At the crossroads of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is perfectly suited for families. From scrambling on rocks of all sizes, to nearly a dozen short and informative nature and history trails, the park packs many opportunities to discover and learn into manageable kid-friendly excursions.
We opted to start at the southern entrance and take the park road all the way through the park, exiting at the western entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Visitor’s Center was a great place to start our day. Inside were some great exhibits describing the animals found in the park, and just behind the Visitor’s Center we took the Plant Walk to learn about some of the cacti, shrubs, and trees we would be seeing.
From there, the road took us through the lower and hotter Colorado Desert, and we stopped along the way to take the Cholla Cactus Nature Trail. The pamphlet at the trail head did a great job explaining about these unique cacti, also known as the teddy bear cactus, and about the creatures who make their burrows using desert debris. While these cacti did look a bit cute and cuddly, we were sure to heed the warnings not to let the barbed spikes get too close to our clothing or skin.
After finding a tiny scrap of shade cast by the Mazda5 to have a quick snack, we continued through the park, this time climbing in elevation to reach the slightly cooler Mojave Desert section of the park. Visiting in the spring definitely has its rewards, and it was fascinating to see so many colorful blossoms on some pretty intimidating looking plants.
The highlight of our day was exploring the Jumbo Rocks section of the park. The kids loved this giant 3D maze of massive boulders and narrow crevices. After peering at (and climbing up the side of) Skull Rock, we made our way through the field of massive boulders to explore other interesting formations. Our path was never in a straight line, but figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B was certainly a memorable experience.
Grateful to eventually find our way back to the car and have a picnic in the shade of an oak tree, we pressed on to take the 1.3 mile Barker Dam Nature Trail. This man-made oasis, built to utilize a natural source of water for cattle, was a stark contrast to the parched landscape all around. We spotted many birds and spiders in and near the water, and we also stopped to see a Native American petroglyph site near the end of the loop trail.
In order to make it through to see the sunset and stargaze at Keys View (a peak with a paved road to the top), we took a break from the park and stocked up on cold refreshments in the town of Joshua Tree. We were thrilled to find vegan smoothies and baked goods at the Natural Sisters Cafe, as well as vegan ice cream at the natural food store next door. With the shadows getting longer, we then drove back into the park to Keys View. The sunset did not disappoint, and we enjoyed watching the stars (and planets) come out. All in all, we could not have asked for a more informative, fun, and satisfying day in a national park.