Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Joshua Tree for me symbolized music, not a National Park. But because of the music, the park has always held a certain allure for me. Once I discovered how close it was to LA, it moved to the top of my local travel list. But, even then, it took me almost a year of living here before I made it out. Now after several trips, it continues to be one of my favorite places in southern California.
If you are like me and can’t ever find a weekend to go, dump the excuses and head out for a day trip! It is such a magical place that it’s worth the drive even for just the day. It will be a long day for sure, but if you have kids who will nap in the car, then go for it. Even my non-car napper managed to take a quick after lunch snooze and slept the entire way home.
One Day Itinerary
If you only have one day, you can do at least one small hike and drive through the main sections of the park to get a good sense of the majesticness of Joshua Tree. I find that it’s beneficial to start your day through the main entrance (Hwy 62, Twentynine Palms Highway and Park Boulevard in the Village of Joshua Tree) and exit through the Cottonwood Spring entrance on the south end of the park. Most of the major highlights are closer to the western entrance which means you can do more in a shorter amount of time.
Don’t forget to pick up your Jr Park Ranger booklet at the ranger station while getting your visitor pass. (Read more about the Jr Ranger Program). Park fees are $20 for one visit (for 7 days) or $30 for an annual pass (go for the year pass – trust me you will want to return!).
As you drive through the park head towards Hidden Valley and Barker Dam areas. You will want to keep stopping to admire the joshua tree’s lining the road and spread out over the desert around you. Go ahead. Pull over and take some photos. They really are mesmerizing.
Depending on how much time you have and how active your kids are, you might have to decide between the two short hikes of Hidden Valley and Barker Dam. I love both and they are both fun for kids. For a first hike, I like Barker Dam. It is a bit easier and can be done as an in/out once you reach the dam if your little one is feeling tired. Kids will enjoy exploring all of the nooks and crannies around the trail, looking for animals and playing in the sand. (For more on our favorite family friendly hikes, see this post.)
The next stop is Hidden Valley for a picnic lunch. The picnic area is on the left side of the circle drive (the hike is on the right). This is the perfect place to have a picnic and let the kids climb rocks and explore the rock ‘caves’. Be aware (but not scared) there is a pesky coyote in the area that park rangers are trying to retrain. Please do not feed him any food!
Once you have had your lunch decide if you want to make the 20 minute (one way) detour to Keys View to see the actual line of the San Andreas Fault. I love driving through this area. It feels like you are in another world surrounded by Joshua trees on all sides. It is just magical. It also helps that my little one usually has a little snooze on this detour!
Coming back to the main road, head towards Jumbo Rocks & Skull Rock. If your kid likes to scramble over rocks, they will have fun exploring behind Skull Rock. The rocks are rough granite which helps you climb but can also hurt little hands and cause big scratches if you fall. If you are up for more hiking, check out the 1.7 mile nature trail opposite the campgrounds. We have found it’s more fun to just play on the rocks at this point in the day, but the hike is also worth a look.
Carrying on from Jumbo Rocks, the road ends in a T junction. Head to the right towards White Rock campgrounds for a quick walk around The Arch Rock. Depending on the season and how long you have been at each site, the sun is getting low in the sky, which means it’s time to head towards the Cholla Cactus Garden. The Cholla cactus looks even more magical with their iridescent glow as dusk sets in. We find this is a great spot (or along the road) to watch the sun go down. If you do the short nature walk here, make sure the kids stay on the path – the cactus needles are long and sharp and cover the ground even when you don’t notice them.
As the sun sets you can head out of the park at the Cottonwood Spring exit which is just off the I10 and head back home to LA or wherever you are staying. I tend to prefer exiting this way even though it’s a bit longer only because there is less traffic getting out of the park and it is smooth sailing on the I10 all the way back to LA (or Palm Springs).
I don’t know what it is about Joshua Tree and the desert, but no matter how tired I am after a day of driving and hiking I feel rejuvenated and ready for more. It seems to also be the case with my 4 year old who constantly begs to go back to “Joshman Tree”! Don’t put it off anymore, go experience it yourself.
When to Go
Anytime, err well anytime except June – September when temperates are well above 100 during the day. We have made trips in May, October, December and January and the weather has been beautiful every visit. Closer to summer it is hotter during the day, but not unbearable since it is a dry heat. It always cools down at night, which is a welcome relief.
What to Bring
- Lots of water – even in the cooler months you will need plenty of fluids to keep hydrated. Pack plenty for yourself and for cleaning the kiddos hands. There are no shops or facilities once you get inside of Joshua Tree.
- Lots of snacks and a packed lunch
- hiking shoes /tennis shoes
- Layers – it cools down quickly in the evenings
- Camera and car chargers – you won’t want to stop taking photos
- Hats, sunscreen and light loose clothing
- Picnic blanket and a cooler are both great to have, but not essential
- For fun, bring bug catchers, binoculars and a kids camera to keep the kiddos entertained while they are not climbing on the rocks.
- First Aid Kit (Band-aids, Neosporin, tape, tweezers, cleansing wipes)
Where to Stay
If you have decided to spend more than just a day in the area, there are plenty of options on where to stay. Much of what is near to Joshua Tree tends to be small B&Bs or roadside motels. We prefer to stay in Palm Springs since there is an abundance of last minute hotel options and to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant! But to avoid the drive, here are a few options to check out if you have planned in advance and have some extra cash on hand.
- Spin & Margies Desert Hideaway: Awesome if you go with a group and have a few of the rooms booked.
- The Desert Lily: The self catering family cabin is a great retreat if you have planned in advance and were lucky enough to get it.
- The Joshua Tree Inn: This is cheaper motel only a few minutes away from the park’s entrance. It’s a historic hotel and has only 11 rooms, so vacancies are not always a given.
- Bonita Domes – East/West Pods: These are unique non-air conditioned adobe huts that feel like a cross between camping and a hotel. You have access to a shower and outdoor cooking area. This is the place to be for star gazing and those interested in communing with nature.
- Camping is also an option at Joshua Tree. Black Rock and Indian Cove are both family friendly and take reservations in advance. Black Rock is not far into the park, so if you forget anything or want to go into town it’s a very close drive.
Check out our post here for more family friendly hike options.
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