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- Big Mistake 1: Entering on the Wrong Side of the Park
- Big Mistake 2: Wearing Tank Tops in Winter
- Big Mistake 3: Arriving Too Late
- Big Mistake 4: Bringing Too Little Water
- Big Mistake 5: Lightly Brushing Against a Cactus
- Big Mistake 6: Wearing Improper Footwear
- Big Mistake 7: Using the Maps Provided at the Entrance
- Big Mistake 8: Hiking a Too-Tough Trail
- Big Mistake 9: Not Bringing Snacks
- Big Mistake 10: Thinking Joshua Tree is an Easy Day Trip from LA
In a year when outdoor adventures ruled family vacations, lots of families ventured out to visit a state or national park for the first time. Certainly, trips to these beautiful natural areas can be fun, affordable family vacations — IF you come prepared and avoid making mistakes that waste time and money and can be downright dangerous. There’s definitely a learning curve to mega outdoor trips, as this TravelingMom and her family learned on a visit to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. She made the mistakes so you don’t have to!
For decades, artists and musicians have found inspiration in Joshua Tree National Park’s gorgeous desert landscape and spiritual energy.
My family and I might have appreciated it on a deeper level, too, if we hadn’t made so many mistakes during our first visit in February 2020.
We loved the park with its fields of flowering cacti, interesting rock formations, scenic hiking trails, fascinating 5,000-year (!) history, and, of course, the namesake trees, with cactus-like arms that reach for the sky.
But we made some big mistakes that left us cold, thirsty, cranky, waiting in lines, lost, and tired of being in the car. We didn’t have to be any of those things, had we known these tips.
Learn from my biggest mistakes!
Big Mistake 1: Entering on the Wrong Side of the Park
I didn’t realize it when I entered “Joshua Tree State Park Visitors Center” into Google Maps, but there are three entrances to the park – two on the north side and one on the south side. Enter on the NORTH side of the park. Those entrances are much closer to the popular hiking paths and the most scenic areas of the park.
We mistakenly entered on the south side, adding another half-hour of drive time to get to the best spots. It led to lots of are-we-there-yet whining from the 14- and 16-year-olds in the back seat.
This is an easy-to-make mistake at many of America’s huge national parks. Most of them have more than one entrance. Spend some time looking at a park map before you decide which entrance is right for your family vacation.
Big Mistake 2: Wearing Tank Tops in Winter
It is noticeably colder in Joshua Tree National Park than it is in Palm Springs. The elevation is higher than it seems, so it’s at least 10 degrees cooler. Depending on what time of year you go, you might need to pack jackets.
We went in February, when it was 75 degrees in Palm Springs and a breezy 60 degrees in the park. Hoodies would have helped. And, as always, pack sunscreen, sunglasses and hats.
Another easy-to-make national park mistake, the fix for this one is also easy: Dress in layers. Pack a day pack with thin, lightweight extra layers you can put on and take off as needed throughout the day.
Big Mistake 3: Arriving Too Late
We spent a lazy morning in the hotel and didn’t end up getting to the park until noon. Rookie mistake. As a result, we had to wait in line to pay park entrance fees, and then wait some more to find parking spaces at popular trail heads and lookout spots.
It’s a sad truth that state and national parks are overcrowded, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s not much you can do about it, except try and go early. Next time, we’re setting the alarm.
Big Mistake 4: Bringing Too Little Water
When the parks says there’s no water, it means there’s no water. BYO. We had one small water bottle per person, and it was not enough. And that was in February.
In the summer, I’d recommend you fill a cooler with water bottles or, if you’re planning a longer family hike, invest in a Camelbak backpacks with a refillable water bladder for each person. Being without water can be dangerous.
Read More: Tips for Hiking with Kids (and Having Fun!)
Big Mistake 5: Lightly Brushing Against a Cactus
Beware of cacti! If you walk through the fields of flowering cacti in the Cholla Cactus Garden – which you should, because it’s gorgeous – beware of burs on the ground. They will stick to your shoes and pulling them out will be complicated.
We had burs everywhere, and they were so annoying. They ended up all over our car somehow. Which leads me to the next tip…
Big Mistake 6: Wearing Improper Footwear
Check your footwear. While the kids won’t necessarily need hiking boots for most trails, they do need shoes with some decent grip. My kids were slippin’ and slidin’ going downhill on our hikes. And it made me absolutely insane with worry.
I also saw a family with flip flops walking through the cactus garden, and let’s just say, there was crying involved.
Good quality footwear is always important when nature and hiking are involved. These are our favorite travel shoes for all terrains.
Big Mistake 7: Using the Maps Provided at the Entrance
We picked up two maps at the visitors center, one of the roads and one of the hiking trails. Problem is, they didn’t align.
I consider myself to be a pretty good map reader, but we were constantly lost looking for the hiking trails we wanted and there was no signage at some of the trail heads. I had no wireless service, so the GPS wasn’t an option.
If you’re hiking, I recommend researching a dependable map of the trails before heading into the park.
Big Mistake 8: Hiking a Too-Tough Trail
We hiked what we thought was an easy hike, but because there was no trailhead sign, we realized mid-hike we were on the wrong trail. Our trail turned out to be a grueling hour-long, steep uphill rock climb — which we did without proper footwear (see Big Mistake #6 above).
Another great hiking option in the area around Joshua Tree is Tahquitz Canyon, which is an hour away in Palm Springs. It’s an excellent, largely shaded, just-the-right-length-for-kids trail that ends at a pretty waterfall. It’s $12.50 per person to get in, but the gorgeous scenery is worth the cost.
Big Mistake 9: Not Bringing Snacks
Everyone was hungry by the time we left the park, so we figured we’d grab lunch in the cute, touristy, little Western-themed town just outside of Joshua Tree. It’s lined with souvenir shops and small homey restaurants like The Natural Sisters Cafe and Larry & Milt’s Western Cafe. Except many of them close at 2pm, and some were closed on Mondays. (We rolled into town at 3:30pm Monday).
Check the restaurant hours in advance. Or do what old school moms do: Pack some sandwiches or snacks in the cooler!
Big Mistake 10: Thinking Joshua Tree is an Easy Day Trip from LA
The traffic between Los Angeles and Palm Springs is insane. It’s almost literally 150 miles of traffic. And I live in Chicago, so I know bad traffic. Don’t try to visit Joshua Tree on a day trip from LA. Instead, overnight in a nearby town like Palm Springs, Indigo or Palm Desert. We found tons of great and reasonably priced home rentals in that area on VRBO.com.
Or try one of these national parks that are within an easy drive of Los Angeles.