Joshua Tree always sounded like such a mystical place to me. In my early 20s after first arriving in California, I knew that I was going to spend a lot of time there. Well, fast forward 15 years or so and I’ve finally touched foot in JT! Granted, this trip was much different from how I envisioned it when dreaming in my 20s, and surprisingly I forgot all about my U2 playlist for the occasion while we were there. However, with my husband and toddler in tow, we able to check this one off the bucket list!
Unfortunately, we were only able to spent a night and a day here, but I feel that was enough in our current situation. I would have liked to stay more, but due to the recent super bloom taking over the California deserts, finding campgrounds is near impossible and I wasn’t keen on driving out to the desert with a small child to chance the first-come-first-serve camping (good thing, they were all full, too). We used Reserve America to book the only night we could find available this spring which happened to be the Thursday before Good Friday and the Easter weekend in April. The drive took about three hours from San Diego with the Riverside traffic, but overall is an easy drive with desert scenery.
Our campsite was in a grove of Joshua trees at Black Rock Canyon which is a 16 mile drive from the west entrance. This is a great spot for families as it has clean bathrooms, a water pump, fire pits, and picnic tables. The sites are a bit small and you get to know your neighbors well since Joshua trees don’t exactly provide a lot of privacy. This turned out to be a good thing for us since the folks at the neighboring site had two five year olds that my kiddo could play with. They had fun in the morning playing with rocks, moving dirt in their toy trucks, and chasing road runners while I cooked up breakfast. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE, and highly recommend, camping with kids?
Light pollution is near nonexistent which offers some beautiful starscapes at night. We used downloaded apps on my phone to track the constellations and look for falling stars. After the kiddo went to bed, we may or may not have shared a bottle of Jameson and our goals of staying up to see the pitch, pitch black were not reached as we realized we weren’t in our 20s anymore. The bed seemed like the better option.
You will definitely encounter wildlife, here. We saw birds, lots of lizards, ground squirrels, and big beetles.
The visitor center has a gift shop and information on the local geography, flora, and fauna. They provided my son with a free Junior Ranger activity booklet filled with pictures of local wildlife and flowers for a scavenger hunt, information on the park, and games. There are age-appropriate sections ranging from four to fourteen years old, but my three year old was only interested in the scavenger hunt portion. As for hiking suggestions, the rangers recommended going into the park as opposed to doing the local hike at the campground to really get some amazing views. The trail we chose did not disappoint: Hidden Valley.
We had luck on our side during our arrival into the park as it happened to be “free national park day“. They were letting everyone in for free and handing out annual passes. The line for the free day was an easy-in to the park, but those wanting the annual pass had to wait in a line that took about 10 mins. Absolutely worth it in my opinion. As you can probably guess, there will be some more national park visits for us this year.
We headed out fairly early, around 9am, so we could get the kiddo good and tuckered out before nap time and to beat the heat. The map provided at the entrance to the park is a great resource to learn about the local area and what hikes are available. It included distances, difficulty levels, and short descriptions on what you may encounter on each trail. With a backpack filled with snacks, water, and the Ergo (my suggestion against my husband’s protests), plenty of sunscreen, and well-treaded shoes, we headed off on our first real “hike” with the boy.
We chose to do the Hidden Valley trail which is a mile long and has informational signs posted throughout the trail. There are also picnic areas scattered around the entrance to the trail with an abundant parking area overlooking a massive valley of Joshua trees. This is a very family friendly hike! The trail is clearly marked and boulders make for great climbing practice for the littles. There are lots of little off-shoot trails to explore and my son enjoyed spotting lizards, rock climbers, and desert blooms.
Once we hit about 3/4 through, the heat, hunger, and sleepy deliriousness started to set in on the boy. This is where I got to look at my husband and say “I told you so” about my suggestion to bring the Ergo. We strapped him in, finished the hike and had a picnic next to the car while watching kids scramble up and down the giant boulders.
There are plenty of longer and more challenging hikes, but we wanted to see how far our son could go and a mile seemed like a good starting point. He will be four this fall and I plan to take him on bi-weekly hikes to get him used to staying on trail, being courteous with on-comers, and respecting nature. I’m going on the assumption that frequency is key to develop a love for the outdoors and hiking, and minimize whining and injury. Only time will tell.
The entire park is breathtaking and otherworldly, for sure. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life and I am so, so happy we had the chance to experience this park. Pictures will do it more justice than words: