Safety First: Rockin Out in Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks Campground.

Baby Licious kicking back in camp. Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Baby Licious, Doggie and I do laps with the stroller under the desert sky’s cerulean canopy, measuring the pros and cons of each campsite at Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks Campground. Exiled from the camper, we’ve got time to burn – it’s naptime for Dada and Little Mama. We’re privy to the mid-seventies temps of early spring; good news for Doggie who’s prone to heat-induced seizures. On the fourth lap, I cock my head, straining to hear words that will unwittingly serve as a foundation for my new life as a mother.

“Common sense needs to come into play here,” I overhear a Dad say. He flings open the side of his orange minivan as if it’s a cage door. “I can fix some things, but I can’t fix everything. The hospital is a long ride from here, kids. A LONG ride. And a painful one.” Considering his six- to nine-year-old audience, the speech is a pitch-perfect safety talk: brief and direct. I file it away as an essential parenting tool, and wonder how to adapt it for a twenty month-old hell-bent on climbing every bit of sandstone she can find.

Summit bound

On the quest for the summit.

Doggie and I polish off the last of our drinking water and return to what I’ve come to consider the best campsite (it’s relatively private and, more importantly, free of cliffs). We spy a roadrunner amongst the yucca – I consider the Chemehuevi Indian legend prophesizing the reuniting of the tribe after removal from their land: the first of the people would return as roadrunners and race down the floor of the valley to the mesquite forest. Here, they would be met by pods of sweet beans.

There are no beans to share as our family is reunited; instead we arrive to find Little Mama and Dada doing tummy time alongside a black lizard. Back when we were courting, I fell for Dada pretty hard after seeing him make a lizard leash out of dry grass, then actually catch a lizard with it in his front yard. His unbridled glee at such a simple toy gave me butterflies.

This J-Tree lizard scurries away, and we turn our attention to setting up camp: chairs, fire tools, water, Bumbo for Baby Licious. Little Mama ventures incrementally further and further away, pushing her comfort zone. Twilight stretches over the last rays of desert sun. I nurse and swaddle Baby Licious, then snuggle her into a tiny camper nest while Dada bundles up Little Mama.

“You’re kidding me!” The dreamy calm is broken by my husband’s high-pitched cry.

“What is it?” I leap into the night, jumping down camper steps.

“The fire pit is sizzling hot.”

Shredding newspaper for the fire, Dada has discovered that the fire pit has been hot all day without our knowing it. Little Mama spent a large part of the afternoon toddling around the metal-walled ring – it’s a miracle she didn’t burn herself. It’s a clear-cut case of rookie parenting; we definitely did not include “HOT FIRE” in our safety talk.

Next day, Little Mama wakes everyone pre-dawn. It’s crisp outside – we wait for sun to touch rock before leaving our cozy den. Little Mama and I search out lizards and rock play houses. The kid’s got skinned knees, hands, tummy, arms and shins. She has stopped saying “uh oh” when she falls. Instead, she pops up and carries on, despite the blood. We are on constant alert for snakes. We practice freezing in place (in the event we do stumble onto a rattler) and I teach her to look closely at handholds before grabbing – most snake bites happen on the hands.

Little Mama bonding to sandstone. J-Tree.

I consider my mother’s take on parenting, which is basic Darwinism. “The entire point,” she often says, “is for the cubs to survive.” Heading back to basecamp, I develop a small swagger. Little Mama’s survival skills are improving, alongside my danger awareness – we’ve got camping with babies wired, I think to myself smugly. I’m enthralled with the notion of baby survival, my mind lost in theorizing, so I don’t notice the metal camper jack at toddler head-level until Little Mama’s forehead clangs against it. She’s rocketed backwards several feet, and lies sprawled out in dirt, mouth open, no sound coming out.

The rig at Jumbo Rocks

The rig at Jumbo Rocks. Joshua Tree N.P.

“Oh no!” I hold her close until a tremendous shriek rumbles up from deep in her chest, echoing through the Joshua trees.

I failed to include the metal jacks in the safety talk. For a week, I will remember this oversight every time I look at the bruised welt on Little Mama’s buttery forehead.

The larger lesson will remain with me for much longer: Do a thorough scout of the area before letting the kids out of the car. It’s a LONG ride to the hospital. And a painful one.

