This is part 3 of a 4 part guide to photography in Joshua Tree National Park. Part 1 discusses the fundamentals of photography in Joshua Tree. Part 2 discusses the technical aspects of photography within Joshua Tree. Part 3 is about the specific locations within Joshua Tree. Part 4 covers night photography specifically in Joshua Tree.

Below is a short and incomplete list of some of the more popular Joshua Tree National Park photography locations. These are great locations to visit and take photographs, but the list is not exhaustive and one of the best parts of Joshua Tree is exploring the park. Some of the best photographic opportunities in the park are outside of these locations, in random areas. This list is intended as a planning tool, but make sure you give yourself the time and freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of the park. You won’t be disappointed and might even find your best successes there.

Keys View

Keys view is first on this list because it’s the most accessible of the places mentioned here. It’s also probably the most dramatic in terms of its view and photographic opportunities. It’s truly the grandest ‘vista point’ in the entire park. It’s also probably the most photographed part of the park, second only to Skull Rock, and the available compositions are probably a bit ‘played out’. It overlooks the entire Coachella Valley. 

Depending on the atmospheric conditions, you can see Palm Springs and neighboring cities, the Salton Sea, and Interstate 10 as it enters San Bernardino. The entire Coachella Valley is surrounded by grand, often snow covered mountains. Photographically it’s a very dynamic place, despite the fact that you are relatively limited in the areas from which you can take photographs; it’s a short, paved trail with a metal railing on a good portion of the trail, to prevent you from going off-piste. Atmospheric conditions can often very dramatically interact with the sunlight, creating breath-taking sunsets. 

The general consensus is that, photographically, the best time to visit Keys View is sunset. For the most part, I agree.


At sunrise, the surrounding topography blocks the sun right as it rises above the horizon, making you miss the colors and drama of sunrise. However, as the sun continues to rise, the strongly directional light casts interesting shadows along the mountains below. It is ideal for shooting in black and white, as black and white is a study of luminance and texture above all else.


During mid-day, the harsh light and absence of shadows, resulting in a lack of contrast, make it especially difficult and less-than-rewarding to photograph. I recommend avoiding it altogether in mid-day. A caveat to this would be if it’s overcast. The clouds diffuse the sunlight in such a way that it’s no longer harsh, but there’s still a marked lack of contrast. The photographic results can be interesting in these conditions. Here is a set of photographs I took during a rainy and overcast day in the mid to late afternoon at Keys View. I am not sure how well these photographs work, compositionally and technically. The lack of contrast and soft, diffuse lighting give the photographs a strange quality.

As you can see, the photographs taken in the morning and the ones above don’t even look like the same location. And stylistically, they couldn’t be more different.


Sunsets in Keys View are something that vary based on environmental conditions and the time of year. During certain times of the year, the setting sun is blocked by the surrounding mountains. Other times, however, the sun sets between the mountain ranges and illuminates the entire Coachella Valley; it can be quite a spectacular sight. It often just comes down to luck; some sunsets are breath-taking and some are more pedestrian. Clouds, haze, dust and other environmental conditions can have major effect on the nature and quality of sunsets at Keys View. I’ve spent years in the Southwestern deserts and the sunsets are like a box of chocolate: you never know what you’re going to get. 

Sunsets in Keys View are divided into two elements: the dramatic western sky where the sun sets and the eastern sky where there are luminous, dreamy, pastel pink and purple hues painted on the sky. 

Below are photographs of the sun setting in the western sky.

Below are photographs of the eastern sky at Keys View during sunset. 

You’re going to want to get there at least an hour before sunset; it can get quite crowded, sometimes to the extent that it’s even difficult to find parking. There will most likely be people everywhere, but despite the crowds, it’s still relatively easy to find places to shoot where people won’t be in the frame. 


On the way to Keys View, in summer, there are beautiful fields of Fringed Amaranth that glow in the evening sun. It’s possible to take pictures just prior to sunset and still make it to Keys View in time.

Cholla Cactus Garden

The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of my favorite places in all of Joshua Tree, if not my absolute favorite. It’s one of the strangest experiences when you drive up to it. If you’re coming from the main area of Joshua Tree National Park, it’s a relatively long descent down toward the Coachella Valley. The landscape gradually changes, the Joshua trees become less dense, and the rocks and vegetation slowly give way to a more barren and featureless desert. Then, suddenly–randomly and seemingly out of nowhere–a massive island of Cholla cactus appears in a barren sea of desert. 

There are no outwardly apparent reasons for its existence. It isn’t even really a gradual increase of Cholla cactus. Suddenly, and I mean very suddenly, you find yourself in an ocean of Cholla. It really feels like a strange and magical place. 

It’s also surprisingly photogenic. Compositions can be tricky and complicated in the Cholla Garden, as a result of the seeming randomness and lack of order in the sea of cacti, but it’s a very visually striking place. Sunlight is absorbed, diffused, and reflected off the cacti in such a way that they often appear to be glowing. There is a very pronounced ‘halo’ effect with the cholla cacti, especially when the sun is at an angle. The relationship between sunlight and the cholla cacti is very interesting to explore, photographically.


The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the few places in the park where sunrise is often more dramatic, dynamic, and beautiful than sunset. The garden is situated in such a way that the rising sun is visible from the cactus fields and casts warm, red hue making the cholla glow an orange color. It can be a spectacular sight. 


Although sunsets are beautiful in the Cholla Cactus Garden, they sometimes lack the drama and dynamism that you see in other areas of the park at sunset. This is because the western horizon, where the sun sets, is blocked by a series of hills and mountains. So, the intense colors of the setting sun in the western sky are mostly lost.

As you can see in the photos above, the western sky in the Cholla Garden lacks the dramatic and intense colors you see in other areas of the park during sunset. The highly directional light during sunset, though, interplays beautifully with the Cholla Cacti and produces a stunning halo effect. 

Interestingly, the eastern–specifically the southeastern–sky is quite beautiful at sunset in the Cholla Cactus Garden. As mentioned above in the Keys View section, sunset in Joshua Tree is broken down into two components: the eastern sky and the western sky. The eastern sky is often gorgeously painted with dreamy pastel pinks and dusty purples.


Lighting is especially important in the Cholla Cactus Garden, as outside of sunset and sunrise, light is either the subject or an integral compositional component. The cactus garden changes dramatically based on the nature and quality of the sunlight.

Skull Rock

I’ve decided not to include any photographs of Skull Rock. I debated for a while whether or not to include any photographs of Skull Rock in this guide. I feel justified in my decision, and I’ll explain why. 

Skull Rock is my least favorite attraction at Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a large rock that looks vaguely like a skull from one angle only, when you’re directly facing it. This means your framing and compositional opportunities are limited. You end up with pictures that aren’t very dissimilar from the millions of other pictures of Skull Rock. If you deviate from this head-on framing, it doesn’t look like a skull anymore; it just looks like a large boulder and while boulders can make for good photographic subjects, there are many other large boulders in other areas that serve as better photographic subjects. 

This brings me to the second point, and the real reason I opted not to include any photographs of Skull Rock: it is incredibly crowded and you will have to wait, sometimes a while, to get a picture of it without people in the frame. Skull Rock is littered with tourists and ‘influencers’ all waiting their turn to get a picture. Skull Rock is about 10 feet off the main road and one of the primary attractions of the park, so it’s always very crowded. 

There are, however, quite a few photographic opportunities if you keep hiking directly south past Skull Rock for a mile or so. There is no trail and you’ll have to climb some large boulders, but you will eventually find yourself atop a very large cliff overlooking a vast valley of Joshua Trees. It’s a hike I’ve done many times and you have to exercise caution; it’s very easy to get lost–there is no trail, and you can’t see the road. Each time I’ve done this, I’ve never taken the same route back as I took to get there; I just can’t retrace my steps and find the route I initially took. It’s important to maintain your directional bearing, use your phones compass app if you need to. Also, you’ll find yourself climbing large boulders; there is no unobstructed path. It’s not a hike I’d enjoy doing with a camera dangling around my neck.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock is one of the quintessential photography locations in Joshua Tree. It’s also one of the most popular destinations in the park for photography. I’ve seen more people with cameras and serious gear here than anywhere else, including Keys View. It’s also one of the most popular photography spots for night photography. 

Which is ironic, because I am not a huge fan of this location in terms of photography. It can be difficult to do evening photography here; there are often influencers being photographed here as they fake their contemplative and meditative poses. They’re not quick and they’re not considerate of those who want to photograph the landscape. Even while making this guide, I ran into issues every time I went there in the evening for photography, to the extent that I ultimately just gave up. It’s actually the biggest reason why I don’t have more photographs of Arch Rock for this guide. I wasted too much time visiting it and wasn’t able to get many shots without people in the frame.


Sunrise is the best time to visit Arch Rock. It’s less crowded and you can capture the rising sun behind the arch. Probably the most common and iconic sunrise photograph at Arch Rock is the rising sun peaking through the arch, creating a sunstar. If you search Google Images for ‘Arch Rock Sunrise’ you will see a million nearly identical variations of the same photograph, which brings me to my next point. 


