What makes Joshua Tree National Park in California one of the best vacation spots for kids and families and one of my “Top Ten National Parks”? There are big rocks and piles of boulders. The park encompasses parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and all the varying plants and animals that live in both. The night sky is dark and full of stars, not to mention yips of coyotes and hoots of owls. There are plenty of short trails for kids who need motivation and inspiration to hike, but lots of longer trails for intrepid hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. Did I mention the rocks?
Here’s what make Joshua Tree perfect for family vacations on a budget: Campgrounds are low cost and high fun, even the cool motels nearby have rooms for under $90, picnic areas throughout the park make bringing and assembling your own meals easy, and if you have a National Park Annual Pass, your entrance fee is waived.
When to Go
The main factor in planning a trip is the weather in Joshua Tree. Summers are HOT. Winter is pretty cool at night. The best times to visit are spring and fall. In spring the wildflowers dot the desert in color and the park is popular for spring break family vacations. Fall lacks to wildflowers, but also some of the crowds as many kids are back in school.
What to Do in Joshua Tree
Wondering what to do in Joshua Tree? Depending on how much time you have, you can cover the park on foot, via vehicle, upon the saddle of a mountain bike or horse, or by climbing a wall.
Joshua Tree is known for its rock climbing and bouldering. We spent lots of time scurrying up the monzogranite; there are plenty of boulders that don’t require climbing equipment or a whole lot of skill. My kids say bouldering was the highlight of their trip.
Climbers with more experience than us come from all over the world for Joshua Tree’s traditional-style crack, slab, and steep-face climbing. With more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes it’s a true climbing mecca.
The Park Service website has everything you need to know about climbing in the park and Amazon sells all the guide and route books you need to get to the top of the park’s features. Plus, you’ll find this Joshua Tree organic climbing salve for when the rock bites back. (I use this on my kids’ abraded knees all summer long, even when we aren’t in JTree.)
Junior Ranger Program
We are big fans of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. I’ve lost count of how many parks we are junior rangers in (yes, I do the programs, too). It’s a great way to learn about desert animals and plants, facts about the desert, geology, and park history.
For instance, “What is a Joshua tree?” Yucca brevifolia is a member of the Agave family. Mormon immigrants made their way across the Colorado River in the mid-19th century. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Others see it as more Dr. Seussian. We learned this on the way to becoming Junior Rangers.
It’s hard to pick the best places to hike in Joshua Tree. We went with shorter walks I could convince Finn would be fun. Then we focused on climbing rocks. I depended on the book On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush for the beta on all the hikes and paired it with the Trails Illustrated Joshua Tree map. I wish we had time and inclination to hike more, but it’s good to leave something for next time, right?
Split Rock Loop
- 2.4 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Split Rock picnic area
This is a newer trail and I highly recommend it. The trail winds through thick yucca plants, a boulder maze, past interesting formations, and – with a short side trip—to a rock profile that looks like George Washington. Take the trail counter-clockwise.
Hidden Valley Loop
- 1 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Hidden Valley Picnic Area, westside parking area
According to legend, this rock-enclosed valley was a hideout for cattle and horse runners in the late 1800s. Rocky walls and massive boulder piles create a natural corral that desert pioneer Bill Keys blasted a gap in to create an entrance. This is a popular interpretive trail—get there early to avoid some of the crowds.
- 0.3 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: White Tank Campground near site #9
This interpretive trail leads to a natural arch. The arch spans a distance of 35 feet and rises 15 feet above the underlying rock. We took a short side trail (not actually a trail) to White Tank. In the early 1900s, cattlemen constructed this tank with small rocks and cement to hold water for their cattle. Mostly, we sat on the rocks and drew in our nature journals.
Cholla Cactus Garden
- 0.25 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Cholla Cactus Garden
This is where you discover why this species of cholla is dubbed “Teddy Bear Cholla.” And if you are especially curious, you can learn why the name only refers to how the plant looks, not how it feels. This trail is on the edge of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. We were lucky enough to see the endangered desert tortoise here.
- 0.02 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Cottonwood Visitor Center
We wouldn’t have driven all the way to the far end of the park for this trail, but since we were at the visitor center accepting our Junior Ranger badges, we wandered through the labeled plants of the Colorado Desert.
