Sunrise over Cholla Cactus Garden

Looking to plan a weekend in Joshua Tree? Check out this overview of our 2-day itinerary.

At 5am, Kelley’s alarm goes off… a gentle rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I‘m wishing for a few more hours of sleep.

But I know it’ll be worth it to see Joshua Tree National Park at sunrise — the light at that hour is unparalleled. Remember my trip to Death Valley during the super bloom last year? We got up before sunrise there and it was nothing short of spectacular. Now I’m chasing that perfect light again in Joshua Tree.

Here is the exterior of our hotel as we depart around 5:30am:


Thanks to a Joshua Tree photography guide I found on-line, we have a destination for sunrise: Cholla Cactus Garden, the farthest point we will visit in Joshua Tree this trip. We have two choices — we can either take the highway route north of the park and then drop down to reach Cholla Cactus Garden, or we can enter the park near our motel and meander at slower speeds to our sunrise spot. Since we’re running a little late, we opt for the faster route north of the park.

route to Cholla Cactus Garden

Even though sunrise is not officially until 6:40am this day, the sky starts to grow light 30-40 minutes before that.


Intense colors on display:


We get to Cholla Cactus Garden just in time. The photography guide suggests being in place behind a cactus the moment the first rays of sunlight crest over the horizon, and we get there 10-15 minutes before that to walk around and find the perfect cactus.

Somehow we miss the memo that there are little spiky cactus balls all over the ground here. BEWARE!! They look harmless, but they will stick to your clothes and hiking boots. And skin. As I type this, it’s been two weeks since we returned from Joshua Tree, and my index finger is still showing wounds from these cactus balls. (The things I do for a good photo.) One gets stuck to my finger so badly that I have to use my camera strap to dislodge it. Luckily bandaids and Neosporin are on stand-by in the car.

Funny story: shortly after sunrise Kelley sends her mom a photo of Cholla Cactus Garden, and her mom replies: “Looks beautiful! Don’t touch anything!” Which makes us laugh… we needed that advice 30 minutes ago.

I don’t have much to offer in the way of commentary here, so feel free to scroll through these photos…








In the direction facing away from sunrise, the light is so soft at this hour — light pink skies allow the green cactus shade to really shine.



See all these buds on the cacti? They should flower in the next few weeks. I bet it’ll be beautiful. If you live in Los Angeles, pick a weekend and go out for a day trip.



We wait in place patiently. The sun is about to crest over the horizon…


And there it is — look at those rays! The sunlight is only that sharp for the first 30 seconds or so. If you are chasing this particular photo, be sure to allow enough time to get to Cholla Cactus Garden.


A few more variations, because holy cow, this is incredible:







On our way back to the car (to bandage my bleeding finger…) we notice the WARNING signs clearly posted at the perimeter of the parking lot. Whoops… we totally should have seen that when we arrived.


I’ve got one more Joshua Tree post going up tomorrow!

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