If you’ve never really heard of it, now’s the time. Joshua Tree: a little Californian bastion of cool and quirk tucked just outside Palm Springs, with the mighty Joshua Tree National Park on its back doorstep. If you can tear you and yours away from the more hedonist pursuits South California has on offer (lounge by the pool in PS; live it up with little ones in L.A….) you’ll be rewarded by warm desert sunshine, clear skies, brilliant vistas and a decent dab of Outsider Art, Americana style. Stay just for the day, camp beneath the stars in the National Park, or overnight it at Spin and Margie’s (below): how ever you choose to do it, you won’t be sorry you did.
Joshua Tree itself is a small Mojave Desert town of some 7,500, ranged along State Route 62 (also known as the Twentynine Palms Highway) to the north-east of Palm Springs (a 40 minute drive), and skirting the northern edge of the vast Joshua Tree National Park. To its south, you’ll find the Salton Sea (see See & Do below), and to its west, a 3-hour drive away, Los Angeles. All these attractions are within easy distance of each other – though you’ll definitely need a car. Pick up a rental in Palm Springs, to explore all that the area has on offer.
SEE & DO
Naturally, this is the area’s Number One attraction, declared a US National Park only in 1994, but a National Monument since the 1930s. It derives its name for the abundance of yucca brevifolia – Joshua trees (so-named by 19th century Mormons, crossing the Mojave, who were reminded of the Biblical Joshua, lifting up his hands in prayer) – in and around its 1200 square miles, and comprises vast expanses of vivid red cactus-brushed desertscapes, beneath cerulean skies.
Upon paying your park entrance fee at a ranger booth (there are two entrances to the north of the park, on State Rt 62, and another to the south on Hwy 10), you’ll be given a map of the park, which contains suggestions for hikes and nature walks of various lengths: ask also for a Kids’ Guide, which gives them some fill-in-able activities to pursue whilst you’re driving and admiring the scenery. The park’s dozen-or-so nature walks are all a very easy stroll, ranging from 0.25 to 1.5 miles, great for stretching little legs, and showcasing the boulders and rock formations that make the park famous. Beware, though, that they’re also extremely popular with older tourists not up for a hike, so if you’re here at the weekend or in peak season (over Christmas and Easter), you absolutely won’t have these trails to yourself.
Hikes in Joshua Tree, meanwhile, are numerous. Our favourite day hikes with little ones are the 49 Palms Oasis Trail (a 3 mile round trip), which takes you through a stunning valley to a tucked-away stand of oasis palms, and the Ryan Mountain Peak Trail (also roughly 3 miles return), a more strenuous walk leading to the 5461ft summit, with stunning views out across the park. Both are easily accessed from the northern entrances of the Park, and we’ve undertaken both with a gaggle of four- and five-year-olds, who had no trouble making it there and back, with a little rest (pack drinks, sunscreen and a snack) at the Oasis or the Peak. Whilst hiking its trails, you may see bighorn sheep, jack rabbits, a coyote, or – if you’re exceptionally lucky – an endangered desert tortoise. Look, but don’t touch.
For a taste of pioneer family life, meanwhile, sign up for a ranger-led Keys Ranch Guided Tour (Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays, in season), which takes you up to an old ranch, once home to William and Frances Keys and their five children. Alternatively, turn your attention to the skies, with a ranger-led stargazing evening at the Cottonwood Amphitheater (Fridays at 8pm), at the south entrance to the park. Check what other ranger-led activities are on by dropping by to one of the park’s four Visitor Centres.
Joshua Tree National Park offers top-notch rock climbing, and even if you, and your kids, have never done it before, it’s a great place to start. Contact Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School, Joshua Tree Uprising Adventures, or Cliffhanger Guides – all of whom offer tailor-made family courses, perfect for even very young children.
North-west of Joshua Tree is this atmospheric harkback to the old days of the Western movie: built in the 1940s as a movie set, Pioneertown is nowadays an unincorporated village, where you can take a wander up Main Street, past the town jail and the ‘Likker Store’, and the kids can play cowboys in the dust. On Saturdays and Sundays, re-enactment groups often act out free-of-charge Shoot-’em-up scenes. See ‘Eat’ below for a fabulous dining option (with live music) out here, and take the Pioneertown road from Yucca Valley (turn off at the Ma Rouge Café, listed in ‘Eat’ below) or find directions here.
We’re not going to say too much about this white desert dome in Landers, a dozen-or-so miles from Joshua Tree, which some call a ‘rejuvenation machine’ and others, a ‘sound bath’, except book your family a slot to experience it for yourselves: a Private Sound Bath if your kids are under 12, a N0-Reservation or Pop-up Sound Bath if they are. Seriously, though. Just book it.
Whilst out at Landers, flower children might want to drop into Gublers Orchids – the Gublers having been growing out here since 1954 – for a free 30 minute tour (you need closed-toe shoes: no sandals) to learn all about how these exquisite blooms are nurtured into glory.
Take a stroll along the boardwalks and trails of the lovely 31,000-acre Morongo Canyon Preserve, set on the western boundary of Joshua Tree National Park, just north of Desert Hot Springs, where some 240 species of birds call in annually to say hello.
You’ll find lots of antique and junk shops on the 29 Palms Hwy from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree (Rt. 62 Antiques and Pioneer Crossing Antiques, both in Yucca Valley, are just a couple of them): pull over when something takes your fancy and browse the weird and wonderful artefacts on offer.
