Exploring Joshua Tree National Park with Kids
When I first saw the now famous U2 Joshua Tree album cover I have wanted to see the terrain with my own eyes. It seemed so foreign to me as a forest-living Canadian. Almost alien looking. After many years of visiting and exploring around the Palm Desert area we finally packed our hiking gear, a picnic and prepped the kids for a day in Joshua Tree National Park.
Our first visit to Joshua Tree National Park blew us away and exceeded our expectations. We didn't realize how accessible it would be and how kid-friendly it is. The rock formations are extraordinary and the landscapes are breathtaking. Our kids loved exploring on the giant rocks, seeking out lizards and watching all the rock climbers make their way up massive granite rock faces. We also spent time in the eclectic community of Joshua Tree, enjoyed a delicious espresso at Joshua Tree Coffee and ended up having dinner at Papi & Harrient's because what is a good adventure without a smoked dinner at a desert biker bar?!
What to know before you go
Doing a little research before you go will make your day much smoother. There is no cell reception in the park and no access to WiFi. We downloaded directions to our Google Maps for offline use but felt more comfortable (and nostalgic!) using a good ol' fashioned map. When driving from the Palm Desert/Palm Springs area you have two entrance choices: the main Joshua Tree National Park entrance at the Visitor Centre and one to the South East of the valley that is less populated and gets you to the Cottonwood Visitor Centre. Which one do you choose? We recommend the main visitor centre that is located in the town of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood side is more remote and is a further drive from the main areas you will want to explore.
You Need a National Park Pass
Buying a park pass online before your trip is the easiest but you can also purchase your pass at any visitor centre. The pass costs $30 and is good for 7 days. Do not wait to buy your pass at the park gate (although you can) because you will end up waiting in a longer line.
Choose Your Route
Before heading out on our family hiking adventure we did a little research on various blogs - much like you are doing now! There are many areas of interest in the park and we recommend selecting a few and saving some for the next trip. I say this because with younger children in the desert you always have to consider the rising heat. The park gates open at 7:30am. We got there at 9am which was a bit later that we wanted. I recommend getting there closer to 8-8:30am. You will also beat the morning rush.
The areas we chose to visit for our first experience with Joshua Tree were Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, Jumbo Rocks and Arch Rock. We had the Cactus Gardens on the list as well but we tuckered out before then!
Bring Plenty of Water
It goes without saying but it is a desert! We packed triple the amount of water we would normally bring and made sure we kept everyone hydrated. Dehydration can sneak up on you when exerting yourself in the desert. There is no where to get water once in the park so this is a preparation must. We did see one mobile Ranger Station checking in with people to see if they had supplies and water but that was it.
Hidden Valley Loop
The Hidden Valley loop is a 1.4 Mile trail that wanders through massive boulder fields. It is called Hidden Valley because once you are on the trail you are quickly taken away from the parking lot and feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. The trail can be hiked as a loop or you can go out and back depending on your family's age and endurance level. The trail is well marked but there are plenty of opportunities to crawl around on the boulders and get to different vantage points. This is likely the most busy area of the park at any given time. It has a large parking lot and a nice picnic area as well as a few pit toilet washrooms. if the parking lot is full you can find a spot back on the main road. I recommend dropping your family off at the trailhead area and walking back after you park the car. You don't want to tire everyone out before they get started!
"Here lizard, lizard, lizard..."
Our kids loved seeing all the lizards scurrying around. The lizards seemed equally curious which made it fun for the kids. it also helped that we had visited The Living Desert in Palm Desert a few days earlier. They had learned all about the local lizards and were constantly debating about which type each lizard was! On that note, be sure to get your kids set up with the Jr Range program. You can get them the exploration book at the Visitor Centre and they can work their way through it while you are on your adventures. At the of the day you can take the kids back into the Visitor Centre and get them registered as a Jr. Ranger! There are also periodic ranger presentations for kids at various location in the park. Check that day for times and locations. Our interactions with the Park Rangers were amazing. They are awesome at what they do and you can see they really love sharing the park with the kids.
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