Visiting the California Desert with Kids
During the Easter weekend (April 4-6, 2015) our family took a vacation in California’s low- and high desert areas, near Palm Springs. My daughter is 10.5 years old, so we tried to plan activities that would entertain her as well.
We left quite early on Saturday morning and arrived to our first destination by 9am. Salton Sea, California’s largest lake is a place you’ll never forget. It is currently 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, but it used to be much larger. We only stopped at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area ($5 day use), but there is a lot more around there to discover. I am actually going back in May with a group of photographers to capture the eeriness of this extraordinary land.
Let me tell you just a bit about the history, so that you’ll understand why this area is so unusual. There has always been more or less water in the Salton Sink, which is basically a landlocked extension of the Gulf of California. This lake is a very important winter stop for over 400 migrating bird species. The problem with the lake is, that it has no natural outlet flowing to the ocean, so the water can only leave by evaporation or by percolation into the ground. Everything that flows into it, including agricultural runoff, will stay in the sink, and the water never gets circulated. The Salton Sea is also getting saltier; it has a higher salt content than the Pacific Ocean. Due to the high salinity, only a few species of fish continued to reproduce. The chemicals have been poisoning and killing the fish here, which consequently causes birds to die. It is rather a sad situation that is not taken care of due to state budgeting restrains.
After this brief intro into the natural history of the lake (I’ll talk about the human history after my May trip), I am ready to show you what you can expect when you enter the park. I should also warn you, that as you are approaching the lake, an odorous smell will hit you. The smell probably has a different intensity at various times of the year, and I can only comment on the spring one: it’s not that bad. It gave us a good opportunity to talk about how our nose and eyes have the ability to adjust and get used to some odd smells or darkness. By the time we got out of the car, even my daughter was OK with the smell.
First, I’d like to point out the abundance of beautiful birds. I would recommend that you start your visit at Sneaker Beach, if you want to see lots of birds. During our short visit we saw White Pelicans, seagulls, White Herons, and lots of smaller shore birds. But as you are walking from the parking lot to the shore on the white “sand”, expect something unusual. The sand is not sand at all (or at least not yet). The beach is covered with up to a foot deep layer of fish bones! Most off them are tiny, maybe a quarter inch in diameter, but at random you will see larger pieces as well – a skull here, a backbone there. These are the remains of hundreds or thousands of dead fish.
It is a weird feeling to walk on the bones; it’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. After the beach walk we watched a short movie about the history of the lake at the Visitor Center (open between 10 am – 4 pm), and walked on a short nature walk. We had a good time here, but we were not too impressed. It was great to see it once, but we won’t be going back for a family visit.
The second day of the trip was designated for checking out the Joshua Tree National Park. Some useful info about the park:
- It’s open all the time. Entrance fee for 7 days is $15.
- Visitor Centers open at 8 or 8:30 am.
- To get the most out of your visit, enter through different entrances. Each part of the park offers a different view, fauna and flora.
- There are neat, mostly primitive campgrounds at the park. (No water, chemical toilets.) Two campgrounds have flush toilets and water, too.
Prior to the trip I had asked around to get recommendations for places we should visit during our short stay – with a child. Thanks to the help of friends, we were able to experience some incredible sites.
We started out at Black Rock Nature Center and campground. This area has the densest Joshua Tree population, so if you had never seen these plants, this is a great place to start at. The Hi-View Nature Trail was an easy walk with a child, and offered spectacular views, interesting plants (many flowers), and also animals. My daughter’s favorite activity was following the “Gobble Gobble” bird, also known as the Gambel’s quail. It had a call that reminded all of us of Kevin from the movie Up.
Our next stop was Hidden Valley, which you can reach by entering through the West Entrance Station (only one lane to enter, could be backed up). The drive to Hidden Valley is gorgeous! You’ll see lots of Joshua Trees, flowers (in the spring), and wonderful rock formations.
Hidden Valley is a right turn off of the main road. For our family this was the most beautiful hike we had ever done, even more memorable than Garden of the Gods in Colorado. It wasn’t just pretty, but if you are into simple (or advanced) rock climbing, this place is a heaven for you. My husband and my daughter adventured into different parts of the rock piles, while I kept taking pictures of the beauty around me. Make sure you read the historical facts about the valley before you enter it. (Hint: it has to do with cattle rustlers.)
We had one more stop in the park, Keys View. If you drive up here, you can see Coachella Valley, as well as the St. Andreas Fault. The view is hazy, but breathtaking.
Although we were planning on going back to the park for stargazing, the strong winds and temperature drop changed our mind. We still would like to do this at another time, possibly while camping in the park.
Monday early morning we entered the park through a third entrance, which you can reach from the town of Twentynine Palms. The first destination this time was the Cholla Cactus Garden, which lies on the edge of the Colorado Desert. The previous destinations are located in the Mojave Desert. Walking through this unusual cactus colony was pretty interesting, especially with our cameras. Don’t make the mistake we did: begin your journey at the beginning of the path instead of the end, and pick up a guide to help you identify the different kinds of plants. Do not let children touch the cacti, because the spines are very painful to remove from the skin. No, we did not have to do this, in case you were wondering.
The final destination in the park for this trip was visiting Skull Rock and its surroundings. What a fun place with its countless ways of climbing the rocks. Some are easy and some more difficult.
The only part of our trip I wouldn’t recommend visiting was Pioneertown. As a “fake” ghost town it was simply – boring. But the whole trip was awesome, and it inspired us to go back again, possibly for camping.
For more info check out these websites (they open in a new window):
We stayed at the Best Western Joshua Tree hotel in Yucca Valley. Room and breakfast were OK, and it is close to the National Park. It has a very small pool.
And don’t forget, that you are visiting the desert. Bring and drink plenty of water, and be ready for big changes in the temperature. Don’t forget about the sunscreen and the lip-balm either. And most importantly, have fun!