Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park: Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree

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Visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids is definitely an otherworldly trip. It spans two deserts – Colorado and Mojave – with incredible diversity of landscapes, habitats, and wildlife. It is a fabulous place for families of all ages and abilities to explore. We’ve loved finding the best things to do in Joshua Tree!

We loved exploring the park with our family, and want to share some tips, tricks, and things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids. Whether you’re camping, picnicking, or hiking in Joshua Tree, or even just learning about the history of the park from home, I hope this Joshua Tree National Park guide is helpful and informative. You’ll find info on Joshua Tree activities, lodging, and food, as well as indigenous history of the lands, book recommendations, and more – perfect whether you’ve never visited or whether you’ve been 100 times.

I hope you enjoy this Joshua Tree travel guide!

Learn About Joshua Tree National Park

Before we visit a national park, our family loves learning about it! It helps us enjoy it more and appreciate the people who have stewarded it well before us. We love learning about the indigenous history, as well as about wildlife and ecosystems.

Here are a few ways to learn about the park either before a visit or as part of a Joshua Tree virtual tour! And check out this beautiful video to get a glimpse into the natural wonders that await at Joshua Tree National Park!

Joshua Tree National Park History & Natural Features

  • Humans have occupied the land presently known as Joshua Tree National Park for at least 5,000 years. It is believed the Pinto Culture were among the earliest inhabitants, followed by the Serrano, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla indigenous peoples.
  • Joshua Tree National Park includes two unique ecosystems – Colorado and Mojave desert. Each is home to distinct plant and animal species.
  • Native peoples collected acorns, mesquite pods, pinyon nuts, seeds, berries, and cactus fruits for food and medicine. Other plants were used to make baskets, weapons and tools.
  • The desert tortoise is the most studied animal in the park and was placed on the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1990. Read more about desert tortoises in the park here.
  • Mining and cattle ranching grew increasingly popular in the 1800s, driving out indigenous peoples by 1913.
  • The construction of roads in the early 1920s began land development efforts and brought cactus poachers to the area. Minerva Hoyt, a desert plant enthusiast, advocated for protection of the area and played a significant role in the establishment of Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.
  • Joshua Tree became a National Park on October 31, 1 994 via the Desert Protection Act. (Source) (Source) (Source)
YouTube video

Joshua Tree Indigenous History

  • Indigenous peoples, including the Chemehuevi, Serrano, Mojave, and Cahuilla have called the deserts of Joshua Tree home for at least 10,000 years.
  • Serrano people call the land Mara, “land of little springs and much grass” and planted palm trees. The palm trees planted by the Serrano were used for “food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing.” Palm fronds were also used to make baskets and hats.
  • The Chemehuevi and Serrano lived together peacefully, irrigating the Oasis and cultivating a garden. Descendants of both tribes are now members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians.
  • The Chemehuevi continued to practice traditional techniques of hunting, gathering and cultivation through the 19th century. However, as more settlers arrived to the area, resources were depleted and tribal peoples were forced to supplement with non-traditional foods.
  • After the devastation of smallpox and increased presence of settlers, tribal peoples moved away to other areas of the desert. Then, in the early 1970s, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians invited the Twenty-Nine Palms Band to take over 210 acres of the Cabazon Reservation.
  • After the Twenty-Nine Palms Band petitioned Congress, President Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1975, recognizing the tribe and those 210 acres as the Twenty-Nine Palms Reservation. (Source) (Source) (Source)

Featured Joshua Tree Picture Book: Life in the Slow Lane: A Desert Tortoise Tale

Available on Amazon, Bookshop

YouTube video

Joshua Tree Packing List: What to Pack For a Joshua Tree Family Vacation

You probably think of Joshua Tree as hot and dry – and you’d be right. But, there are some differences in the seasons. Summer, of course, can bring exceedingly high temperatures. Spring and fall are warm, but can be quite pleasant. During winter, it can get surprisingly chilly and you’re likely to encounter some winds at higher temperatures. However, Joshua Tree National Park is a desert regardless of the season. Always pack extra water (outside of some campgrounds, there is no water available in the park) and sun protection. Here are some essentials to pack when traveling to Joshua Tree National Park with kids.

Joshua Tree National Park Packing List

How To Get to Joshua Tree National Park

You will need to have a vehicle to get to Joshua Tree National park from the airport as public transportation is very limited.

  • The closest airport is in Palm Springs, about a 1 hour drive.
  • Alternatively, you could fly into Los Angeles, about a 3 hour drive – potentially longer depending on LA traffic.
  • San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix are all about 3.5-4 hours away.

