If a photo is worth 1000 words, consider this an instructional novel for capturing the best Joshua Tree pictures possible during a visit to Southern California’s favorite national park!
In this guide, I have attempted to explain what a professional landscape photographer looks for in a frame, as well as the best locations to photograph sunrise, sunset, and night skies in Joshua Tree. In addition, you will find a collection of images to help demonstrate and inspire.
Grab your camera and tripod and let’s get lost in a desert of otherworldly rocks and Joshua trees!
If you would like to browse prints, you can find our favorites in the We Dream of Travel Joshua Tree photography gallery.
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Joshua Tree Photography General Principles
The goal of landscape photography comes down to capturing the essence of your location and the magic of a moment there. If you have never visited Joshua Tree National Park, you may be wondering what there is to see.
What makes the park so special is certainly the unusual trees first and foremost. This is followed closely by the bizarre rock formations you’ll find. Accordingly, most of the best pictures of Joshua Tree use compositions that feature these two elements.
The other reason Joshua Tree has become so popular is that it is one of the few places to go stargazing in Southern California without light pollution. If possible, make sure you plan your photography trip to include a night under the stars.
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Joshua Tree Sunrise Pictures
Most photographers would agree that sunset tends to be a bit more dramatic than sunrise in Joshua Tree NP. However, both can be spectacular.
While getting up and leaving your Joshua Tree vacation rental early might not be for everyone, there are some major bonuses to waking up to photograph sunrise beyond the magical light. First, you are far more likely to have the park to yourself. That said, there is plenty of room for everyone, even during peak season. Beyond the quiet and solitude, the desert climate is more tolerable in the morning hours as well.
If you are going to go through the effort of setting such a brutally early alarm, it better be worth it! Below are my favorite locations to snap some pictures of sunrise in Joshua Tree to justify the lost sleep.
In my opinion, the absolute best place to photograph sunrise in Joshua Tree is at Arch Rock! The morning sun will rise directly into the natural frame formed by the rock formation, creating an emotive scene.
The hike to Arch Rock is only about half a mile and is well signed. If you are a landscape photographer, it is worth noting that you may need to request some cooperation from the LA Instagrammers who favorite this spot. If you are one of those Instagrammers, bring a tripod or a friend so you can include the human element in your frame.
For the planners and the curious, I took the picture above in early June about 30 minutes after sunrise. I used an aperture of F20 to get that nice sun star.
White Tank Campground
Near Arch Rock is a small, idyllic campground called White Tank. The Joshua Trees are not as plentiful here as in the Hidden Valley region. However, there is plenty of open space to allow you to focus on specific trees and rock formations.
The main reason I recommend photographing sunrise at White Tank is that it allows you to capture the early morning colors and sky interest in open space while waiting for the sun to clear the eastern mountains. By the time peak color is over, the sun will just be getting high enough to shoot at nearby Arch Rock.
It is worth mentioning that because the sun itself is not visible for at least 30 minutes or more after it has crossed the horizon, your goal in shooting the morning magic hour will be to capture the gnarled beauty of the Joshua Trees standing stoically against a colorful dawn.
When you look at the map of Joshua Tree National Park, you will find Hidden Valley Campground, Hidden Valley Nature Trail, and Hidden Valley Picnic Area. To be honest, it doesn’t matter which you choose to park at as the entire region is considered the most scenic part of the entire park.
What sets Hidden Valley apart from everywhere else is the density of the trees combined with the geometrically curious rock piles and formations. Accordingly, this is a fun area to grab a camera and get some creative sunrise compositions.
Much like the rest of the park, be warned that you will not be able to feature the sun itself until about 20-30 minutes after it has risen and cleared the eastern mountains.
Joshua Tree Sunset Spots
There is no better time to be wandering with a camera in hand than during the evening magic hour. It is very likely that the Joshua Tree sunset pictures you take home will be the favorites in your proverbial camera roll.
California is known for having spectacular sunsets in general, and providing the unmistakable shape and visual interest of a silhouetted Joshua Tree to the foreground makes for an exciting frame.
If you are not using advanced post-processing techniques, you will likely want to shoot with silhouettes in mind. The bright sun and fiery sunset colors will be difficult to capture with foreground detail as well.
However, most phones and cameras have an HDR function you can consider using to combat this. HDR works by rapidly taking three photos at different exposures and blending them together for one image. The result is a larger file size but more detail in your foreground and sky.
The other option is to turn around and focus on the light and shadow play that the angular light from the setting sun creates, as seen in the picture above. This is the easiest way to photograph sunset for those with limited experience and/or equipment.
Below are my favorite photography locations for capturing Joshua Tree sunset pictures.
The best time to take pictures in Joshua Tree is sunset, and the best place for sunset is Hidden Valley.
This region has the densest population of the iconic trees and some of the craziest rock formations you’ll find. As the sun sinks lower toward the horizon, you’ll watch the valley transform as it absorbs and reflects the golden tones.
