Dispatches: Meet the desert’s ‘ugly duckling’ at Joshua Tree National Park

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travel week4As the legend goes, Mormon pioneers gave the Joshua tree its name because it reminded them of the Old Testament prophet with his arms outstretched to the heavens. Those Mormons were most likely suffering from heat-induced delusions.

In nature’s beauty pageant, the homely Joshua tree walks away with Miss Congeniality. They’re in a word, ugly — resembling the unfortunate offspring of a cactus and a palm tree, without the stateliness of a palm or the intimidating presence of a cactus.

Yet, as unattractive as they might be, no plant in the 800,000 acre Joshua Tree National Park is as important to the fragile desert ecosystem. The Joshua trees play a critical role in the survival of many species of birds, insects and mammals.

And rest assured, if you visit the park, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the beauty of the Joshua tree.

Joshua Tree National Park is less than an hour away from Palm Springs, California and only about three and half hours away from both Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The park marks the merging of two distinct ecosystems — the higher altitude Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert. For the most part, the Joshua trees are found in the higher altitudes where there is more moisture. However, prolonged drought and hotter temperatures are endangering the future of the Joshua trees.

Park officials have reported that older trees are dying and fewer seedlings are replacing them due to the impacts of global warming. In a worst-case scenario, we could see the Joshua trees virtually disappear from the park within two generations.

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With gangly limbs that go in all directions, no two Joshua Trees are alike.
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Skull Rock light painted.

Photography checklist: Five things to keep in mind

  • Bring lots of water and layers. It’s the desert, after all. The temperature can vary greatly from day to night and between the elevation changes of 3,000 to over 5,000 feet.
  • While a heavy, sturdy tripod isn’t ideal for hiking, it will hold up better to the strong winds that can be present in the park, especially on the peaks.
  • The park is an excellent place for astrophotography. But if you’re looking for one of those shots with the Milky Way in it, you’ll want to plan your trip sometime between mid-March and mid-October.
  • If you visit in the spring, consider packing a macro lens as this is prime wildflower season. The National Park Service offers reports on what’s blooming.
  • If you’re a rock and roll fan, be sure to check out Cap Rock, where country rock pioneer Gram Parsons’ ashes were spread after his death. What you won’t find is the iconic Joshua tree that was part of the band U2’s album art for the eponymous Joshua Tree album. That tree, or what’s left of it (it fell over in 2000), is hours away, near Death Valley National Park.

All images © 2016 Joe Newman. This post originally appeared on Focused Photo Adventures. You can see more of his work on his website and on Instagram.

Dispatches is our occasional look outside of DC at the places local photographers have traveled. Have a set of photos you’d like to feature here? Contact us at editor@dcfocused.com.

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The aptly named Face Rock.
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Ancient cave markings that, unfortunately, have been defaced by vandals.
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The desert is a lonely place at night.