Not far from the desert oasis of Palm Springs, this national park is a worthy day trip for families.
Is Joshua Tree the kind of national park where you come to camp for a week? No, not really. But if you’re vacationing in nearby Palm Springs or Palm Desert, I do think that it’s a worthwhile day trip for a family to see the oddly-shaped trees that give the park its name. Timing is everything, though. With its desert location, this park can be pretty unbearable in the summer, so aim for the cooler months in late fall, winter or early spring. Spring is actually my favorite time to visit, when you can witness the bursts of color from the flowering cacti.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at one of the visitor centers to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit; know that at this park, you actually may have to ask the rangers to run the film as there doesn’t seem to be a set schedule.
What to do?
You can either explore this park by entering on the north side and working your way south or vice versa. Know the park doesn’t offer any amenities like restaurants or snack bars, so pack a lunch and plenty of water.
KidTripster Tip: Catch one of the ranger programs; check at the visitors center for a schedule.
My favorite part of the park is the Cholla Cactus Garden, where you can see and photograph vibrant cactus flowers in the spring. It’s a short 1/4-mile loop, perfect for little ones. You’ll also see blooming wildflowers in different sections of the park from February through April.
But if you were to ask my kids, their favorite stop definitely would be Jumbo Rocks. Here you can freely explore; no need to say on the trail. My sons, ages 12 and 15, scrambled across the giant boulders for more than an hour, each trying to outdo the other. Skull Rock is a unique rock formation that resembles a face. Even my husband took on the challenge of scaling it from “ear to ear.”
If you have a young geologist, drive the 18-mile geology motor tour that runs through the park’s most fascinating landscapes. It'll take you about two hours to make the trip along a dirt road; an interpretive brochure provides information for each of the 16 stops. Part of the drive should only be attempted in a four-wheel-drive vehicle; the road is not suitable for RVs or trailers.
For other recommendations of things to do in the Palm Springs area, click here.
Where to stay?
During the busy season (October to May), you can reserve spots at Black Rock and Indian Cove up to six months in advance; the rest of the year, it’s first-come, first-served; potable water is available. Rate: $20/night.
For the other six campgrounds, it’s first-come, first-served all year. Cost: $15/night at campgrounds without water; $20/night at campgrounds with potable water. If you’re camping in your RV, know that none of the campgrounds in Joshua Tree have hookups.
But frankly because of the heat, I’d recommend staying in the Palm Springs area, where your family can enjoy more amenities. We opted for Emerald Desert RV Resort, which really is more of a resort setting than campground with two pools, plus tennis and pickle ball courts. The resort has full hookups, cable, and Wi-Fi. Rates start at $50/night.
Joshua Tree National Park is a 1-hour drive from the Palm Springs area, whether you’re entering on the north or south side of the park. As long as you’re in the general area, consider a multi-day visit to surprising diverse Death Valley National Park about four hours from Joshua Tree.
KidTripster Tip: There are very few areas of the park where you’ll be able to get cell coverage. Don’t rely on your cell phone for navigation.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.