Family Weekend in Joshua Tree National Park

Genie Davis May 14, 2012 No Comments


I’ve been taking my children out to the desert for many years. We love the warmth, the quality of light, and the just plain weirdness of the landscape. And one of our favorite places to go is Joshua Tree National Park. The park is vast, at over eight hundred thousand acres. And in that land is a merger between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Because of that combination you’ll find ocotillo cactus in bloom in the Cactus Garden at the southern end of the park, strange and mysterious rock formations to the west, palm oases for strolling in the northern end near 29 Palms.

Small children will enjoy just looking at the “arms” of the Joshua Tree plants; older ones will enjoy a hike or two. The best times to experience the park are morning and twilight – partly the heat, and partly that desert light again. Why not see the rocks turn pink with sunset, or glow gold in the morning? Whatever time of day you choose to explore the park, be sure to have plenty of water and a vehicle full of gas, as there are no services to provide either within the park itself. Driving from one end of the park to another takes about forty minutes; if you chose to go this route with just a few stops for photos and leg stretching en route, it will probably stretch to seventy minutes.

Entering the Park

Joshua Tree National Park Rocks

Easy trails still allow excellent rock views throughout the park

Most visitors with children will want to get out and explore the park at least a little bit though, on foot. My family usually enters from the west through Joshua Tree, and on to Hidden Valley, with a pleasant and easy nature trail just over a mile in length. It leads around Barker dam, where you’ll see water and boulders and flora and fauna worthy of pictures and examination up close.

Key’s View is an impressive overlook of the valley, albeit sometimes marred with smog drifting in from the Inland Empire. The easy trails around Skull Rock, about midway through the park are great for some gentle boulder scrambling for the older kids, while tots should keep to the simple, dirt loop trail. The rock shapes here are particularly enjoyable, and there are picnic tables for a lunch stop. Quail Valley, much closer to the western entrance of the park, also has a pleasant loop trail, with large egg shaped boulders to pass around.

Town Time

Back in the town of Joshua Tree, we found Pie for the People, a great pizza place with all sorts of pie options, including vegan versions.

Where to stay? While we often find a rental property on, there are many other choices. There’s a pleasant pool, one large family suite, and fairly small but pretty rooms ringing a courtyard at Joshua Tree Inn. While country rocker Gram Parsons spent his last hours here, there’s nothing spooky about the place, and we enjoyed the extended breakfast buffet spread out by the pool in the morning. Cooler looking, brightly painted, and a little more expensive is Spin and Margies Desert Hideaway, which has trendy cabin like accommodations that fit a family of four just fine. The surprisingly elegant – at least it surprised us, being in the middle of the desert – Roughley Manor is a bed and breakfast that could’ve been transported straight from New England at the turn of the century.

A Little Art with Your View?

The rocks in the national park look like sculptures, and the photos you take may look like art, but if you want the real art scene, inspired by the park’s loopy natural formations, in town you can peruse the paintings, photos, and sculptures on display at the Joshua Tree art Gallery. Outsides of town, we stumbled upon the High Desert Test Sites. Here you’ll find kid-appealing outdoor artworks that are actually designed to be altered by mother nature. It’s open weekends only.


While the western facades are available to stroll all week long, Pioneertown, too, is best experienced on the weekend, when the old fashioned bowling alley is open, and Pappy and Harriet’s restaurant offers live music during the day. If you’re a carnivore, you’ll love their fragrant barbeque. While we stuck to the salads and fries, both were fresh and reasonably priced.

Wildflowers and Spring Water

Available for consumption any day of the week, are the wild flowers that stretch across the park in March, April, and May. The higher elevations toward 29 Palms bloom later than those at the southern end of the park. When we were there, we caught many blooms in the cactus garden, as well as roadside displays closer to town.

Joshua Tree National Park Sunset

We love watching the sunset lower in the sky out in Joshua Tree National Park.

You’ll find plenty of flowers in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, too, down the steep hill from Joshua Tree National Park. Very easy, child-friendly boardwalks carry you through a pleasantly shady expanse, including graceful willows. There’s excellent bird watching here too. If you’re looking for a little more water, head into the town of Desert Hot Springs, where several hotel properties allow guests to pay a reasonable day fee to enjoy the mineral waters. If you’re planning to stay in the area, be aware that some of the smaller spa enclaves are adults only. Not the old fashioned Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel, which is a fun place for a day pass. There are eight different spring water pools, some hotter, some colder. Test the waters before allowing the littlest members of your party to enjoy a soak.

At twilight, don’t forget to look up and enjoy the sunset glow of the desert – our favorite time of day in one of our favorite places.

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Joshua Tree National Park, The Integraton and Pioneertown

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

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