Trip Report: Night Skies of Joshua Tree – October 2021

This October, I took my second group through the desert landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park in search of starry skies and Milky Way delight. But this time, it felt different.

For one, much of the crowds that were present back in May were noticeably absent in the fall. For my scouting days, it felt like I had the place to myself for the most part. This trip was also different because the alignment of the Milky Way in October is very different than it is in spring. This made it a necessity for me to do some serious scouting in the days leading up to the trip, to map out new locations to make the best use of the narrow window we would have when the Milky Way core would be visible. Back in May, the alignment of the Milky Way has it stretching across the night sky horizontally. But by October, when the core becomes visible, the Milky Way is aligned vertically, making compositional decisions far different. But, in searching out the best locations to make use of this vertically aligned Milky Way, I would stumble across a true gem in the remote reaches of the Mojave desert.

During my scouting days back in May of this year, I’d heard photographers whisper of a “secret arch.” It was while I was sitting in front of Joshua Tree’s famous Rock Arch formation, waiting for the Milky Way to reveal itself. that I heard these words. Joshua Tree’s Rock Arch attracts multitudes of photographers in spring. At this arch, during the spring and early summer months, the Milky Way appears around 1:30 AM every night, stretching across the night sky just above the famous arch, making for a beautiful and obvious composition. But, during the nights of October, the Milky Way is directly at your back when looking at the arch. This pretty much ruled it out as a destination for our BCJ group this fall.

While scouting and confirming that the Rock Arch was not going to work for our group, the memory of those whispered words “secret arch” popped into my head. An initial google search did not yield anything, so I put our resident BCJ photo destination sleuth on the case. I texted Matt Meisenheimer asking him to see what he could dig up. Fast forward ten minutes, he texted back saying, “search for Scorpius Arch.” That was it. The secret arch was named Scorpius!

During my initial Google search using the words “Scorpius Arch Joshua Tree,” I found only a handful of photos of the arch, and even less information on how to get there. There was a point on google maps labeled “Scorpius Arch Trailhead.” And there was a blog by a photographer describing how he was the first person to discover the arch. In hindsight, I can see that this photographer was quite the dramatist. His blog described a desert trek into the unknown, utilizing topographical maps and GPS to locate this mysterious Scorpius Arch. He described the perils of desert trekking, his fear of being lost forever out there amongst the cacti and dry rocks. He made it sound like quite an imposing ordeal. But, I had to see for myself.

I loaded my bag down with 2.5 liters of water, food, warm clothes, my first aid kit, satellite phone, and camera gear. I downloaded all the maps I could find. I even found someone’s logged hike to the arch on AllTrails, a hiking app that allows you to log your hikes’ paths and durations. The path that this hiker had logged was a meandering one. It had them doubling back and around, crossing over their own path multiple times. I imagined brutal switchbacks along desert cliffs, a labyrinthine maze of sharp rocks and desolation. The hiker’s logged path had taken them several miles and almost four hours to find the arch. Was I wasting my time? Surely this wouldn’t work for a group of paying clients wanting to be taken to the best spots without killing themselves?! Perhaps not. But, I wanted to get my clients the arch of their dreams, crowned by the glowing Magellanic clouds of the Milky Way. I would find the arch, and then I’d know for sure.

The drive to the trailhead took me over 30 miles outside the park’s limits, deep into a Mojave wasteland with a scattered scrub brush and parched mountains in the distance. I found what was marked as the “trailhead” on GoogleMaps, but there was no trail, no sign, just big desert bottoms, flat as a frying pan with no discernible landmarks. But, in the distance, I could see rock formations. That must be where the arch is. I loaded the hike that the AllTrails hiker had saved and I began following their path, burdened down with all that water and safety gear. I began crossing the sandy wash, using my cell phone to carefully stay aligned with the logged path. After ten minutes, I looked up and could see that I was nearing the rock formations.

