The Beauty of the Desert

It’s a funny thing, the ‘beauty’ of desert towns. Everyone that visits often or lives in the desert is familiar with the saying, “the desert has its own beauty.” And that’s very true, especially when you look at places like Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley, Saguaro National Park, etc. There is tremendous beauty in the natural desert. It’s a little trickier when talking about desert towns, though, especially when discussing it within the context of photography. 

I’ve been to hundreds upon hundreds of desert towns and cities in the American Southwest. Some, like Barstow and Victorville, for example, I consider truly ugly. Some, like Lone Pine, CA, Tombstone and Bisbee, AZ, are beautiful, photographic gold mines. So where do Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, and Yucca Valley fit in that spectrum? Somewhere in-between, I’d say. 

When you first drive through Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, and 29 Palms, you do notice that there is a particular beauty about them. In the interest of total honesty, one also notices that there is a particular ugliness about them. It’s a strange contradiction–beauty and ugliness existing in the same place, at the same time. It’s uniquely challenging to photograph; focus too broadly and capture too much context in the frame and the human presence looks like a stain on the dramatic and beautiful landscape. Focus too narrowly on details and you lose the sense of place.

One of the things I find most challenging in photographing desert towns and cities like 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, and Yucca Valley is avoiding tropes. I’m sure you’ve seen countless pictures of abandoned and derelict structures in the desert taken in harsh afternoon sun, often intentionally desaturated. Or maybe the oft repeated shots of run-down liquor stores and shops against the backdrop of cacti or beautiful desert mountains. The key is to find and photograph smaller elements and tableaus that capture the essence of the place, instead of trying to capture the place as a whole or trying to capture and underscore the dichotomy between the natural and the urban.

For me, the beauty of these places really comes to life at night. The true character, charm, and beauty of these desert towns and cities comes into sharp focus only once the sun goes down. During the day, when photographing these places, there seems to me to be a competition between the urban and the natural. It’s a competition that makes photography especially difficult for me; each element seems to detract from the other. By photographing them at night, you are better able to isolate and capture their essences.

In the day, the 29 Palms Airstrip is not a very compelling photographic subject, but on a moonless night it comes alive, photographically. Shot at 40mm f/1.4, 1/80, ISO 25,600.

This church outside Yucca Valley is much more pedestrian during the day. I’ve passed it dozens of times in the day, but the brightly illuminated “Jesus” sign at night made me stop in my tracks to take a photograph. Shot at 40mm, f/1.4, 1/80, ISO 12,800.

Joshua Tree

For me, what truly stands out about Joshua Tree, are all the quirky and unique restaurants and shops. There is an artistic yet slightly kitsch atmosphere that really works. Joshua Tree has a very distinctive and photogenic aesthetic. From western saloons to antique styled ‘faux’ service stations to desert chic shops and brightly lit neon motel signs, Joshua Tree offers so many photographic opportunities. 

Although Joshua Tree offers so many photographic opportunities, I truly believe they all look better at night. 

Joshua Tree is relatively small; just driving through it, down the main road–Highway 62–will expose you to a lot of what it has to offer, photographically.

Some notable photography locations in Joshua Tree include: 

Noah Purifoy Foundation – An interesting and unique outdoor art museum open to the public and free of charge. There are many photographic opportunities here. 

World Famous Crochet Museum – A quirky and eccentric museum dedicated to crochet. Only in Joshua Tree…

Yucca Valley

Yucca Valley is a trickier nut to crack, photographically. There are far fewer quirky, kitschy boutiques and shops. There are fewer art installations and less of an artistic aesthetic. It also has a lot more aesthetically ‘displeasing’ elements, especially during the day. 

There are, however, some interesting places that offer unique photographic opportunities:

Desert Christ Park – A collection of religious statues. There are lots of photographic opportunities here. 

Pioneertown – An 1800s themed community/town just outside Yucca Valley. Definitely worth a visit. 

There are also many photographic opportunities, like the skeletons in the car below, if you go north up Old Woman Springs Road, towards Landers. If you take the road all the way up to Landers, you can stop at Giant Rock.

29 Palms

29 Palms is surprisingly photogenic for what it is. There is another entrance to Joshua Tree National Park here. National Park Drive has art installations and unique sculptures. Many of the buildings in the town have murals and artistic facades. Utah Trail, near the national park entrance, has some phenomenal sunrises. There are countless motels with brightly lit neon signs. There’s no shortage of run down buildings with sun-distressed facades, either. 

Instead of recommending specific areas of 29 Palms, I recommend just driving around and exploring it. It has more residential areas and is less busy than Yucca Valley, so getting around and finding photography opportunities is less of a hassle. Less traffic means it’s easier to park when you do spot something you want to capture. 

Again, I recommend visiting at night for photography. Each of the subjects below is far less pedestrian at night. The murals, especially, take on an entirely different quality at night.


Desert cities can present unique photographic opportunities and subjects, but they also present challenges. It really comes down to trying to capture smaller elements that represent the essence of the place. Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, and Yucca Valley all have their own character and personality. I recommend meandering through them with a camera as slowly as you can.