Joshua Tree National Park and the Palm Springs region, both in Southern California's Coachella Valley desert area, is a popular road trip destination for Bay Area families. In fact, when I asked my Facebook friends if anyone else was going to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs for Spring Break last year, more than a few people raised their virtual hands; clearly, these spots are East Bay family favorites. I thought I'd share some details for those who are interested in exploring the area, but don't know what to expect.
On our 2018 trip, we split our time equally between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, located just 45 minutes away from each other, but with completely different vibes. I recommend this balance to fill up a week with a diversity of fun. We actually started in Joshua Tree because I like to do the more unfamiliar or challenging destination first and have the comfort of a resort as a soft landing at the end.
Why is Joshua Tree great for kids?
The landscape of Joshua Tree National Park is unique enough that even kids will be excited by it. I found this much more so than Tahoe or any other mountain destination we've visited as a family. The two most salient characteristics of the area are the Joshua Trees themselves, which look like the trees drawn by Dr Seuss in The Lorax, and the rust-colored rock formations that populate the area.
Exploring around and through the rock formations is the primary activity at the park, and if jumping on and off walls is one of your children's favorite things, you will enjoy yourself.
What to expect on a trip to Joshua Tree National Park
Most lodging is outside the National Park boundaries in the nearby towns of Joshua Tree, Twenty Nine Palms, and Yucca Valley. We stayed at a really cool AirBnB in Yucca Valley for three nights. One long highway connects the towns and goes past the main entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Going into the park for two or three days is enough. You can also camp inside the park.
Your time will be spent driving on the roads that go through the park, then pulling over at trailheads to explore. Joshua Tree is a dry desert climate (tip: bring so much lotion and lip balm and be sure to fully moisturize hands, face, and lips before you to go sleep at night!). Pack your own water, lunches, and snacks before entering the park. There are plenty of picnic tables and a huge grocery store in Yucca Valley on the way to the park entrance.
Know before you go: It can be very hot during the day and cold at night, due to the desert climate. Check the weather before you go and pack layers. Spring is a great time to be there. The sun can be blindingly bright, so have a hat and sunglasses for everyone.
The town and surrounding towns are a curious mix of hipster woo-woo vibe (crystal shops and crocheted vests) and rural California. You'll find vegan food options at many restaurants, and also cowboys.
We stayed in a large AirBnB in Yucca Valley with a hot tub and a game room. It was nice to have stuff for the kids to do and a place to really move around. I worry a hotel might mean everyone just silently looks at their screens in a room together after a day in the park.
Other things to do with kids in the Joshua Tree area
Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Art Museum in Joshua Tree offers acres of installations made from found objects, and is fun for kids to explore. Our highlight was discovering a baby bat in the roof of one of the structures. It was very hot when we stopped here mid-day. Plan your visit for very early AM or later in the afternoon.
Pioneertown is a western town just outside of Joshua Tree that looks like a movie set, abandoned when we visited, but apparently hoppin' on weekend nights, anchored by Pappy and Harriet's, a restaurant with live music and outdoor seating that welcomes families. My kids actually loved running around on the dirt road despite everything being closed. It was like a visit to the Old West.
What is Palm Springs all about?
Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage, three cities situated along the same desert highway, are all home to loads of family-friendly hotels with pools and golf courses. Swimming is the main activity for kids. Because of the stylish vibe and great weather in the spring, this destination also boasts trendy hotels designed for Instagrammers, hipsters, and people without children, so families should seek lodging that will welcome them.
When vacationing in the desert, we try to get out of the mid-day sun with an outing away from the pool for a couple hours. For kids under age 7, the Children's Discovery Museum in Rancho Mirage is great. For everyone, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert shows off the unique animals and plants of the region. There is slot canyon hiking in Palm Springs, and I hope to run an article about that later this year.
Know before you go: If you want to ride the Palm Springs Tram, a rotating cable car that provides an amazing view of the mountains, you'll need long pants and a warm jacket. We have been to Palm Springs many times but rarely have the proper attire in our suitcases for this outing. The temperature will be 30 degrees colder at the top, so consider yourself warned. There are nice and casual restaurants at the top. You might see snow up there. Buy tickets in advance, for sure.
Getting to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs from the Bay Area
It's an 8-hour drive to Joshua Tree from Berkeley. Palm Springs is just 45 minutes closer. Say what? So… my family flew and rented a car on our last trip, however that can really add up in terms of budget.
Tip: The fastest driving route from the Bay Area to the desert goes right through the Northeastern edge of Los Angeles (Pasadena). So, a visit to Universal Studios or another Los Angeles destination is not really out of the way. Consider planning in that direction. Or prepare for a really long drive.
For those who are unsure if both Palm Springs and Joshua Tree suit their family, you really could day trip from one to the other.