Visiting Joshua Tree with kids: essential tips for families

Boy in Joshua Tree National park looking at a juice plant

All you need to know to plan a visit to Joshua Tree with kids: child-friendly hikes, what to carry and best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park as a family.

Visiting Joshua Tree with our kids is what sealed our love for US National Parks.

US National Parks are one of our favorite destinations for active family vacation.

Living outside of the US, we cannot get our National Park fix as often as we would like but, when we do, we savor every minute of our time there.

The one that got us hooked to this National Park travel obsession was Joshua Tree NP in California, which was memorable the children and us.

The park is fantastic: the landscape here is unique and like nothing our kids had ever seen before.

There are plenty of beautiful family friendly hikes, animal to spot and a many opportunities to learn about Joshua Tree and its very peculiar ecosystems.

If you plan a visit to Joshua Tree with kids and wonder if and how to plan your trip, keep reading!

This travel guide shows how we visited Joshua Tree National Park with kids, and why it is one of our favorite places for a desert adventure with kids!

Joshua tree national park - joshua tree among boulders
Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its desert landscape and the ‘Joshua Trees’, yucca plants that local settlers said reminded them of the prophet Joshua with his arms raised to the sky

The best time to visit Joshua Tree with kids

Joshua Tree National Park is open all year round.

However, seasons differ widely and the best time for visiting Joshua Tree depends on the type of experience you want and how much or how little you suffer the heath.

At a glance, the best time to go to Joshua Tree National Park with kids is

Season Best time to visit Joshua tree forDownsides of the seasonAdvanced accommodation booking 
 Spring in Joshua TreeMild temperatures, flowers in bloom, good weather for outdoor activitiesLarge crowds at weekends especiallyRecommended
Summer in Joshua TreeGreat star gazing opportunities, low crowdsVery hot, not suitable for middle of the day hikesUsually not needed
Fall in Joshua TreePleasant temperatures, several activities available including kid-oriented ranger talksCrowded but usually less than in springRecommended
 Winter Joshua TreeLow crowds, good temperatures for hikingCold temperatures at night (if planning on camping)Recommended

You can check official weather channels for a more detailed picture here

Is Joshua Tree dangerous for kids?

When I told my kids we would see the desert in Joshua Tree, they had a reaction I did not expect.

Instead of being curious, they grew terrified by the prospect of being in the desert and desperately asked us ‘why oh why are we going to the desert? It is hot, it is empty and it has rattlesnakes, we don’t want to go!’

It is hard to argue with this remarkable knowledge of the desert environment in California and indeed, Joshua Tree does have rattle snakes and is a desert.

However, while you do need to take precautions and be careful, Joshua Tree doesn’t have to be the death trap my kids envisaged (in case you are wondering, they were fine when in the park itself and no one got injured!).

Joshua Tree National Park is a protected natural area where two desert systems meet: the Colorado Desert and the Mojave.

The area is under the supervision and care of the excellent National Park Service.

This means that it poses some risks but information and help are available to minimize them.  

Joshua tree with kids - family photo
Our family while visiting Joshua tree National park. As you can tell from the fence behind us, there are marked trails you can (and should!) follow

The main thing to look out for, in Joshua tree, is the weather. We visited the park in summer and you can read our full itinerary here. 

Tips for keeping your kids safe in Joshua Tree National Park

  • Pick carefully the time of year you go. The summer can be scorching in Joshua Tree and this can quickly become too much for young children. The same goes for winter nights: make sure you are equipped for the cold temperatures, especially if the kids are expecting to camp.
  • Make yourself known to the rangers. Before setting out on a hike or drive, pop into the visitor center and have a chat with the rangers. They will advise about the suitability of hikes, potential hazards from (and to) wildlife and specific threats. They will also be an excellent source of information, definitely do not skip chatting to them!
  • Bring a lot of water. Joshua Tree National Park is the desert and, as such, is poor of water. Make sure you have a proper amount with you at all times. There is no such thing such as drinking fountains to replenish your bottle in the middle of a hike so you have to bring your own
  • Dress appropriately. Make sure you have proper shoes if hiking and give the kids closed toe shoes if exploring areas such as the cholla cactus garden
  • Beware of wildlife and bees. Despite the name, deserts have plenty of animals and Joshua Tree makes no exception. Joshua Tree wildlife includes snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, black-tailed jackrabbits: some of them can pose threats to people but there is a higher chance of people posing threats to them! Always act wisely for everyone’s safety.
Joshua tree national Park - landscape
Joshua Tree is unforgiving: always bring water without (and a lot of it) before venturing into the park

How to get to Joshua Tree with kids in tow

Joshua tree National Park is in California, about 3 hours by car from Los Angeles and less than 1 hour from Palm Springs.

Two roads cross the park and they are easily accessible by car (no special vehicle needed) and the park is accessible from the south and the west.

The Southern entrance is near Cottonwood, the West entrance near Joshua Tree Town and the Western entrance (just a little farther along the same road) near Twentynine Palms.

There are visitors centers at the Joshua Tree entrance (Joshua Tree visitors center), in Twentynine Palms (Oasis visitors center) and in Cottonwood (Cottonwood visitors center), plus kiosks just at the entrance of the park.

I highly recommend you stop at the visitors centres: here is where you find info on safety, maps of the area and where the kids can get hold of the junior ranger booklet.

The junior ranger program at Joshua Tree is excellent and one of the thigns that made this park one of our favorite West Coast National Parks for kids!

Top Tip: Many of the kid-friendly hikes in Joshua Tree and the most impressive landmarks for kids are close to the Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms entrance. If you want to minimize driving, I recommend you access the park from here.

How much does it cost to visit Joshua Tree?

Joshua Tree National Park Annual Pass – $55.00

Entrance Fee – $30.00: 7-day vehicle permit, admitting the passengers of a single, non-commercial vehicle on the day of purchase and for the next six days

Individual Entrance Fee – $15.00: 7-day entrance fee, per person on foot or bike.

Free Entrance Days

Entrance to Joshua Tree is typically free on these days:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day
  • 3rd Saturday of April: First day of National Park Week
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Act Signing Day
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • 4th Saturday in September: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Check all passes for Joshua Tree National Park here

What can kids do in Joshua Tree?

There is plenty to do in Joshua Tree for kids who love outdoor pursuits.

Become a junior ranger

When visiting Joshua Tree or any National Park, our kids’ favorite activity is to take part in the local junior ranger program.

This program is designed to help kids engage and learn about the park in a fun and engaging manner and foresees a mix of  child led activities (scavenger hunt, writing, observing, etc) and ranger talks.

It is a terrific way to learn about the park and may lead your child to gain a ‘junior ranger badge’, something my two kids are very proud of and brought home as a keepsake.

Compared with other junior ranger programs we did, we found that the one in Joshua Tree was more focusses on conservations and threats to the desert environment and I though this was excellent.

In a place like the desert, it is easy to underestimate the fragility of the environment and the number of animals and plant species that make up this remarkable ecosystem!

Hiking and bouldering

Hiking and bouldering are two great activities for kids in Joshua Tree too.

Boulders are a typical of part of this desert and scrambling on them (careful when and how they do this) is a great way to experience the park.

The junior ranger program prompted our kids to explore but also to sit on the boulders and touch them.

Questions like are they hot, cold, smooth, soft, hard may seem simple but really helped our kids engage with the park and take in how unique and different from home this place is!

Spot wildlife

The desert is all but desert if you know how to look! In Joshua Tree, kids can spot rabbits, long horn sheep, lizards, birds and snakes.

See a rock that looks like a skull

There are many memorable landmarks in Joshua Tree for kids but the one they will remember most of all is Skull Rock, a massive rock that literally look like a skull with colossal eye sockets!

Skull Rock is a roadside attraction so you will spot if from the car however, make sure you get out and let them hike and run around it, it is great fun!

Skull Rock in Joshua Tree national Park - kids must see

See the famous San Andreas Fault

The famous San Andreas Fault runs where the Southern and the Northern part of the park meet and it is visible from Keys View. This is the highest point in the park you can access by car and it is awe-inspiring for kids and adults alike.

Walk in unique Cholla Cactus Garden

What does a cactus have in common with a teddybear? You can find out in cholla cactus garden, a nature trail where you can see teddy bear chollas cacti!

This is a type of cacti that is typical of this area and that has spikes so thin and thick that they look cuddly – careful though: they are not cuddly at all, they only look like they are!

They are one of the coolest things for kids to see in Joshua Tree and don’t worry about them being prickly: a large boardwalk allows safe access.

Have a picnic

Joshua Tree is the desert so if you want to food, you have to bring it with you.

This is actually great as a family picnic is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree with children.

A superb spot for it is Hidden Valley – make sure they kids take a minute to appreciate the silence in this otherworld national park!

Make also sure you have bags to take away your trash and plenty of water to rehydrate after sitting in the sun.

Top tip: if you need ideas on suitable snacks for a day out with the kids, find here out list of travel snacks for small kids.

