Joshua Tree National Park is famous not only for its eponymous yucca trees and climbing opportunities but also for having some of the darkest skies in Southern California. Just two hours’ drive from the sprawl of Los Angeles, this has made the park a popular getaway for amateur stargazers and astrophotographers as well as those simply looking to spend a night camping under the stars.
With my sunroof down and an oh-so-appropriate classic rock soundtrack of Hotel California and The Joshua Tree blasting on the stereo, I drove out to Joshua Tree after work on a recent clear night to try my hand at some night sky photography.
One of the things that makes Joshua Tree so unique is that it is located at the intersection of two deserts: the higher, cooler Mojave Desert in the western half of the park, and the lower, hotter Colorado Desert (part of the Sonora) in the eastern half. The Colorado Desert is the darker of the two, while the Mojave Desert arguably has the more interesting landscapes—most significantly, it’s the Mojave that’s home to the park’s namesake Joshua trees.
Even though I come out here fairly often, when I pull off the 10 onto Cottonwood Springs Road, I’m still immediately shocked by just how dark the skies are and how alone I feel. Pull off the road, turn off the headlights and engine, and on a moonless night, you’ll be unable to see anything but the stars or hear anything but the otherworldly howls and groans of the desert wind. Initially, it’s always a bit disconcerting, even scary, but after a few minutes, the darkness of the desert becomes indescribably beautiful and peaceful.
For pure stargazing, one of the best easily accessible locations is the Cottonwood Spring Campground, near Joshua Tree’s southern entrance. On a clear night, you’ll be able to easily see and photograph the Milky Way from the comfort of your campsite.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to capture some of the park’s extraordinary landscapes, the western Mojave Desert half of the park is likely to be a better bet. Joshua trees are always strangely photogenic specimens, but look even more alien in the glow of starlight. The Mojave is also home to many of Joshua Tree’s more interesting rock formations.
If you need a way to light the foreground of your photos, try employing your car’s headlights: they’re surprisingly effective, and you won’t need to carry around so much cumbersome lighting gear.
I’ve always wanted to see Yosemite, but after watching America’s Best Idea, the Ken Burns documentary series on the creation of the National Park Service, I became even more determined to find an excuse to visit. Knowing that a recent trip to Los Angeles for work was the closest I was likely to get for a good while, I started Googling around for day trip itineraries.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many to be found. A few people had put together some ideas for short weekend trips to Yosemite from the Bay Area, but for the most part, there were just lots of people commenting that it was impossible to do justice to Yosemite in a single day. One pithy quote in particular was reproduced just about everywhere:
Madam, I’d go sit by the Merced River and cry. — Carl Sharsmith, former park ranger, on what to do with only one day in Yosemite
Ultimately, I was able to put together a somewhat more productive (albeit very long) day. It was definitely a whirlwind tour, but I was able to see most of the major sights, get in a few hours of hiking, and make it back to Los Angeles less than 24 hours after I left. A success, then, by my accounting.
I’m reproducing my improvised itinerary here for the benefit of others desperate or foolhardy enough to attempt a similar endeavour.
4:30am: Depart LA
Any attempt to pull this off in one day requires an early start: the entrance to Yosemite is a solid five hour drive accounting for traffic and fuel stops. Also, CA-99 is one of the most miserably boring stretches of road imaginable.
9:30am: Arrive at Yosemite / Wawona Coming from LA, you’ll arrive at the southern entrance to Yosemite, about an hour’s drive from the main attractions of Yosemite Valley. By this point, you’re probably quite sick of driving, so stop at the Wawona Store (just a few miles down the road from the park entrance) to grab some snacks, stretch your legs, and use the toilets. There’s also a summer-only visitor’s center.
11:00am: Tunnel View This is the canonical view of Yosemite Valley, about an hour or so down the road from Wawona immediately after passing through the tunnel (hence the name). From this scenic overlook, you can see El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Without this photo, you’ll never manage to convince your friends that you’ve actually been to Yosemite. There’s limited parking, but people don’t tend to linger too long so spaces open up quickly.
11:30am: Bridalveil Fall Just over a mile down the road from Tunnel View is the 620 foot (190 metre) tall Bridalveil Fall. While the best views of the fall are actually from elsewhere in the valley, it’s more than worth the short ten minute hike from the parking lot to see (and hear!) it up close. Especially in the spring, when flow is at its peak, expect to get drenched with spray.
