How to pick the perfect desert backdrop for our portrait adventure

It’s no secret—the desert is my happy place. It just holds an impossibly dreamy magic that I can’t get enough of. So when my clients express an interest in shooting in the desert, I’m 100% so there. There are always new and wonderful nooks and crannies to go and explore, but it never hurts to have a start point, so I thought I’d put together a helpful list of places that are a great choice for capturing a little bit of desert delight.

Note that with the spread of locations in the desert, not all choices may be possible to combine. However, many of these spots are pretty unique and compelling and really don’t need to necessarily be paired with more than one place since they’re huge and expansive and full of wonder. So have a look below and see if anything strikes your fancy!

Joshua Tree National Park
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Location: About one hour northeast of Palm Springs

01.Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is probably undeniably one of the most magical places in Southern California. A true desert gem. It’s mystic, it’s unusual, it’s basically otherworldly. So if you’d like to mark your engagement with something that feels almost supernatural, this magical landscape may serve you well. It features not only fields of the weird and wonderful trees themselves,  but it also has incredible rock formations, hills, as well as beautiful cholla cactus and yucca trees. Note, you will have to pay an access fee to enter the park.

Sessions we’ve shot here:

Ace Hotel & Swim Club
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Location: South end of Palm Springs

02.Ace Hotel & Swim Club

This place is a personal fave. The Ace is a hotel, a swim club, and has an onsite vintage roadside diner, and a little dark dive bar as well. It was an old motor motel that was updated to reflect modern needs and modern style. As a result, you really can feel the sense of history there with many modern touches. The architecture remains such a classically desert backdrop, and they feature murals, art, and interesting details in every corner, while keeping things mellow. We’ve often shot sessions at King’s Highway (their diner) and the Amigo Room (dive bar), as well as throughout the hotel property. It has an excellent view of the San Jacinto mountains, and is just a classically Palm Springs base for great portraits.

Example of shoots we’ve done here:

Yucca Valley
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Location: 30-45 minutes north of Palm Springs

03.Yucca Valley

Yucca Valley is a city that’s about halfway between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. It’s an often-overlooked gem, in that most folks don’t see it as a worthy stopping point. I’d beg to differ. In addition to being surrounded by beautiful Joshua Tree style scenery that’s closer (and free) to access off of pretty convenient desert open roads, it’s also a town full of compelling and rad little desert shops and eateries. It’s a strange mix of adventurers, bohemians, modern cityfolk getting away from it all, and long-time desert lifers. If vintage shopping and cactus and desert weirdos are your vibe, this is a great place to explore.

Fun stuff we’ve shot here:

Visitor Center & Mountain View
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Location: North end of Palm Springs

04.Visitor Center & Mountain View

My go-to fave location in Palm Springs for mountain photos, this view is everything. The Visitor Center has the convenience of plenty of parking, easy (and legal—some places require permits) desert access, and excellent views. It’s the perfect easy spot to get that signature wander in the desert that you crave, without the inconvenience of having to go very far out of your way. And these mountains? I mean, it’s a quintessentially Palm Springs backdrop! Bonus: The visitor center’s a classic piece of googie architectural history itself, and the Palm Springs sign is also onsite.

Sessions and shoots here:

Palm Desert
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Location: 30 Mins southeast of Palm Springs

05.Palm Desert

The Desert Cities (yes, they actually call them that as a proper name) that surround Palm Springs may be small, but each offers its own unique details and features, and they’re generally significantly less tourism-dense than Palm Springs. So if you’re looking to get away from tourists, or you just happen to be staying in one of these cities (they too offer many resorts and hotels), then shooting nearby may be the most appealing choice for you. These areas also offer mountain views and open desert and may be closer to unique spots you find alluring (or hell, if your hotel is adorable we may just want to hang out there). Reach out if you’re staying outside the city and we can make a fun plan!

