Joshua Tree National Park, Joshua Tree in the sunlight

Joshua Tree National Park: Top 5 Activities with Kids

Joshua Tree Photograph above by Flickr- Christopher Michel

A Bit of About Joshua Tree

With 790,636 acres of desert, Joshua Tree National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island! Over 1.5 million people come to visit the park each year to hike the trails, camp under the stars, climb on rocks, birdwatch, walk through palm groves, paint, or just be inspired by the natural beauty of the desert. And, of course, to see Joshua trees. 

This national park’s namesake, the Joshua tree, was named by Mormon immigrants in the mid-19th century. Legend tells us that these trees reminded the early pioneers of Joshua from the Bible, outstretching his arms, guiding them westward. Today you can enjoy these twisty, spiky, Dr. Suess-like plants when you visit Joshua Tree National Park. These trees are a sight to see--they grow up to 40 feet tall! Instead of showing their age through growth rings like other trees, Joshua trees demonstrate it through their height--they grow an average of 1.5 to 3 inches per year. The Joshua tree is only found in the Mojave Desert and has two symbiotic relationships that are vital to its survival.  Without the help of the yucca moth and a fungus called mycorrhizae, the Joshua tree would eventually disappear.

As you visit Joshua Tree National Park, plan on staying late to see the stars! The night sky is some of the darkest and most free of light pollution in California. Be prepared with a coat, blanket, and star chart (or app) to help you find constellations.

Tips for Planning

Season: Year round, but the most comfortable weather is Oct.-May.

Time: Day Trip or 2 days 

Difficulty: Easy

  • Download a night sky app for constellations before you go.
  • Stop at a Visitor Center and get a map.
  • There is no cell (or extremely limited) service in Joshua Tree.
  • Bathrooms are located at the Visitor Centers, campgrounds, and on the side of the road between Skull Rock and Keys View.
  • Skull Rock is right next to the main road. Jumbo Rocks is the area directly behind it. Take your time and hike between and scramble on all the rocks. This is a great spot for kids.
  • Bring one gallon of water per person in your car. This is the desert, and drinking water is not provided in the park.
  • Wear a sturdy or scrappy pair of pants to climb rocks. The monzogranite rocks and boulders are made up of large crystals that can easily break holes.

Top 5 Hits with Kids

  1. Arch Rock.
  2. Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks. 
  3. Keys View
  4. Cholla Cactus Garden: .25 mile loop.
  5. Barker Dam: 1 mile Round Trip

     BONUS: Hidden Valley: 1 mile loop.

     BONUS: Download the Explorer Guide for                     more kids activities.

Top 5 Hits at Joshua Tree

1) Arch Rock: .6 mile round trip. The trail starts at White tank campground and leads you to the arch and a large area of rocks to play on. This is one of the two best areas for rock scrambling in the park. 

Arch Rock Rock Scrambling

2) Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks: Top area for family photos.

This is the second area of fun rock scrambling. Take your pics with skull rock then walk and scramble on all the rocks behind it, Jumbo Rocks! These rocks are monzogranite, a type of granite with large crystals, so while they have a lot of grip for your shoes, bring spare pants in case you tear a hole. 

This area also is the start of the Mojave desert, so keep an eye out for Joshua trees.

Skull Rock Joshua Tree National Park

3) Keys View: This is a great spot to park and take in the view of Coachella Valley, The San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea and is a good spot to picnic. 

Keys View

4) Cholla Cactus Garden: .25 mile loop trail. Also known as jumping cholla, these cholla have fishhook like tips on their spines. So don’t touch them and be extra careful if there is a breeze. Pieces of this plant break off easily and jump or get caught on everything. There are tools at the trailhead for cholla removal if it gets on you. So be safe and do not touch the cholla.

Cholla Cactus Garden Joshua Tree

5) Barker Dam: 1 mile round trip trail. This is the only place to see water in the park and is a great place to relax and pull out your nature journals. 