12:30pm: Vernal and Nevada Falls / Mist Trail
To me, no visit to a national park is complete without a proper hike. Yes, this means cutting back on the number of park-take-a-photo-and-leave stops, but is very, very worth it.
I chose the ever popular Mist Trail, a relatively short (6.5 miles) but moderately strenuous (1,900’ elevation gain) trail to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls. Perhaps Yosemite’s most famous hike, you’ll pass stunning views, following the Merced River as it careens over a combined 900’ of waterfalls on its path to the valley. The top of Vernal Falls, around 1.5 miles from the trailhead, makes a great place to pause for lunch (remember to pack out your trash). Following the John Muir Trail on the return, you’ll also get an incredible view of Liberty Cap, the back of Half Dome, and Nevada Fall.
I completed the hike in around four and a half hours, including lots of stops for photos, and as long as you’re in reasonably good shape, you should be able to do the same. Beware of the narrow, slippery steps carved into the rock along the falls; quite a few people have plunged to their deaths over the years. Expect to get drenched by spray from the falls—this is called the Mist Trail for a reason!
5:30pm: Yosemite Falls
While you can see Upper Yosemite Falls from many locations in the valley, it’s worth taking the short half-mile round trip hike to the 320 foot (98 metre) high Lower Yosemite Falls, which you’d otherwise miss. The woods between the road and the base of the falls aren’t particularly scenic, particularly in comparison with the Mist Trail, but the reward at the end is worth it. In the spring, the roar of the falls is deafening. There’s a parking lot available at the trailhead. 7:00pm: Glacier Point
Arguably the most scenic spot in the park, particularly at sunset. You’ll enjoy panoramic views: the valley, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Yosemite Falls, and the Yosemite high country. There’s a cafeteria and gift shop near the parking lot, so it’s a great place to stop for dinner before taking the half mile walk to Glacier Point itself. Find a spot to settle in and watch the sun go down, and don’t forget to bring your camera. Stick around if you like for some great stargazing.
Be forewarned that the road to Glacier Point is only open from April – October. 9:30pm (or later): Return to LA
This is a day trip, after all, so at some point it becomes time to leave the beauty of Yosemite behind and head back to LA. Stock up on Red Bull (or your other caffeine delivery mechanism of choice) for the drive back… you’ll need it.
Any frequent traveller, whether for business or leisure, will have one of these: a collection of electronic gadgets they carry that allows them to be ready for most any situation they encounter on the road.
Here’s a detailed description of mine:
Ram Suction Mount for iPhone Since I use my phone as my satnav when travelling, having a way to mount it in rental cars is critical. I’ve tried other, more compact options, but have always eventually run across a car where they couldn’t be mounted. This suction mount, though, sticks to just about anything and breaks down into three parts for easy packing.
Anker 15000mAh Portable Dual USB Charger
Open electrical outlets often seem impossible to find just when you need them most: at a crowded airport, on a plane or train, or in a too-busy coffee shop that seems to serve as the gathering point for everyone in a hundred mile radius with a MacBook. This handy little device has two USB ports and can completely recharge an iPhone a half-dozen times or an iPad twice.
Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter
Wi-Fi may often seem ubiquitous these days, with everywhere from Starbucks to your local barber shop sporting a free connection. Yet every so often, you’ll run across a motel or client site that still only has the old-fashioned, wired kind of internet, and this $30 adapter will prove invaluable for the modern MacBook owner. Plus, sometimes even when there is Wi-Fi, the wired connection can be considerably faster.
SanDisk Extreme 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive
Though I’ve moved to storing and syncing most of my files with Dropbox, when you just need to copy a PPT to a random laptop at a meeting, a plain old flash drive is often the best choice. I also keep a bootable Ubuntu image on here to use with potentially insecure public computers, and the drive can be repurposed for restoring a broken laptop when needed. I like this one because it’s large, fast, reliable, and not too expensive.
A few Apple Lightning cables and some generic micro USB cables. Between the two, I can charge just about any recent portable electronic device.
Anker 4-Port 36W USB Wall Adapter
Even brand new hotels seem all too often to have been designed for an era when the only electronic device to be found in the average businessman’s suitcase was an electric razor. This wall charger lets you charge four USB devices—like an iPhone, iPad, noise canceling headphones, and a portable battery—all at once from one outlet. Unlike many competing multi-port wall chargers, this one can is powerful enough to charge all four devices at full speed.