Fun Sessions here:

Pioneertown
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Location: 45 Mins north of Palm Springs

06.Pioneertown

Do you like the old west? The one from all those 40s and 50s classic cowboy films? Well, then, you’re in luck, because Pioneertown is straight out of the past. It’s tiny, but utterly charming, and very well-preserved. It’s often used as a movie set so its authenticity is without question. Mane street (yep, that’s spelled right) is irresistibly adorable, with a handful of darling shops that provide handcrafted items, a movie history center, a couple of bar/eateries (Pappy and Harriet’s is a renowned music venue and happens to serve great food and drink), and of course, fantastic desert views, all amdist old west magic. Some Saturdays feature an old west performance (Mane Street Parade), and a local brings his soap goats to admire (and they sell the soap!). We adore this place! They did recently establish a requirement for getting permission and paying for photography permits, so keep that in mind.

Session examples in this area:

View of the Wind Turbines
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Location: Multiple viewpoints within 20-30 minutes of downtown Palm Springs

07.View of the Wind Turbines

For many, when they think of the Palm Springs desert, the quintessential image is that of the many turbines that pepper this valley. We can recommend a couple of different gorgeous locations with a great vantage point of the turbines. Getting close to them can be a little tricky as technically they’re on private land, but we happen to know the best spots for safe and convenient views, magic light, and general dreaminess. This is a great item to combine with something else within Palm Springs.

Sessions in this unique spot:

The Parker
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Location: Southeast end of Palm Springs

08.The Parker

We’ll forever be in love with this super stylish hotel! It’s a huge property with an endless supply of chic nooks and crannies designed by Jonathan Adler. From the colossally fab front facade of breezeblocks and signature orange door, to their darling onsite eating and drinking spots, to their enormous gardens full of hedges and greenery and pools and classic architecture, to their vintage interior styling. We shoot weddings here often, and have also shot engagement sessions onsite for clients staying here. Just be sure to clear with management that it’s okay to shoot before we nail things down!

Sessions at this fab place:

Anza Borrego Desert State Park
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Location: Under 2h from San Diego

09.Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrego is an often-overlooked little desert wonderland. This area is due East of San Diego County, and has plenty of darling charms, trails, and memorable details. There’s a lovely visitor center area just past Borrego Springs, and of course, that weird little desert city has its own dated vibe that can make for a cool session backdrop. If you want to head out to a large and untouched desert region, this is a great option.

Amazing sessions around here:

 

Sands Hotel & Spa
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Location: in Palm Desert, 30 minutes southeast of Palm Springs

10.Sands Hotel & Spa

So this pink dream of a hotel is a dazzling mix of modern and bohemian eclectic uniqueness. It is irresistible, really, with so many amazing Moroccan touches, and a truly delectable dining and drinking experience at the Pink Cabana. You will feel whisked away to an exotic place filled with magic. Note that this hotel is adults-only, so not family-friendly. They also require special permission and fees to be allowed to shoot here—no exceptions, they’re hardcore about it, even if you’re a paying guest.

Shoots at this magical hotel:

Desert Hot Springs & the Lautner
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Location: 20 Mins north of Palm Springs

11.Desert Hot Springs & the Lautner

If the city isn’t really your vibe, then getting out of it may speak your language. North of the 10 lies Desert Hot Springs, which isn’t much of a built-up city, however is surrounded by easy-access to open desert, and includes views of both San Jacinto mountain and the valley turbines. There are some little signature details here, like the Desert Hot Springs vintage water tower, as well as some interesting trails to access. The vibe here is chill AF, and you’re unlikely to run into any other people. Of course, there’s also the incredible Lautner Compound boutique hotel for living that perfect midcentury vibe. Stylish, creative, and inspired, weddings here are magical. Sessions would need to request permission.

Fab shoots in this area:

Jacumba, Ocotillo, and the Desert View Tower
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Location: 60-90 minutes east of San Diego, near the border

12.Jacumba, Ocotillo, and the Desert View Tower

Now are you all deserted out yet? Nope? Good, because we still have the Jacumba and Ocotillo Wells area. Not only does this valley very close to the border feature open desert, deserted dusty roads, giant ocotillo plants, and turbine views, but the super unique Desert View Tower is also located here. Yep, that’s one of my back-pocket secret spots that’s absolutely unique. Tru desert folk are handmade building vibes, it’s a weird and wonderful little kind of random museum full of vintage oddities. You do have to pay entry, but they’re mellow about shooting onsite. There’s also some interesting rock formation hiking nearby.

