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Best Things To Do In Joshua Tree California With Kids
Located a forty five minute drive from Palm Springs, California, the town of Joshua Tree makes a great base from which to explore nearby Joshua Tree National Park.
You can reach it from Los Angeles in around two hours, while Las Vegas is around three and a half, making this the ideal pit stop on a longer road trip too.
This part of California has lots of activities guaranteed to make a family vacation fun and unforgettable. We’ve rounded up our favorites to save you the effort: here are the best things to do in Joshua Tree with kids.
Become A Junior Ranger
The National Park Service’s knowledgeable rangers do a sterling job looking after the country’s national parks. At many of them, including Joshua Tree National Park, the Junior Ranger program encourages visiting kids to learn more about what it takes to protect and conserve the environment.
There are a series of activities that youngsters can complete – the number required depends on their age – to earn their official Junior Ranger badge. These include sketching a Joshua Tree, designing a plant that can cope with Joshua Tree’s desert conditions and creating a constellation complete with backstory.
Pick up a booklet from the visitor center or take a look online. It’ll be a proud moment as you watch the kids utter the Junior Ranger motto: “Explore, Learn, Protect!”
Visit The Crochet Museum
If your kids like to craft, then you’ll want to take them to the World Famous Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree. Though you might discount this place as being more suitable for your granny, their two adorable mascots make this one for the youngsters to enjoy.
Bunny, a crocheted alligator, and her crocheted doggie friend Buddy love to share their love of all things crocheted with little humans.
The museum’s arty owner can’t crochet herself, but has amassed a fine collection of knitted items which will keep young children amused for a while and perhaps inspire them to take up this hobby themselves when they get back home. Look out for the bright green building if you’re having trouble finding the place.
Spend An Evening Stargazing
The desert sky is a good place to gaze at the night sky and kids will love the chance to stay up late and take a closer look at it. Cloudless and far from the light pollution that affects cities, it’s amazing just how many stars and constellations you can spot.
The best place to come is to the east side of Joshua Tree National Park, as the nearest city in that direction is Phoenix, over 300 miles away. Start by identifying the Big Dipper.
Once you have found it, then you should be able to work out where Polaris (also referred to as the North Star) is too, as the end of the Big Dipper points to the North Star. From April to September, for a few days each month when the moon isn’t visible, you’ll also be able to see the Milky Way.
Hike Through Hidden Valley
There are a number of hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park which are manageable for little legs. One of the best is the Hidden Valley circuit, which is only a mile long. It’s likely that cattle rustlers would have once used this valley, enclosed by rocks.
Another hike that’s worth doing follows the short, lollipop shaped trail to Arch Rock. It’s about 1.4 miles in total and there’s plenty of opportunity to scramble over some boulders when you get there.
The Skull Rock trail is a bit longer, about 1.7 miles in all, but it’s also a fairly flat and therefore easy walk with plenty to see along the way. The highlight is Skull Rock, which just as the name suggests is a rock that looks like a giant skull, one of the park’s most popular attractions and a great place for a family selfie.
Take plenty of water even on relatively short hikes and don’t underestimate the sun’s intensity during the summer months.
Spot Local Wildlife
Joshua Tree National Park is also a great place to keep an eye out for wildlife, either as you hike on foot or out of the car window on scenic drives. Coyotes can often be seen in the area, especially early in the morning or just after sunset.
It’s important that you remember they’re wild animals and you should never get too close or attempt to feed them. Kangaroo rats and black-tailed jackrabbits are also active at the beginning and end of the day, as are the bighorn sheep that graze around here.
Another creature you might see is a desert tortoise, though it takes a bit of luck as they typically spend much of their time in burrows below ground. It’s really important that if you encounter one, you don’t frighten it. That’s because they store their water in their bladder and if panicked, they’ll empty it out, and more is often hard to come by in a desert environment such as this.
Stay Overnight In A Tipi
Kids will love spending the night in a tipi. Only a half hour drive from Joshua Tree, you can camp in style in a tipi large enough to accommodate the whole family.
There’s a few creature comforts such as a floor fan in summer and an electric blanket in winter, which makes this a glamping experience rather than basic camping. But you’ll still fall asleep to a soundtrack of birdsong and perhaps the occasional howl of a coyote, accompanied by the noise of the wind teasing the canvas.
Once next door’s rooster decides it’s time to signal the arrival of dawn, you’ll all be awake, giving you the chance to sample rural life with all its pros and cons. It’s an experience, for sure, and definitely one that beats staying in an identikit hotel room where you could be anywhere.
Tour Keys Ranch
Many settlers came to this part of California to try to make a living cattle ranching or mining.
Accessible only as part of an organized tour, you can find out more about what it might have been like with a deep dive into the life of William F. Keys and his family on a visit to Desert Queen Ranch. He and his wife Frances spent sixty years here raising a family, while he tried to make a living mining gold and gypsum.
Their ranch, school, store and workshop are here for you to explore. There’s an orchard, mining equipment and a collection of old cars and trucks. It’s always fun when history is brought to life as it is here, so book a spot and head up to this remote and rocky canyon within Joshua Tree National Park and compare their family’s life to yours.
Make The Most Of Local Play Equipment
No matter how much there is to do in a place, young kids are always likely to appreciate a visit to the local playground. In Joshua Tree, make a beeline for Friendly Hills Park. There are slides, climbing bridges and a rock wall, all of which make a worthy reward for good behavior on the journey getting out here.
Picnic tables are under cover and trees provide shade, making this an option for a hit summer’s day outing too. While you’re up there, make sure you check out the view over Joshua Tree down below.
Learn About The Cholla Cacti
One of the paths in Joshua Tree National Park leads through the cholla cactus garden. Come in spring if you want to see them in flower.
Regardless, whenever you visit, you’ll need to make sure everyone’s wearing closed toe shoes and keep a very close eye on the kids as these are the park’s famous “jumping cacti”. In reality, of course, they don’t actually leap at all, but the spines can detach quickly and unnoticed from the parent plant.
If they do, you don’t want to be in the way. So it’s absolutely a case of don’t touch, because if these prickly plants attach themselves to your clothing it’s tricky to get them off again and if they get a hold of your skin, it’s going to hurt – a lot!
At the nearby Cactus Mart in the Morongo Valley, visitors can buy a more suitable cactus or succulent to take home. Kids will love the Cactus Mart Dig Your Own bar, where they can dig up their own mini cactus and get a fun lesson in how to plant it and look after it.
Whet Their Appetite For Architecture
One of the most incredible homes in the area is undoubtedly the Kellogg Doolittle House. The extraordinary architecture will certainly be a family conversation starter, from its spiky gate to the concrete vertebrae which form its roof.
Unfortunately, it’s not open to visitors, except those that can afford the eye-wateringly expensive rates to stay here. But a drive-by costs nothing and, like it or loathe it, everyone’s going to have an opinion about it.
Who knows, it might just spark a passion that leads to a career designing buildings that are equally unique. At the very least it’s going to encourage everyone to be on the lookout for buildings that are original, something that will liven up any future road trip.
Pioneertown started out as a movie set, constructed in 1946 by a group of Hollywood investors that included actors Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Over the next couple of decades, a whole host of television programs and movies were shot here.
Unusually, behind the façades of stables, saloons and gaols were interiors that contained bowling alleys, ice cream parlors and places to stay. The Mane Street Stampede (not a typo) stages shows a couple of Saturdays each month from October to June, a fun way to see what the Old West was once like.
Another must is to eat at Pappy and Harriet’s, a burgers and ribs place which is also a live music venue. In the past, they’ve hosted big name acts such as Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Arctic Monkeys, Lorde and Peaches, so keep an eye on their socials to see who’s performing when you’re going to be in town.
