Joshua Tree National Park is famous not only for its eponymous yucca trees and climbing opportunities but also for having some of the darkest skies in Southern California. Just two hours’ drive from the sprawl of Los Angeles, this has made the park a popular getaway for amateur stargazers and astrophotographers as well as those simply looking to spend a night camping under the stars.
With my sunroof down and an oh-so-appropriate classic rock soundtrack of Hotel California and The Joshua Tree blasting on the stereo, I drove out to Joshua Tree after work on a recent clear night to try my hand at some night sky photography.
One of the things that makes Joshua Tree so unique is that it is located at the intersection of two deserts: the higher, cooler Mojave Desert in the western half of the park, and the lower, hotter Colorado Desert (part of the Sonora) in the eastern half. The Colorado Desert is the darker of the two, while the Mojave Desert arguably has the more interesting landscapes—most significantly, it’s the Mojave that’s home to the park’s namesake Joshua trees.
Even though I come out here fairly often, when I pull off the 10 onto Cottonwood Springs Road, I’m still immediately shocked by just how dark the skies are and how alone I feel. Pull off the road, turn off the headlights and engine, and on a moonless night, you’ll be unable to see anything but the stars or hear anything but the otherworldly howls and groans of the desert wind. Initially, it’s always a bit disconcerting, even scary, but after a few minutes, the darkness of the desert becomes indescribably beautiful and peaceful.
For pure stargazing, one of the best easily accessible locations is the Cottonwood Spring Campground, near Joshua Tree’s southern entrance. On a clear night, you’ll be able to easily see and photograph the Milky Way from the comfort of your campsite.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to capture some of the park’s extraordinary landscapes, the western Mojave Desert half of the park is likely to be a better bet. Joshua trees are always strangely photogenic specimens, but look even more alien in the glow of starlight. The Mojave is also home to many of Joshua Tree’s more interesting rock formations.
If you need a way to light the foreground of your photos, try employing your car’s headlights: they’re surprisingly effective, and you won’t need to carry around so much cumbersome lighting gear.