Guide to Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids (+ 1 Day Itinerary)

Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids

A Joshua Tree near Jumbo Rocks

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. 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. You will not regret exploring Joshua Tree with kids – and they will thank you!

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Things to Do in Joshua Tree with Kids

Things to do in Joshua Tree with KidsJoshua Tree National Park, located just 2 hours east of Los Angeles, is a treasure trove of out of this world scenery, hiking and rock scrambling, making it an ideal destination for a family day trip or weekend escape. In our opinion, this desert oasis combing the Mojave and Colorado deserts is one of the best places to visit as a family in Southern California, well… as long as it’s not summer that is!

There is an abundance of things to do in and out of the park to keep everyone in the family happy. Here I will focus on things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids. The park has two unique ecosystems and totally different appearances with the joining of the different deserts, so take the time to fully explore the entire park if you can. Otherwise, I share our 1 day itinerary below for those who need to breeze through.

Pick Up Your Junior Ranger Booklet

First things first – pick up your Junior Park Ranger booklet at the Visitor center as you enter the park. This is a great way to learn more about the park in a fun and engaging way as well as go home with a free souvenir! Grownups, you can complete a booklet too, it’s not just for the kiddos!

Scramble on Rocks

There are so many opportunities for scrambling over rocks in Joshua Tree that you must make sure to let your little one get out there and climbing! The rocks are granite which means they are quite rough making climbing safe and fun! Our favorite places to clamber over rocks is Skull Rocks, Hidden Valley and the White Tank area.

See Water in the Desert

One of your best opportunities to see water in the desert is on the hike to Barker Dam.  This is relatively short hike at 1.5 miles, which can be done as a loop or as an in/out trail only visiting the dam area. The trail is fun for kids as first trail in the park as they will be able to learn more about the history, plant and animal life in the area and throughout Joshua Tree.

Find Evidence of the Past

Joshua Tree has an amazing history that includes mining and homesteading, which has stayed well maintained in the dry desert landscape. Some of these places are well off the beaten trail, but many are quite accessible. Explore Key’s Ranch, Silver Bell Mine or Ryan’s Ranch to get a feel of what this area was once home too. If you can hike for a while, check out the old cars on the Wall Street Mill hike which can be accessed from the parking lot of Barker Dam.

One Day Itinerary – Joshua Tree with Kids

If you only have one day to visit Joshua Tree National Park, don’t worry, you will have time to 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.

For those visiting in 1 day, I recommend to start your day through one entrance and exit through another. My ideal itinerary has visitors starting at the main entrance (Hwy 62, Twentynine Palms Highway and Park Boulevard in the Village of Joshua Tree) and exiting 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, passing through the Cottonwood area after dark.

Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids

Rock Caves behind Hidden Valley picnic area

First Stop: Hiking at Barker Dam

As you drive through the park head towards Hidden Valley and Barker Dam areas. 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 great for families.

For a first hike, I prefer 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. You can read more about this hike on our post dedicated to Joshua Tree hiking for first timers.

There are so many things to do in Joshua Tree with kids

Barker Dam with water

Second Stop: Lunch at Hidden Valley

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’.

If you aren’t up to do the actual Hidden Valley hike, just pop behind the caves and picnic tables to let the kids do a little rock scrambling here to work off their lunch.

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!

Third Stop: See the San Andreas Fault

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!

Things to do in Joshua Tree with kids

Jumbo Rocks

Fourth Stop: Stretch your legs at Jumbo Rocks

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.

Fifth Stop: Watch the Sun Set at Cholla Cactus Garden

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 most likely 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 seemingly fly around landing on you even when you don’t notice them on the ground!

Things to do in Joshua Tree with kids

Sun setting on the way to Cholla Cactus Garden

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 Interstate 10 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 son who constantly begs to go back to “Joshman Tree”! Don’t put it off anymore, go experience it yourself.

Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids

Cholla Cactus Garden at sunset

Joshua Tree National Park Details

When to Go

Anytime, err well anytime except June – September when temperatures 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.

Cell service is spotty at best and almost non-existent in the park. If you are meeting friends, make your arrangements prior to entering the park.

Park Entrance

There are 3 entrances to the park – the West Entrance which is often called the main entrance, the Cottonwood Entrance which is south and the 29 Palms entrance which is north. Most visitors find their way into the park through the West Entrance which means wait times to get through the entrance can be long during peak season or on holiday weekends.