Go horseback riding

Horseback riding is a huge tradition in desert areas so much so that the park has two hundred fifty-three miles of riding trails! There are several ranches in the area able to organise this for you: I recommend you check a few and see what is most suitable for your kids and level of experience.

Do take into account that the lack of water is a problem for you and also the horses.

Take a tour of Keys Ranch

If your kids want to see what life in the desert truly is like, then you should take a tour of Keys Ranch. The tour is ranger-led and kids will be able to see how a family of 5 was able to adapt to this inhospitable land – a fantastic way to make this desert even more real through stories of real people and kids who called it home. Find info about the guided tour here

Go stargazing

One of the most unforgettable experiences in Joshua Tree for kids and adults alike is stargazing.

The desert is the perfect environment to enjoy dark skies and the mild temperatures of summer nights make this a gratifying and educational endeavor.

You can enjoy the stars with your naked eye or go equipped with a portable telescope for kids for even better vision

Child friendly  hikes in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree has wonderful child friendly hikes. Most of them pose no difficulties however, I do recommend you bring good hiking shoes / hiking sandals for you kids so they can get decent grip on the paths and boulders.

If you are new to hiking as a family and you are not sure your child will enjoy it, you may find our tips for hiking with kids here.

Barker Dam

The hike to Barker dam is a 1.8 km long and takes about 1 hour.

This is one of the easiest hikes for kids and comes with something special: Barker Dam is where big horn sheep gather in summer so animal encounters here are likely to happen!

This is a beautiful hike to take in Joshua Tree with kids who love spotting animals.

Hidden Valley Nature loop

Beautiful, family friendly loop you can hike in about 1 hour. Good hike for views over the desert landscape.

Cap Rock

Another easy hiked with an added plus: it is wheelchair (and therefore stroller) accessible. The hike is short, about half a kilometer and can be done in 30-40 minutes. Good to see boulders and Joshua trees.

Discovery Trail from Skull rock

Skull rock is guaranteed to make an impression on kids as it definitely looks like a giant…. skull!

The hike starts from the rock and connects to Split Rock. It is an easy enough hike of about 1.1 km (round trip).

Skull rock is visible from theroad too so if you are in a hurry or not interested in hikes, it makes for a very easy photo op.

Cholla cactus garden

We didn’t stretch to this part of the park but many parents remember this as a highlight with kids.

The walk is described as short and easy, about 0.4 km, and it crosses an area with thousands of naturally growing cholla cacti.

Be careful with kids as the cacti are very prickly (wear closed toe shoes) and, in summer, the area sometimes get swarms of bees (read here about safety in the park).

Joshua Tree hiking trail

Where to stay when visiting Joshua tree national park with kids

Unlike other national Parks you may have visited, there are no lodging option inside Joshua Tree national Park aside form campsites.

However, there are several options both in the towns near the Park, Joshua Tree and Twentynine palms and in Palm Springs / Indio area, which is where we stayed (this was our hotel, very good especially because of the child friendly pool).

You can find our full selection of accommodation options near Joshua tree National park here (all budgets)

What to bring when visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids

Our essential list of what to take with you when visiting Joshua Tree with kids includes:

  • Water
  • Sun hat and sun screen
  • Appropriate clothing / layers for the season
  • Comfortable and closed toe walking shoes
  • Suitable snacks and drinks (salty snacks and electrolyte drinks suitable for kids are best is sweating profusely)
  • Post bite / anti allergy cream
  • Fist aid kit: for ideas about what we have in our family one, have a look at our first aid supply list here

I hope you found this article helpful and it helped answer the question: what do I need to know to visit Joshua Tree with kids? 

FAQ About visiting Joshua Tree with kids

Is Joshua Tree kid friendly?

Joshua Tree is great for kids. The park has many kid-friendly hikes, it is very easy to spot wildlife here and it has some incredible landmarks such as skull rock that are a sure hit with kids.

Is Joshua Tree dangerous?

Joshua Tree is a hot desert and therefore you need to tackle it knowing it is a remote area where water and shade are scarce. You want to have appropriate clothing, water and vehicle however, it is not a dangerous place if you stick to the main park loop, easy hikes and just abide park rules.

What there is to do for kids in Joshua Tree?

In Joshua Tree kids can hike, take a ranger-led tour, see wildlife, become junior rangers, visit a ranch, go stargazing and experience a unique desert landscape.

Can you camp with kids in Joshua Tree?

Yes, there are campsites in Joshua Tree where you can spend the night with the kids. Find a list of Joshua Tree campgrounds here.

Post updated Jan 2021.

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