Family Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Discover Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
See the Seussian Joshua Trees in the northern part of Joshua Tree National Park. Photo Credit: National Park Service

Just outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, offers a glimpse into two different desert ecosystems. An easy getaway from from Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix, Joshua Tree offers hiking, bouldering, night sky viewing and camping. Best explored from Fall through Spring, it can be appreciated in a couple of hours too. Here’s a guide for Joshua Tree National Park.

Top Things to do in Joshua Tree

Stop at a Visitor Center.
Take a Scenic Drive.
Hike in Joshua Tree.
Earn a Junior Ranger Badge.
Camp in one of the campgrounds.

Joshua Tree at a Glance

Year Established: 1994
Located: Southern California
Size: over 790,000 acres
Top Features: The Famous Trees


The Southern California Deserts

The U.S. features four deserts, each distinctive with different plants and animals. In an area the size of Rhode island, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park can see how one desert transitions to another . 

The lower Colorado desert is the western part of the Sonoran desert where ocotillo cactus and cholla cactus flourish. The higher Mojave desert is home to the Joshua Trees, the spiky Seussian-looking yucca plants. Additionally the San Bernardino Mountains offers an oasis with juniper and pinyon.

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Visitor Centers in Joshua Tree 

Oasis Visitor Center is near the northern entrance. It offers an interpretive area and a Oasis of Mara, a desert walking path. Located at 74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms. Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Joshua Tree Visitor Center is near the western entrance. If offers an interpretive area and cafe. Located at 6554 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree. Open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Cottonwood Visitor Center is inside of JTNP, just north of the southern entrance. Open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Black Rock Nature Center is a seasonal facility near the Black Rock Campground. Open from October to May from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Discover Oasis Visitor Center at Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
The Oasis Visitor Center near the town of TwentyNine Palms offers an interpretive area. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Hiking in Joshua Tree


Bajada Trail—an accessible .25-mile loop, near Cottonwood Visitor Center 

Keys View Trail—an accessible .25-mile trail to the overlook

Cap Rock—an accessible .4-mile loop


Split Rock Loop—a 2.5-mile loop.

Wall Street Mill—a 2-mile hike to a historic gold mining site. 

Moderate hikes require more preparation and should be avoided during the summer. Pick up a map at the visitor center and pack water regardless of the season. 

Pets aren’t allowed on trails in Joshua Tree. 

Bikes in Joshua Tree

Cycling  is allowed on vehicle roads only, paved and unpaved. Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t offer multi-use or mountain bike trails. 

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Hike the Oasis of Mara in Joshua Tree National Park with kids for an easy hike
Along the Oasis of Mara loop behind the Oasis Visitor Center, families can hike an accessible trail. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids at Joshua Tree National Park

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Joshua Tree National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet. 

The Joshua Tree Junior Ranger badge requires attending at ranger program. Visit an exhibit in the visitor center and have a ranger sign off on the booklet, if ranger programs aren’t offered during your visit.

National Junior Ranger badges can be earned at Joshua Tree National Park like the Junior Paleontologist, the Night Explorer patch, and the Wilderness Explorer patch. 

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Night Sky Viewing in Joshua Tree

Away from the city lights, Joshua Tree National Park is an International Dark Skies Park. With the unaided eye, see the Milky Way above. Or bring a telescope for a more in-depth viewing. 

Joshua Tree National Park occasionally hosts night sky viewing ranger programs. And look for its annual star party with 20 telescopes (cancelled for 2020). 

Get more information at the Joshua Tree National Park events page.

Tour Keys Ranch

Homesteading in the Mojave desert required fortitude, perseverance and enguiniety. The Keys family—Bill, Frances and their five children lived in the area for 60 years as cattle ranchers. 

The tour walks through their ranch house, on-site school house, store and workshop. Also see their restored orchard along with a host of old cars and machinery. 

Tours offered from September to May and last 1.5 hours. Reservations required and adult tours (12 and over) are $10 per person and $5 for kids (5 to 11). 

Discover Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
A picture by the Joshua Tree National Park sign is a must for every trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Backcountry Driving 

Joshua Tree National Park offers some unpaved roads to explore, even if you don’t own at a vehicle 4WD and high-clearance. 

Geology Tour Road—18-mile route with interpretive stops along the way. First few miles are open to most vehicles after that it’s 4WD only. 

Queen Valley Roads—13.4-mile route that open to most vehicles, most of the year.

Climbing in Joshua Tree

Home to world-class climbing, Joshua Tree National Park features 8,000 climbing routes, thousands of bouldering opportunities and hundreds of natural gaps to navigate. 

For more information, consider attending a Climber Coffee, held on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. starting in mid-October to the end of April. For those new to climbing, private guides can help. Find one that’s permitted to work in the park.

Horses in Joshua Tree

If you own horses, Joshua Tree National Park offers 253 miles of equestrian trails. Also find campsites just for horses.

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What to do in 2 hours at Joshua Tree

Kids always pose for pictures at Joshua Tree National Park.
Be sure and grab a photo of your kids at the Oasis Visitor Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For road trippers traveling along Interstate 10, drive through Joshua Tree National Park for a quick overview of the park. I’ve done this on several occasions. 

