The Joshua tree is commonly found in the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, and some areas of the San Bernardino Mountains. Native Americans used the rough leaves of this tree to weave baskets and sandals, and ate the flower buds and seeds. Unlike other trees, Joshua trees have no rings so we are unable to accurately determine their age. They may grow quickly through the first five years if the conditions are right, but the average Joshua tree grows only ½ to 3 inches per year. Out in the desert, insects, birds, reptiles, and small mammals make homes out of the majestic Joshua tree.
National Park Service celebrates their 100th Birthday!
This year the National Park Service is celebrating their 100th birthday. So it was exciting for my family and I to take our first camping trip to Joshua tree; especially since we just spent a month of our preschool activities focusing on the desert and our new science curriculum is also discussing desert habitats. I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time and the kids were really looking forward to their first “real” camping trip with Mom and Dad. We camped last year in Sequoia National Forest with an RV, but this time we were sticking to the tent and the car.
One of my favorite things to do is explore State and National parks. There is so much beauty, and there are so many teachable moments. This tangible, interactive learning is so vital to children as they grow. They get to make memories with their family all while getting an education and gaining important life skills like reading maps, identifying plants and animals, making a fire, and so much more.
Park visitation is at its peak in March and April, and is still quite busy in May. We checked the reservable campgrounds a few weeks in advance but everything was booked for the weekends. So we decided to go on a Wednesday and get our spot before the weekend crowd began arriving on Thursday. It was a great decision because by Thursday night every spot in our campground was full.
Educational Tool Guides:
Before we headed into the park, we visited the Joshua Tree Visitors Center at Park Boulevard and the 62. The kids picked up their Junior Ranger Handbooks and we looked around at the books and gifts. We then headed straight to Jumbo Rocks campground to set up camp. Huge rock formations towered over the campsites and there was no shortage of caves and valleys to explore. We picked an awesome spot with a lot of rocks to climb and a small cave free of small animals. The kids were in heaven.
My kids are seasoned hikers and they enjoyed exploring the flora and fauna of the park and the overall sense of adventure. Over the course of three days we managed to log about 20 miles of hiking. Here are the family friendly trails that we explored.
Skull Rock: Skull Rock is one of the most popular stops in the park. There is a trailhead to Skull Rock in the Jumbo Rocks campground, but if you are staying in another part of the park, there is a marked turn-off where you can park near Skull Rock and walk right up to it. It can be seen from the road.
Hidden Valley: What an amazing place Hidden Valley is. As you pass through a few giant rocks, you enter this area that is almost entirely enclosed by huge rock formations. You follow the one mile trail around the inside of Hidden Valley, where legend says that cowboys used to hide with stolen cattle. We talked about the places they may have used as hiding spots for their cattle, and we talked about old western movies, because to me, Hidden Valley looked a lot like the ideal place to shoot a western. This is an easy walk with little elevation change.
Barker Dam: The Barker Dam trail is a 1.1 mile loop with a turn off to see ancient Indian petroglyphs. The downside to this is that many years ago when they were filming a western movie here (I still think they should have chosen Hidden Valley) they wanted to use the Indian wall carvings in a scene. They thought they could make the carvings look more authentic if they painted over them so some of it is dressed up with movie makeup, but it was exciting to see none the less. My son is set on being an archeologist and paleontologist when he grows up so moments like this are especially huge to him. You’ll come to a point in the trail where you can look over the side of the dam. There was a tiny bit of water there when we visited, but we talked about what it may have looked like years ago, when there was no drought, and water was more plentiful. We imagined the wildlife that may have lived there then, and this is the only place on our trip where we spotted common ducks.
Wall Street Mill: The trailhead for the Wall Street Mill is right next to the trailhead for Barker Dam but heads the opposite direction. It says 1.1 on the sign, but it is 2.2 – 3 miles round trip. There is very little elevation change but there are a few spots where you walk through heavy sand. The trip is well worth it as you’ll find an old abandoned home, Wonderland Ranch, which is falling down, several old cars, an old windmill, and finally, the mill. The mill itself is fenced off but you can see the majority of the structure. They used to process and stamp gold bars here.
Cap Rock Nature Trail: The Cap Rock nature trail is a short, half-mile loop that takes you through more of Joshua tree’s beautiful plants and geological wonders. Cap Rock teeters on the edge of a giant rock formation and it looks like it could topple at any moment. Although we were tired, this was a fun walk. It is packed dirt so it is accessible for wheel chairs and strollers.
Arch Rock: Our final stop before heading out of the park was the lovely Arch Rock hike. The half-mile loop begins in the White Tank Campground and the rock formations here are gorgeous. We hit this on the edge of a storm coming in so we had a lovely dark sky as the backdrop and the scenery was just amazing. There is some elevation change here and not accessible, but it was a fun hike, especially as our last Joshua tree excursion.
Never underestimate the power of a family camping trip. Right now the National Park Service has a centennial Junior Ranger Activity Book. Download the book, complete the activities, and send it in for a special reward. We earned our Joshua Tree Junior Ranger badges and has, and got a free book. Never pass up these educational opportunities in the parks. They make such an impact on the kids. Mine are very proud of their badges and my Cub Scout is wearing his on his vest.
What is your favorite state or national park?