How Many Days Should I Spend at Joshua Tree National Park?

While you can certainly experience Joshua Tree in a day or a week, I recommend 2 days in Joshua Tree or 3 days in Joshua Tree National Park. That will give you time to experience the highlights of Joshua with kids without cramming it all into a single day, including a couple hikes and time at some of the more distant (but equally incredible) sites.

Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree Lodging for Families

Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

There are eight established campgrounds at Joshua Tree National Park, five of which that require reservations and three that are first come, first-served. Many sites can accommodate RVs, and accessible sites are available. There are even specific campsites set aside for bikers and equestrians! Backcountry camping is an option and a permit is required.

Joshua Tree, CA Lodging with Kids

The town of Joshua Tree is limited as far as hotels and motels are concerned, but there are still plenty of rental options for families traveling with kids. Here are some recommended places to stay near Joshua Tree for families:

Where to Eat near Joshua Tree National Park

There is nowhere to purchase food inside Joshua Tree National Park. The closest food options are in the town of Joshua Tree outside the west entrance and the town of Twentynine Palms outside the north entrance.

Here’s where to eat in Joshua Tree:

Here’s where to eat in Twentynine Palms:

How to Get Around Joshua Tree: Joshua Tree Transportation

Though biking and horseback riding are permitted in the park, for most families getting around Joshua Tree National Park requires a car.

Best Time to Go to Joshua Tree: Joshua Tree National Park Weather

As I mentioned before, Joshua Tree is in the desert, which means sun protection is a must year round. Some campgrounds close down for the summer due to the oppressive heat. The park, however, remains open year-round. If you choose to visit in summer, remember there is no access to food or water inside the park and shade is rare. Always pack extra water and food, apply sunscreen liberally, and be sure take take plenty of breaks.

The rest of the year, Joshua Tree can be quite lovely to visit. There are wildflower and cacti blooms in spring, especially at the south end of the park. The Joshua Trees also bloom in spring. Spring is the park’s busiest season, so consider visiting in late spring if you want to avoid crowds but still visit this time of year.

Fall is quite lovely in Joshua Tree National Park. Temperatures cool down after September, but it’s still quite warm during the day and cooler at night. It’s wise to pack a couple layers for cooler mornings and evenings. Sun protection is still a must!

After spring, winter in Joshua Tree National Park can also be a busy time to visit. Though you’re likely to get sun, you’ll also experience cooler days and chilly nights. It can get windy, as well, so be sure to pack extra layers. Higher elevations of the park can even see snow, so it’s best to be prepared for more wintry conditions and bring jackets, hats, etc.

Day Trip to Joshua Tree: Top Joshua Tree Checklist of the Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree

If you have limited time and are wondering about what to see in Joshua Tree National Park, here are some of our favorites for a day trip to Joshua Tree. These would all be wonderful as part of a Joshua Tree National Park itinerary and are the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. Of note, Joshua Tree National Park is large and some sites are further out. It’s best to pack up food the night prior and get an early start to avoid long lines at the entrance and traffic at the most popular sites.

  • If possible, catch a Joshua Tree sunrise (Arch Rock and Cholla Cactus Garden are spectacular)
  • Hike Hidden Valley
  • Drive up Keys View
  • See Skull Rock and Split Rock – there are picnic areas for lunch near both
  • Hike Arch Rock
  • Visit the Cholla Garden for Golden Hour
  • Drive back through the park during sunset to enjoy spectacular vistas before heading out

These activities will give you a wonderful overview of the best things to do in Joshua Tree, including its wildlife and ecosystems, in a short period of time. If you have longer, be sure to visit the cultural center in Twentynine Palms and do a ranger program, such as the Keys Ranch tour!

Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary & Unique Things To Do in Joshua Tree

If you’re still not convinced and are wondering, “Is Joshua Tree National Park kid friendly,” here’s more detail on family friendly activities when on a Joshua Tree family vacation:

1. Visit the Joshua Tree Cultural Center

Newly opened in 2022, the Joshua Tree Cultural Center is a partnership between the park, indigenous communities, and local government to share the deep cultural history and present of this special place. Exhibits include more than a dozen stories about indigenous stewardship of the land. The cultural center also serves as a visitor center with a bookstore where you can pick up maps, information and souvenirs.

2. Guided Ranger Programs: Talks, Walks, Coffee, And More

Joshua Tree National Park has a host of incredible and free ranger programs, from guided walks to tortoise conservation to coffee for climbers. Be sure to stop into a park visitor center or check the online park calendar to get more info about the various free and paid programs available – they’re for sure one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. There’s information about the various park ranger programs right here.

