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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10 Magical Things to Do in Joshua Tree
Joshua 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.
Earn A Junior Ranger Badge
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! Make sure to check out any scheduled ranger programs if they are offered. We have always found ranger talks and ranger led hikes to be the best ways to learn the intricate details of the park before heading off on our own.
See Water in the Desert at Barker Dam
One of your best opportunities to see water in the desert is at one of the most family friendly hikes at Barker Dam. This is relatively short hike at 1.5 mile, can be completed 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.
Everyone 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.
Hike Hidden Valley
Our second favorite hike for new visitors to Joshua Tree is at Hidden Valley. If you are on a short timeline, you will probably have to choose between Barker Dam and Hidden Valley (or follow our 1 day itinerary below to get the best out of both areas!). This is a moderate 1 mile walk around varying terrain. There are flat areas and places to scramble over rocks. It is a kid friendly hike, but not stroller friendly. At times you might feel you have lost the trail, no fear, you will meet up with it again fairly easily.
See the San Andreas Fault Line at Key’s View
If you live in California you have heard of the San Andreas fault line many times. For those of you new to the state, this is the major fault line that runs through the state is is feared to bring the next big earthquake. Here in Joshua Tree you can see the fault line as it runs through the park from Key’s View.
I love driving through this area. This area feels like you are in another world surrounded by Joshua trees on all sides. It really is just magical. It also helps that my little one usually has a little snooze on this 20 minute detour off the main road.
Scramble on Rock Formations at Skull Rock
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 rock climbing safe and fun! Our favorite places to clamber over rocks is Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rocks. If you are up for more hiking, check out the 1.7 mile loop 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.
Explore the Joshua Tree Mine/Ranch History
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.
One of our favorites is the Ryan Ranch Trail. It is a flat, easy 1 mile out and back hike that leads to the remains of Ryan Ranch. Even for non-hikers, this is a fun and easy thing to do in Joshua Tree. Families will enjoy spending time to explore the old adobe brick buildings and looking for the broken windmill, old fencing, ‘trash’ left behind by the settlers and so much more.
Climb Around Arch Rock
You can’t visit Joshua Tree without a photo of Arch Rock – or so say the Instagrammers! Arch Rock is a large rock formation on the Arch Rock desert loop trail. This short 20 minute hike is easy to do and offers beautiful scenery along the way. The trail is located at the White Tank Campground (which is also a favorite camping spot!) making it easily accessible even for day trippers.
Discover Preserved Cars from the Past
One of the coolest things I have experienced at Joshua Tree is discovering preserved cars from the past. If you are up for a a little longer hike (2.4 miles), definitely take time to check out the old cars on the Wall Street Mill hike which can be accessed from the parking lot of Barker Dam.
This area of Joshua Tree is a great peak into the history of the park. Seeing an abandoned ore mill (or as some might say a Old West themed Disneyland ride), windmill and mine debris is pretty cool no matter your age. This atmospheric area is perfect for Instagram photos. There is no shade, so plan appropriately when you set out.
Cholla Cactus Garden
One of the best places to visit in Joshua Tree is the Cholla Cactus Garden trail. We highly recommend visiting this area around sunset when the cactus garden looks even more magical with their iridescent glow as dusk sets in. We find this part of the park 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!
Stargazing at 29 Palms Observatory
If you have made it to the end of day at Joshua Tree and you still have energy, you must find your way outdoors for stargazing in the dark night sky. One of the best things to do in Joshua Tree is to attend an open observatory night at the 29 Palms observatory. It doesn’t happen every night, but when it does, make sure to visit. Otherwise, head out on your owen, lay down a blanket and enjoy seeing a sky filled with more stars that you have probably ever seen.
Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary
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. However there are so many things to do in Joshua Tree we highly suggest you visit again (and again!).
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.
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 of these hikes and think they are both top things to do in Joshua Tree for families. However if you plan to follow our guide you will get a glimpse of Hidden Valley at your lunch stop, so head out on Barker Dam for something a bit different.
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.
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 loop 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.
As the sun sets you can head out of the park at the Cottonwood Visitor center 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).
Joshua Tree National Park Details
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.
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. Pinto Basin Road from the North Entrance heads about 36 miles into the park to the South Entrance – fyi!
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 to Joshua Tree
- 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 in Joshua Tree
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. For those interested in the dark night sky programs, make sure to make your way to the 29 Palms area.
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 a great 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. You can also check out White Tank Campground.
There are some great glamping options in Joshua Tree we have spied out as well. None of these float your boat? Search Booking.com below to see what else is available during your visit.
If you are in the area for a while, take a drive out to one of the wackiest areas in the desert – the Salton Sea!
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.
Have you been to Joshua Tree? What is your favorite area to explore?
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