A Perfect November Day in Joshua Tree National Park
Just returned from a trip to Palm Springs and of course, we had to visit Joshua Tree National Park again. Our first trip we ended up in the backcountry on accident, this trip went much better.
Tip: Be sure to enter an actual entrance station in your GPS or else you’ll end up in the backcountry. On our first visit, we just entered “Joshua Tree National Park” and ended up in Covington Flat backcountry area. Your phone map won’t be reliable once in the park, bring a paper map just to be safe. You should be able to pick up a basic map at the ranger station. If you plan on hiking be sure to come prepared with a more detailed map and supplies.
Tip: Don’t forget to take a picture of or with the National Park sign! It’s right before you enter the entrance station. We forgot and thought we could just get a photo of the sign when we left. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and there was little to no lighting so our picture didn’t come out well.
Quail Springs Picnic Area
Once we got to the park we had almost four hours of daylight before sunset. We made our first real stop about 20 minutes in at a place called Quail Springs Picnic Area. There’s a trail at the back of the picnic area but stayed around the rocks next to the parking lot.
When taking pictures, try looking up, looking down, and getting unique perspectives of these enormous and strange rock piles. This is a good time to play with your phones panoramic settings as it’s such a unique landscape.
Tip: When walking around the rocks use caution and pay attention. Snakes and other critters may be between the cracks. Rattlesnakes are in the park and while I’m no expert on them it’s always best to be safe. We did come across a small snake between some rocks on this stop.
Tip: If you’re looking for parking, keep driving into the lot. There’s more parking in the back of the large rocks that I don’t think was very obvious to many.
These rocks are a great first stop giving you a glimpse of views to come. You can get a great view of the expanding landscape, have a bite to eat if you packed, and just walk around and admire the area.
Try to include people in your shots for perspective and to help show how large the rock formations really are.
Hidden Valley & Intersection Rock
Less than 10 minutes away is our next stop, Hidden Valley. This popular location was beautiful but we did more of a drive-by on our way to our next stop. Intersection Rock is in the parking lot and you’re able to drive around it which is cool. We had limited time due to our late start so we were prioritizing the stops we got out of the car for.
Sometimes you need to shoot from your car, it’s ok! Just push your lens or phone up to the window to prevent glass glare from showing up or have the window rolled down.
Barker Dam Nature Trail & Petroglyphs
A short drive from Intersection Rock is the trail to Barker Dam. This trail is a loop, however, part of it was closed and we were hesitant to hike the trail at first till a returning hiker told us how great it was so we decided to give it a go. Turns out it was one of the most beautiful hikes of the day. It starts off as a pathed off-trail where you eventually have to start climbing rocks and are surrounded by giant rock structures. This is a moderate trail, no major rock climbing but there are some steps you’ll have to take.
You’ll notice a lot of rocks have holes or curved areas that can frame the landscape behind it beautifully and make for more interesting photographs.
Soon you are in the open desert. We noticed some arrows pointing a direction the other hikers seemed to ignore. Since we’re always curious we took that path and we were rewarded with some incredible petroglyphs! I’ve never seen any so close before outside of being in a museum. They were incredible.
Note: If you do visit the petroglyphs and climb the rock to see them closer please climb with caution so you do not damage the petroglyphs so future visitors can enjoy them for years to come. The color on the petroglyphs is from vandalism which prevents visitors from experiencing the petroglyphs in their original form. Leave it better than you found it.
If you come across water it’s always fun to get reflective photographs to give a scene more depth and visual interest.
We headed back to the part of the trail we turned off of and continued our hike through some open desert with a beautiful landscape. There were several stands with information describing the plant life you were seeing, I always take photos of these to remember them later. Soon we arrived at some taller rocks and we could tell we were getting close. A small climb up the rocks led us to the dam which was surprisingly filled with water! Remember, this is November and we were expecting it to be dried out. The water makes such a beautiful and unexpected shot of this desert scene. Once done enjoying the view we made our way back the same part of the trail we came in on as half of the loop was closed.
Tip: If you are in the park during the Fall and Winter seasons keep in mind the sun will set earlier than usual which can limit your trip. Consider arriving earlier or being OK with a quick trip through the park.
I find I’m rarely in photographs of our trips because I’m always the one taking them. I like to play with fun ideas to incorporate my presence into the photographs. This is also a great way for people who really don’t like to be photographed to be included. I loved how intense the sun was giving us these strong shadows of us together.
As we got to our car we realized how little time was left. We still wanted to visit the Cholla Cactus gardens and had a bit of a drive left to get there. There were also some rock structures we were hoping to see along the way. That’s the downside of travel in the fall and winter, the sun sets pretty early.
The drive to the Cholla Cactus garden was full of ooh’s and ahhs. On our way there we saw Skull Rock, a popular rock formation that looks a little bit like a skull. Personally, I think the view from the right gives it the most skull-like looks. This rock formation was pretty close to the street which had some areas to pull over and park. If you have limited time to break, this is definitely one of the cooler rock formations to stop and see. There’s parking on the street right near the rock formation and a trail.
Cholla Cactus Garden
After checking out Skull Rock we got in the car and started the drive to the Cholla Cactus Garden. The Cholla (pronounced choy-yah) Cactus Garden is located at the merger of the upper Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert, two completely different types of deserts, and there’s a quarter-mile loop trail giving you access to some strange and alien-looking cacti.
To get those great close up shots on cactus try using a zoom lens or the zoom feature on your phone as opposed to getting up really close to avoid possible injury or getting needles stuck in your skin or clothing.
When you get there, you’ll have ample parking close to the entrance of the garden. It’s a very alien-looking landscape and quite beautiful as the setting sunlight hits the cacti and the mountains in the distance.
Warning: DO NOT get near the cacti. They may look tempting to get close to but they are known to “jump” off and onto nearby threats which would be you standing too close to get a selfie or trying to get that cool, macro looking photo. The prickers on the cacti have tiny barbs on them that make them hard to pull out of your skin. While my picture may look like I was close, I was nowhere near it
We enjoyed the garden for a while before heading back north toward our original entrance. We thought we may be able to beat the sunset and make it back to the Hidden Valley area.
The benefit of a late start in the park means you’ll definitely get to see a Joshua Tree sunset. Just about everywhere in the park offers some kind of spectacular looking views. Drive careful and enjoy the views!
Silhouette photographs are a fun way to make your sunset and sunrise photographs stand out.
Some people try to find a specific stopping point to wait for the sun to set, however, we were still trying to beat the sun and get near the Hidden Valley which we weren’t successful at. We still got amazing views where we pulled over to stop and enjoy a couple of times.
All in all, November felt like a perfect time to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The heat was a bearable 75-80 degrees. The evening wasn’t too cold, and the views were still out of this world. We were surprised to see the Barker Dam filled as I’ve read reviews of others visiting around this time seeing an empty dam, however, we suspect it was the major rainstorm the park experienced a couple of weeks earlier that may have helped. As with any trip to a national park make sure you do your research and come prepared. We had plenty of water and a game plan for what we planned to visit the park. Remember your phone map will more than likely not work. Get your photos but also take a few moments to soak it all up and experience it all.
What to know before you go:
There’s an entrance fee to access the park depending on the method of transportation you choose. Be sure to look up your visit as there are some free entry days that may allow a discounted entrance.
Entrance Fee for 7 days at the time of this post- passenger vehicle $30.00, motorcycle $25, individual on foot or bike $15
Bring plenty of water. We bought giant bottles of smart water and Gatorade to keep in the car. While we weren’t doing any far out there hikes, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
Watch where you walk. This park has rattlesnakes, and other critters you should be on the lookout.
photo tips in this post are more idea and less how to. I plan on writing some posts on photography using cameras and phones from ideas to techniques in the future as well as writing more detailed posts on some of our favorite Joshua Tree attractions.
If you’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park I’d love to hear about your favorite parts of your trip, tell me below in the comments!