Piles of broken granite dozens of feet high imitated the shapes of animal skulls with empty staring eye sockets. I thought to myself, I can see how an arch must be in there; there were dozens of “almost arches,” gaps in the rock not quite eroded down to the point of becoming an arch, but close. I scanned across the rocks, trying to memorize their morbid forms. An elk skull here, a human skull there, a pile of bones over there. Then my eyes fell upon something familiar. Was that an arch? Why yes, there is an arch right there! Wait… I pulled up the saved picture of Scorpius Arch on my phone, held it up to the arch that sat in front of me. That is THE arch. That is Scorpius arch right there!

I looked over my shoulder and I could see the BCJ van parked back behind me on the side of the highway. The arch wasn’t more than 3/4 a mile off the road, and there was nothing but the flat ground between the two. That dang blogger had gotten me good. Perhaps he was trying to discourage others from photographing the arch that he had “discovered.” Or perhaps he was just trying to write a compelling piece of prose. But, either way, he had grossly exaggerated the difficulty of finding this arch. Had he also created the AllTrails logged hike? I looked back at the map, realizing that the hiker had meandered through all of the rock formations in front of me, logging every step they’d taken. I threw up my hands and said, “Oh well!” I’d found the arch, and I had enough gear to survive out here for a least a few days, even if it was just a fifteen-minute walk over flat ground that got me here. This would be a perfect spot for our BCJ crew!

Now, fast forward a few days, and our trip was off and running. We spent the evenings chasing sunsets and the nights shooting Joshua trees and strange rock formations under the Milky Way. We recorded star trail sequences and marveled at the nocturnal appearances of coyotes and owls. But, it wasn’t all daisies and champagne. In the days leading up to the trip start, while I was out scouting, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. But, as our group arrived, so did the clouds. We had two totally clear nights to photograph the Milky Way, but on the other nights, there were clouds obscuring the sky. But, the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park is that one can point their camera in almost any direction to find crazy compositions.

Whether you’re after the otherworldly forms of Joshua trees and cholla cactus or looking to find bizarrely formed rock formations, Joshua Tree National Park is covered in all of it. So, on nights when clouds obscured our view of the Milky Way, we found a bounty of other opportunities. We framed Joshua Trees against the glowing sky as the clouds reflected the lights from distant towns allowing faint stars to twinkle through. We played with light painting, utilizing our head torches and a battery-powered LED light I had brought along. We found beautiful forms all around us.

And, for enduring those night clouds and obscured stars, there would be a consolation prize. Because, as much as the clouds may have obscured the night sky, they also reflected the light of the rising and setting sun, making for some of the most colorful sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen.

The sunrise on our last morning was especially remarkable. The previous night, I had taken the group out to Scorpius Arch. And I’d been talking a big game about it, laughing at how much gear and preparation had gone into my finding a rock formation that you could literally see from the road. But, as we arrived at the arch that last night, it became clear that the Milky Way was going to be battling clouds all night.

We gave it a solid try, spending several hours there watching the conditions evolve, photographing each change we saw. We came away with some really nice shots of the arch, the colorful clouds, and even some Milky Way peeking out from time to time. But, it was perhaps not what we had in mind when we imagined our Milky Way arch shot in Joshua Tree. One of my favorite lines when teaching photography is that you have to throw the shot that is in your head away and replace it with the one that’s in front of you. I don’t think I thought of that line, but who knows.

Either way though, that final morning as we sat atop Keys View looking out over the Salton Sea and Palm Springs beyond, Mother Nature sent us our consolation prize. She unloaded with a sunrise for the memory banks. The same clouds that had frustrated us the night before lit up with a dazzling display of reds, oranges, and pinks. It was one of the most spectacular sunrises I’d ever seen. It was a shot I hadn’t planned on getting when preparing for this trip, but it’s one I’ll keep forever.

In wrapping up, big thanks to an awesome group of BCJ clients and photographers. It was a real joy running this trip with you guys, and I can’t wait to take you all somewhere new. Until then, just keep on clicking!

Ben Blankenship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 a 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 the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com

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