Go Guide: Family Day in Joshua Tree
By Ginny Figlar, KEEN mom and word nerd
When I was in my 20s, I road-tripped 20+ hours with friends to spend a week camping and climbing in Joshua Tree National Monument during Thanksgiving. A few years later, it became a National Park. Many years later, I became a mom. And last month, a full 27 years later, I went back with my husband and kids to share this otherworldly place with them.
Exploring with kids is much different than all the adventuring I did before kids. But, as you fellow parents know, it’s always so much fun to experience a place through the eyes of our kids. I notice different things than I would as an adult, and the most mundane experiences can be the highlight of the whole trip (see Keys View below).
We drove 16 hours from the Pacific Northwest to find the sun, wind, and Joshua Trees in the desert during Thanksgiving week. I found out later that we almost ran into longtime KEEN friends the Wongs (@everydayadventurefam), who spent a day there, too. It’s a popular time to visit places like Joshua Tree and Death Valley, because it can be unbearably hot from May through September.
If you’re thinking of visiting soon, too (it’s only 1 hour from Palm Springs and 3 hours from L.A.), here are some tips to make it a day trip to remember.
Photo by Felicia Wong.
Give yourself the whole day
And if you can time it so you leave at sunset, you will get some amazing light and pictures. To be honest, we thought maybe we would spend half a day max there, and we almost went for just the afternoon the day before. I’m so glad we decided to go in the morning, because the kids loved climbing from rock to rock, and there was a lot to see at every trailhead stop we made.
Don’t skip the visitor center
With so much information at our fingertips on our phones, sometimes it’s tempting to just DIY it. But the ranger at the visitor center was able to help us narrow down a few family-friendly spots, plus the two Junior Rangers in our crew were excited to get their booklets.
Pro tip: Got a 4th grader? Don’t forget that they are eligible for a free National Parks pass through the Every Kid in a Park program. My 4th grader felt pretty special to get his pass at the entrance station, and get us in for free.
While we ate our lunch sheltered from the wind in our car at Keys View, the Wongs found a picnic spot in the Quail Springs area. Photo by Felicia Wong.
Grab food and water before driving into the park
This is another reason I’m glad we stopped at the visitor center: right next door is a great place to stock your cooler with sandwiches and drinks. Once we planned out our trails and stops, we realized we might be there longer than we originally thought. There’s a slogan in Joshua Tree: “Don’t die today.” And there aren’t any facilities inside the park. So make sure you are well-stocked for all the hiking you’ll do, and to avoid those hangry tantrums toward the end of the day.
Pick a few spots to park and explore
We asked the park ranger to recommend the top two spots to visit, and she suggested we stop at Hidden Valley and hike the Discovery Trail at Skull Rock. Once there, we realized it’s not just about hiking. With kids, there are “rock caves” to explore and many boulders to climb, and the gritty granite is easy to grip (especially in grippy closed-toe KEEN shoes or sandals). A short, flat loop trail can easily turn into a 2-hour boulder-climbing adventure.
Top photo by Felicia Wong. "The best playground is nature," she says. My kid, shown below, agrees!
See the Keys View!
(AKA feel the power of the Santa Ana winds!) I’d much prefer walking around and exploring vs. driving and parking at an overlook. But at 5,000+ feet of elevation, Keys View looks out over the entire Coachella Valley, and you can see the San Andreas fault from there, so we added it to our list of stops. We had noticed it was pretty breezy while we had been hiking earlier, but those were gentle breezes compared to the full force of the Santa Ana winds at the top of the overlook! The kids thought it was a blast (and literally it was!). Instead of complaining, they turned it into a challenge. They would warm up in the car and then run the loop to the top, over and over. We joined them a few times, all of us hysterically laughing most of the way. So if you happen to go on a very windy day, it can be a really fun thing.
Pro tip: Bring layers. It was 20 degrees cooler in Joshua Tree than Palm Springs, and Keys View was even colder because of the wind.
Joshua Tree is definitely one of those places to plan for the unplanned. Go with plenty of food and water, and a few stops in mind. But leave the day open to follow your kid’s lead, and maybe you, too, will come home with videos of hysterical laughter and pics of happy kiddos at the tippy-top of boulders with views of Joshua trees for miles. Happy exploring!
Photo by Felicia Wong.