While Palm Springs gets a lot of play and attention, we’re turning our sights to its wilder neighbor to the north—Joshua Tree and Joshua Tree National Park. The acres of groomed green grass may be missing, but this desert oasis has so much to offer families, you might just join the legions of SoCal residents who have since taken a left turn off the 10, rather than a right—and never looked back. We’re breaking down all the must-see and things to do in Joshua Tree with kids—even in triple digit heat. From which hikes to take and where to stay for luxury camping in Joshua Tree to how to beat the summer temps—here’s our favorite things to do.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree, much like Palm Springs, has gown in popularity over the years with Airbnbs and hotels popping up all over the high-desert town but what caught our eye was the recently opened AutoCamp—a luxury camping spot that has a multitude of Airstream trailers with modern interiors, along with Vista-X suites (modern units with slightly more space than the Airstreams but offer the same luxurious glamping experience) for overnight stays.
What to Expect at AutoCamp Joshua Tree
First things first, expect to leave the car in the parking lot. This is, of course, great as it keeps dust and noise to a minimum. If you packed light, you’ll be able to carry (or roll) your bags to your trailer once you’ve checked-in. If you have more than you can carry, the friendly staff can load up a golf cart for you and drive you and your crew to your Airstream.
Take a moment, during check-in, to explore the marketplace located inside the reception area—this is where you’ll find all the drinks, snacks and food you may need—plus specialty firewood for the fire pits (AutoCamp only allows compressed, smoke-free logs for burning. You can bring your own or buy them here at the clubhouse), along with any other amenities you may have forgotten to bring. We were very excited to see Tony Chocolony (our favorite chocolatier out of Amsterdam and discovered during our holiday there), as well as pre-made sandwiches that we could grab for lunch and use for our Joshua Tree National Park adventure the next day.
Each Airstream trailer is generously spaced out—leaving plenty of room between you and other guests. And while social distancing may (eventually) become a thing of the past, part of the charm of the desert is feeling the vast, quiet, open-ness—a quality this hotel park absolutely nails.
Airstream Amenities: Being that this is a RV, albeit a luxury one—space is still a premium. There’s a private bedroom with a queen size bed in each trailer, a bathroom with a stand-up shower and a pull-out couch. While accommodations can handle up to four people, the space felt just right for three of us (1 adult and two big kids). The space would be fine for 2 adults and 2 small kids but if you have tweens and teenagers, it would definitely feel tight. There’s a handy kitchenette, complimentary waters and coffee, a mini fridge, microwave and a clever closet for stashing your luggage and clothes. There is AC for hot desert days and heat for cooler nights (read the manuals to make sure you operate both appropriately). Each site comes with a picnic table and a fire pit with grate if you want to cook your meals (proteins and more are available in the marketplace located in the lobby if you don’t want to run to the grocery store or didn’t bring supplies with you).
Property Amenities at AutoCamp Joshua Tree
The pool, located near the lobby, is absolutely lovely—loads of chairs and loungers as well as umbrellas for much-needed shade. There are also plenty of spots to cool off near here, that don’t include getting wet. There’s an outdoor lounge area with ample couches and chairs, complete with water misters (the overhead cooling system that is crucial during hot desert days), a large fire pit area if you are looking for a more communal atmosphere at night (or if you have a larger group and won’t all fit around your own private fire pit) as well as a countertop bar-area—grab a cold one from the marketplace and hang out here—or work from here if you are a digital nomad. And during colder spells, you can go hang out in the lobby around the mid-century inspired fireplace.
There are complimentary bikes on the property to use as well—and since the area is gated, kids can have free reign to explore and bike away as much as they’d like.
Elevate Your Stay at AutoCamp Joshua Tree
If you need a little extra entertainment, aside from luxury camping, the pool and fireside evenings, check out AutoCamp Joshua Tree’s Experiences—here they have a whole calendar of activities taking place—some free, some with an additional fee. We would have loved to take the Star Gazing Tour (summer is when the Milky Way can be seen the best and thanks to lack of light pollution in the park, it’s bound to be spectacular) but it was sold out by the time we had organized ourselves.
Location: The real gem that is AutoCamp Joshua Tree though? It’s proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. Because it’s located right outside the park—just a 10-minute drive—means you can go in and out of the park as much as you need. For example, to avoid the triple digit temps, we left the park after lunch (the highs usually hit around 3 p.m.), came back to the property, swam in the pool and chilled out in our Airstream. Later that day, once the sun started to set, we headed back into the park to catch some of the glorious landscape in the early evening (and slightly cooler!) hours.
AutoCamp Joshua Tree
62209 Verbena Rd.
What to Do in Joshua Tree with Kids
The most obvious answer? Joshua Tree National Park! This 800,000 acre park, is easy-to-navigate—and offers a wide variety of landscape where no two hikes are the same. If this is your first time here, we highly recommend entering the park at the West Entrance and stopping by the Visitor’s Center first. Here you can meet Park Rangers, learn about local flora and fauna and pick up The Junior Ranger Booklet for the kids that is filled with activities that includes drawing prompts, writing, and notes about observing wildlife. Don’t forget to return later for a Junior Ranger badge and shop the super cute gift shop. Parenting Pro Tip: If you need to, use these bathrooms before entering the park!
What You Need to Know about Joshua Tree National Park:
- Reserve your pass online. A 7 day park pass is $30 or you can buy a single day pass for $15.
- There is no cell service in the park. Plan your route accordingly and if you have a kid that’s old enough—it’s a great opportunity to teach them how to help you navigate the roads by reading an old-fashioned paper map.
- Bring lots of water with you. Bring one-gallon of water for every person in your car and more snacks and food than you could eat in a day (or two). One: Because it’s hot and kids get thirsty and hungry and you want to avoid dehydration and hanger. Two: Because getting stranded in the park is no joke—be it from a flat tire or some other reason—you’ll most likely be dependent on other travelers to get you help. We met a family who’s RV hydraulic system malfunctioned and they were stranded, in the park. And while we called the Rangers to send help when we exited the park, they wouldn’t be attended to until the next morning—meaning they were unexpectedly spending the night.
- If you go in the summer, start as early as you can. Take advantage of the cooler temperatures early in the morning and the fact that the park never closes so you can start as early as you would like. We were able to get in two good hikes before we hightailed it out of the heat and back to the pool.
- Download the NPS App: This free app has tons of information at your fingertips including trails, news, events, self-guided tours, and suggestions for the best places to go rock climbing, stargazing, bird watching and scenic drives.
Recommended Hikes for Kids in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree hikes for first timers and those with young kids: We highly recommend The Hidden Valley Trail. This 1.1 mile loop-around trail is a great introduction to the landscape, has informational placards along the way (amazing as it also confirms you are on the right trail) and was fantastically quiet first thing in the morning.
If you’ve been to The Hidden Trail already, head over to Skull Rock and bang this one out first thing in the morning. By the time we got to this trail (around 11 a.m.)—it was super crowded in that annoying way—not making it worth the stop.
Boy Scout Trail: This one sounds innocent enough but this challenging one-way in, one-way out trail is 8 miles long—definitely not one to tackle during the summer but worth going back to once the temperatures are much cooler.
Keys View: Being Joshua Tree’s highest viewpoint, this .25 paved hike will give you a bird’s eye view of the park. On a clear day, you can see Signal Mountain in Mexico, located 90 miles to the south. Good to Know: This trail and viewpoint is wheelchair accessible.
Cholla Cactus Garden: Save this spot for early evening. It’s an ideal stop, just before sunset when the light of the sun backlights this field of cacti and they start to magically “glow.” Insider Tip: You actually want to get here about an hour or so before sunset because the nearest mountain will block the sun by the time the official sunset rolls around. Also Good to Know: Bees must love these cacti—and while they were friendly and at least for us, harmless, there were swarms of them. I must repeat, SWARMS. If you are bee-averse (or your crew is), maybe skip this one (sadly). PS: This spot also “glows” in the morning—so if you have early risers, take advantage by heading here first thing in the a.m. to catch the sunrise (and hopefully still-sleeping bees!).
Fun Things to Do around Joshua Tree that Aren’t Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is an eclectic place with loads of fun shops and restaurants. Here are a few recommended places worth stopping to shop or eat:
Cactus Mart: Cacti, succulents and desert plant emporium, stop here to fill your home with desert native plants.
The Crochet Museum: Free to enter, this “world famous” museum is full of an eclectic assortment of crocheted animals.
Country Kitchen: Joshua Tree’s local diner, they offer breakfast and lunch all day long.
Pioneertown: A bit off the beaten path, swing by for some Western nostalgia.
One night of accommodation was paid for by AutoCamp Joshua Tree, but otherwise, all expenses, photos (unless noted) and opinions belong to the writer.