Trip Report and Guide – Joshua Tree National Park April 2018
30 second review: Joshua Tree has plenty to do for families. While this isn’t necessarily overland camping there are plenty of off road trails in the area (including Geology Tour Road and Berdoo Canyon) that you can tack on to your trip. Some of the highlights were hiking trails Hidden Valley and Barker Dam, but one of the best activities was just exploring our campground at Jumbo Rocks.
Fees: Park entrance fee is $25; or you can get an Annual Pass for $80. Campgrounds within the park vary by location but are $15-$20 per night. Alternatively, you can camp on the BLM land around Joshua Tree. There’s area to the north by Copper Mountain, to the east off of Old Dale Road, and to the south near the Cottonwood Entrance. I recommend using Gaia with the “public land” layer turned on to help you find the best place to go.
Amenities: If you’re camping on BLM Land then there are no amenities – you’ll need to bring your own water and toilet. If you’re camping at one of the above campgrounds be careful when reviewing as they all vary with respect to water and toilets. Some don’t have any water, and the toilets can vary between vault and flush. If you need to refill on water head to any of the following: West Entrance, Oasis Visitor Center, Indian Cove Ranger Station, Blackrock Campground, or Cottonwood Campground.
Offroad Difficulty: No offroading required to get to the trailheads here. There are a few “unpaved” roads within the park such as Queen Valley Road and Big Horn pass but these can be managed by any kind of vehicle depending on how much rattling from washboard roads you can stand. Berdoo Canyon, Pinkham Canyon, and Old Dale Road on the other hand will require a high clearance vehicle to complete. A full report of Berdoo Canyon and Geology Tour Road will be posted soon.
Is Joshua Tree Good For Kids? Since this was our first trip with a kid in tow we decided to play it safe with our planning. We chose to stick to hiking trails that were 2 miles or less so we weren’t stranded with an unhappy child and thankfully there are plently of options to choose from. One of the best parts about the trails at Joshua Tree is that there is so much to do you can spend quite a bit of time even on short trails. There’s wildlife scampering around, different types of plants, and of course plenty of rocks to climb on.
So we would definitely recommend heading out here given you go during the transitional seasons when the weather isn’t too hot during the day or too cold at night (namely March, April, October, and November).
Maps: The three best hikes were Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Skull Rock. I’ve also pinned locations along the trail that were nice spots to stop and you can let your kids run around a bit and explore.
Day One: We woke up early Sunday morning in hopes of making the two and a half hour drive before Ava woke up for the day. Of course she knew something was up and decided to stay awake and babble for the whole ride. Fortunately, she was in a good mood and was so interested by the hikes that she stayed awake until her normal nap time without getting cranky.
First things first though, and that was getting coffee. We stopped off at Joshua Tree Coffee Co. and then went across the street for breakfast at Crossroads Cafe. Both were excellent and will be staples for future trips to the area.
Park Boulevard is just around the corner from Crossroads Cafe. You will then almost immediately pass the Visitor’s Center on your right and after about 5 minutes you’ll be at the entrance gate. We had no wait to get in because we were there at 8 am on a Sunday, but talking with Park Rangers the wait can be over an hour if not two. With that in mind try to arrive at an off day or time, or maybe enter the park via Old Dale Road or Berdoo Canyon to avoid the crowds and get in your wheelin’ fix.
Our first stop was Hidden Valley Loop which turned out to be our favorite hike of the trip. Hidden Valley Loop is just so dense with rock formations, plants, and picturesque views you could easily spend a few hours there even though it is technically a short, flat trail. Spring of 2017 has a super bloom due to the higher than average rain fall which we did not have this year but there were still quite a few wild flowers in bloom as well as cactus and yucca blooms. It became a mission of ours to seek them out which was just as fun.
The next stop was Barker Dam Loop. This hike was fairly similar to Hidden Valley but just didn’t feel as special or unique. Seeing water in the middle of Joshua Tree was interesting and some of the views from the hike are awesome, but seeing something unnatural in such a beautiful place is a little off putting.
At this time we broke for lunch and just plopped Ava in the back of the truck to keep in her the shade – which worked perfect. While we were eating we noticed this parking lot was very busy and depending on the time of the day you get there you’ll probably be out of luck and need to park somewhere else and then add a couple miles to your hike just to get to the trailhead. During the peak season Joshua Tree has just implemented the Road Runner Shuttle which we would recommend for getting around. You can see the route and schedule here.
From the same trailhead you can head over to Wall Street Mine or Wonderland of Rocks. We decided to try Wonderland of Rocks but the trail was mostly just fairly deep sand with not much to do until you get to the Wonderland of Rocks at which point there wasn’t much toddler friendly things to do. So we wouldn’t recommend this hike for younger kids. There are some cool ruins on the way that you can check out if you want.
Day One Evening: It was finally time to head to Jumbo Rocks campground and get set up. I was pretty excited to get to the campsite because it was nestled against a rock formation…but I must have goofed somewhere because it was probably the smallest camp site I have ever seen. We barely had room to set up our tent (granted it is a 6 person tent) and our only saving grace was ARB Awning which gave us a little room to move around in the shade.
Overall Jumbo Rocks is a fantastic campground because you and your kids can just wander amongst all of the rock formations and explore seemingly endlessly. The formations just go on and on and in all directions.
Even though the temperature was barely 80 degrees during the day the combination of no shade and rock made it feel like it was 90 something and sapped your energy. So even though you could explore all day here, I would do as the wildlife and try to stay in the shade during the middle part of the day and keep your wandering for the mornings and late afternoon.
We stayed both Sunday and Monday night and the difference in the crowd was not surprisingly rowdier Sunday night. Everyone was quiet by 11 on Sunday but before that we had an illegal drone flight trying to capture the sunset (and ruining the experience for everyone else) as well as just generally loud conversations from neighbors. That being said I believe the sound echoes off all the rocks and I was probably just hyper aware of noise since I wanted to make sure Ava slept well.
Day Two: Monday morning we made breakfast then headed out to do Geology Tour Road and Berdoo Canyon. We’ll have a full review of those two soon but it sure was nice to get some off roading in again after our break since having Ava. The best part is Ava really loved being bumped around and would even let out some “Wooos!” when we hit a big dip or rock on Berdoo Canyon.
Geology trail was mainly just washboard road which I think is way worse than just letting the trail get sandy since it rattles the crap out of the truck, but it didn’t seem to bother Ava since she passed out during that first part of the trip. The annoying nature of the washboard road did give us a reason to air down the tires and test out our Viair 88P compressor so it wasn’t so bad.
We ended Monday with Skull Rock Nature Trail which has start points within Jumbo Rocks. This was another nice trail with great views and plenty of stopping points to let your kids run around and explore. You can also connect to Discovery Trail, Split Rock, and Face Rock along this trail if you want to extend the length of your hike.
Once we got back to the campsite Ava still had a little energy left so we started wandering around a very picturesque lone tree we had seen a few times. That ability to wander is such a cool perk about this area. If you see something interesting you can just head over to it and figure out how to boulder or scramble to get over there (while avoiding stepping on plants!).
Fortunately we all slept great that night and after some coffee and oatmeal in the morning it was time to pack up and head home.
Joshua Tree is a great place for kids given you know their limits and the type of hikes they can handle, and how much stimulation they will require to keep them entertained. Overall, we learned a lot and got to iron out some of the “camping with kids” specifics we will cover in other posts, but more importantly Ava had a good time and so did we.