3. Junior Ranger Program

There are also special programs geared to younger visitors. Pick up a wonderful Junior Ranger booklet at a park visitor center to learn more about the park, its history, ecology, and conservation. The Joshua Tree Cultural Center is an excellent place to not only stop to pick up your booklet, but to also explore exhibits about the park. Be sure to ask about the other junior ranger programs available at the park, including Junior Paleontologist and Junior Ranger Night Explorer.

4. Hike A Joshua Tree Trail: Best Hikes Joshua Tree National Park

There are so many fantastic Joshua Tree hiking trails of different lengths and good for a variety of abilities. Truly, Joshua Tree hiking is wonderful for everyone from experienced hikers to novices, families with young children, and those ready for a major challenge.

If you’re interested in some of the best Joshua Tree hikes with kids, here’s a list of 16 family Joshua Tree National Park hiking trails, and just some of the overall best Joshua Tree National Park hikes.

5. Biking in Joshua Tree National Park

Biking in Joshua Tree National Park is allowable on all roads in that are open to vehicles in the park. Because there are no designated bike lanes, it is recommended riders use the backcountry roads to explore less trafficked areas. Keep in mind, paved roads get incredibly busy and can be packed with vehicles in certain areas. There are also special campsites designated for bikers in the Ryan Campground, which is open all seasons outside of summer.

6. Climbing, Bouldering and Scrambling in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is known around the world as a climbing and bouldering hotspot. With more than 2,000 bouldering sites and 8,000 climbing routes, there’s something for climbers and scramblers of all abilities. Check this page for more information, including current closures, safety recommendations, opportunities to connect with other climbers, and more!

7. Drive the Geology Tour Road

Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile motor tour that includes scenic pullouts, as well as hiking and climbing opportunities. Keep in mind the that while the first few miles are accessible by most vehicles, a large section of the road is for 4 wheel drive vehicles only. There is a sign marking where on the road this change occurs. This self-guided Joshua Tree National Park driving tour is a great way to learn about the park and its geology while you drive.

8. Birding in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is host to a diverse list of both year-round and migrating bird species. Some of the more common species you’re likely to see include the roadrunner, mourning dove, cactus wren, and Gambel’s quail. Winter and early spring can be an extra special time to visit as you’ll also have the opportunity to spot hermit thrush, sage sparrow, cedar waxwing, and more! Other bird species arrive in spring for nesting season, including wester bluebird, Scott’s oriole, and ash-throated flycatcher.

9. Stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky park and hosts a number of star-centered programs, including the Night Sky Festival in September. The park never closes, so visitors can enter at any time to enjoy the skies. For tips about the best spots and what to look for each season, visit this page. Additionally, the park partners with the Sky’s the Limit Observatory in Twentynine Palms. Learn more about their programs here.

10. Spring Wildflower Viewing

Spring is a wonderful time to view the desert wildflowers in Joshua Tree National Park. Though, the density of the blooms can vary year to year, there’s usually blooms happening somewhere in the park throughout the season. Keep an eye on the Joshua Tree National Park Wildflower Watch to see which species are blooming and where. You might even get lucky and hit a desert superbloom!

11. Horseback Riding in Joshua Tree

With over 250 equestrian trails, on horseback is a wonderful way to see Joshua Tree National Park! Check out this page for trail information, camp sites designated for horses and trailer parking areas. Be sure to check regulations about grazing and watering before you go.

12. Spot Petroglyphs in Joshua Tree National Park

While the Barker Dam Trail is popular, it’s rarely super crowded and many don’t realize there are petroglyphs to explore near one end of the out-and-back adventure. The 1.5 mile round trip trail is perfect with kiddos and they’ll love viewing the ancient carvings.

13. Photography in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is a photographer’s playground! With otherworldly vistas, funky flora and clear skies, it makes for some pretty spectacular photography opportunities.

Here’s the photography equipment we bring along:

Photo equipment

Desert Tips: Staying Safe in the Desert

Enjoy this silly video from Joshua Tree National Park about how to prepare for a tip to the desert and ensure you – and the ecosystem – are staying safe.

YouTube video

Enjoy Your Visit to Joshua Tree National Park with Kids!

We’ve loved putting together this Joshua Tree National Park travel guide to take an in person or virtual visit to the Joshua Tree with kids. We’d love to hear if you do any of these activities on a family trip to Joshua Tree!

We hope to inspire curiosity and connection through exploring and learning, and we hope this guide helps you and your families. Please share any activities you do with us over on our Instagram. And we’d be delighted if you passed this guide to Joshua Tree National Park with kids along to others, as well!




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