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Photos by Allison Peterson

Your guide to Joshua Tree National Park with kids

Spend the day hiking, rock climbing, and taking in the desert views

Joshua Tree National Park is a natural playground, making it the perfect destination to visit with kids. Located in Southern California at the intersection of two deserts (The Mojave and the Colorado), Joshua Tree National Park offers visitors the chance to explore unique plants, animals, landforms, and geologic features. With giant boulders to climb and ancient petroglyphs to discover, kids (and their grown ups!) will make memories to last a lifetime.

Planning Your Visit: When to go and what to bring

October through May is the peak season for visiting Joshua Tree National Park when temperatures are relatively mild, with daytime highs between 60 and 80 degrees. Spring is the busiest season, especially near the holidays. Avoid visiting Joshua Tree during the summer months when temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees during the day. Plan to arrive before 10 a.m. to avoid crowds and the day’s high heat.

Joshua Tree National Park is easiest to access via a 2-hour flight from Seattle to Palm Springs. Palm Springs is about an hour from Joshua Tree National Park, or you can make a home base in another nearby town closer to the park’s entrance. There are three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park: The West Entrance (about 20 minutes from the city of Joshua Tree), the North Entrance (about 10 miles from the town of Twentynine Palms, or 30 minutes from the city of Joshua Tree), and the South Entrance (about 30 minutes from the town of Indio).

(Read more about travel to Palm Springs and things to do with the family.)

The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and visitors are welcome to enter or leave at any time. An entrance fee of $30 per vehicle (including all passengers) allows you access to the park for seven days. Once you are inside the park, there are no additional fees for parking.

Plan ahead because the park has no services inside. There are no hotels, gas stations, electric vehicle charging stations, water stations, restaurants, or grocery stores. Bring plenty of food and water and make sure your vehicle is fully fueled before you enter the park.

It’s also a good idea to bring a backpack with “The 10 Essentials” that you carry on any hikes: navigation (this includes paper maps or downloaded maps of the area that can be used offline since cell service is not accessible in all areas of the park), water, food, rain gear (even in the desert, weather can change quickly!), a fire starter, a first aid kit, a multitool or pocket knife, a light source, sun protection (including sunglasses and sunscreen), and a signal whistle.

Hiking

One of the biggest draws for Joshua Tree National Park visitors is the vast network of trails stretching over 300 miles. Bring sturdy shoes and a backpack with essentials. Always bring extra water since there are no water sources along the trails. You may also want to bring tight-fitting grip gloves for climbing on the huge boulders that line most trails because I can guarantee kids (and kids at heart) will want to climb them! Most trails are not stroller-friendly, so bring baby carriers or packs (even toddlers may get tired and enjoy a ride before the adults are done exploring).

As you explore the trails, keep your eye out for native desert plants that you won’t find in the Pacific Northwest. Most prevalent are the park’s namesake, Joshua Trees. Resembling something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, these whimsical plants are actually part of the Agave family. Park visitors will also encounter many varieties of cacti, including prickly pear and cholla–remind kids that these “owie plants” can hurt if you touch them, so it’s best to admire them from a distance.

While the park is fairly easy to navigate, private hiking tours are available for those who would prefer to explore the trails with a knowledgeable guide.

Kid-friendly hiking trails

Arch Rock Trail

A great hike for kids is the 1.4-mile Arch Rock trail. For the easiest access to the trail, park at the Twin Tanks parking lot. There is no restroom at this trailhead, but a rustic restroom is nearby at the White Tank Campground. About halfway through the trail, you’ll find its namesake, a giant stone arch that can be scaled for incredible photo ops. Take the short 0.3-mile roundtrip detour for another great photo op to view another iconic boulder, Heart Rock.

Skull Rock

If Heart Rock gets you in the mood to find more shape-specific boulders, then check out Skull Rock. Just off the main road through the park, Skull Rock is easily accessible for a quick visit or a semi-spooky photo op. Continue exploring by hiking the 1.7-mile Skull Rock loop trail, where you’ll find more boulders, desert landscapes, and wildflowers during the bloom season (usually late January through mid-April).

Discovery Loop Trail and Split Rock Trail

From Skull Rock, you can also take the 0.7-mile Discovery Loop Trail to connect to the Split Rock Trail. This short trail was designed by local kids for kids, and information plaques along it highlight features of the environment.

