the outdoors and made me feel like a real rookie. That didn't discourage me and I began my climb to my destination. This climb was no joke and the wind started to pick up, how convenient. I had on a few layers but you could still feel the cold and my fingers started to hurt again. I got a little worried but the climb actually helped warm me up and I even started sweating a little bit. Then I finally got to the top and around the corner to find the Lost Horse Mine.

This was the only decent shot I was able to grab because somebody drove a truck up to the mine and parked it right in front of the mine. The mine was also closed off with a chain link fence and that just didn't make it as photogenic as I wanted it to be. It was still cool to see and it was fun imagining what this mine was like with people actually working out of there. I really enjoyed the Old West feel of the mine and the park.

I then finished the trail, took me like 3 hours because of all the photo stops I made and my knee which was bugging me a bit too. I then decided to head to the next closest stop which happened to be Key's View, this place was cool too. 

You can't really tell from the pics but this place was packed with people because you can literally drive up here and take a few steps to get the view. This was a nice and easy view, definitely worth the short drive here. Once I got back in the car I grabbed my park map and decided my next stop would be the Chola Cactus Garden. I started the drive down the road and of course made another road side stop for some more pics.

There was one stop I made in between here and the Chola Cactus Garden and that was Skull Rock. There were a lot of people here too so it wasn't isolated but still a cool thing to see in person. What I really admired were the boulders behind Skull Rock, they're so round and huge. The boulders also seem to be made to climb, they have a smooth surface but my shoes had a lot of grip so I climbed a few of them.

After some fun little climbing, I headed towards the Chola Cactus Garden. The drive there was awesome, a lot of great views again thanks to the clouds. They were creating some beautiful light rays towards the rocks and mountains in the distance.  After about 15 minutes I made it to the garden.

I don't know why this place fascinated me so much, I think it was the fact that one wrong move and I'm cactus meat. There was a nice little short trail but it offered some awesome views and the sun was hitting the plants just right. I wanted to stay and capture the sunset here but I felt I still had some exploring in me so I decided to head to the stop that would lead me closer to the exit, Barker Dam. I decided to take another dirt road on the way there and that was fun, made me want a Jeep or a big 4x4 truck. I then arrived at the parking lot for the Barker Dam, got out and headed for the trail in hopes of catching a great sunset. This is where I found some cool stuff, like this.

That's right, Petroglyphs! I was about to climb up this rock to take some up close shots but there was like 3 or 4 other people waiting to get some pictures so I had to settle for this shot. 

I kept going on the trail and then I spotted a location where I decided I would capture my sunset shot, I mean the view was amazing and the location was high up on boulders. Here is the view to the left of where I was planning to shoot.

As you can see it's pretty high up and let me tell you the climb wasn't easy. I was sure no one else was going to attempt this shot so I set up the tripod and camera to take my amazing photograph.

I mean, WOW, right? This is the shot I felt was going to be super epic, beyond epic, this shot was going to put me on the photography map! I waited here for about 45 minutes in the wind and cold waiting for the sun to set and for the light to hit just right. My hands started to feel the effects from the morning freeze in Big Bear but I knew I had to wait at this exact spot. You want to know what happened then? The sun set and BLAH! The light that I had seen against the landscape and the mountain completely faded and the sky was super blown out. I did everything I knew how to do to adjust settings, I even took multiple shots at different exposures to try and capture the foreground and the backdrop too. My shot faded and I never got what I was looking for. This was a huge learning lesson for me and at that moment I felt like a complete failure.

Then I started packing away my gear to head back to my car before it got too dark for me to see. Before I had put my camera away I noticed that the rocks to my left were lighting up in a beautiful pinkish color. I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by so I quickly finished packing my stuff and I ran back down the trail to get to my car to see if I could find some last minute shots. Finally I reached my car and raced down the dirt road then I got out on the side of the road and was able to capture this.

I was real proud of this shot because of how quick I adjusted my settings and I took this one handheld with almost no light. There was a little trail to the left and I found a few more cool shots of the trees which I loved.

I decided this would end my day long adventure so I headed down the main road towards the park exit but not before capturing a couple more shots from the side of the road.

Then of course there was the very last shot that I began this blog with. All in all I felt like it was a wonderful day. All though I failed to capture that "One Shot," I still feel like I was able to capture the essence of the park and the essence of the day. I will return to this park and I will get the shot, I will not give up, haha. 

I'd like to just finish by saying thank you for reading through this post, it really means a lot to me for you to take the time to read through this and to look through my photographs. I'd love to hear any of your experiences at the park. Also, if you have any suggestions of where I could visit and photograph, I'd love to hear about those too. Thank you and until next time!