If you’re looking for one specific scene or overlook, you’re out of luck! The fun of shooting at Hidden Valley is that there is no single composition. Rather, it is up to the photographer to get creative and discover compositions that capture the essence of this special place.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The cholla is one of the rarest and most photogenic species of cactus you will come across, and nowhere will you find a more spectacular display of them than at the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park.
This is one of those can’t-miss destinations for pictures any time of day, but is extra magical in the angular light of sunset. The blonde spikes of the cholla cactus capture the golden hues brilliantly.
As there is no hike to the Cholla Cactus Garden required and as it is a popular sunset destination in Joshua Tree, expect to share the scene with plenty of other photographers.
Joshua Tree Night Pictures
There is nowhere else in Southern California that can offer better opportunities for stargazing and night photography than Joshua Tree National Park. I’d recommend either camping in the park or booking accommodation nearby to make the most of the night skies here.
Whether your goal is to capture the stars, the moonlight, or the Milky Way, your favorite pictures from Joshua Tree will inevitably come after dark.
All of the locations I shot the night skies were the same locations I shot sunrise, as the Milky Way core rises in nearly the exact same direction as the sun. Rather than listing the various locations, this section will simply showcase my favorite night pictures from Joshua Tree for inspirational and educational purposes.
Those of you interested in learning more about my technique can do so by exploring my free night photography tutorials.
Joshua Tree Milky Way Picture 1 – White Tank
This photo shows an isolated Joshua Tree with the Milky Way cascading beside it. You may be able to tell that there is some lunar light still tinting the foreground and distant light pollution where the core meets the horizon. While light pollution is usually seen as a bad thing, that bright pop of warm color can be visually pleasing as long as it is not overpowering.
Joshua Tree Milky Way Picture 2 – Arch Rock
It may be clear that I spent a lot of time shooting at Arch Rock, but hopefully it is also clear why! With its perfect alignment to feature the rock, arch, and Milky Way, this location was my favorite place for night photography in Joshua Tree.
For this shot, I removed the human element to focus on the wild rock formations, taking advantage of the light and shadow play caused by moonlight.
Joshua Tree Night Picture – Light Painting
Prior to the Milky Way rising at, I took some time to play around with light painting the scene and including a sky that featured only stars.
While I generally prefer the added interest the Milky Way provides, there is a calmness and serenity to a simple sky as well. As a night photographer, the best thing you can do is try lots of different ideas and hope to get creative, rather than simply trying to replicate a shot you have already seen!
Best Joshua Tree Photography Locations
Below is a list of the most popular locations for landscape photographers and Instagrammers looking to take home some of the more iconic Joshua Tree pictures available.
1. Arch Rock
As should be clear by now, Arch Rock is the place I spent the most time photographing during my visit to Joshua Tree. The morning light is unbeatable, and the arch itself frames the shot beautifully.
Pro Tip: For the best Arch Rock photos, come at night and stay through sunrise!
2. Hidden Valley
One more shot of sunset at Hidden Valley for the road! This location has been described already in multiple sections above as being the most popular destination for landscape photographers and Instagrammers in Joshua Tree NP. Hidden’s Valley reputation is well deserved!
3. Cholla Cactus Farm
As discussed in the sunset section, Cholla Cactus Garden is a must-see! These teddy bear-like cacti grouped so densely together make for an incredible scene. If possible, time your visit to walk the gardens during the evening golden hour to watch these blonde beauties really light up!
4. Skull Rock
Can you see why this formation is named Skull Rock? It is amongst the most popular bucket-list items for Joshua Tree pictures, though I personally think it’s a bit overrated. Sure, it looks like a skull, but you will find plenty of fascinating shapes, textures, and features in this rock jungle!
5. Keys View
If you want a panoramic view of the region, Keys View is accessible by car and is the highest point in the park. This viewpoint offers an unbeatable overview of Joshua Tree NP and would rank higher as a sunset destination for photography were there some of the iconic trees or rocks to feature!
6. Cap Rock
See that one balanced rock at the top of the pile? That is Cap Rock, and despite the entire park being full of haphazardly stacked rocks, this one has become a tourist favorite.
While I personally don’t find that one rock of particular interest, I do think the scenery around the picnic area is worth spending some time at!
7. Jumbo Rocks
Jumbo Rocks is the most popular campground in the park, but it is also a popular place for photographers. As you can see, the rocks are aptly named, particularly compared to the piles of boulders you will discover in most of the park.
This is the place to stay if you can snag a site, but even if you can’t, don’t forget to stop by for some photos.
8. Hall of Horrors
Another one of many short hikes and destinations that feature unusual rock formations and a densely packed population of the Joshua Trees. To be honest, my favorite photo op was right at the start of the trail!
9. White Tank Campground
As mentioned above, the White Tank Campground is a great place to photograph sunrise and sunset to feature isolated Joshua Trees rather than the fields you will find throughout most of the park.