Even if you don’t take the Discovery Loop Trail, you can drive up the road to the Split Rock parking lot. The namesake split rock–a giant boulder the size of a small skyscraper split down the center–is at the trailhead, making this a fun and easy spot to explore. Rustic restrooms and picnic tables are also available at the Split Rock trailhead. Take the 2.4-mile Split Rock loop trail for a “best of” scenery tour, including incredible rock formations, slot canyons, and spots to watch rock climbers rappelling down rock faces.

Barker Dam Trail and rock climbing

The Barker Dam trail is another short and sweet hike with big payoffs. This 1.1-mile loop trail takes hikers past Barker Dam, the only visible natural water inside Joshua Tree National Park (Note: Water in the dam depends on rainfall, so water may not always be visible). The trail also passes a rock art site where ancient petroglyphs can be found, pointing to human history inside the park.

If seeing all of the boulders along the trail makes you want to climb even more, you can schedule family-friendly rock climbing tours with a private company. These tours provide guides and gear in all sizes to help climbers have a safe and fun adventure.

Explore outside the park

After you’ve explored Joshua Tree National Park’s wonders, take some time to explore the area around it.

One fun stop is Pioneertown, a western-themed town located just outside Joshua Tree. Created in 1946 by Hollywood investors for use as a movie set, over 50 productions were filmed in Pioneertown during the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the town maintains its Western theme, but independent businesses run the storefronts, including art studios, general stores, and gift shops. A handful of restaurants and snack shops are also available for visitors. The Pioneertown website has a self-guided tour so visitors can freely explore the town.

If the boulders inside Joshua Tree have got you craving more geology, stop by the Joshua Tree Rock Shop. Located in the town of Joshua Tree, this small shop contains rocks of different shapes, sizes, and colors from around the world. Customers can even purchase geodes and then crack them open in the shop’s geode cracking machine. The shop also offers a kid-friendly mining experience.

At the end of your day, head outside and look up–way up! Joshua Tree and the surrounding areas are well-known for their excellent stargazing opportunities. Lay out a comfy blanket or hammock, and enjoy this sparkly side of nature.

Where to stay

There is no lodging within Joshua Tree National Park, so most visitors stay in one of the nearby towns or cities. We opted to make our home base in the town of Joshua Tree, just outside the park’s West and North entrances. This location gave us easy access to the park and necessities like grocery stores and restaurants while still giving us the feel of being removed from the bustle of the big city.

Vacation Rentals

Using a vacation rental website or apps like AirBnB or VRBO is a great way to find a home away from home near Joshua Tree National Park. With hundreds of offerings in the area, it’s easy to find vacation homes with various sizes, amenities, and price points. Many vacation homes in the area offer pools or hot tubs but keep in mind that pools may not be heated (which can make for chilly swimming in the cooler months, which is better for visiting the park). A bonus to staying in a vacation home is that you can cook your meals, saving time and money while on vacation.

Glamping

The area around Joshua Tree has many glamping accommodations to give visitors unique lodging experiences. From yurts to airstream trailers to micro-cabins, choosing a glamping experience could be the most memorable part of your vacation! Many vacation rental websites like Airbnb have glamping filters, or you can book glamping reservations through a dedicated service like GlampingHub.com.

Camping

If you want to stay inside Joshua Tree National Park, camping is your only option. Most of the 500 campsites within the park are available by reservation only, and reservations open six months in advance on recreation.gov. Sites range from $20-$25 per night, and some campsites have access to water and flush toilets. Many campgrounds offer scheduled ranger talks and shows amidst the beautiful desert surroundings.

Hotels

Several hotels are located in the towns adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Search for hotel locations in Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, or Twentynine Palms for the closest access to the park entrance. If you’re up for a longer drive to the park, you can stay in Palm Springs, where hotels and family-friendly resorts abound.

Joshua Tree National Park is an inspiring place to behold, and with these tips, your trip will be a cinch. In the words of my teenager, “Joshua Tree is pretty much the coolest non-man-made place I’ve ever seen!”. That, my friends, is reason enough to visit!

 

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About the Author

Allison Peterson

Allison Peterson is a former elementary teacher turned full-time driver/chef/tutor/nurse/coach/memory-maker to three children who call her "Mom". She lives in Woodinville, and is always looking for her next adventure!