Get ready for a massive photobomb of a hiking recap! When we decided to make California our family vacation for the year, I knew immediately that I wanted to hit the trails and explore another national park or two. Some quality time spent on nps.gov narrowed the candidates down, and when I checked my schedule I decided that it made sense to include Joshua Tree National Park in our itinerary for the trip. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by Joshua Tree. Of course, I know that any park that has achieved National Park status has been elevated for a reason, so I was sure it would be wonderful. But my uncle – who lives in California – had sort of downplayed it and I had the idea that Joshua Tree would be one of those places I’d be glad to have visited once, but not feel compelled to return to again and again.
Then I stepped out of the car.
I’d been getting more and more excited as we drove into the desert, and I almost flew out the window when we spotted the first Joshua tree by the side of the road. But still, I was unprepared for how immediately and completely the desert landscape would grab ahold of my heart and imagination, just feet from the park gate.
I had planned out two short hikes for us to do in the park (and immediately wished we had time for more, and to stay the night – I’m sure the stars are incredible over the desert). Without skipping a beat, we sunscreened up, collected the kids’ Junior Ranger workbooks, and headed off to our first hike.
Barker Dam is a 1.1 mile loop hike that hits some of the highest points of scenery in the park – historic old structures, sweeping mountain vistas, interesting rock formations, prehistoric petroglyphs, and a veritable forest of Joshua trees.
Yes, I did dress him in that “National Park Explorer” t-shirt on purpose. Thank you for asking.
We headed down the trail as both kids snacked on applesauce pouches (don’t worry, we packed out all of our trash – leave no trace!). Just as I was starting to wonder how long this hike was going to take with four little feet on the trail, Nugget asked for “uppy.” Phew! Fortunately, I was prepared with my hiking backpack; we’d left Steve’s back in Virginia.
Steve and Peanut continued down the trail ahead of us, keeping a careful watch for flora and fauna to record in Peanut’s Junior Ranger booklet. Nugget asked me if he could climb the rocks. I promised to bring him back someday, so we could climb them together. (And instantly started planning to enroll him in a kids’ climbing course at EarthTreks just as soon as he’s old enough.)
I was in awe of the incredibly cool rock formations, myself – and of the incredible diversity of the desert foliage. We were really there for the Joshua trees, of course, but we kept an eye out for beautiful cacti, junipers, and other desert plants. We saw a lot!
So many cool and interesting plants! Eventually, we climbed through a narrow and technical pass and found ourselves at Barker Dam – the historical landmark for which the hike was named. It was cool to see one of the oldest structures in the park – but even cooler was the incredible mountain vista beyond it.
Oh, California, you have stolen my heart!
At this point, Steve suggested we “make it an out and back.” I was reluctant to turn back and see the same scenery over that we had already been through. We asked a couple of hikers who were doing the loop trail in reverse how it was in the direction from which they’d come, and they assured us that once we got down out of the narrow path, it would be smooth sailing. We took their word for it, descended some rock stairs, and found that they’d told the truth – the rest of the trail was flat, easy, and completely different from the rock formations we’d been seeing. Now, we were completely surrounded by the park’s namesake Joshua trees!
I just couldn’t get enough of them. I knew what Joshua trees were and how they got their name, and I thought they’d be fine but nothing Earth-shattering. I was completely wrong! Around every corner, I found myself gasping at new visual splendors.
I was a broken record, but I couldn’t stop stammering out how beautiful this park is. Joshua trees, as far as the eye can see! Eventually, we finished the hike – but not before checking out some ancient petroglyphs for one more treat. Throughout the hike, I had been reminding my companions to “keep your eyes open for rock art!” As I hiked along, I carefully inspected each boulder for signs of ancient civilization. Turns out, I could have saved my time and squints, because the park helpfully placed a sign on the trail reading “Petroglyphs 0.3” – well, that was easy!
So amazingly cool. Peanut approved.
From Barker Dam, we headed to our second hike of the park – Hidden Valley. (Yes, I thought of ranch dressing.) The Hidden Valley trail is also about a 1-mile loop, bringing our total mileage to just over two miles for the day – pretty good for an almost-five-year-old. Peanut was a champ throughout both hikes, and I was so proud of her. She was inspiring everyone on the trail, and more than one group decided to press on and finish their hikes as we came through with our preschooler on foot and toddler in a backpack.
Anyway, before setting off on the Hidden Valley trail, we reapplied sunscreen, had a quick snack, and Peanut worked on her Junior Ranger book – she had some drawing activities to do – at the picnic tables while Nugget and I gawked at the view across the road (above).
Let’s do the thing!
Hidden Valley was a totally different landscape. In 1910, an explorer had blasted a hole in a large boulder and slipped through to find a paradise never before seen by human eyes – a hidden valley, lush with all kinds of desert foliage. It’s still pretty much unspoilt, and a completely different landscape from the Barker Dam hike. I couldn’t believe how varied the topography was inside the park.
Nugget was chomping at the bit to climb these mountains. He takes after his mom.
We were keeping our eyes open for cool wildlife throughout both hikes, and we finally saw a little friend. See him sunning himself?
No? How about now?
I just couldn’t get enough of Joshua Tree National Park, and I’m so glad we made time for it!
After leaving the park, we stopped at the visitors’ center and collected the kids’ Junior Ranger badges – their first! – and I think I was even more excited than they were. They were both conked out while we presented our booklets and got their badges, and the park ranger took one look at them – Peanut passed out in Steve’s arms, and Nugget in mine – and deadpanned, “They have to be awake to take the oath.” Ha! They very nicely gave us the badges for both kids without making them wake up, and even though Nugget was technically too young (every park’s program is different, but Joshua Tree’s starts at age 4). The kids were proud and delighted when I showed them their badges later, and have insisted on wearing them regularly so that family and friends can marvel at their accomplishment.
Joshua Tree National Park, you were a delight from the first moment to the last, and I can’t wait to visit again!
What’s your favorite national park? Shenandoah still has my heart, but Joshua Tree was a joy.