Many families visiting the Palm Springs area spend some time at Joshua Tree National Park nearby. My family’s travels took us to Palm Springs over spring break this year, and visiting Joshua Tree was on the top of our list, especially in this centennial year of America’s National Parks.
With a 7 year old and a 2 year old in tow, however, we knew we had better do our research first! So many visitors forget that the reason to visit national parks is to be in nature, and nature isn’t exactly forgiving to the unprepared. Everyone should do some planning before a visit, but particularly those with young kids.
Here’s what you need to do on a single day trip to Joshua Tree National Park with kids in tow.
Joshua Tree Basics
Joshua Tree is located about 2.5 hours east of Los Angeles and less than an hour from Palm Springs.
Admission to the park is $20 per car good for 7 days. We found it easiest to grab a permit at the Visitor’s Center before entering the park; otherwise, you must wait in a potentially long line of cars to buy one at the kiosks at the park entrance. At the Visitor’s Center, you can also pick up Junior Ranger booklets for your kids.
There are 3 entrances to the park: the west entrance near Joshua Tree Village (which is more accurately on the northwest end of the park), the north entrance in the town of Twentynine Palms, and south entrance near Cottonwood Village with the closest access to I-10. Most visitors enter through the west or north entrance which are both on the northern end of the park, since there are more attractions clustered in that area of the park. We chose to enter through the west entrance and exited through the south entrance so we could drive the entire length of the park. The southern part of the park is fairly barren but you’ll miss out on one of the coolest attractions (see below) if you don’t make the entire drive.
Best Easy Joshua Tree Hikes for Little Ones
Joshua Tree is an exceptionally great national park to visit with young kids because the unique scenery is arresting. Plus, there are a lot of hikes that are doable for younger visitors.
The best two hikes if you are traveling with younger kids like mine (age almost 7 and 2.5 at the time of our trip) are:
1. Hidden Valley
Located not far from the west and north entrances is one of the most popular hikes in the park. The 1 mile hiking path weaves through and over boulders, affording some fun and moderately challenging climbing opportunities for kids. We made it our first stop, and also took advantage of the picnic facilities near the parking lot to have lunch.
2. Barker Dam
This 1.3 mile loop take visitors to one of the only places to spot water in Joshua Tree. The views on the hike aren’t quite as breathtaking as Hidden Valley, but the hike offers a bigger variety of landscapes to observe. As with Hidden Valley, there’s a parking lot right at the trail’s head. The road to Barker Dam is a bit south of Hidden Valley so we found it convenient to do second as we worked our way southward.
Other Can’t-Miss Stops in Joshua Tree with Kids
1. Keys View
After two hikes, we were torn about whether to make the drive up a dead end road to this vista, but the 12-15 minute detour turned out to be well worth it. From Keys View, you can look over the entire Coachella Valley – assuming the weather cooperates. On our visit, LA haze and pollution obscured some of the view but we were still able to see some impressive views.
2. Skull Rock
After our two hikes, it was time to do a few less strenuous pitstops with our kids and next up was Skull Rock. Located right along the main road, you can park on the shoulder and jump out for a quick pirate-themed photo opportunity. It’s also the jumping off point of another easy hike if you haven’t gotten enough exercise yet!
3. Cholla Cactus Garden
The final stop on our day trip – and probably my favorite of all – was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Located closer to the southern end of the park, you’re best served to do this attraction last and exit through the south entrance if you choose to make it part of your itinerary. The cacti in this garden are captivatingly beautiful but also have a super-painful sting. Stick to the path and definitely restrain toddlers (we held our son the entire walk) to avoid ending your trip on a bad note.
Top Tips for a Successful Visit to Joshua Tree with Kids
Like I mentioned before, preparation is key for any national park trip. Here are some useful tips we learned in our research and also learned on the fly when we made a few mistakes along the way!
1. Plan for the weather
Joshua Tree in the summer can be punishingly hot. As a result, most visitors plan trips in spring and fall months to beat the worst of the heat.
Our family had planned for the heat during our late March visit, but what we hadn’t planned for was for cooler conditions! We visited on a particularly windy and unseasonably cool day where temps were only forecast to be in the mid-60s. We luckily realized it before we entered the park and stopped at a Walmart just a few miles from the west entrance to grab long sleeves. Bottom line? Bring layers for variable weather in spring and fall months.
2. Pack all the food and water you might need (& some extra)
There are no concessions once you enter the park like some larger national parks have. You’ll need to pack in all the meals and drinks you want to consume while visiting. In particular, pack extra water, as the desert heat plus hiking will likely combine to make everyone in your family need a lot more than usual.
3. A baby carrier is a must for very young kids
Have a baby or toddler? A backpack carrier is essential if you plan to do any signficant hiking. Our 2.5 year old son did parts of the two hikes we did, but it was also nice to have an ergonomic carrier when he was tired and needed a break from walking.
4. Plan to be out of touch
Joshua Tree has NO cell phone or data service, so you need to plan to be completely off-the-grid for the day if you head into the park. Don’t rely on cell phones to communicate if your party splits up. Have a plan. Remember all those skills you learned in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts many years ago, and use them!
Have you been to Joshua Tree National Park with kids? What other tips would you share?
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Thursday 6th of December 2018
We love Joshua Tree and can't wait to head back for some more camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground this Christmas!
My biggest piece of advice is be aware of your surroundings. It is easy to get carried away playing on boulders and running around in Joshua Tree and you might not notice the wildlife. We ran up on a rattlesnake about to have a snack and I don't think it or we were happy about it!
I've just posted a small bit about road tripping with kids over at: http://www.sewsheshed.com/2018/12/06/joshua-tree-national-park-california/
Saturday 19th of May 2018
This was really helpful! I have a grandpa and aunt in southern California, however it's hard to justify a trip just to see them when it's so far from us! (I'm in Jackson, WY). We always thought of making it a vacation and camping near Joshua Tree! It looks beautiful!
Wednesday 9th of May 2018
Thank for sharing and keep updating like this post
Shadi Murillo Vaziri
Monday 25th of December 2017
This is super helpful! Would you mind sharing your packing essentials. Things not to forget, i.e. Jogging stroller, carrier, etc.
Sounds like Joshua tree is done via a combination of driving, parking, hiking. I had no idea (novice)!
How many hours did you spend here? Did the littlest nap while you were out? I will be traveling with a 5.5 and almost 2 year old late April.
Thanks in advance and keep the insightful posts coming!!
Marta - Learningescapes
Wednesday 27th of September 2017
We had a fantastic day in Joshua Tree last summer. We managed to see a good bit but we missed Cholla cactus garden which was a shame - we opted for the Northern loop instead. I hope we can go back one day: California is far for us (we are in Ireland) but we love it and there is so much to do with kids