Barker Dam Joshua Tree National Park
Flickr- Brian​​

Bonus- Hidden Valley: 1 mile Loop Trail. Enjoy the view as you hike through large rocks into the valley located in its center. Make sure to take your time and enjoy the plant life.

Hidden Valley Trail Joshua Tree
Flickr- Leonard Nevarez​​

Explorer Guides

If you love exploring the California Desert with you kids, the California Desert Activity Book is a great resource for your family. It includes our Top 10 desert destinations (Includes Joshua Tree National Park) with activities for each location and fun earth science lessons. It's like a Junior Ranger program for each location. Here are some of the things included:

  • 10 Adventures in the Ca Desert
  • 10 Earth Science Lessons
  • 10 Hands-On Science Activities
  • 10 Coloring Pages
  • 1 Sticker Map
  • Reward Tickets
  • 10 Scavenger Hunts
  • Journal Pages
  • Collectors Pin
  • And Much More

Learning from Nature: Symbiotic Relationships

Now this is the part that is next level in terms of traveling with kids and making connections with nature. Everywhere you go there are learning opportunities. At Joshua Tree National Park we learned about symbiosis. All species of plants and animals interact and live together in different ways. Symbiosis is a close relationship between two different kinds of living things. Without these relationships, there wouldn’t be any coral reefs, and birds and insects wouldn’t help spread the growth of trees. 

Mutualism. When two organisms of different species each benefit from each other. The yucca moth pollinates the Joshua tree flowers, and the Joshua tree provides a place to lay eggs and food for the moth larvae.

Mutualism Symbiosis
F​​lickr-Judy Gallagher

Commensalism. When one species lives in or on a host species. The host is not harmed and does not benefit from this relationship. Barnacles attach themselves to a humpback whale. The barnacles get carried to new feeding grounds, but nothing good or bad happens to the whale.

Commensalism Symbiosis
Flickr-​​Barb Ignatius

Parasitism. Parasitism is a relationship between two species where one benefits at the expense of the other. A flea is a parasite on a dog. The flea benefits by drinking a dog’s blood, but the dog is harmed because it loses blood and acquires discomfort and possible disease.

Parasitism Symbiosis
Flickr-Donnie Ray Jones​​

Joshua Tree Art Prints

What to look for on your Joshua Tree Adventure

Joshua Tree-(Yucca brevifolia) The Joshua tree is said to have been named by Mormon settlers because it reminded them of Joshua in the Bible reaching up to guide the Israelites. It has a mutualistic relationship with the yucca moth, who pollinates the Joshua tree and lays its eggs on the flowers.  

Joshua Tree
Flick-Esther Lee​​

Roadrunner-  (Geococcyx californianus)- Roadrunners get most of the water they need from their food. They can only fly in short bursts but can run up to 25 miles an hour. In the morning, roadrunners often “sunbathe”, or raise their feathers exposing their black skin to the sun to quickly absorb its heat.


Mojave Yucca- (Yucca-schidigera)  The Mojave yucca is also called the “Spanish dagger”. Its leaves are evergreen succulents that grow only from a place called a rosette at the top of the tree. Native Americans used its leaves to build houses, sandals, rope, baskets, and bowstrings. Don't confuse this with the Joshua Tree. The leaves of the Mojave yucca are a lot longer.

Mojave Yucca

Teddy Bear Cholla (ch-o-ya) (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)- The teddy bear cholla has so many spines that it looks fuzzy. Do not touch a cholla cactus--the spines have hooks on them that are painful to take out. Chollas do not have seeds. Instead, wind and animals can break off small segments of cholla that will grow into whole new plants.

Cholla Cactus
Flickr-​​Eric Titcombe

Monzogranite was formed by pockets of magma that cooled underground. They cracked as they cooled, forming the vast playground of rocks that can be found all over Joshua tree. They are coarse and rough, so be careful not to tear holes in your pants as you climb and explore.

Flickr-​​Colin Poellot
Back to blog