Hiking Joshua Tree National Park with Kids
By Carrie Willink
There are many, many trails at Joshua Tree National Park (just 3 hours from Escape’s camper van rental site in LA) to choose from. If you only have a day or two and want to know what is best to do with young kids, this is for you!
Shorter, bite-sized trails — 3 miles and under — is typically what people with young kids go for. After all, this is when the hangry starts to surface, your shoulders start to feel it from the weight of carrying the little ones, and you are ready to take a little break. Plus, when you are at a place like Joshua Tree, there’s so much to see! If you are like us, you don’t really want to spend all of your time on one hike!
If you’ve never been to Joshua Tree, let me set an expectation: Harder does not equal better. I heard a park ranger telling others “We aren’t known for our difficult hikes, we are known for the views.” I’d have to agree. While you can certainly find some more challenging hikes at JTNP, that’s not really what the park is about. Joshua Tree is all about taking in the unique textures and vibes!
Hidden Valley Trail
Distance: 1-mile loop
You and your kids will love this one. Super short, but tons of cool boulders and a few famous large Joshua Trees. Wide flat trail, easy to navigate. We did this one at sunset, which turned out to be a good idea as the low sun in the sky was playing hide and seek behind the large rock formations — made for some interesting photos. There’s something to appreciate for hikers of any level on this hike!
Photography tip: A trendy thing these days is night sky photography–those long exposures where you can see the milky way. If you own a nice camera and want to try this out, the parking lot of this trail might be an ideal spot for one of these photos. The clear skies combined with Joshua Trees and rock formations in the foreground make for a perfect and unique setting for this type of photography.
Distance: 1.5-mile loop
Yes, there is water in the desert — and this trail is proof! A personal favorite for us, I think because along this short hike you come across a variety of landscapes. Depending on what time of the year you go, you and the kids will love seeing the water (just remember that in the dry season, the water dries up!). Lots of history on this hike as well. The dam was constructed by cattlemen in the year 1900. Because of the water, you’re likely to see more wildlife on this hike. We didn’t see many animals, but we’ve heard bighorn sheep frequent this watering hole!
There are also Native American petroglyphs on this trail. Seriously, be sure and hit up this hike. You won’t regret it!
Split Rock Trail
Distance: 1.9-mile loop
We had planned to take our time hiking along this one but with a newborn baby blow out, wardrobe malfunctions, and a cranky toddler we decided to take it easy, take in the views, and move on to other trails. The parts we saw were beautiful, but it seemed to us that if you want the JT feel you could hit other trails and be just as happy!
Skull Rock Nature Trail
Distance: 1.7-mile loop
You can do the hike or you can just climb around the rocks. We opted for the latter. Skull Rock is a rock formation that looks like, you guessed it, a skull! It is located right at the beginning of the hike and is actually visible from the road.
Where are the Joshua Trees?
Pro tip: Most of Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t have Joshua Trees! JTNP is split in elevation. The northern parts of the park are higher in elevation and include parts of the Mojave Desert, where you’ll see Joshua Trees. The southern parts of the park are lower in elevation and unable to grow Joshua Trees.
We had no idea the first time we went and wasted a lot of time trying to figure this out! Since Joshua Tree is about 60 miles from the south entrance to the north, it took us about an hour and a half to get to our destination after we thought we had already arrived. When planning your trip, we recommend entering from the north if you want to see Joshua Trees.
Hiking Tips with Kids
- Have the right pack. We’ve tried several hiking backpacks. Look for packs with thicker straps, as this can indicate build quality and comfort. We’ve found the ones with several pockets are the most convenient. There always seems to be a shortage of pockets on children’s hiking backpacks!
- Bring some light blankets. They come in handy as they can help shield potential exposed areas from the sun. They can also be used to cushion the child against areas of the pack where they may be chafing. Or to use as a pillow to sleep on if the child gets tired.
- Don’t get them out of the pack until you are done with the hike! I guess this is child-specific, but most children get used to their packs and think when you pull them out that they’re done with the hike. Once you go to put them back in, after they’ve just been running around, stretching and enjoying themselves, the last thing they want to do is get back in. It could make for a miserable trip back to the car!
- Remember, you are in the desert! It can get toasty out there with plenty of sunshine. Pack tons of water and sunscreen. If it has rained recently the rocks can be quite slippery while hiking around. Make sure you have nice hiking shoes with great tread!