Are you visiting Joshua Tree with kids? We recently went to Joshua Tree National Park with the kids and had amazing fun hiking, scrambling, and road tripping the national park. Here is our guide on things to do in Joshua Tree with kids and tips on visiting with youngsters of all ages including babies, toddlers, preschoolers, preteens, and teenagers.
You may also like our One Day in Joshua Tree Itinerary
During our Southern California Road Trip, we visited Disney with our 6-month-old infant and our preschooler and had an amazing time in the Californian desert. Joshua Tree National Park has an otherworldly landscape and unique desert habitat – it is perfect for exploration with the kids. Both our kids enjoyed the time we spent in Joshua Tree and we plan to return for another visit once baby girl starts walking.
So here’s the big question: should you visit Joshua Tree National Park with toddlers and babies or even older kids and why? After all, isn’t it just a hot arid desert?
Not exactly! The landscape of Joshua Tree is unlike any other you have seen. Our son loved seeing the weirdly twisted Joshua Trees. He also enjoyed bouldering and scrambling up the rocks and hiking to the California fan palms oasis. He had a great time looking at the different desert plants and observing their flowers, thick fleshy stems and unique structure. Joshua Tree is a great opportunity to teach the kids about the desert environment and ecology. Visits to national parks like Joshua Tree are essential to develop a love for the big open outdoors in kids.
Your kids will love the time they spend at Joshua Tree and will likely have fond memories of the alien landscape. Joshua Tree with kids is truly a trip of a lifetime and our guide is here to help you make the most of this desert wonderland.
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“I love it there, it’s magical … Joshua Tree is one of those special places where you feel so close to everything.”
— Rita Coolidge
How to reach Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is about two hours away from Los Angeles and an hour’s drive away from Palm Springs. You can easily add it to any Los Angeles trip, but if you are visiting Palm Springs, then a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park with the kids is a must. If you are traveling from I-10, follow the signs for exit towards Joshua Tree west entrance for CA 62 to reach Joshua Tree Visitor Center. If visiting from the south entrance, continue of I-10 beyond Indio and then turn towards Joshua Tree Cottonwood Visitor Center.
What to pack for Joshua tree with kids
The most important part of enjoying Joshua Tree with the kids is to pack appropriate gear. The national park is located in the desert region of Southern California and gets unbearably hot in the summer. Even winter afternoons can become intolerable. We recommend carrying sunscreen, sunhats, closed toe shoes so kids won’t get hurt by cacti needles, and glares.
We always carry sunglasses for our baby and preschooler – they also act as eyeshades; if they are tired, the kids simply wear glares and fall asleep! If you are looking to buy one, we recommend Baby Banz. They are supposed to fit from babies to 2 years, but my son wears them even at 3.5 yrs. Best investment ever.
We also recommend ice coolers, and cold water bottles one for each kid plus keeping a gallon of water per person per day in the car. Make sure that the kids stay hydrated and drink water at equal intervals. We also recommend carrying snacks – lots and lots of them as the kids will be twice as hungry after all the hiking and climbing. Just remember that there is no water or food inside the national park except at the visitor centers and you will need to take everything with you.
Two other items that we use a lot for summer travel are cooling towels and handheld usb fans. The cooling towels stay chill for up to 3 hours and feel amazingly ice cold while the fan soothes our kids when they are sweaty. Our preschooler also carries his own kids camera and enjoys taking photos of the vegetation and wildlife.
Along with summer gear, you also need to plan for chilly evenings and nights if camping as the desert gets quite cold at night even in summer. We recommend dressing in layers for the night and carrying a wind/rain jacket for each kid. Also if you have younger kids who don’t walk much then consider a hiking carrier or baby carrier. I carried our baby girl in Infantino baby carrier while hiking and she was quite happy in it.
Like many other national parks, there is no cell connectivity in Joshua Tree – so explain that to the kids and stress the importance of not separating and staying close together while hiking in the park.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids
There’s something to do for kids of all ages. Babies and infants will have fun sitting in carriers and looking at the weird shapes and lights shining on the fuzzy cholla cacti and the joshua trees. Our 6 month old daughter kept smiling throughout the hikes and loved to see her brother bounce ahead on the trail. Toddlers and preschoolers will love seeing such unusual plants preteens and teenagers will enjoy scrambling on the big boulders. Here are our recommendations for top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
Get the Junior Park Ranger booklet at Joshua Tree Visitor Center
We recommend stopping at Joshua Tree Visitor Center before you enter the park to pay the visitor entrance fees. While you are there, stock up on water and pick up a Junior Park Ranger booklet for your kids. Children love to complete the outdoor activities, fill in the answers, and earn a Junior Ranger badge from the park rangers. The activities are fun and will ensure that kids keep their eyes and ears open in the parks. You can download a pdf copy of the booklet here If coming from the south, like us, stop at Cottonwood Visitor Center to get your booklet.
Drive along Joshua Park Scenic drive and watch the two desert ecosystems
Joshua Tree National Park is unique because it is located at the meeting point of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave desert to the north and the Colorado desert to the south. If you take the scenic drive from west entrance to south entrance, you can see the landscape vary before your eyes. The kids will have fun seeing the vegetation and geological forms change as they move. The northern Mojave desert has the famous Joshua trees and unique rock formations while the southern Colorado desert is an arid landscape of cholla cacti and ocotillos. The total drive is about 100 miles and takes 2 to 3 hours without stopping.
Learn about how the desert plants have adapted themselves on the Bajada Nature Trail
Bajada Nature Trail is located on the south side, even before the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This short trail is an excellent introduction to the desert vegetation and has great interactive exhibits on how the different plants have adapted themselves to grow and thrive in the extreme climate of Joshua Tree National Park. Kids will learn about cacti and their fleshy stems, ocotillos which shed leaves during a drought, etc. We loved the trail because of its educational panels and easy walk. Our preschooler could do it at a fast pace without being tired.
Scramble and take photographs on top of Skull Rock
Joshua Tree National Park has many rock formations, but none of them are as popular as Skull Rock. This rock formations is in the shape of a skull with eroded eye sockets and looks surprisingly skull-like in real life. The unique shape was formed due to erosion by accumulated water many years ago. Climbing Skull Rock is one of the fun things to do in Joshua Tree with toddlers and older kids. If you have two kids, then you can even take a photo with each child sitting in an eye socket for fun photo opportunity.
Have a picnic among the rocks at Hidden Valley
Hidden Valley picnic area in Joshua Tree is an instant hit with the kids. Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a mile long easy trail that is great for families with kids. Most visitors say that if you have time for just one hike in Joshua tree, then hike Hidden Valley and we couldn’t agree more. Hidden Valley Nature trail has shaded picnic areas, giant rocks for climbing, Joshua trees, desert vegetation, and even the occasional wildlife sightings. The name is rumored to be given by the 19th-century cattle rustlers who hid stolen cattle between rocks. The picnic area is really beautiful with unusual rock formations and twisted Joshua Trees. Make sure the kids have great climbing shoes when visiting Hidden Valley.
Hike out to beautiful Arch Rock
Kids love hiking to uniquely shaped rock formations and the beautiful Arch Rock is no exception. This trail is short and comes out max 0.5 miles out and back. The trail is clearly marked and if you are camping at White Tank campground, then the trailhead is just nextdoor. On the trail you will see wildflowers in spring and lots of desert beauty throughout the year. You will also see lots of yucca plants on the trail. The arch is about 30 feet wide and makes for great photos. If you have toddlers or preschoolers, we would not recommend letting them run around here – but climbing up to the arch is great for older kids.