You are very limited in your framing and composition of photographs here. You are just extremely limited to where you can climb and position yourself in relation to the arch. This results in photographs that aren’t very different from others. If you look through images of Arch Rock, you will see the same three angles/perspectives, generally. The same can be said for many other iconic photography locations–Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, etc–but it’s especially true here. All it takes is one Google image search of “Joshua Tree Arch Rock” to see what I mean. Besides focal length, there isn’t much variation in how shots can be framed and composed here. Speaking of focal length, wider is generally better here as things are quite tight, physically, around the arch. 

It’s for these reasons that Arch Rock isn’t my favorite photography location. I find it to be a bit frustrating on more than one level.

Hidden Valley

Hidden Valley is a hidden photographic gem of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a small, isolated valley. It feels sort of partitioned off from the rest of the park. It’s situated in such a way that it’s a good place to photograph sunset; there’s a relatively unobstructed view of the western sky here, which offers a lot of opportunities to capture the dramatic colors of sunset. 

There is a short 1 mile trail loop and a recreation area. There are vast fields of Joshua trees and large, dynamic rock formations that make wonderful compositional tools, which makes it one of my favorite places for afternoon photography. 

The is ample opportunity to use the rocks, trees, and shadows to create the feeling of depth that harsh light often takes away. Below are some examples of photographs taken in Hidden Valley in harsh, mid afternoon sun. The abundance of elements with which to compose photos allows for almost limitless opportunities during all times of day. This is a good place to visit all day–sunrise, afternoon, and sunset.

Hall of Horrors

Hall of Horrors is a nature trail / area. It has a lot of large rock formations that attract climbers. It doesn’t offer expansive fields of Joshua Trees like Hidden Valley or tight, cohesive rock formations like Jumbo Rocks. But, it does offer good photography opportunities to capture the some of the details that form the essence of Joshua Tree National Park. Smaller, more isolated tableaus that truly capture the character of the park. It is also a good place to capture climbers climbing on the larger rocks. 

Hall of Horrors is a good place to photograph sunsets, as well, because of the relatively unobstructed western views.

Jumbo Rocks

Jumbo Rocks is a campground / area near Skull Rock. It is a collection of large, tightly clustered rock formations. It offers one of the best opportunities to photographically explore the fascinating rock formations around Joshua Tree. In fact, the space between Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks is sort of one large, unbroken chain of large rock formations. 

The entire area is a joy to photograph and offers a lot of opportunities for early morning and mid afternoon photography. When the sunlight is too harsh for traditional landscape photography, it’s a great time to explore Jumbo Rocks. It’s possible to explore the colors, shapes, and shadows of the rocks in almost any light and situation. Both black and white and color photography can be equally effective at Jumbo Rocks. I tend to prefer black and white as I often don’t find color to be integral to the compositions I create here. It’s also a good opportunity to explore abstract photography of more isolated subjects and textures.

Barker Dam / Trail

Barker Dam is an old man-made dam, a relic of early ranching efforts in the park. The trail is an approximately 1 mile long semi-loop. There are a few photographic opportunities along the trail and at the dam itself. 

The approximately 1 mile long trail is unique in that it’s surrounded on both sides by elevated rocks, cliffs, and ridges. It’s almost a sort of crevasse or canyon. This makes photography a bit difficult as there are limited framing opportunities. I find wide angles work best in this area. There are some unique rock formations and vistas on the trail. It’s one of the more unique trails and I highly recommend it, not just for photography. 

The dam itself can be a bit of a let down, depending on the time of year and recent weather. Sometimes, especially after major rains, the reservoir can be filled with water and can make for interesting photographs. Other times, there might just be mud and green vegetation, which can often make for nice contrast with the brown, arid landscape surrounding it. During times of draught, it can be completely dry.

Barker dam is one of the better areas to do wildlife photography at the park. Because there are so few sources of water, you’re more likely to see animals congregate to those few sources. This is a much more accessible water source than Fortynine Palms Oasis, and it’s open year round.


This list isn’t exhaustive or comprehensive. They’re some of the most popular features of the park. A big part of photography at Joshua Tree is getting off the beaten path a bit, getting away from the named sites and just exploring the fascinating and otherworldly landscape. Use this list as a planning tool, but give yourself the freedom to explore. 

The next installment of this guide will be night time photography at Joshua Tree National Park. It’s truly a completely different animal than daytime photography and has its own challenges and requirements, deserving its own, stand alone guide.