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree.


Where to stay: There are nine National Park Service campgrounds, for more info contact Joshua Tree Visitor Center (tent and r.v. sites cost $10-15 dollars). Reservations can be made via phone at 877-444-6777 or web For those not wanting to camp, try Spin and Margie’s Desert Hide-a-Way (760-366-9124; ) in the town of Joshua Tree.

When to go: Winter in the desert can be extremely cold, with temps near freezing. Spring and fall are the best times. Summer temperatures soar into the hundreds.

Things to do: There are some great hikes suitable for little legs. The Skull Rock Trail is a 1.7-mile trail through boulders in the Wonderland of Rocks. The 1.3-mile loop to Barker Dam is also a favorite.

Skull Rock Trail

On the trail to Skull Rock. J-Tree.

Mountain bikes aren’t allowed on hiking trails, but they can go on paved and dirt roads – your best bet is Covington Flats, where there is an easy network of dirt roads. J-Tree is best known for its rock climbing, and boasts more than 8,000 routes. You can rent bouldering crash pads from Joshua Tree Outfitters (760-366-1848, http://www.joshuatreeoutfitters) and sign up for a day or weekend of lessons from Uprising Adventure Guides (888-254-6266, Birdwatching is also good at Joshua Tree; over 250 species have been spotted in the park.

What to pack:

Cholla cactus in bloom. Joshua Tree.

Pack clothing for extreme temperature swings: fleece for bundling up at night plus sun shirts and hats for scorching daytime rays. Sunscreen is a must, as is plenty of water. A well-stocked First Aid kit, including triple antibiotic cream, epi-pens and benadryl for bee stings.

Emergencies: Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree has a 24-hour emergency room (760-366-3711) or contact a ranger, 911 or 909-383-5651. Cell phone coverage throughout the park is unreliable.


About adventuremama

An outdoor travel writer, adventure guide and mother.
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6 Responses to Safety First: Rockin Out in Joshua Tree National Park

  1. Jessica says:

    I’ve been wanting to go to JT! It looks like you all had a blast! The temp swings are a little nuts…but it’s probably worth it 🙂

  2. Sandy Wells says:


    My name is Sandy. I have a 23 year old daughter who is going to J. Tree for adventure by herself. I am very worried and experiencing anxiety because of safety issues. First she is by herself camping out in the dessert. How safe is this place? I would like to do an adventure as a family. But for her it is something she wanted to do for a long time.

    • Hi Sandy,
      Thank you for reminding me that the anxiety of parenting will be with me FOREVER, and that we can never expect to be fully comfortable while our offspring toddle out into the great unknown. I can’t imagine the anxiety my parents must have felt when I ran off to Zambia at age twenty to guide trips on crocodile-infested rivers. I’m sure they agonized over my safety then, just as they did yesterday when I drove away from them in Big Sur, heading south with their grandchildren on a dark and windy road. I guess that’s where faith comes into play; faith that the survival skills they instilled in me growing up will serve me well, and faith in my own ability to make good choices for myself. Everyone’s definition of safe varies. I feel safe hurling myself down Class IV and V whitewater, something that many people would feel was unsafe. Undoubtedly, Little Mama and Baby Licious will push past my definition of safe on many fronts, and I aspire to cultivate belief in their abilities and encourage them to follow their dreams far into the wilderness beyond where I can see.

  3. Gene says:

    Bridget, Thanks for reminding us of how fortunate people are who have children. Children are very underrated in this world. On a Joshua Tree note, one of my most scared moments was hiking in Joshua Tree with Stephen. I got over-ambitious and bouldered up where I couldn’t go up or back down. Stuck. So I jumped. I just couldn’t fathom a helicopter rescue. Not long after I took a ropes course.

    • Thanks for reading, Gene! Sharing my love of adventure and nature with my children is a true joy – how right you are about fortune smiling on the guardians of little angels. Sounds like your Joshua Tree bouldering session was a fantastic learning experience. One lesson I’ve started with Little Mama already: after every step up, I encourage her to look below her feet and make sure she can come down it, too. Rather than help her down (or up) the rocks, I “spot” her while she makes her own way in the hopes that she will learn the valuable skill of being able to assess her ability climbing up AND down and, like you, not rely on someone else to bail her out.

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