See a real oasis on the Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail
Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail is located near the Cottonwood Visitor Center and is an easy 1.5 miles long loop trail. The trail does have elevation change but our preschooler could handle it quite easily. We did this trail in the middle of the afternoon and reaching the shade of the oasis was quite pleasant. It was wonderful to see the California fan palm trees growing so thickly near the oasis after driving in the arid desert. The oasis is located on an active fault, hence water seeps in through the faultline creating the oasis. We also saw many wildflowers, butterflies, birds, and lizards on the trail.
View the San Andreas faultline from Keys View
For most people, one of the highlights of the trip to Joshua Tree is the panorama at Keys View. To reach Keys View, you will need to take a slight detour from Park Blvd and drive along Keys View Road for about 10-12 minutes. Then there’s a short trail to the viewing area and you have the whole Coachella Valley before you. It’s a breathtaking view – one that is enjoyed by everyone irrespective of age. You can see Mount San Jacinto, Mount Gorgonio – another of SoCal’s high peaks, the Salton Sea, and even all the upto Mexico on a clear day – though you will need a pair of binoculars for that!
However the most fascinating view is that of the green Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. This preserve is located directly on the San Andreas fault – the one responsible for most of California’s earthquakes. You can also clearly see the actual faultline, a fascinating experience for older kids who have learned about earthquakes. When we visited, there were a lot of bees near Keys View – we recommend keeping the kids closeby and away from the edge of the viewing area. Keys View is especially spectacular at sunrise.
See the fuzzy teddy bear cacti at Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden on Pinto Basin Road in the southern Colorado desert part of Joshua Tree National Park is a must stop. This natural cactus garden has lots and lots of teddy bear chollas and they extend as far as you can see. A short loop that lets you walk through the garden. This spot is particularly popular at sunset as the sunlight looks spectacular on the chollas. The teddy bear chollas are so named because of their fuzzy growth but you’d do well to remember these are quite thorny and touching one will hurt. They also tend to stick to clothes and shoes because of their fuzzy growth so take care that kids don’t go off trail in the cholla garden. In spring, the chollas bloom with pale green – yellow flowers and look quite beautiful.
Climb over rocks and boulders at Jumbo Rocks
Jumbo Rocks campground is one of Joshua Tree’s most popular campgrounds. But apart from camping, the Jumbo Rocks area is also popular for hiking and rock climbing. The area has many rock formations including narrow rock corridors which offer plenty of shade. Kids will have fun climbing on, around, and squeezing between the rocks. Jumbo Rocks has rocks of all sizes and is perfect even for toddlers who are just learning climbing and jumping. Teens will have fun scrambling over the huge boulders and trying to climb into the cracks. While you will see lots of climbers with special climbing equipment, families don’t need much for a solid hour of climbing fun except sunscreen and sturdy shoes.
See the Native American petroglyphs at Wonderland of Rocks
The earliest settlers in the Joshua Tree desert were the Native American tribes of Cahuilla and Serrano people. These were nomadic tribes and lived in the desert from spring to fall every year. These people have left behind beautiful petroglyphs and pictographs all around the park. There are many places in Joshua Tree where you can see the rock art, Wonderland of Rocks area is probably the best of them all. The Barker Dam Loop Trail will take you into the Wonderland of Rocks area and while exiting the trail, you can see the Movie Petroglyphs – so named because the original Ntaive American petroglyphs were enhanced for a Hollywood film shooting. Other than that there are no marked trails in this area and we would not recommend going backcountry hiking for long with kids.
Understand the history of Joshua tree at Keys Ranch
Before the desert of Joshua Tree was an area protected by the national park, it was home to many figures of the Wild West including miners, homesteaders, rustlers, and outlaws. At Keys Ranch, which was the home of the homesteader Bill Keys, kids can learn about life on the desert. The Keys family raised 5 children at the ranch in the early 20th century. The ranch has been excellently preserved and is on the national register of historic places. You can view Keys ranch on a ranger-led tour only and can book a slot here. On the guided tour which lasts about an hour and a half long, you can see the various buildings, including the main home, schoolhouse, guesthouse, tractor, jeep, and other vintage homesteading equipment.
Be entranced by the wildflowers in spring
During spring from February through May, Joshua tree has a profusion of desert wildflowers. While the exact density of flowers and their peak time depends on the rainfall and cool climate, you are sure to see some flowers if you visit in spring. Some years, Joshua Tree experiences a super bloom, like in 2019, and these are the absolute best times to visit. Some of the flowering plants to watch out for include the Joshua Trees, cholla cactus in the cholla cactus garden, the bright red clusters of ocotillos in the ocotillo patch, and desert paintbrush. My personal favorites are, however, the bright pink flowers of Beavertail Cactus. To keep a watch for wildflower reports, check the watch site of Desert USA.
Look out for sheep and deer on the trail to Barker Dam
Barker Dam is an old reservoir that is often full in winter and spring. Because it is a major source of water in the desert landscape of Joshua Tree, bighorn sheep and mule deer like to visit the area for water. You can also find other wildlife throughout the park including jackrabbits, coyotes, squirrels, etc. But the best time to spot desert wildlife is at night. Many of the animals living in Joshua Tree are nocturnal and come out at night to survive in the unbearable heat. You can go on full moon hikes with a park ranger when they are arranged to explore the desert wildlife. We usually take our basic travel binoculars with us while visiting national parks and would strongly recommend the Aurosports folding binoculars – they were a steal when we purchased around $25 last summer.
Birdwatch near the fan palm oases
You may be surprised to learn that while Joshua Tree is located in the desert, it offers exceptional bird watching opportunities. Many residents, as well as migratory birds, can be seen in Joshua Tree National Park. The best time to see migratory birds is during the winter months when they are flying south. Because of its location at the intersection of two distinct desert ecosystems, a large variety of resident and nesting birds can be seen in the national park. Kids will be able to see many of popular southwestern birds including the greater roadrunners, crow, raven, hummingbirds, falcons, hawks, sparrows, etc. Two of our favorite places to spot birds include the Cottonwood Spring Oasis Trail and the Barker Dam trail. For a detailed bird list, check here.
Learn about the prehistoric animals that once lived in Joshua Tree at Cottonwood Visitor Center
Our son’s favorite exhibit at the Cottonwood Visitor Center was an interactive one mentioning all the prehistoric animals that grazed in Joshua Tree millions of years ago. During the Pleistocene Epoch (the last Ice Age), the desert of Joshua Tree was a fertile area that received lots of rain and had a variety of vegetation and wildlife. Before humans lived in North America, Joshua Tree was home to mammoths, tortoises, wolves, horses, and camels. Fossils and bones of these animals have been found inside Joshua Tree National Park including the tusk of a mammoth. It was a fascinating experience for our son and a great introduction to climate change and the concept of extinct and endangered species.
Watch the beautiful sunsets among the Joshua Trees
Sunsets in the Mojave desert are beyond spectacular. While most popular sunset-watching spots include Keys View, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Hall of Horrors, my personal favorite is just driving through the scenic drive and seeing the color change among the Joshua Trees. The desert is extraordinarily quite at twilight and if you are not in the popular spots then you miss the crowds and have the splendid sunset to yourself. Our son also loved the colors and patterns across the night sky and even he was quiet as he appreciated nature – such a rare moment for our boisterous preschooler!
Observe the dark night sky and learn about the stars and constellations
Joshua Tree has some of the darkest night skies in the country. The only place where we saw more stars and constellations was at Badlands in South Dakota and Big Bend in Texas. Joshua Tree National Park is located in the high desert of California and has exceptionally clear skies with no pollution. Best observation places are said to be around the east of the park. Plan your visit when the moon is not around (new moon day is the best for stargazing) and your kids will be thrilled by the zillions of stars they can see. If your older kids are into photography, you can even try to get a photo with star trails. Or go on occasions of meteor showers and let kids experience their very first shooting stars. We recommend bringing along a good kids telescope – we have and love the Max Kids Travel telescope – it’s a great starter telescope for kids aged 5 to 12.