Blooms begin to burst as early as February at the lower elevations on the park, and as late as June at high elevations. April and May bring the most flowers to bloom in the central area of Joshua Tree. Of course, bloom times and abundance vary from year to year with precipitation and temperatures.
Joshua Tree at night is almost a whole other park. Without the light pollution that washes out most of southern California’s night skies, Joshua Tree’s stars, planets, and constellations pop.
The park website has a season-by-season breakdown of what constellations glitter on center stage of the night sky. Grab a blanket or sleeping pad, find a cactus-free spot on the ground, and stargaze.
In October 2016, Joshua Tree is celebrating their beautiful dark skies at their first Night Sky Festival.
There’s one outfit for guided horseback trail rides in Joshua Tree and it’s Joshua Tree Ranch.
If you like to bring your own pony on your Joshua Tree National Park camping trip, check out the park website for regulations, the best places to ride, and precautions to take (hint: there is next to no water in JTree).
Geology Motor Tour
Geology buffs and Sunday drivers can pick up an interpretive brochure for the Geology Tour Road. The 18-mile motor tour leads through one of Joshua Tree National Park’s most fascinating landscapes. There are 16 stops along a dirt road and it takes approximately two hours to make the round trip.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
There isn’t any lodging inside the park, but there are several campgrounds. If that’s not your thing, there is lodging outside the park in nearby towns.
Joshua Tree National Park Camping
The only way to stay inside the park is to camp. Fortunately, that’s the most fun and the best way to appreciate the night sky. There are nine different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites for individual travelers, families, and large groups.
Most campgrounds in Joshua Tree are first-come, first-served, throughout the year. Reservations are available for Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds during the busy season from October through May. Book a site online or by calling 877-444-6777 up to six months in advance of your visit.
Only two campgrounds have water and flush toilets (Black Rock and Cottonwood). The others have pit toilets only, and you have to bring your own water.
This is our favorite campground. It’s one of two that take reservations—important if you are driving from a distance and want a guaranteed spot—and there are plenty of big boulders for the kids to climb on. I was able to spend hours in the camp chair reading a book while my monkeys scampered over rocks and played imaginary games.
At night, we’d listen to coyotes yip and owls hoot. By day, I’d photograph wildflowers while the kids played.
You do have to drive out of the campground, through one of the gateway towns, and back into the park to access everything but the campground. This took about ten minutes and didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, it gave me the chance to run by the tea shop and visitor center, or fuel up the car as needed. There is a 0.6 mile interpretive trail that leaves from the campground.
Jumbo Rocks Campground
Before I had kids, I was more willing to wing it. In that case, I’d stay at Jumbo Rocks Campground. It’s a small campground, close to a lot of trailheads, and surrounded by those big rocks JTree is known for.
HipCamp has a list of the campgrounds with a little info on each.
If you can’t find a campsite in the park, the Park Service has recommendations for camping near Joshua Tree.
Joshua National Park Lodging
There are also plenty of motels hotels near Joshua Tree National Park in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Use your favorite hotel booking site, or see what Hotels.com thinks are the best Joshua Tree National Park lodging options.
The Joshua Tree Inn is my top pick for hotels near Joshua Tree. It’s clean, funky, and fun. It was built in the 1950s and “eccentrically eclectic.” Plus, there is a pool for those hot desert days.
Here’s the resources I used for our Joshua Tree National Park camping and hiking trip.
Joshua Tree National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map)
On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush
Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide To Wildflowers, Trees, And Shrubs Of The Mojave Desert, Including The Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park by Pam Mackay
Joshua Tree Climbing Salve is an organic, unscented, skin-healer that is effective in treating flappers, gobis, blown tips, scrapes, cuts, and abrasions. Created using a blend of essential oils, freshly extracted from the finest organic herbs.
Other Mojave Desert Camping and Hiking
- Staying and Exploring Death Valley National Park
- Staying and Exploring Joshua Tree National Park
- Staying and Exploring Mojave National Monument and Preserve
- Staying and Exploring Valley of Fire State Park