Take A Herd Of Goats For A Walk
Also in Pioneertown you’ll encounter a herd of Nubian goats. They are owned by a man named Emmanuel, who leads guided hikes with his animals in the local countryside. This Goats’ Farm Retreat tour begins with a chance to get to know your four-legged companions and pet them in their pens.
Once everyone’s had an introduction to these very cute creatures it’s time to set out on the hike. The leisurely pace with lots of stops built in makes this the ideal activity to do as a family.
You’ll pass through beautiful scenery littered with boulders and of course those iconic Joshua trees that are so common in this part of the Mojave Desert.
Admire The Junkyard Art At The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum
This free museum showcases the sculptures of artist Noah Purifoy. Grab a brochure as you enter to make sure you don’t miss anything on your self-guided tour, or see if there’s a volunteer handy to show you around.
Noah Purifoy was born in Alabama in 1917 but came to the Mojave Desert in the 1980s. Using his skill and imagination, he took what most people would class as junk and turned it into something amazing. Over ten acres, his pieces – mostly large-scale sculptures – will excite and enthuse.
Noah Purifoy sadly passed away in 2004, but here, he lives on. All the family will be amazed at his creations and there’ll certainly be something you can take away about the importance of recycling rather than throwing stuff away.
Go Horseback Riding
One of the best ways to explore the high desert is on the back of a horse. In the fresh air, travelling at a leisurely pace, you’ll be more attuned to the sounds, smells and sights out in the countryside than you could ever be within the family car.
Pick a reputable stable and you’ll have no concerns over matching your child to a suitably gentle horse. Knob Hill Ranch, a desert retreat close to the western entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, offers trail rides, with a minimum age of 14 years.
In the Morongo Valley, Crazy Horse Ranch offers private rides on horses carefully matched to everyone’s ability. They have no age restrictions and work hard at enabling first-time youngsters to feel as comfortable in the saddle as adults who’ve been riding for years.
Feast On Pizza
Most kids adore pizza and Pie for the People is a great Joshua Tree pizzeria with a huge variety to choose from including a vegan option. You’ll have fun running your eye through the long menu and chuckling at some of the names: Bada Bing, David Bowie, The Wookie and The Cliffhanger.
Perhaps best of all, there’s The Chip pizza, where all your favorite junk food is rolled into one heavenly slice.
Hunt For Petroglyphs
Some of the area’s best petroglyphs aren’t in Joshua Tree National Park but at other locations such as Coyote Hole, a granite canyon. Though the area bears the scars of blast damage when the rock was used to build a nearby underpass and graffiti obscures some of the drawings, there are plenty of images to see that are recognizable as petroglyphs. Some are semi-hidden, high up above the trail, while others are more visible.
According to legend, coyotes came to this part of the desert to dig for water. Another tale you might hear is that the Native Americans who drew these symbolic images did so while standing with their feet firmly on the ground.
Today, you’ll stand on ground that’s much lower down as a result of erosion by periodic flash floods, which suggests that those high up petroglyphs may well be the oldest. While you’re here, keep an eye out for metates, which are stones that were used by the earliest inhabitants of the area to mill nuts and seeds.
Check Out The Art At The Local Galleries
There are several art galleries in Joshua Tree worth taking a look at, including Art Queen, JT-GOTA and JT Art Gallery. Art Queen is the gallery run by Shari Elf, who also owns the town’s Crochet Museum.
She’s a singer-songwriter who made a name for herself creating art from trash. The JT-GOTA gallery focuses on contemporary art, and has strong ties to partner galleries in Berlin, Germany and Cape Town, South Africa. JTAG shows a range of pictures and paintings supporting the work of local artists.
Each piece has the potential to provide a talking point, so if you’re keen to start a conversation about art with your youngsters, then one of these galleries is the place to make it happen. Who knows, you might just inspire an artist of the future?