Entrance to the park costs $20 for one visit (good for 7 days) or $30 for an annual pass (go for the year pass – trust me you will want to return!).

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)
Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids

Hiking at Hidden Valley

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 with great personality. One of our favorite places to stay is in 29 Palms as that allows us to see another section of the park as well.

However if you go at the last minute and nothing is available, we have been known to hop over to Palm Springs since there is an abundance of last minute hotel options. We get to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant and see some of our favorite family friendly Palm Springs attractions! 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 stargazing 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.

There are some great glamping options in Joshua Tree we have spied out as well. None of these float your boat? Search below to see what else is available during your visit.

Have you been to Joshua Tree? What is your favorite area to explore?

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Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids - One Day Itinerary

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25 Responses to “Guide to Exploring Joshua Tree with Kids (+ 1 Day Itinerary)”

  1. Sarah Hirsch Says:

    Wow, beautiful photos! Thanks for the advice- we have thought of visiting on trips to Palm Springs and have yet to make it there. Hopefully soon!


  2. Katja - globetotting Says:

    How beautiful!! This really looks so amazing, I’d love to visit one day. Great tips and lots of practical advice too. We’ll make it there one day I hope!
    Katja – globetotting recently posted…Chincheros, The Sacred Valley, Peru – with kidsMy Profile


  3. Nicole Says:

    Bookmarked! We are planning to visit in the next few months, so this will come in very handy. Thank you for sharing.
    Nicole recently posted…Whale Watching SafariMy Profile


  4. Allison Says:

    Beautiful! I think of U2 when I hear Joshua Tree too, but would now love to visit this park with my family.
    Allison recently posted…Oslo, Norway, City Guide for FamiliesMy Profile


  5. Mary {The World Is A Book} Says:

    Beautiful photos and a great itinerary! We love this park and it’s been far too long since our last visit. Thanks for the reminder that we need to go back during cooler weather. We’ll need to try some of the hikes here.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted…Bora Bora: Postcards from ParadiseMy Profile


  6. Lesley Says:

    That sunset photo is stunning. We live close to Joshua Tree but I never thought to visit with my daughter. We’re going to add it to our local list immediately.
    Lesley recently posted…Dominica Bucket ListMy Profile


  7. robin Says:

    What a stunning park. Thank you for your beautiful pictures. This is a new trip we must take. My husband is a die-hard U2 fan, so I know he’ll happily oblige.


  8. Laura Says:

    Thank you for the great ideas! Heading out to Joshua Tree this weekend. Will you share the name of your favorite Mexican restaurant that you mentioned in the post?


    • kkowen Says:

      It’s las casuelas terrezas. It’s Tex-mex which is what I grew up with and super yummy!

      We were just out there this week. Beautiful weather right now. If you are around on sat night head out to the Sky’s the limit observatory for their sat night star party. It’s free and super fun to see the stars through their telescopes.


      • Laura Says:

        Great – thank you! We will be there on Sat and one of my sons loves astronomy, so that will be perfect!


  9. Callie Says:

    Can you provide any insight on the seasonal rattlesnake situation in the park when planning a Feb. visit? Other than the usual precautions of not sticking your hand in places you can’t see, looking where you walk, etc., I hear the snake activity, as far as seeing more of them, is typically in mid March to June when the days are warmer? Just want to make sure I cover all my bases and am being smart and using common sense.



    • kkowen Says:

      You probably won’t see any. We have been so many times and have never seen one! If you do see one it will be in the sunniest place soaking up the warmth.

      We were just in Death Valley and the park ranger said there they were all hidden for winter.


  10. Callie Says:

    Forgot to add, will be traveling with 11 and 8 year old to the park.


    • kkowen Says:

      As long as you educate your kids on not putting their hands in places they can’t see and to listen for the rattle then they will be fine. They will love jumbo rocks so make sure to spend some time there!


  11. Kate S. Says:

    Thank you! We just took our “Every Kid in a Park” passes out to Joshua Tree. This post helped us plan our day and our 8- and 9-year-olds had a wonderful time exploring Barker Dam, Skull Rock and the Cholla Garden. We definitely want to come back!


    • kkowen Says:

      So awesome! Glad you have the pass and that this post helped plan your time there. It’s one of our favorite parks!



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