Fun sessions in this area:

Downtown Palm Springs
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Location: Throughout the city

13.Downtown Palm Springs

Of course, we can’t forget actually staying in the city! Downtown Palm Springs offers lots of modern chic updated buildings, classic midcentury architecture, mixed in with Spanish-style buildings, palm-tree-lined streets, and a view of San Jacinto mountains. There are of course some fab hotels along the strip that are a delight to shoot at, as well as art museum features, shops, and all the necessities of an urban oasis. If you’re already staying downtown in an adorable spot, it might make sense just to shoot onsite and around the neighborhood.

Fun stuff here:

Moorten Botanical Garden
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14.Moorten Botanical Garden

So this magical garden is EVERYTHING and I’m totally obsessed. It’s darling and dreamy and such full of gorgeous desert plant life, succulents, cactus, and also some really sweet gardenscapes, design, and charming buildings as well. Note that it’ll require a paid permit from them to book a session here, but they’re super sweet about it.

Sessions here:

The Algodones Dunes
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Location: 2h30 east of San Diego

15.The Algodones Dunes

Also known as the Imperial San Dunes, these are all the way east, at the edge of the state, on the verge of Arizona. These dunes stretch all the way down into Mexico, and you could swear in some spots, you’re in the Sahara. Many folks come here to do four-wheeling desert adventuring and camping, but just wandering the dunes and making beautiful and otherwordly portraits is just as dreamy. Weird fact: some of Return of the Jedi was filmed here, so if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll love making that connection!

Sessions in this amazing area:

Borrego Springs & Ricardo Breceda Sculptures
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Location: North of Anzo Borrego Desert State Park, 2h east of San Diego

16.Borrego Springs & Ricardo Breceda Sculptures

I briefly mentioned Borrego Springs earlier since it’s near Anza Borrego, but this lil city deserves its own credit, not just for being a weird little dive bars and western-style hotels type of desert city, but in large part due to all the Ricardo Breceda sculptures in the area. This man is a desert legend, sculpting some enormous and weird and wonderful animal sculptures throughout the region. I’m partial to the dinosaurs and dragon, but there are horses, elephants, birds, scorpions… you name it. If youlike a certain kind of animal and are up for a desert adventure… let’s go!

Sessions in this area:

Cabazon Dinosaurs
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Location: Just North of Highway 10 before the 111 turnoff to Palm Springs

17.Cabazon Dinosaurs

So, keeping with the dinos theme, off the 10 on the way to Palm Springs, there’s this sort of random location where a kooky dude once upon a time took it upon himself to build a couple of giant dinosaurs. Later, a group of crazy creationists bought the property, and now these dinos are easily accessed, right behind a couple of fast food joints. In the larger of the two, the belly holds a creationist shop which is sort of creepy and hilarious (let’s face it, they’re 100% crazy), and at Christmas, they repaint these dinos to look like Santa. Yeah, it’s weird. But cool weird, right? Signature desert strangeness, at your fingertips!

Session examples here:

The Salton Sea
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Location: Three hours east of San Diego

18.The Salton Sea

Three hours northeast of San Diego, there’s a man-made mistake of a sea in the middle of the California desert. At the turn of the century, in the face of the Colorado river flooding, the water was intentionally diverted to this valley to try to resolve the flooding. Except it kept flooding and flooding until the basin was full. It’s been supported since then by farm runoff and rain.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was a popular oasis getaway much like Palm Springs, where people jet-skied and fished (yeah, they introduced fish to this), and they planned out huge lots for the cities to grow. Lo and behold flooding stayed a problem, the fish multiplied to crazy amounts, and people abandoned these cities. Now there’s little left of them, just run-down and burnt-out homes, graffiti and abandoned items, and bajillions of dead fish carcasses along the water’s edge. If you are sensitive to smell, you won’t enjoy this. But if you’re more of an urban exploration type who loved wrecked stuff, this region is a wild ride, and truly beautiful in its own strange way.

Sessions at this weird and wonderful place:

Any other spots to keep in mind?

Oh, you know it! Plenty of amazing places yet to discover. Here are a few I’ve been hoping to explore with a couple soon:

  • Giant Rock & the Integratron
  • ‘Hole in the Wall’ Spider Beetle Sculpture
  • The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens