When I plan a scouting trip I have a rough itinerary planned out with a goal of seeing as much as possible to get the lay of the land and plan the best time to return for shots I want, knowing that I probably won't have the light I want most of the time. I try to be at key locations for sunrise/sunset but it doesn't always work out that way.
Based on recommendations from other photographers we entered Joshua Tree from the southeast at the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This area lies within the Colorado Desert, a part of the Sonoran Desert. With elevations below 3,000 feet it is warmer and drier than the Mojave Desert, characterized by Creosote shrubs, Ocotillo and patches of Cholla cactus. Most people won't find this area of the park as visually interesting as they will the northeastern part, which lies in the Mojave Desert. You won't see any Joshua Trees here in the Sonoran Desert. There are some points of interest near Cottonwood but after hearing about the lack of campsites we decided that finding a place to set up base camp needed to be a priority so we started heading out in the direction of White Tank. Once you pass the Cottonwood Visitor Center (where it's worth the $12 to pick up the two-sided waterproof topo map for the park if you plan to do any real exploring) you have the Hexie Mountains on your left and the flat Pinto Basin on your right...and desert scrub for many many miles.
Along the way we noted the trailhead for Black Star Mine and Old Dale Road, saved for another day when we have time to explore this area and preferably some company.
I wanted to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden on the western rim of the Pinto Basin as early as possible since it was along the way, hearing that morning light is the best time to photograph here, but stopping to read the interpretive signs along the way put us a little off schedule. There is a .25 mile self-guided nature walk through the garden with brochures available at the trailhead.
There are several different type of cactus here but the most predominant is Cylindropuntia bigelovii, commonly called Jumping Cholla or Teddy Bear Cholla (pronounced choy-ya). Although it may look soft and fuzzy from a distance, the slightest touch against one of the sharp spines causes the segmented joint to latch on tightly, making it appear as if the cactus 'jumped' onto its victim. Needless to say, one needs to be very careful on this trail.
Then it was the scramble to find an open campsite. White Tank was my first choice but it only has 15 sites and was packed. Jumbo Rock was recommended by a park ranger. With 125 sites it is the largest campground in the park. After several circles around we finally found an available spot, set up camp and had some lunch. Both of these campgrounds are surrounded by fantastic granite rock formations which makes them a good choice for easily accessible sunset/sunrise photography locations and good choices for after dark light painting. Arch Rock Trail is in White Tank and Skull Rock Trail begins in Jumbo Rocks. I couldn't help but think that this formation directly across from our campsite looked like Yogi Bear sleeping on his side with his back turned to us -
Heading back out after some much needed food, the plan was to scope out Geology Tour Road and Barker Dam for the afternoon, then head over to Arch Rock before sunset.
Geology Tour Road is an 18 mile self-guided motor tour on a sandy loop trail through Pleasant Valley. There are brochures available at the trailhead and numbered stops along the trail. Although it's sand it was well graded and though I wouldn't take a low sedan on the road just about anything else should have no problems on this road. 4WD is not needed. Just make sure you look at the trail on a map first and understand that it is a loop. While doing some research I noticed Michael Reichmann's writeup on luminous-landscape.com and I could tell that he mistakenly turned onto Berdoo Canyon Road where it intersects Geology Tour Road, and Berdoo Canyon most definitely is a 4WD only trail, which is why Reichmann had the trouble he did. Berdoo Canyon Road goes out to I-10, Geology Tour Road loops around and returns to where it began. Whenever you head off pavement, especially in the desert, it is very important to either be familiar with the trail or have a good map/trail guide and gps/compass and know how to read it. Or hire me to be your trail guide. :)
Geology Tour Road is a great introduction to the geology of the desert, although it was nothing new for us and my increasingly cynical husband said "If you've seen one bajada, you've seen them all". The high point for me was the panoramic view of Pleasant Valley you see after the intersection with Berdoo Canyon Road. This is Malapai Hill and the Hexie Mountains. The Blue Cut Fault runs underneath this valley.
I had seen many gorgeous sunrise photos taken at Barker Dam with the reflection of the rocks in the lake and I wanted to plan to be there early the following morning, but Barker Dam was a bust on many levels; the nature trail out to the dam felt like an amusement park line there were so many people and there was barely a trickle of water. I'm sure that there's not nearly as many people on the trail before sunset, but without water for reflections there wasn't much else here to make a pre-dawn return trip worth my while. Another disappointment here is that the 'official' petroglyphs with interpretive sign had been traced with paint. I've heard that there are other petroglyphs in this area that are well preserved in their natural state, but you need to do some exploring because people keep the exact locations quiet to prevent additional 'well-intentioned' vandalism.
We had some time to kill before heading over to Arch Rock so we tooled around on the back roads through Queen Valley before stopping to watch the climbers at Intersection Rock. The Pullharder crew was having their annual Halloween BBQ at the top of Intersection Rock and many of the climbers were in full costume.
I did a little climbing when I was (much) younger so I love to wistfully watch and Bill was amazed by one guy in leather pants, bare chest and chains (Rocky Horror?) who could free climb like Spiderman (note to self: really need a longer lens to shoot climbers...or climb up there with them!) so we ended up hanging around longer than we should have. By the time we got to White Tank and made the short hike to Arch Rock the sun was already too low. You need to know that Arch Rock is DOWN and the low late fall sun is blocked early by the ridge above. I remind myself that this is just a scouting trip, that's the whole point of a scouting trip and now I know for next time.
We'd been up since 3:30 and had a very full day, so it was time to head back to camp for some dinner and to lay out the next day's agenda.