Joshua Tree National Park is a gem! With a higher elevation than our other favorite desert camping location, Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree offers a desert experience with more vegetation, wildflowers, and of course, Joshua Tree’s fabled rock climbing boulders. You don’t have to be rock climbers to enjoy it, though you’ll see plenty of that ilk. Our kids absolutely loved the freedom of scrambling and bouldering to their heart’s content directly from trails and campgrounds. Here’s how to do Joshua Tree National Park with kids!
Split Rock nature trail:
Located a few miles past the North Entrance to the park, Split Rock is often overlooked by visitors, making it almost empty during our peak season visit. (If you’re unsure where to go, ask a ranger at the Oasis Visitor Center, which should be your first stop, anyway. Split Rock is a two mile loop that takes you through yucca, Joshua Trees, and most importantly, amid towering boulders. We stopped often to let the kids climb, but whether you want to keep it a traditional hike it up to you, of course. Hikers often spot mountain goats here, though our wildlife spotting was limited to lizards, ravens, and rock climbers.
Hidden Valley is a mecca for rock climbers (and it’s fun to watch them here), but is also a great place for kids to scramble and explore. There’s a 1 mile nature trail loop that shows the natural bowl where cattle wrestlers brought stolen cattle to hide them, but kids will be more interested in jumping from rock to rock. This area gets crowded, but there’s room to spread out and most visitors don’t go further than the first quarter mile (in our experience).
49 Palms Oasis:
When you’re ready for a trail that doesn’t involve scrambling and bouldering, try the strenuous 49 Palm Oasis loop. It takes hikers up and down canyon ridges to a very welcome palm tree oasis deep in the canyon. The actual oasis area is off-limits due to restoration, but it’s fun to count the palms (we counted 46, so there probably are 49 in actuality), sit in the shade, and check out the green vegetation around the spring. Hike this one in the morning, as there’s little shade.
Where to stay:
Joshua Tree has no fewer than nine campgrounds, as well as motel-style lodging in the towns of 29 Palms and Joshua Tree. We highly recommend camping in Joshua Tree to get the full experience of this spectacular park. There are few things to note about the campgrounds: of all nine, only Black Rock and Cottonwood offer running water and flush toilets. The remainder offer no services except pit toilets. The only reservable campgrounds are Blackrock and Indian Cove.
We stayed two nights in Indian Cove Campground, and loved the experience. Every campsite is adjacent to Joshua Tree’s famous boulders, and the entire campground is located in a beautiful rock canyon. We stayed in site 90 which is located at the very end of the campground, and considered it as ideal as it gets for a car camping experience. We had no immediate neighbors, and had wilderness surrounding us. We had room for two tents—one quite large—which is not the case with every site.
Tip: If you have a large tent or want to set up two tents, call the ranger station and ask about the particular site you reserved. Pack accordingly! For family groups wanting two adjacent sites, we recommend 63-64 or 99-100. And if you really want some isolation from other campers, consider reserving two sites even for a small group. They’re only $15/night!
When to go:
Due to its higher elevation, Joshua Tree is bearable further into the warm weather months than other desert parks (such as Death Valley), but you’ll still want to visit between March and May for the best weather. At the time of our March visit, temperatures reached the 80s in the day, and the 40s at night.
Tip: for more information about Joshua Tree, check out this guide from Live Once Live Wild.
Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego, and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. You can approach it from Interstate 10 and Hwy 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway).