We think visiting USA National Parks with kids is one of the best vacations that you can take as a family. This post oshares everything you need to know about visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids or toddlers from practical tips to the best things to do in the park with kids including the best family friendly hikes in the park.
Written by Kirsty from World for a Girl
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids
There is something magical about the sublime desert landscapes that greet you at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Whether it is the twisted Joshua trees themselves or the dramatic scenery, there is an other-worldly atmosphere here in the desert. The sense of strangeness makes Joshua Tree National Park a captivating place to visit with kids.
Why visit Joshua Tree National Park?
This popular California national park is located where the Colorado and Mojave deserts merge. The topography of the region is unique with wonderful hidden microclimates, unusual rock formations and some amazing viewpoints.
The unusual Joshua Trees are themselves enough of a reason to plan a visit. The park’s name was, in fact, given to this area of land by Mormon settlers who believed that the plants they discovered looked like their Prophet Joshua with his arms raised. What the Mormons did not know was that Joshua Trees aren’t trees at all. They are actually a type of yucca plant that can grow to 40 foot tall. Although they do look a lot like trees when they are in bloom.
Practicalities for visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids
Joshua Tree National Park is located not far from Palm Springs making it an easy park to tag on to a road trip through South California.
You can buy a park pass easily at the visitor centers and entrance stations in the park. A pass (for a car and passengers) costs US$30 and is valid for 1 week. Alternatively, you can buy an annual pass for US$55- a great offer if you live locally.
Before you enter the park, be sure that you have at least half a tank of petrol/ fuel in your vehicle. Also, be aware that there is very poor cell phone reception in the park. Make sure that you pick up a map from the visitors center or download one on your device beforehand.
What is the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is open all year round but the conditions do vary with the seasons. In the summer, temperatures are on average 100^F / 30^C meaning it’s going to be hot all day. In the winter, temperatures are cooler but shorter days mean you will need to plan your hikes carefully to be back before dark.
Spring is a great time to visit Joshua Tree National Park with kids. The weather is still cool in the mornings and late afternoons. The wild flowers are in bloom throughout the park including the Joshua Trees themselves which bloom from February to April. You also might be able to spot more wildlife in the cooler weather.
How long should you spend in Joshua Tree National Park?
The proximity of Joshua Tree to Palm Springs means it is possible to visit the park in just one day. You can easily drive through the park. This way you enter through the West or North Entrance Stations and exit past the Cottonwood Visitors Center (or vica versa). Alternatively, many of the kid-friendly attractions in Joshua Tree National Park are located in the northwestern corner of the park. A short loop in this area would be perfect for a family day out.
Don’t rush through Joshua Tree National Park though if you don’t have to. Remember your pass is valid for one week. There are several campgrounds (in tranquil and remote spots) throughout the park and great accommodation options nearby and in Palm Springs.
What to bring to Joshua Tree National Park with toddlers and kids?
The rocky desert terrain is no place for a stroller. Leave it in the car. Instead, if you have babies or toddlers bring along baby carriers. Yes, you’ll get sweaty carrying them but it will save your back (literally) if they get tired of walking. There are also plenty of options for hot weather baby carriers which might be worth investing in if you are visiting the park.
As well as your half-tank of fuel and a downloaded map, you will need to bring water. Lots and lots of water. Remember this is a desert and, if anything goes wrong, you will need to stay hydrated. Don’t leave it all in the car though, make sure you have lots of water for everyone in your daypack.
Bring plenty of snacks for the children. Leave any thing that can melt at home unless you want a big mess. If you have a cool bag or icebox to keep in the car that’s a great idea. There are picnic tables throughout the park but few places to buy food so come well-prepared.
Finally, Joshua Tree National Park is not somewhere you want to visit if you’ve forgotten to charge your camera. Bring a spare battery or a car changer. You don’t want to miss all the amazing photo opportunities!
How to keep your kids safe in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a desert environment. Unlike woodlands and forests, it can seem somewhat inhospitable and full of hidden dangers like snakes hiding behind rocks.
Yes, there are dangers but with a little organisation you’re unlikely to have any issues travelling to Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
Firstly, the biggest danger is HEAT. Bring plenty of water (the park’s website suggests 4 litres per person). Make sure that you have wide-brimmed hats for everyone and good quality, high-factor sunscreen.
Secondly, there are rattlesnakes and other poisonous creatures in the park. You are unlikely to see them as a daytime visitor. It is always a good idea to ask about the dangers at the one of visitor centers. Make sure that older children are aware of what they can and can’t touch.
It is a sensible idea to wear long trousers / pants and sturdy, closed-toe shoes when visiting the park. There are cacti and prickly plants everywhere. Encourage little ones to stick to the marked trails and keep covered up unless they want spikes in their skin!
Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids
Convincing kids that they want to visit yet another national park can be hard work. However, there’s something about the unearthly and mysterious landscapes though that will captivate most children once they enter the park.
Here are some of the best activities to do in Joshua Tree National Park with children:
- Clambering and climbing
The abundance of rock formations in Joshua Tree National Park makes it the perfect place for some informal toddler bouldering. Kids will love the unusual rock shapes just waiting to be climbed and conquered.
- Wildlife spotting
Don’t think that just because Joshua Tree National Park is a desert that you won’t see any wildlife. It might appear barren but remember when there is flora, there is usually fauna too. Go at the right time of day and in the right season and you’ll spot iguanas, birds, tortoises, BigHorn sheep and lots of creepy crawlies.
- Cholla Cactus Garden
This fantastic sloping garden is full of ‘teddy bear’ cacti. It is a wonderful place for children to run around. Just make sure they keep their hands to themselves as those prickles are sharp!
- Visitor Centers
Joshua Tree National Park is home to three educational visitor centers. Stop by one and pick up a Junior Park Ranger booklet. The kid-friendly tasks will keep little ones motivated and engaged throughout your visit. If you complete the learning challenges, they could win their very own Park Rangers badge!
If your little ones like posing for the camera then you’ll be spoilt for beautiful backgrounds to take their picture against in the park. Keys View has one of the best panoramas in the whole park with views over the whole of the Coachella Valley and some of the Andreas Fault too. Looking westwards, it is the perfect spot for sunset.
If you’re lucky enough to spend a night camping in the park, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect place to glimpse the milky way. The clear, dark skies over the desert offer stunning stargazing opportunities. Definitely an incredible moment to share with older children.
Don’t just stay in the car all day, get out and explore the wonderful desert terrain by foot. There are plenty of easy, flat walks suitable for children of all ages. A selection of the best hikes for children are outlined below.
Family Friendly Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park with kids
There are many hiking trails around Joshua Tree National Park for all different fitness levels. If you’re visiting with young children, you may want to choose shorter hikes. Start as early as you can before the heat grows too intense and take things slowly.
Here are 3 easy walks to do with kids in Joshua Tree National Park:
Skull Rock Nature Trail
Starting right next to Jumbo Rocks Campground, this is a short hike. It is 1.7 miles long and should take around 1 and a half hours depending how fast you walk. The eponymous skull rock is towards the start of the walk and can be difficult to spot (or recognise as a skull!). This is one of the best family friendly hikes in Joshua Tree National Park to do with kids and is definitely one for your National Park Bucket List.
Hidden Valley Trail
A personal favourite, the Hidden Valley Trail is an easy 1 mile loop. Take your time as your children will be clambering over every rock that they come across. The Hidden Valley is so-called because the rocks have sheltered this area and created a unique microclimate. It is well-signposted with lots of signs telling you about the local vegetation. You also might be lucky and spot some chipmunks running around!
Barker Dam Trail
The Barker Dam is as dramatic as it is rare. How often do you see this much water in a desert? The dam itself was constructed by cattle ranchers to provide water for cattle that they were grazing in the area.
There’s an easy, circular walk down to the dam and back. The hike is 1.1 miles long and takes roughly 1 hour. It is mostly flat except for the stairs down to the dam. The water attracts lots of birds so it’s a great place to sit and watch nature for a while. But the stars of the show are the BigHorn Sheep which children will love watching congregate down by the dam. There are also Native American petroglyphs nearby.
With so many child-friendly activities and short, easy hikes, a visit to Joshua Tree National Park is a must if you are travelling through Southern California. The awe-inspiring scenery and dramatic rock formations will etched in your mind long after your visit.
With climbing, hiking and stargazing, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect park for adventurous children – and their parents!
Kirsty is a British family travel blogger currently living in sunny Malaysia. She has travelled to over 100 countries including 30 with her young children. She blogs about family travel with a dash of feminism at World for a Girl. Her goal is to inspire girls to be fearless global adventurers. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.