Trip Report: Joshua Tree National Park With Kids

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Cover image: Stark, stunning landscapes await visitors at Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert. All images: Craig Romano

A group of Mormon emigrants crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s thought that the Yucca brevifolia with its contorted branches resembled the prophet Joshua praying with his hands reaching for the sky. They called these plants Joshua Trees. The name stuck and these unique tree-like yuccas, which grow mostly in the Mojave Desert, continue to intrigue and inspire millions.

In southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, some of the best and most extensive tracts of these plants exist. Add a wonderland of jumbled boulders and rocky spires and a desert landscape littered with old mines, ranches and other historic relics and you have a park that’s sure to pique the interest of young explorers.

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With trees that look like characters out of the Muppets, it's no wonder this is a great park for kids.

Joshua Tree National Park sprawls for nearly 800,000 acres just north of California’s Coachella Valley. Its close proximity to the amenities and attractions of Palm Springs and other cities in the Coachella Valley make it an ideal destination for folks who want to spend some time “roughing it” and then perhaps afterward sitting by a pool. During my most recent trip to this national gem, my wife and I not only introduced our toddler son to the park, but also my not-so-wilderness-hardy mother-in-law.

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Hike early and bring a lot of water.

While the park contains sprawling harsh desert wilderness areas that only the most experienced should consider, there are miles of short and inviting family-friendly trails throughout the heart of the park. And many of these trails lead to Joshua Tree’s most fascinating and intriguing landscapes. Young children and older family members in tow are sure to enjoy hiking in this enchanting desert landscape. Here are some of my favorite trails for getting the whole family out and about in Joshua Tree National Park.

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Barker Dam and Wall Street Mine

The 1.3-mile Barker Dam Loop is probably the busiest trail within the park and for good reason. Immediately enter the labyrinth known as the Wonderland of Rocks working your way to an old dam used for a mining and cattle operation. If you can come here early or late in the day, you might catch sight of a band of desert bighorn sheep. Birds are prolific throughout the day. Be sure afterward to hike the 1.0 mile trail to the Wall Street Mine—a large gold mine that was in operation until 1966.There are lots of ruins and relics strewn across the desert allowing for some fun photo shoots.

Lost Horse Loop

This is a great 6.2-mile loop through Joshua trees, cedars and nolinas; across washes, and over ridges to an old 10-stamp gold mine. Follow an old wagon road to the mine. Then continue on single track. Most hikers don’t go beyond the mine, leaving you several miles of quiet trail. There’s always a good chance of seeing various reptiles, small mammals and birds along the way and views east toward the Colorado Desert are excellent.

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Ryan Mountain

Climb one of the highest mountains within the park. It’s a stiff little climb of 1,000-vertical feet over 1.5 miles to this broad 5,461-foot peak. But it’s the extensive views that will take your breath away more than the ascent. Gaze out across the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the big snow-capped for half the year peaks of 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto and 11,503-foot Mount San Gorgonio. And look straight down into the Lost Horse Valley with its patches of Joshua tree forests.

Split Rock Loop

One of the quieter nature trails within the park, this wonderful 2.5-mile loop takes you through lots of jumbled rocks and along and around gorgeous granite walls. Aside from the iconic Split Rock, you’ll also pass Tulip Rock, Face Rock, and the Tooth. Kids are sure to see many other formations in this rocky landscape.

Lost Palm Oasis

A more challenging hike for older kids, this 8.0 mile roundtrip trail will take you deep into a canyon sporting an oasis containing one of the largest concentrations of native California fan palms in the park. It’s an adventurous but well-maintained route across cactus flats before descending into the hidden canyon. Young explorers will feel like they are trekking deep into the desert wilderness. If they still have some energy on the return, head to Mastodon Peak for some light scrambling and great views.

Quick Tips: The park is best visited November—April. Summer temperatures can be excruciatingly hot. Desert flowers are best in March. Pack and bring along lots of water. It isn’t available throughout most of the park. Campgrounds fill fast here, but there are lots of overnight options outside of the park. Trails are generally wide and well groomed with lots of ledge. I have comfortably hiked throughout the park using Oboz Traverse Lows and Oboz Firebrands, and Oboz Sundogs for the easier trails.        

Craig Romano is the author and co-author of fifteen Northwest hiking guidebooks including the brand new 100 Classic Hikes Washington (The Mountaineers Books), which includes detailed information on the very best trails within the Evergreen State. Visit him at CraigRomano.com and on Facebook.

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