We owe our thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt for having the foresight to see the beauty in a vast desert landscape that most considered to be harsh and inhospitable. In 1936, he created Joshua Tree National Monument in Southern California, protecting nearly 800,000 acres of Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems. In 1994, Joshua Tree became the nation’s 54th national park.
The western half of the park is dominated by the illustrious Joshua Tree. If you’ve ever read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, then you might already be acquainted. These wild-armed trees are actually members of the yucca family, and many live to be 300 years old and reach heights of 20 to 30 feet tall. The name Joshua Tree was coined by traveling Mormons, who thought the trees looked like they were worshiping the heavens, with their “arms” raised in prayer.
My son and I recently explored Joshua Tree National Park and we were surprised and delighted by those magical trees, as well as the ranger-led programs, and the fields of boulders with climbers all over them.
Here are some helpful tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
Jumbo Rocks Campground is the Most Family Friendly
And it’s the most beautiful! The sites are incredibly spacious, offer tons of privacy, and allow you to catch the sunrise and sunset in the park without having to drive to the surrounding towns to find a hotel. I know that camping isn’t for everyone, but I highly recommend trying it! Jumbo Rocks is a surreal landscape with 124 sites. The town of Twentynine Palms is 13 miles from the campground and Joshua Tree (our favorite town for eating out) is 23 miles away. We stayed in campsite #16 – close to the restroom, and nestled against a giant rock for protection from the wind.
An important note: There is no firewood within the park. If you’re hoping for grilled hot dogs and s’mores, be sure to stop at a grocery store or gas station outside the park to pick some up. While you’re there, pick up a few gallons of water. Jumbo Rocks campground doesn’t provide water to campers.
Keys View is the Place to Watch the Sunset
Time and time again, locals told us not to miss the sunset at Keys View, so I’m passing that information on to you. We did head out there one blustery evening, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun setting, but all we saw was fog — this view, actually:
There are Lots of Family-Friendly Hikes in the Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best hiking destinations for families. I’ll admit that I was hiking with a teenager, but we saw lots of toddlers and elementary-age kids on our adventures. Kudos to you parents who are trying to get your kids outside! Here are a few of our favorite family-friendly hikes in Joshua Tree:
- Skull Rock Nature Trail – We loved this one because it begins and ends in Jumbo Rocks Campground, where we were staying. It’s an easy 1.7 mile loop, with lots of cool rock formations and interpretive signs.
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail – Hidden Valley is, in my opinion, the most scenic part of the park. It’s also the busiest. The Hidden Valley Nature trail is another easy loop (just a mile), and it’s also one of the best places in the park to watch the rock climbers.
- Wall Street Mill Trail – At 3 miles (1.5 miles each way), this hike might be a little long for the youngest hikers, but this is the most interesting hike! Not only are there incredible rock formations and crazy Joshua trees, but there’s also an old mine, abandoned buildings, and a really cool rusted out car.
If You Have Older Kids, Be Sure to Take the Keys Ranch Tour
This was definitely the highlight of our trip. I suggest it for older kids because the ranger spends a good deal of time talking about the history of the ranch and its inhabitants. Kids 10+ should enjoy it, younger if they’re really into history.
The Keys family homesteaded here from for more than 60 years, and the national park service has done a fabulous job of preserving the ranch. You can tour all the outbuildings and peak in the windows of the farm house. Highlights include an appliance graveyard, a crazy chicken coop, and several old cars and trucks.
Tours of the Keys Ranch are offered Thursday through Saturday at 2 PM. You have to buy your tickets ($10) at the Oasis Visitor Center on the morning of your tour. To preserve the area, visitors are not allowed to visit the ranch unless they are part of a ranger-led tour.
Be Mindful of Desert Dangers
Exploring Joshua Tree National Park is a lot of fun for kids, but the desert landscape does pose a few challenges. Here are a few tips for staying safe while exploring the park:
- Dangerous plants – Cactus, Joshua trees, and yucca plants all have dangerous spikes, spines, or thorns that can be really painful if they come in contact with your skin. Kids should be taught not to touch any desert plants unless an adult gives the okay. They should also stick to the path to avoid running into the plants.
- Poisonous Snakes, Spiders, and Scorpions – Unless you’re visiting Joshua Tree National Park between November and February, you should be prepared to encounter snakes, scorpions, and spiders. Snakes will sun themselves across trails and roadways on warm days, and tarantulas can be found hunting for mates in October. Remind your kids not to reach their hands into crevices where critters may be hiding out. For the most part, these creatures avoid humans. Don’t let their presence deter you from enjoying the park.
- Dehydration and Sunburn – There is very little water available in the park, so it’s important to fill up at visitor centers or buy lots of water before you come into the park. Encourage your youngsters to drink up, even if they aren’t thirsty. High SPF sunblock is also recommended, along with sunglasses and hats with wide brims.
Good to Know
Where: Joshua Tree National Park is located in Southern California. It’s a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, and within a day’s drive of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Diego.
When: The wildflowers bloom in late February/early March and the temperatures are seasonable. It’s our favorite time to explore. Winter is also lovely, but it may be too cold to camp. I would stay away in the summer months, because it just gets too hot to hike comfortably.
How much: The entrance fee is $25 for a carload and it’s good for seven consecutive days. Camping fees vary, depending on the campground, but average $15 per night. Jumbo Rocks Campground does not accept reservations, but you should be able to secure a spot if you get there before noon.
How long: One day or more
Amenities: The park has four visitor centers with modern toilets, water and book stores.
Connectivity: None! There’s no cell service or WiFi within the park. You should be able to get cell service in Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, and Palm Springs, and many of the local restaurants and cafes provide WiFi service.
How else can I help?
Traveling by air? The nearest airport is in Palm Springs. We recommend SkyScanner or AirfareWatchdog to compare fares from major airlines. Then book directly from the airline, rather than a 3rd party site. Find out why HERE.
Need a rental car? There is no public transportation at Joshua Tree National Park, so you will need to drive or rent your own vehicle. Compare rates for dozens of top agencies at CarRentals.com.
Need a place to stay? Camping is the best way to really see this park, but there are also lots of good lodging options in Twentynine Palms or Palm Springs. Check rates and read reviews at TripAdvisor.com. If you prefer a vacation rental, try HomeAway.