10. Lost Palms Oasis Trail
The Lost Palms Oasis Trail is located on the southern side of Joshua Tree National Park. It requires a difficult 7-mile hike through the Mojave Desert, but the reward is an elevated vista of the densest concentration of fan palms.
Camera Gear for the Best Photos of Joshua Tree
While it is possible to capture some great photos nowadays with smartphones, for the best possible photos you may want to consider a few key pieces of photography gear:
- Camera: I use the Sony a7riii and highly recommend it. However, beginners should consider an entry level DSLR to begin with. This will allow you to learn manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
- Lens: The Sony lens I use most frequently is the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS as the zoom lens allows for the most diversity. We also often use the Laowa 15mm F2 for shots that require a wider angle. You can see all my favorite Sony travel lenses here.
- Tripod: A tripod is essential if you are shooting in low light, at night or for any other long exposure photography. When traveling, I use the Manfrotto Be Free as it’s lightweight and easy to carry on longer hikes. For times when we require something more stable, we use the Artcise Carbon Fiber Tripod.
- Filters: A Circular Polarizing (CPL) filter or Neutral Density (ND) filter are very useful for allowing slower shutter speeds and for cutting glare on reflective surfaces, helping to bring out the colors. The best CPL and ND filters I have found are the quartz line from Polar Pro.
Packing List for Joshua Tree National Park
In addition to your camera gear, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to Joshua Tree.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites! Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
Much of the national park is exposed and can be very hot in the summer so ensure you have good protection from the sun. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as a minimum. We use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen as it’s eco-friendly and most of their bottles are made from sugarcane resin rather than plastic.
While many of the best photography spots in Joshua Tree require only a short walk, the desert environment can be unforgiving. You’ll therefore want to ensure you pack some comfortable shoes. Closed-toe, sturdy hiking shoes are better than hiking sandals. This will help to reduce risk of injury to your feet in the desert.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Remaining hydrated is even more important in the desert. Bring your own bottle to prevent wasting single-use plastic bottles! Be sure to bring plenty of water with you as potable water is available at only a few locations near the edges of the park.
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. We use the GoGroove camera backpack or Lowepro Fastpack as they also provide easy side access to our cameras while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy, particularly in a desert environment.
Joshua Tree Photography FAQs
Below are answers to the most commonly asked questions from photographers visiting Joshua Tree National Park.
What are the best places to photograph in Joshua Tree NP?
- Arch Rock
- Hidden Valley
- Cholla Cactus Farm
- Skull Rock
- Keys View
- Cap Rock
- Jumbo Rocks
- Hall of Horrors
- White Tank
- Lost Palms Oasis
What are the best places for sunset in Joshua Tree NP?
The Hidden Valley region is the best place for sunset in Joshua Tree. This region provides clear westerly views of the setting sun in addition to an expansive foreground of the joshua trees and otherworldly rock formations for which the park is known.
Cholla Cactus garden is also a very popular and beautiful place for sunset in Joshua Tree.
When is the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park?
The best time to visit Joshua Tree NP is from March-May. Wildflowers will begin to blossom and temperatures remain comfortable during the early spring.
Can you take pictures at Joshua Tree? Do I need a permit?
You can absolutely take pictures in Joshua Tree! Permits are only required for commercial photoshoots.
The NPS requirements for when a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) is needed only when…
“You provide any goods, activities, services, agreements, or other function for park visitors that:
- Your photoshoot takes place at least in part on lands managed by the NPS,
- Use park resources, and
- Result in compensation, monetary gain, benefit, or profit to you.“
Why is Joshua Tree so special?
There are many factors that contribute to the magic of Joshua Tree National Park. For starters, the otherworldly Mojave desert landscape is a treat for nature lovers. The strange presence of the massive rock formations and grotesque beauty of the Joshua Trees is one of a kind.
What’s more, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the few natural places that Southern Californians can find wide open spaces within a short drive.
Other California & Nearby Park Guides
Below you will find more regional, national park, and photography guides that you might find useful:
- The Ultimate Los Angeles Bucket List
- Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park
- Yosemite National Park Photography Guide
- Grand Canyon Photography Guide
- Grand Canyon One Day Itinerary
- Saguaro National Park Guide
For those interested in photography, you may find our Learning Photography guides helpful too. We cover lots of different topics, from basics to advanced.
Finally, feel free to browse our Joshua Tree photography gallery for prints and inspiration!
Joshua Tree Photography Final Thoughts
Whether you are a professional photographer, casual Instagrammer, or anything in between, I can guarantee that you will return with a memory card full of pictures from Joshua Tree National Park.
There is a unusual beauty here unlike any you will discover, literally, anywhere else in the world.
If you have found this photography guide helpful and are visiting Joshua Tree as part of a larger road trip, you may be interested in some of our other guides to nearby parks and regions.
Have a browse and, as always, please leave us a comment if you have any feedback that could help us improve our guide.