Joshua Tree is a spiritual place. Here, ancient granite boulders, forged by volcanic heat and smoothed by millennia of erosion, protrude into the desert sky. Otherworldly forms of cholla cacti and Joshua Trees accent a landscape that is both foreboding and inviting all at once. Here, one can walk almost anywhere, as long as you avoid the clinging spines of the cholla, for nothing stands between one point on the map and another but an expanse of parched ground and rocks. But, it is also a place of severe adaptations, an ecosystem where life comes in armor, armed with barbaric weapons to survive the desert’s unforgiving conditions. Joshua Tree is a place of unique beauty, a place where one feels deeply connected to nature and our planet.
This departure into the desert night would be Backcountry Journey’s inaugural Joshua Tree Night Skies trip, and a rare opportunity for myself and six amazing clients to photograph this unique and alien landscape by starlight.
We had two primary objectives for this trip, Milky Way photos and star trails. Joshua Tree is an oﬃcial dark skies national park, and few places are better suited for astro photography than California’s high deserts. Each night, we would head out just before sunset, and we would remain in the park throughout the middle of the night, capturing rare and interesting landscapes featuring the strange forms of Joshua Trees, rock arches, and balanced boulders of granite.
Our trip began in Palm Springs, CA. Sitting in a valley well below the altitude of the park, Palm Springs is a perfect location to meet and set out from due to its close proximity to the park.
After orientation and dinner, we headed out for our first shoot of the trip to capture star trails near the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and campground. We arrived around 10:00PM, well into the true darkness of the night. Here, I instructed the group in camera settings for capturing a series of around 160 images that would later be combined in our post production workshop to create a single image illuminating the path of the stars. We let our cameras and intervalometers run for 90 minutes, the amount of time I’ve discovered to be the minimum for creating long enough star trails to fill the sky in the resulting image. Once we had captured our 90 minutes worth of star frames, we packed it in and returned to our hotel in Pal Springs for a nice snooze.
The following morning, we met late to allow everyone to catch up on lost sleep. Then, we packed up and moved our base of operations to the town of 29 Palms at the northeast entrance of the park. Our lodge for the next three nights would be the historic and lovely 29 Palms Inn, one of my favorite lodges we use at BCJ.
That night we headed back into the park for a sunset session at the Hall of Horrors trailhead (I have no idea whats so horrible about this place; it is quite beautiful). Once the sun had dipped below the horizon, everyone picked out a vantage point for star trails. Our technique here would be to capture an image of our foreground at blue hour, then record star trails from the same position. The resulting images would be layered to create a single composition featuring a clear, sharp foreground set against a backdrop of star trails.
Next it was oﬀ to Skull Rock, a unique rock formation that looks eerily like a human skull, to photograph the Milky Way. I had mapped out the alignment so that we arrived just before the Milky Way was in prime position. Here, we would be capturing images of the foreground utilizing long exposures (5 minutes), and then layering that against our shots of the Milky Way, which were about 25 second exposures. By the time we had wrapped, it was about 2:30 in the morning, and we happily packed it in and slept deep into the following morning.
The following day, it was the same schedule, as we headed out to capture sunset images in the Cholla Cactus Garden. Once the sun was set we headed over to the most famous rock formation in Joshua Tree, the Rock Arch. We arrived just as the last light of the day was visible and picked out positions to shoot for the next few hours. First, we captured star trails while we waited for the Milky Way to get into position. By 1:30 AM, the Milky Way was in the perfect spot in the sky as it arced over the arch, creating a mirror like form against the rock formation. After we felt confident we’d captured the scene, we packed it in, returning to the hotel by around 3AM. Again, we slept in, and it was oh so sweet.
For the final day in the park, we spent the afternoon in an intensive post production workshop, as I taught the techniques for editing and stacking star trails and color correcting Milky Way shots. Post production is such a huge part of astro photography, this workshop is a great way for everyone to dive into these photo editing techniques.
The final night would be a later start. We would forego sunset and instead climb into bed early only to rise and head back into the park at 3AM. I had one final vantage point in my bag of tricks, an unnamed rock formation I took to calling Pechuga Rock. The rock is framed perfectly by two Joshua Trees, and by 3:30AM, the Milky Way would be extending vertically just above it. It proved to be a beautiful and unique vantage point for everyone, and was a trip favorite for many of the clients. We spent the sunrise photographing rock formations at Ryan Ranch and Keys View before heading into town for a big breakfast. From there we headed to the hotel to pack, take a short nap, and then head back into Palm Springs to conclude an absotuluely epic trip into Joshua Tree National Park at night.
Every time I think of Joshua Tree, I think of the singer Gram Parsons, who had a deep spiritual connection to this place. It was his desire to be cremated inside of the park after his death.
After Parsons died of an overdose in 1973, his manager Phil Kaufman stole Parsons’ body and successfully evaded authorities to get Parsons to the park and almost successfully cremated his remains. Joshua Tree is a place that can instill such deep connections as Parsons’ with those who venture here. And, it has done so with me as well. After several days scouting and a week long photo workshop here, I do feel a deep spiritual connection to this place, and I cannot wait to return.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com