Friday, April 6, 2018

Joshua Tree National Park: Best Hikes and Activities for Kids

We spent spring break in Palm Springs, which was my first time visiting a desert. They say the dry heat isn't so bad, and it's true. It was in the low 90s during our visit, and we were able to withstand it just fine, so long as we didn't stand directly under the sun. Of course, much of our time was still spent in the pool. If you're thinking of vacationing in Palm Springs with kids, plan to do any outdoor activities in the early morning, then jumping into the hotel pool after lunch and spending the rest of the day there.

Where to Stay

We were traveling with my cousin's family and everyone wanted a hotel with a nice pool, since we figured we'd be spending the majority of our time there. We ended up choosing the Marriott Desert Springs Villas I in Palm Desert (a suburb of Palm Springs) because it had not just one, but seven pools, plus access to the pools at the adjacent JW Marriott. With the poolside dining, you really never had to leave the area.

In addition to the luxurious pools, the villa we stayed in was absolutely beautiful, with plenty of space and all the trappings of home (including an in-room washer and dryer set, which, if you ask me, is vacation gold!). I've never been more comfortable in a hotel room. It truly felt like home.

What to Do

One of the big reasons we wanted to vacation in Palm Springs was to check out nearby Joshua Tree National Park. After visiting Yellowstone a couple of year ago, we've been on a national park kick (Zion and Bryce Canyon are planned for this summer), and Joshua Tree seemed like an interesting one to experience. And it did turn out to be an oddly beautiful park, full of weird and wonderful things to see. My advice is to go first thing in the morning (the park opens at 8), do a hike or two, maybe have a picnic lunch, and then get out by 1pm. It starts getting really hot around noon, and there is very little shade.

Our game plan was this: Enter the park from the west entrance, hike the popular and easy Hidden Valley Trail, maybe hike Barker Dam if everyone was still in good spirits, make a stop at Skull Rock (pictured below) for photos, check out the Cholla Cactus Garden, then exit through the south entrance. We managed to do everything except for the Barker Dam. Along the way, the drive through the park is incredibly scenic, with fields of Joshua trees as far as the eye can see (they almost look like people standing very still in the desert), and mountains of rocks and boulders looming in the background. Here's a good map of the park.

The Hidden Valley Trail is the most popular hike, located not far from the north and west entrances, and it's an easy 1 mile loop. What makes it fun are the boulders along the way, which the kids loved to climb. You could avoid them altogether and just stick to the sandy path, but all my kids talked about afterwards with their cousins was the fun rock scrambling, so that's the real appeal of this trail.

By the time we got to the Cholla Cactus Garden it was nearing 2pm and way too hot to hike without shade. So we just wandered up the path for a few minutes, took some photos with the adorable cholla cacti and then turned around. If you can get there earlier, this should be an easy and scenic hike.

Another morning, we visited the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert. I recommend shelling out for the Total Adventure Package, which includes unlimited giraffe and lorikeet feedings, camel rides, and carousel rides. You're going to end up paying for each of these activities anyway, so you might as well buy the package, which saves you a bit of money and lets you do each activity more than once. My favorite was the giraffe feeding, where each person is given three carrot sticks to offer. The giraffes grab the carrots from you with their long, curling tongues.

One attraction in Palm Springs that we didn't get to was the Aerial Tramway. The tram ascends more than 2.5 miles up a canyon and drops you off at Mt. San Jacinto State Park, where there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. Next time!

Where to Eat

I had many highly-rated places to eat on our itinerary (including El Ranchito Taco Shop, Wilma & Frieda, and Smoke Tree BBQ), but because we were traveling with a large group that included five kids, most of the time fast food was all we could manage  mostly In-N-Out Burger, which is always intriguing to those of us from the East Coast. On days when we couldn't get ourselves off the hotel premises, we dined al fresco at the JW Marriott's Rockwood Grill, where the food was excellent.

What's Nearby

As part of our Palm Springs vacation, we spent some time in Los Angeles and Anaheim, both about two hours away. In Anaheim, we visited Disneyland and California Adventure. I actually prefer this version of Disney to the one in Orlando, which can get really overwhelming, really fast. Magic Bands are not yet a thing at Disneyland, and maybe that's a good thing. You don't need to spend a week of your life planning for a visit to these parks, as you would for Disney World (although here's my primer for that, if you're interested). For Disneyland, just read up on the rides and shows a bit so you're not wandering aimlessly through the parks, and head on in for some low-key Disney magic.

In L.A., we spent a day at the Getty Museum, which totally exceeded my expectations. Art museums are always a tough sell with kids, but this one is located on beautiful grounds that encourage exploration and even running (and rolling) around on. There's also the tram ride that takes you up the hillside and overlooks what seems like all of Los Angeles.

And, of course, there's the actual artwork. The Getty Museum houses several world-renowned Impressionist paintings that are exciting to see in person and fun to copy. Whenever we visit an art museum, I supply the kids with sketch pads and colored pencils so they can copy their favorite pieces. It's a great way to get them to engage with the artwork in a memorable and meaningful way, and it keeps them busy for at least 20 minutes so you have some time to relax and enjoy the artwork as well.

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