Enter at either the northern or western entrance and drive to the other entrance. You will see a large concentration of Joshua Trees. Both entrances are along CA SR 62 that intersects Interstate 10.

Another option is drive from the southern entrance to the northern entrance, or vice-versa. 

Stop by the Visitor Center. Watch the interpretive film. Then spot a the top sights in the park. 

Cottonwood Springs—This area offered water for gold prospectors back in the California Gold Rush. 

Ocotillo Patch—A large display of leggy cactus along with interpretive signs at a scenic pullout. 

Cholla Cactus Garden—A .25-mile walk through a 10-acre area to see cactus that look soft enough to cuddle. Looks are deceiving, the cactus have needles. 

Skull Rock—See the hollowed out granite formation, located near Jumbo Rocks campground. 

Barker Dam—Find 1.1-mile trail with standing water in Joshua Tree along with boulder outcropping. 

Keys View—See Coachella Valley below from the crest of Little San Bernardino Mountains. 

History of Joshua Tree National Park

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Joshua Tree a national monument, after the tireless effort from desert conservationist Minerva Hamilton. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994, upgraded the monument to Joshua Tree National Park. 

As a transition zone, it’s where the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert meet, the western edge of the Sonoran Desert. 

The Colorado desert is below 3,000 feet features rugged plants, like the Creosote bush and Ocotillo cactus. The kid-favorite the cholla cactus looks as soft as a teddy bear but it harbors thousands of thorns. 

The Mojave Desert features elevations of 3,000 feet and above. It provides a unique habitat for pinyon pines, Joshua trees and numerous yuccas and cacti. 

Another signature feature of Joshua Tree National Park is the boulder piles. The granite formed rock piles after the eons of erosion. 

People of Joshua Tree

Human existence in Joshua Tree dates back 5,000 years. The first were the Pinto people. Then the Serrano people, the Chemehuevi people and Cahuilla People lived in the area. 

In the 19th and 20th century, cattle ranchers, prospectors, miners and homesteaders each inhibited the land. 

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Camping in Joshua Tree

Belle Campground
  • Open September to May only
  • 18 sites 
  • First-come, first-served
  • Pit toilet and no running water
Black Rock Campground 
  • Year-round
  • 99 sites, maximum RV length: 35 feet
  • Reservations recommended
  • Flush toilets, running water and dump station
  • Horse campsites available
Cottonwood Spring Campground
  • Year-round
  • 62 sites, maximum RV length: 35 feet
  • Reservations recommended
  • Flush toilets, running water and dump station
Hidden Valley Campground
  • Year-round
  • 44 sites, maximum RV length: 25 feet
  • First-come, first-served
  • Pit toilets and no running water 
Indian Cove Campground
  • Year-round
  • 101 sites, maximum RV length: 35 feet
  • Reservations recommended 
  • Pit toilets and no running water
Jumbo Rocks Campground
  • Year-round
  • 124 sites, maximum RV length: 35 feet
  • Reservations recommended
  • Pit toilets and no running water
Ryan Campground
  • Year-round
  • 31 sites, maximum RV length: 35 feet
  • Reservations recommended
  • Pit toilets and no running water
  • Horse and Bicycle campsites available

Note: Joshua Tree National Park sites don’t offer RV hook-ups.

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Lodging near Joshua Tree 

Find a host of lodging options from budget to mid-century icons to ultra luxury resort accommodations. For Walt Disney fans, you can even stay in his former home.

Activities near Joshua Tree

The Palm Springs area offers lots to do, like hot air balloons rides, mid-century modern architecture tours along tram tours.

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Weather in Joshua Tree 

Spring—The temperatures heat up quickly in the spring and mirror the fall temperatures in reserve.

Summer—Dangerous temperatures for outdoor recreation in the heat of the day, high temperatures reach 110F (45C) all summer long. Lows are upper 70s F (25C). Carry water and don’t leave pets or kids in vehicles.

Fall—The weather is sunny most days with highs close to 100F+ (39C) and lows in the 70sF (22C) in September. By November highs average around 80F (28C) and lows are 50F (10C).

Winter—The rainy season though the rain total for each month averages about one-inch. Find highs in the 70sF (20s C) with lows in the 30sF (2C). 

Getting to Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located 52 miles from Palm Springs, the closest city with commercial flights. Los Angeles and Las Vegas offer another national park destination hub. 

Joshua Tree National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per vehicle.

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Know Before You Go:

  • Remember a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and water for all seasons.
  • Seven different rattlesnakes call Joshua Tree National Park home.
  • Use maps for navigation, not your GPS.
  • Cell phone coverage is poor in the park.
  • Stay away from abandoned mines.

Add Joshua Tree National Park to your National Parks bucket list. Find it a few hours from Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; and Phoenix, Arizona. Get recommendations for what to do, where to go, and where to stay at popular SoCal getaway, minutes from Palm Springs. What to do in Joshua Tree National Park | Best National Parks in Southern California #NationalPark #California
credit: Catherine Parker
Add Joshua Tree National Park to your National Parks bucket list. Find it a few hours from Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; and Phoenix, Arizona. Get recommendations for what to do, where to go, and where to stay for popular SoCal getaway minutes from Palm Springs. What to do in Joshua Tree National Park | Best National Parks in Southern California #NationalPark #California
credit: Pixabay

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