GorillaPod Mini Tripod Works great for holding my iPhone steady for taking photos, and acceptably well with a small lens on my Sony A7r. Not just for taking photos, this also works as a backup phone mount for a car or elsewhere.
Bose QuietComfort 20i Noise Canceling Headphones
Drowning out background noise and screaming children is an all too common challenge on the road. The QC20i is a big upgrade from the bulky QC15s I owned before. Not only are they much, much smaller, but they are comfortable enough to wear on long (6+ hour) flights, they charge off micro USB rather than eating AAAs, and somehow seem to do an even better job at noise cancelation.
Apple 60W MagSafe Charger
Technically, this charger is only for the MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro, but it actually works just fine with my 15” MBP and is a good bit more compact. I guess it might charge a bit more slowly, but I can’t say I really notice.
Apple 12W USB Charger
Yes, this somewhat duplicates the Anker wall adapter. However, I often want to charge most of my devices at the desk while keeping my phone next to your bed, and carrying an extra one of these lets me do that. Of the literally dozens of USB wall chargers I have lying around, I chose the Apple 12W because it’s well-built, high-power, and still reasonably compact.
Another Micro USB Cable
Because you can never have too many of these (within reason, of course).
Apple iPad mini with Retina Display, 128GB
Great for both basic work and on-the-go entertainment. I use it for reading magazines, newspapers, and Kindle ebooks; watching movies and TV shows; and random web surfing and emails. I remain incredibly jealous of my fellow travelers who have managed to shed their heavy laptops entirely in favour of a tablet, but my work requires lots of specialised software that simply isn’t (and likely will never be) available in a tablet variant.
Sony A7r Full Frame 36MP Mirrorless Digital Camera
I used to shoot with a Nikon D600, but found that I was often leaving it at home because I hated carrying around so much bulk. I recently switched to the A7r and couldn’t be happier. It uses the same sensor as Nikon’s flagship D800, but is a fraction of the size and weight. Paired with the excellent Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens shown, it’s tiny and perfect for street photography and basic landscapes.
Apple MacBook Pro Retina 15”
The first Retina MBP was a bit of a kludge, but the latest generation shines. This maxed-out model can do pretty much everything my workstation can, and it’s surprisingly thin and light for how powerful it is. Long, 7-8 hour battery life means it lasts through a transcon and even the longest meetings. I wish it was as svelte as the Air, but I need the power for work.
12th century Japanese author Kamo no Chōmei (鴨長明) is most famous for the Hōjōki (方丈記), a classic work in which he describes his retreat from the world and subsequent experience living in a hōjō – a ten foot square hut – in the wilderness of Hino (日野山), a mountain outside of Kyoto. Chōmei’s Hōjōki is thus often compared with Thoreau’s Walden.
After having recently completed reading the Hōjōki, I set off on an attempt to visit the alleged site of Chōmei’s famous hut. As I began to climb towards the mountains of eastern Kyoto from the nearest station, signs marking the way to Chōmei’s hut began to appear every few hundreds of meters. Slowly, the ubiquitous convenience stores, apartment blocks, and vending machines that characterize urban and suburban Japan began to gave way to rice fields and small single-family homes.
After hiking a few kilometers, past bemused locals – why is there a foreigner out here? – and an abandoned public sports complex, I arrived at the foot of Mt. Hino. Traces of civilization abruptly disappeared, replaced only by worn markers reassuring visitors that the overgrown dirt path ahead of them was indeed the way to Chōmei’s hut. After scrambling up slippery hillsides, past several suspicious-looking giant centipedes, and being feasted upon by several dozen mosquitoes, I finally arrived at the site of Chōmei’s famed hōjō.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I was, after all, traveling to the site of a tiny, wooden hut from the 12th century. But in Japan, almost anything with the slightest potential appeal is readily converted to at least some form of a tourist attraction. Buildings from past centuries are frequently reconstructed, complete with the requisite souvenir shops and dining opportunities. Surely there would be something interesting to mark the site at which one of the most famous pieces of classical Japanese literature was written?
Instead, I found nothing more than a faded signpost resting askew against some rocks. I snapped the requisite picture (at right), and turned to stumble back down the trail before Mt. Hino’s insect population could inflict any more damage.
If for some reason you would like to repeat my journey, take the Tōzai Line (東西線) of the Kyoto City subway to Ishida (石田駅) and head southeast from the exit, passing a Seven-Eleven and following the turns indicated on the signs along the way. More detailed information on Mt. Hino and the surrounding area can be found (in Japanese) here.