Wonder Valley and Joshua Tree N.P., Photographs in the Mojave Desert

Those unfamiliar with desert environments might not think them full of photographic opportunities. Yet a careful look reveals much to appreciate in flora and fauna. From the reclusive gray fox to colorful Mojave Mound Cactus blooms, the Mojave Desert boasts a wide pallet of subjects.

I visited my parent's home near Twentynine Palms, California, recently (in April 2018) and early last year at about the same time. I'll share some photographs from those two trips here as if I had taken them during a single day.

For prints of any of these images, visit the Own Prints page, or contact me vie email at jon@jonberndtphotography.com.

February 18, 2017, the headline in the Los Angeles Times read, "Monster storm breaks rain records at several Southern California locations". The afternoon before I had made a very long and traffic-congested drive from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to my parent's place near Twentynine Palms. On the morning of February 19th I got up early and found the "Dragon's Breath" shrouding the mountains south of Wonder Valley, with the storm system that had dropped record rainfall in southern California bringing humidity to the Mojave desert along with it.

I thought this poem by Sylvia Plath describes the desert nicely.

Sleep In The Mojave Desert
By Sylvia Plath

Out here there are no hearthstones,
Hot grains, simply.  It is dry, dry.
And the air dangerous.  Noonday acts queerly
On the mind's eye erecting a line
Of poplars in the middle distance, the only
Object beside the mad, straight road
One can remember men and houses by.
A cool wind should inhabit these leaves
And a dew collect on them, dearer than money,
In the blue hour before sunup.
Yet they recede, untouchable as tomorrow,
Or those glittery fictions of spilt water
That glide ahead of the very thirsty.

I think of the lizards airing their tongues
In the crevice of an extremely small shadow
And the toad guarding his heart's droplet.
The desert is white as a blind man's eye,
Comfortless as salt.  Snake and bird
Doze behind the old maskss of fury.
We swelter like firedogs in the wind.
The sun puts its cinder out.  Where we lie
The heat-cracked crickets congregate
In their black armorplate and cry.
The day-moon lights up like a sorry mother,
And the crickets come creeping into our hair
To fiddle the short night away.

Settling into a few days of rest and relaxation, the above was my view from a chair from which I could see both the hummingbird feeders that are located nearby, lizards scurrying, and clouds drifting past casting shadows on the mountain ridges and canyons.

A Costa's hummingbird (I believe) rests on a tree nearby the feeders. 

A Rufous hummingbird rests on a branch near the feeders, not sure what to make of me.

A Costa's hummingbird (maybe) in flight. The hum of these birds can be startling! They sound too much like bumblebees! But they are fun to watch and a challenge to photograph in flight. From Audubon.org: "The desert might seem like a bad place for a creature that feeds at flowers, but it is the favored habitat for Costa's Hummingbird. In Arizona and California deserts, this species nests during late winter and spring, and most then avoid the hot summer by migrating to coastal California and Baja. The thin, high-pitched whistle of the male is often heard over desert washes in early spring."

I have no idea what kind of lizard this is. A desert iguana? 

Twentynine Palms Highway - also known as Route 62.  Looking east here. There's a good essay in the New York Times about this area. 

In the California Desert: Vast Darkness, Vibrant Music, an Oasis
"In Wonder Valley, the silence makes its own kind of noise. And Twentynine Palms makes its own kind of music."

After lunch we headed to Joshua Tree National Park. The park is named after the tree that is abundant here - and only here (almost). [The park isn't the only thing named after the tree. Fans of the Irish band, U2 will know that their fifth studio album was named The Joshua Tree.]

We hiked the Barker Dam Nature Trail (see below). Fortunately, the timing was right for my recent visit to photograph blooms on the Mojave Mound Cactus located along our trail. 


An unopened Mojave Mound Cactus bloom. This cactus is also known as the Claret Cup Cactus, and is the official state cactus of Colorado (my home state!).

Mojave Mound Cactus bloom.

Mojave Mound Cactus blooms.

Mojave Mound Cactus bloom.

A Pencil Cholla cactus along the Barker Dam trail.

Joshua Tree N.P. is home to two fox species, the gray fox and the kit fox. This is a gray fox. It was an unexpected treat to find this fox. I was walking along the nature trail and climbed up over a couple of large rocks to get a better view of some blooms that were off to the side of the trail and found this fox scampering out of view of people on the trail.

A Joshua Tree. From the national park web site:

By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Concurrent with Mormon settlers, ranchers and miners arrived in the high desert with high hopes of raising cattle and digging for gold. These homesteaders used the Joshua tree’s limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Miners found a source of fuel for the steam engines used in processing ore.

From the national park web site: 

Years ago the Joshua tree was recognized by American Indians for its useful properties: tough leaves were worked into baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet. The local Cahuilla have long referred to the tree as “hunuvat chiy’a” or “humwichawa;” both names are used by a few elders fluent in the language.


A Joshua Tree trunk.

In the evening on the way to The Palms restaurant I saw this rainbow. This was taken on the evening of February 18th, 2017 - the same day that began with the photograph at the top of this page with clouds hugging the mountains to the south of Wonder Valley. This rainbow is also seen looking south from near The Palms.

I found this to be an interesting collection of "artifacts" outside The Palms restaurant.

There is a very interesting art gallery just east of the city of Twentynine Palms called The Glass Outhouse. Yes, there really is a glass outhouse there, and it works! The Glass Outhouse features an eclectic collection of items that have to be seen. I won't try to describe them. The above photograph was taken of a tiny chapel built on the property. The constellation Orion is visible just to the left of the chapel. There is a "cemetery" to the left of the chapel featuring the tombstones for "Envy", "Greed", etc.