There’s lots of it about out here, just perfect for an Instagram opp or a glimpse into the counter-cultures that made California, well, California. First up, stop off at the indescribable World Famous Crochet Museum (close by the Joshua Tree Saloon), then head on out to the Noah Purifoy Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum (63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree: note that it’s hard to find and located at the end of a dirt road), a series of trash-based installations set in the lonesome high Mojave desert. Learn more about the late artist Noah Purifoy himself at the Noah Purifoy Foundation website. And if this doesn’t satisfy your craving for the artistically offbeat, see Salvation Mountain, below.
The Salton Sea
Created by a Columbia River flood in 1905, the saline (it’s saltier than the Pacific), below-sea-level Salton Sea, which lies directly on top of the San Andreas Fault, has had a tragic, chequered history. Plagued by agricultural fertiliser run-off and increasingly salinity – which has killed much of its fish stock – it was, in its 1950s prime, a swinging vacationing spot where starlets came to get away from the bright lights of the big city. Nowadays, however, the resorts are gone, and there’s a strange, desolate feeling in the area, particularly around the little community of Bombay Beach, which looks, in parts, like a set straight from The Walking Dead (ardent Instagrammers, again take note). Nevertheless, the shores of the Sea abound with campsites, and much of its eastern shore (along Hwy 111) comprises the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and the Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Reserve, from which you can view the many thousands of birds (including lots of pelicans) that arrive and depart on their way along the Pacific Flyway.
Where else would an International Banana Museum be but….Mecca? At the northern tip of the Salton Sea, stop off here for all things, um, banana-related. Gulp down a cool banana milkshake (or a rainbow sherbet), peruse the banana-related ephemera, and chat with the friendly owner, who’s simply…well, you know.
Because, even after crochet museums, banana museums, and creepy old Bombay Beach, you’ve simply not had enough quirk. Carry on down Hwy 111 along the Salton Sea’s eastern shore to Niland, and thence head up Main Street and Beal Rd to this Outsider Art masterpiece. A candy-coloured hillside, covered in Christian sayings and words from the Scriptures, it was created by local Leonard Wright, who died in 2014. Go soon for a visit, since, with Wright no longer in residence, its future is uncertain.
The last on our itinerary of off-beat sights, Slab City (which you might remember from the harrowing 2007 movie, Into the Wild) is an RV site of sorts, built on the remains of a WWII marine barracks. With a permanent squatter population, and a seasonal influx of RV-er Snowbirds, it, and East Jesus – an experimental, habitable, artwork-in-progress within it – are weird and wonderful places to drop by – just so long as you like that kind of thing.
Joshua Tree National Park has nine wonderful campgrounds, but if you’re not camping out , you may only be in Joshua Tree on a day-trip from picture-perfect Palm Springs. There is, however, one option worth considering if you’d like an overnight in Joshua Tree that’s not under canvas: Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway, a cozy, eclectic, charming set of suites situated conveniently on Twentynine Palms Hwy (State Rte 62).
For such a small town, there’s an unusually broad array of eating options. Everywhere in the area is child-friendly, though many may lack highchairs for little ones.
On the right as you drive east on Twentynine Palms Hwy through Joshua Tree, The Crossroads is highly popular with the hipster contingent, and rightly so: here’s where all little vegans and vegetarians can satisfy their breakfast cravings with hearty tofu scrambles and veggie chorizo (meat eaters are in for a treat too). Beware, however, that it’s always chock-full at lunchtime – you may need to wait half an hour for a table, with not much for the kids to do – especially if you’re looking for a table to seat more than four.
Huge, tasty pizzas (we love the caramelised onion topping) for eat-in or takeaway…grab one for a picnic in the Park.
If you’re in need of a veggie bowl or other non-meaty sustenance, take a take-out from little Natural Sisters, which has great soups, salads, sandwiches, and a delicious line in vegan muffins.
A great, quirky hole-in-the-wall option for a hearty American breakfast, pancakes n’all, or…Cambodian food? Yep, that’s right – go straight for a noodle bowl if you’re not in the mood for a big plate of bacon and eggs. Anthony Bourdain’s been a-calling, so it can’t be bad.
Wait…..what? Despite how it may sound, both the pizza AND the Indian food is good at Sam’s: try a creamy coconut korma, or the yummy chaat starters. Set in an unassuming location, so take-out for a picnic if you’re seeking atmosphere.
Pappy & Harriets Pioneertown Palace
(Pioneertown; closed Tue & Wed, lunch from 11am Thu-Sun) “All ages, all the time”: this incredible roadhouse out at Pioneertown (see See & Do above) is the place to come for good food and live bands, without feeling awkward about bringing the kids. LA musicians sometimes drop in for impromptu sets, which you can all enjoy over a big bowl of veggie chilli, or a piled-high plate of Nachos Von Rabbit, onward into the wee hours.
(Yucca Valley) If you’re driving to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs or Los Angeles, chances are you’ll pass through Yucca Valley on the Twentynine Palms Hwy. Stop in at the cavernous, tin-ceilinged Ma Rouge for great coffee and yummy piled-high sandwiches (we love ‘The Springs’) or a huge wedge of quiche. It’s located on the corner of the road that continues on up to Pioneertown (see See & Do, above).
WHEN TO GO
Temperatures in Joshua Tree soar come summer (June-August), when highs of over 100°F (38°C) are common, making it uncomfortable to hike except for at sunset or very early in the morning. The National Park itself is busiest in Spring wildflower season, though Fall and Winter – when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. If you’re hiking in summer, ensure you start out early and bring lots of water and sunscreen – for yourself, as well as your little people – and heed National Park warnings. Ask at a ranger station for advice, if you’re unsure.