Camp in the Mojave desert at Joshua Tree
Camping in Joshua Tree is a fantastic experience. The kids will get to sleep under the stars and appreciate the stillness of the desert at night. We love camping with kids because it teaches them to appreciate the natural world plus sleeping under a tent is super fun! While camping at Joshua Tree, your kids will see the sun go down among the amazing trees. They will be able to watch the long shadows made by the rocks and hear owls hoot and coyotes bay in the night. They may even hear a rattlesnake! Joshua Tree has 9 campgrounds and over 500 campsites – so you mostly won’t have trouble finding a campsite even during the holidays.
Things to do in and around Joshua Tree, California with kids
Did you know that the town outside of Joshua Tree National Park is also called Joshua Tree? There are many kid-friendly things to do outside of the national park area in the vicinity of Joshua Tree, California. You don’t need the national park pass for these and they are an excellent way to spend time in the desert but outside the park; most of these are located in downtown Joshua Tree.
See the art installations at Noah Purifoy Museum
The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum is an incredible 10 acres of environment-friendly sculptures – that is art made from rusted/corroded metal, unused tires, salvaged wood, e-waste including computer parts, discarded toilet bowls, broken furniture, vintage neon signs, etc. It is really mind-blowing to see what all is possible with items we commonly consider trash and are designated for the landfill. Some of the sculptures are political statements, some others are artistic beauties but all of them are unique and worth a visit. Kids will love to see this out of the box thinking and sheer talent of the sculptor, Noah Purifoy.
Marvel at the crochet animals at the Crochet Museum
Joshua Tree’s Crochet Museum is known as the world famous Crochet Museum. This Crochet Museum is actually located inside a bright neon green vintage photo booth, is free to visit, and has hundreds of crochet animals from the 70s. The museum is curated by artist Shari Elf and has drawn hundreds of visitors to this unique museum. Inside you will find poodles, alligators, rabbits, kangaroos, dolls, and teddy bears. The crochet museum is an instant hit with little kids who love seeing the cute pieces – plus its vibrant and colorful, lots of photo ops. You can read more about the museum here.
Enjoy the arty vibe of downtown Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree community is a favorite with artists and musicians. Many of the creatives in Los Angeles are said to have headed towards Joshua Tree and the desert in search of inspiration, including John Lennon and Jim Morrison. In the town, you will find many art galleries, hip restaurants, and live music. While not as big as neighboring Palm Springs, Joshua Tree has its own hipster vibe which older kids will like. There are also many art galleries and live music venues in nearby Pioneertown.
Visit the Old West movie set of Pioneertown
Pioneertown was created as an Old West movie set in the 1950s with the intent of turning it into a major tourist destination but it didn’t turn out so well. What you will see is 19th century Wild West style buildings, stables, saloons, and lots of space but very few tourists. Today most of the buildings and businesses are unoccupied and Pioneertown is used as an occasional movie set – however, it is still a fascinating ghost town to explore with the kids. When there are more tourists during high season, you can catch a mock fight show and locals dressed up as period characters. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is a great place to eat while in the town.
Climb on the Cabazon dinosaurs
The Cabazon dinosaurs located about 20 minutes before Palm Springs are a must for the kids. They are located conveniently on 1-10 and kids can actually climb up to the dinosaurs. The sculptures are huge and eerily lifelike. There are an Apatosaurus and a T-Rex known as Mr. Rex outside the attraction which you can visit for free. There is also a museum with other dinosaur sculptures and interesting artifacts located inside the separate fee area. Our son loves dinosaurs and was jumping up and down with excitement as we made our way to the monstrous creatures. For more information on the area, read our guide to visiting Palm Springs with kids.
Did you like our post on things to do in Joshua Tree National Park for kids? Let us know if we missed out any worthwhile attraction.