Joshua Tree is a magical place. You hear that, and you believe it, but then you go there and you really feel it. It’s one part nature, one part outer space, and some third indefinable part that seems to come from the dry desert air or the general hippy vibe. It’s a place where kids can really feel that they’re standing on Earth, and that the Earth beneath their feet stretches out in every direction, encompassing a wondrous and mysterious planet.
So I took my kid out to Joshua Tree, where we met some friends and their kids who came from Los Angeles like us, and some other friends who came all the way from Chicago, and we made some new friends who traveled all the way across the pond from London. We had a truly fantastic time. Here’s what to do when you take your kids to Joshua Tree.
First things first, be prepared with WATER. So much water. So much more than you think you will need. Even getting in and out of the car will dry you out, the air is dry, the weather is hot, and you will always need more water than you think you will. The rule of the desert is TURN AROUND when your water is half gone. This is SO KEY. People die in the desert all the time. The number of people we saw on the trails without water was astounding. So take note and bring so much water.
Where to Stay:
You can air bnb a lot of really cool homes. You can camp in the park (make your reservation months and months in advance!). Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway is pretty cool. But for a group of kids, I recommend Hicksville Trailer Palace. I can’t give you the address (they keep it a secret until right before your trip), but it’s close enough to the park entrance to allow you easy enough access and far enough into the desert to feel perfect isolation.
It’s a collection of trailers surrounding a pool. Bring your own food to grill and firewood, and of course some wine and beer. There’s mini golf, ping pong, and some arcade games for the kids too. They’ve got a tee-pee you can light a fire in, and a library full of books for the kids. Also bb guns and archery, which was a blast.
We stayed in the trailer called the Fifi, because we call Scarlet “Fifi.” Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. We just started calling her that and it stuck. This is our trailer… And this is my Fifi.
What to Do:
In Joshua Tree, you should stop by the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, which is where I took the photo at the top of this post. You can just park and walk right in, there’s no tickets or anyone working there. Keep a close eye on the kids because all of the installations are rickety (they’ve been out in the elements for about 50 years) and potentially dangerous for climbing on, but just wild and fun to explore. Give yourself about 45 minutes to run around and check things out. Ask the kids what they think each installation is, imagine it all as spaceships or homes of old pirates. Again, bring water, there’s no water here.
If you are there on the right days, and you make a reservation in advance, you should schedule a sound bath for you and the kids at the Integratron. Kids can only go with advance private reservations, but it will be worth it.
You can also head out to Pioneertown, which is pretty cool but not something you can spend a whole day doing. It was created as a tourist attraction in the 1940’s, that never really caught on, but was used as a set in many amazing westerns. It’s having a renaissance now, and is home to Pappy and Harriet’s, where you can see some amazing music shows. Kids may or may not be into that (mine wasn’t), but you adults will definitely enjoy it. Don’t make it the priority of your visit, that should definitely be Joshua Tree National Park.
In the Park:
When you are ready to head into the park (and you can’t skip the park – you CAN NOT), start at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. You’ll need to buy yourself a pass to enter the park if you don’t already have a national park pass. Here you can also grab a map, and ask for the (free) Jr. Park Ranger booklet (which also comes with a pencil). The kids will learn a lot from this, LOVE filling it out, and if they complete the whole thing, they will get a badge at the end of your trip. You can also pick up sunscreen, extra water, etc. at the visitor center.
Now you can drive from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to the other end of the park, the Oasis Visitor Center, in about 60 minutes. You’ll get to experience two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, and the unique features of each. But of course you will want to stop. The best spots for doing an easy hike with kids are Hidden Valley and Barker Dam. I like Hidden Valley for its space-like rock formations, but be warned that your kids will want to climb all over them. The whole loop is about a mile and mostly flat, except for the piles of rocks they will definitely want to scramble up.
The drive up to Keys View is worth it and really only about 20 minutes out of your way (round trip) if you are doing the loop. From here you can see the whole Coachella Valley, all the way to Palm Springs and the San Jacinto mountain range. What’s most interesting is that it is the only place where you can actually visually observe the San Andreas fault. It’s that ridge running right down the middle of the valley. Also note the snow on the mountain tops.
Stop in a few turnouts to marvel at the Joshua trees. Kids will be as amazed by them as you are.
If you keep going, you can check out Jumbo Rocks or go all the way to the Cholla Cactus Garden (FYI it’s pronounced “choya”- I had to ask about that one). Our kids were wiped out from excessive rock climbing so we headed back to town for ice cream and a swim.
Then they put on a nighttime talent show for us on the little stage at Hicksville, before we made s’mores, soaked in the rooftop hottub and headed back to our trailers. That’s one happy kid.
Make your way to Joshua Tree with your family, and if you’ve already been, tell me what I’ve missed. We will be heading back in the fall, as soon as the weather cools down a bit. Happy travels, friends!