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Explore two deserts in one park that’s close to Los Angeles and Phoenix in Southern California. Joshua Tree National Park is known for its unique landscape with cactus that look soft but hurt, trees that are actually yucca and a rock that looks like a skull. Discover all this and more in Joshua Tree National Park with kids during a long weekend camping getaway or even a couple of hours since it’s right off Interstate 10.
Joshua Tree National Park with Kids
Joshua Tree National Park is the gateway to the southwest for roadtrippers headed east on Interstate 10. Every time I drive across Arizona into Southern California, I always detour through the park to see the unique ecosystem so close to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. I like that I can drive through it and see the famed Joshua Trees though some visitors stay a weekend or more.
Top Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
- Spot a Joshua Tree
- Take a hiking trail
- Find a cactus
- Stargaze in the Night Sky
- See the Jumbo Rock formations
- Spot animals, like bighorn sheep or coyotes
At the convergence of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is the home to unique plants and animals, like its namesake tree. In addition to a collection of cactus and yucca (a Joshua Tree is actually a yucca brevifolia), find dark skies and vast backcountry wilderness.
Read More: National Parks a Road Trip Away from LA
What to Do in 2 Hours at Joshua Tree
For road trippers traveling along Interstate 10, take a scenic drive through Joshua Tree National Park for a quick overview. I’ve done this on several occasions, even in summer. Always stop at a visitor center for current conditions and a map.
From the South Entrance, take Pinto Basin Road (one of the main roads) to see Cottonwood Springs, Ocotillo Patch, Cholla Cactus Garden and White Tank. On the Park Boulevard, see the Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock, Sheep Pass, Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, views of the Ryan Mountains and Quail Springs.
The West Entrance and North Entrance offer the highest concentration of Joshua trees along Park Boulevard with several stops along the way. Keys View provides a panorama of the Coachella Valley, located off Park Boulevard also.
What You Need to Know about Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
According to Yvonne Jasinski, a frequent national park visitor, do not rely on GPS to navigate to or within Joshua Tree National Park. You may be routed onto back country roads that may be impassable in your vehicle. You can approach Joshua Tree from Interstate 10 or California Highway 62 (the Twentynine Palms Highway).
For Yvonne, the best time to visit was spring when the average high temperature is around 85°F and the average low is 50° F. If you’re lucky, a large display of wildflowers is possible to find, depending on weather conditions. Year-round, Joshua Tree enjoys low humidity.
Fall is another popular time to visit when temperatures fall out of the 100F of the summertime. During the summer, expect high temperatures and intense sunlight. Winter overnight temperatures can drop well below freezing. Hypothermia can be a hazard even at temperatures above freezing.
The busy season in Joshua Tree runs from October through May. About 1.4 million visitors come to the park each year to enjoy its activities.
Campgrounds usually fill on weekends October through May. From mid-February to mid-May (and during holidays) campgrounds usually fill during the week too. Make your reservation in advance.
Top Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
- Bring plenty of water.
- Have layers of clothing.
- Bring extra food.
- Wear a hat and keep your body covered.
- Do not approach and never feed wild animals.
- Proper footwear is a must.
- Carry a first aid kit.
Joshua Tree National Park Hikes
Joshua Tree National Park offers several hiking trails and nature trails just right for kids.
- The Bajada Trail features an accessible .25-mile loop at the southern entrance.
- The Keys View Trail is a .25-mile trail to the overlook along Park Boulevard.
- The Oasis of Mara offers a pet-friendly .5-mile loop at the Oasis Visitor Center.
Moderate hikes require more preparation and should be avoided during the summer. Pick up a map at the NPS visitor center and pack water regardless of the season.
Read More: National Parks on the West Coast
Kids at Joshua Tree
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Joshua Tree National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
The Joshua Tree Junior Ranger badge requires attending a ranger program. Visit an exhibit in the visitor center and have a ranger sign off on the booklet, if ranger programs aren’t offered during your visit. Keep a look out for animals during your visit, like the desert tortoise.
National Junior Ranger badges can be earned at Joshua Tree National Park like the Junior Paleontologist, the Night Explorer patch and the Wilderness Explorer patch.
Camping and Lodging in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park offers nine developed campgrounds within park boundaries. Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds offer reservations and the others are first-come, first-serve campgrounds.
RV hookups aren’t provided in Joshua Tree National Park although group camping and equestrian sites are available. Regular campsites with water are $20 a night.
For hotels, Palm Springs, California, offers lots of options, including the very family-friendly Margaritaville Palm Springs. Rental properties are an option too. During my visit to Joshua Tree National Park, we stayed at Walt Disney’s former home, complete with hidden Mickeys.
History of Joshua Tree National Park
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Joshua Tree a national monument. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 renamed it Joshua Tree National Park.
The protected area is a transition zone, where the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert meet. The Mojave Desert with elevations of 3,000 feet and above, provides a unique habitat for pinyon pines, Joshua trees and numerous yuccas and cacti.
The Colorado Desert (part of the larger Sonoran Desert) below 3,000 feet is in the eastern portion of Joshua Tree National Park. It features rugged plants, like the Creosote bush, Ocotillo cactus and the kid-favorite, cholla cactus. But beware, the teddy bear-looking cholla plant harbors thousands of thorns.
Another signature feature of Joshua Tree National Park is the rock piles. The granite formed rock piles after eons of erosion. Rock climbing is popular with adults.
Where is Joshua Tree National Park?
Joshua Tree National Park is located 52 miles from Palm Springs, the closest city with commercial flights. Yucca Valley is another town with lodging and restaurants. Mojave National Preserve is 138 miles north of Palm Springs. Palms Springs features the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a quick tram ride from the desert floor.
Joshua Tree National Park offers three entrances–the north entrance, the west entrance and the south entrance. The larger visitor center, Oasis Visitor Center, is located in the town of Twentynine Palms, and offers an interpretive area and a desert walking path, just right for the youngest kids.
The Cottonwood Visitor Center offers basic assistance, like maps and directions, and is staffed by a park ranger. The western entrance station offers water only though the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, located nearby, on California Highway 62.
Joshua Tree National Park stays open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day entrance fee for $30 per vehicle.
Tips from a TravelingMom
- Seven different rattlesnakes call Joshua Tree National Park home.
- Use maps for navigation, not your GPS.
- The park offers poor cell phone coverage.
- Stay out of abandoned mines.
- Don’t touch the cactus.