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JNP - visitor-center

Joshua Tree National Park: A desert wilderness a day from L.A.

There is no shortage of natural attractions to check out in southern California. Beaches, mountains, and desert vistas abound — as long as you’re willing to battle the legendary SoCal heat and traffic.

If you’re a fan of desert views, interesting rock formations, scrambling on boulders, and national parks, a visit to Joshua Tree National Park must be on your to-do list the next time you’re in sunny southern California.

Getting There

Getting to Joshua Tree National Park is easy. There are three different visitors centers. A fourth facility, the Black Rock Nature Center, pulls double-duty as a visitor center, but will only be on your itinerary if you visit the Black Rock Campground.  For more information on the visitors centers, click here.

If you’re coming from south of the park, the Cottonwood Visitor Center will be your nearest point of entry. If you’re coming from north of the park, either the Joshua Tree Visitor Center or Oasis Visitor Center will be a better choice.

When we visit a national park we always stop in at a visitor center first. Park rangers are the best source of information about current conditions at the park and can help you identify the hikes and stops you’ll most enjoy.

In addition, we have four Junior Rangers in our family, and simply must complete the Junior Ranger program at each national park we visit. To check out what the Junior Ranger program entails, click here.

JNP - hiking

Sights to See and Things to Do

There’s a lot to see and do at Joshua Tree National Park. Some of the top attractions in the park include Barker Dam, Skull Rock, Keys View, and Cottonwood Springs. The park offers many short nature trails as well as longer day hikes depending on the needs, wants, and abilities of your party.

With lots of pairs of little legs to think about, our family tends to gravitate toward short hikes that involve rocks to climb and water to play in. Those criteria put Barker Dam at the top of our list. This short hike was perfect for our crew: not too long with a few shady spots to rest along the way.

JNP - barker-dam

Barker Dam was created by early ranchers to water their cattle. I’m not sure how things worked out for those early ranchers, but any animals headed to Barker Dam for a drink while we were there would have left disappointed. The heat and lack of rainfall meant that this rain-fed reservoir was bone dry during our visit.

So, the water we had hoped for was a bust, but our crew still enjoyed scrambling over the boulders.

JNP - bouldering

The Barker Dam hike is a loop, and the second half of the loop takes you within a hundred yards of ancient petroglyphs. While they have been defaced, it’s still worth taking a few minutes to check out the ancient artwork. For more information on the hikes available at Barker Dam, click here.

JNP - skull-rock

Another popular stop at Joshua Tree is Skull Rock. Nimble visitors can actually climb into the eyes of the skill for a unique photo op. The surrounding boulders offer ample scrambling and bouldering surfaces for young and not-so-young visitors of the adventurous type.

Our crew could spend hours climbing on rocks. So, if your family is anything like ours, plan on allowing at least a few minutes to explore the boulders behind skull rock during your visit.

JNP - keys-view

You won’t make it to Keys View during your visit by accident and I recommend finding the time to make the short drive out to the viewpoint. Keys View overlooks the Coachella Valley, and on a clear day you can see nearly 100 miles to Signal Mountain in Mexico. Unfortunately, deteriorating air quality means that visibility is limited to a couple dozen miles most of the time.

There’s a lot more to do at Joshua Tree National Park. There are many nature trails, day hikes, and other noteworthy points of interest. To make the most of your visit, stop at visitor center on your way into the park and get some advice from a park ranger on the hikes and points of interest that will best fit your schedule, family, and interests.

Know Before You Go

It’s important to be prepared when visiting Joshua Tree National Park. Don’t forget that many parts of the park are desolate, hot, dry, and potentially dangerous. Falls while climbing on boulders can and do happen, cars can break down, and hikers can get lost.  Here are some tips to make your trip more enjoyable:

Tip 1 — Carry water

We usually carry about 2.5 gallons of water when visiting a national park on a day trip, but the guidance from the park service is actually even more than that atone gallon per person per day. Carry plenty of water assuming that you may end up staying longer than planned and may not be able to find water in the park.

Tip 2 — Take cover

We weren’t able to find any covered picnic areas. The park is a big place, so there may be covered picnic areas in some locations, but they certainly aren’t everywhere. We were fortunate to find some shade next too a tall boulder where we could spread out a picnic blanket to get some respite from the sun while eating lunch.

However, if we hadn’t been able to find that shade, we still could have set up our beach tent to get out of the sun.
When you visit the park assume you won’t be able to find shade and take some equipment to create your own shade if necessary. To view some affordable beach tents and canopies, click here.

Tip 3 — Respect the heat

We were fortunate to visit the park on a relatively cool day in late May with a high in the mid-80s. Daily highs between late May and early September often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Be aware and plan your trip accordingly. If possible, visit the park between the months of October and April for cooler temperatures.

Tip 4 — Pay attention to the visitor center hours

Joshua Tree National Park never closes. Want to visit at 2 a.m? Go right ahead. The gate will be open. However, the visitor centers do have operating hours and close between 4 and 5 p.m. This is particularly important if your crew includes junior rangers who will want to collect their badges and say their pledges before heading out.

JNP - junior-ranger

Our Family Vote

Joshua Tree National Park was a hit. Virtually every trail and point of interest in the park offers plentiful opportunities to scramble across boulders and check out small natural caves.

The Junior Ranger program was educational without being overly difficult — something experienced parents of Junior Rangers will appreciate — and the visitor center proved to be the ideal place to finish up the required activities.

If your family likes hiking, climbing on boulders, and Junior Ranger programs, Joshua Tree National Park is sure to satisfy. For more information on the park, visit www.nps.gov/jotr

About Jon Penland

Jon Penland is a freelance writer and digital nomad who literally wrote the book on how to hit the road fulltime. Jon, his wife Meagan, and their five children can live, play, and work from anywhere in the country with their RV as a home base as they explore the great outdoors.

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