Driving into Joshua Tree National Park is like a trip back in time or to another planet. There’s really nowhere else like it. At the outer limit of how far I’ll go on a day trip, but so worth the effort. My kids were blown away, and keep asking to go back.
Address: Joshua Tree Visitor Center, 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA 92256
Park Hours: Always open
Visitor Center Hours: All year 8AM to 5PM
Cost: $15 vehicle permit
Dogs: No dogs allowed on trails
Facilities: Bathrooms at various point along Park Blvd
Difficulty level: Beginner-Intermediate (depends how far you hike)
Visitor center, Hidden Valley hike, and Jumbo Rocks boulder hopping
What you’ll see
Surreal alien prehistoric landscape, rock formations, boulder piles, strange trees, wildflowers, reptiles, and birds
What to bring
Water, snacks, lunch, light backpacks, child carrier, hats and bandanas (something to keep the sun off the back of your neck)
About Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California near Palm Springs. It is named for the Joshua trees native to the park, and covers a land area of 1,235 sq miles. The park includes parts of two deserts, each with different ecosystems: the higher Mojave Desert and lower Colorado Desert. The Little San Bernardino Mountains run through the southwest edge of the park.
I-10 E to CA-62 (aka 29 Palms Hwy) to Park Boulevard to enter the park at the Western entrance. Drive time about 2.5 hours one-way.
On the drive there
Stop at The Jelly Donut for their legendary apple fritter and a cup of coffee at the corner of 29 Palms Hwy and Acoma Trail (56153 29 Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley, CA 92284). My kids ask to go back to Joshua Tree just to get another apple fritter. It was highlight of their day apparently.
Park visit itinerary
Starting at the Visitor Center then passing through the Western entrance, follow Park Blvd making a loop through the northern park of the park, exiting through the Northern entrance to get back to 29 Palms Hwy. After the visitor center, we made three stops within the park – Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Jumbo Rocks (Skull Rock).
First stop — The Nature Center and cafe
Before entering the Western entrance of the park, stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. There are maps, displays, and a great bookstore with guides to the history, geology, plants, and animals you’ll encounter in the park. I always geek out and buy some guidebook to animals or plants at every visitor center. The kids love having books to help them identify things they’ll see during the day. Promise your kids that if they’re good all day that you’ll stop on the way home to buy them more stuff. Bribing kids is the best way to keep them in line I’ve found. Don’t miss the delicious fruit smoothies made at the cafe next door.
Second stop — Hidden Valley
More of a nature walk than a hike, Hidden Valley is a perfect introduction to the park’s geology and natural history. From the parking lot, take the path and steps that cut through the rock walls to the trail. The 1-mile loop is well-marked and there are interpretive signs for many of the desert plants. You’ll see a number of desert reptiles and birds as well. The small enclosed valley is surrounded by tall boulders, and is a popular spot for serious rock climbers. My kids got a kick out of sitting and watching the climbers. There are a lot of shaded spots along the way to sit and take a break and eat a snack. There are no rules about staying on the trail, so take the opportunity to scramble around on the boulder piles and take some photos. You finish the walk by heading out the way you came in. There’s a shaded picnic area near the parking lot and bathrooms too.
Third stop — Barker Dam
The 1.5-mile nature trail leading to the Barker Reservoir near the southern end of the Wonderland of Rocks is a popular and accessible trail for all ages. After the Hidden Valley hike, my son spiked a 103 degree temperature and fell asleep. We stopped at briefly at Barker Dam, which looked like a nice easy walk, but had to skip the hike and tour. Instead, my daughter watched her iPad while I took a short nap in the truck. Looked interesting though, so check it out. I’ll update this after our next visit.
Fourth stop — Jumbo Rocks (Skull Rock)
This stop made the trip worthwhile. After Barker Dam, continue of the Park Blvd loop to Skull Rock. You can’t miss it. Cars will be parked along the road on both sides. I found Skull Rock itself to be a bit underwhelming. But behind Skull Rock, if you scramble up over the boulders and explore, there’s a large expanse of boulders and winding paths. By then my son was feeling better, and we spent about two hours exploring the area. Bring your daypack and snacks or lunch with you and sit atop one of the many huge boulders and just soak it in.
It gets really hot in the desert during the summer.
On the drive home
Before the kids fall asleep, stop at Hadley’s Fruit Orchards market to grab a world-famous date shake and a bite to eat (48980 Seminole Dr, Cabazon, CA 92230).
Joshua Tree National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/jotr/