Three California Desert Family Vacation Ideas for Spring Break

by Shelly Rivoli
A girl looks out over the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail in Anza Borrego Desert State Park in spring with wildflowers and mountains.

Spring break is the ideal time for a California family desert vacation — and it’s my favorite time to enjoy California desert destinations with my own family (especially on the hiking trails).

Whenever your family’s spring break falls, you’re likely to enjoy pleasant temperatures, the sunshine you may still be lacking at home, and the giddy joy that comes with spotting desert wildflowers, cacti, and Joshua trees in bloom.

Not to mention, you might also happen upon some well-timed contrasts like a snow-dusted Telescope Peak jutting up above Death Valley, or tumbling waterfalls in a palm-filled canyon fed by a desert oasis.

Just remember, the later you visit in spring, the hotter the days may get, so plan accordingly for your sun and fun–and frequent hydration on the run. ūüėČ

Here are my recommendations for eight spring break vacation ideas for families excited to explore our incredible California deserts. All are in southern California, with approximate drive times from the major cities included to help in your planning.

But first! Pin it to your travel board for future vacation planning …

And don’t forget — I’ve got complete details, tips, maps, and advice for 14 unforgettable desert hikes (from easy to strenuous) in Hiking with Kids Southern California: 45 Great Hikes for Families!

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1. A Joshua Tree National Park Family Getaway

A boy explores large boulders and rocks at Joshua Tree National Park during a family vacation on spring break.
My son could spend hours bouldering with all the fun rocks at Joshua Tree National Park Рa great spring break destination for families. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image.

Approximate drive time: Los Angeles 3 hours, San Diego 3 hours, San Francisco 8 hours

What you’ll find:

Joshua tree is a fascinating family desert destination thanks to its “Jumbo Rock geology” and the contrasts that come from straddling two distinctly different desert ecosystems.

On its western side, you’ll find classic Mojave Desert habitat with prickly pear cacti, pinyon pines, Mojave yucca, and the Joshua trees for which the park is named.

A bird takes flight from a Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image.

To its east, you’ll find Colorado Desert habitat (part of the larger Sonoran Desert), with a different personality punctuated by spiky ocotillo, palo verde, and teddy bear cholla.

And as your spring break family vacation destination, you’ll have the chance to see both deserts when many visitors feel they’re at their most beautiful.

A dad takes a picture of kids standing under Arch Rock in Joshua Tree National Park.
Head to Arch Rock EARLY for your spring break family photo op with the popular landmark. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image.

Good to know:

Three important things to know before planning your first visit to Joshua Tree National Park include:

  1. There are no concessions and very limited potable water within the park. That means you need to bring all the food and snacks, drinks, and water (and backup extra water) for your time spent in the park.
  2. The only overnight accommodations in Joshua Tree National Park are in its campsites. And reservations can fill up 6 months in advance–as soon as they open for popular seasons. So if you’d like to camp in the park itself (beneath its dark night skies!), plan your timing well in advance and set a reminder to book your camping reservation 6 months earlier if possible at at Recreation.gov.
  3. It’s a popular national park — especially in spring! But most visitors stick to the primary (paved) roads in the north and easiest-to-reach attractions. To encounter fewer crowds, I recommend STARTING EARLY and with the most popular attractions and hiking trails you’re interested in (eg. Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock, Arch Rock, Hidden Valley). Then use the rest of the day to explore the less-traveled areas that interest you most.

There are more great tips for planning your visit to Joshua Tree NP in the article “Plan Like a Park Ranger.” And be sure to download your “offline accessible” guide to the park and maps from the free National Parks App. (Don’t expect cell service inside the park!) Click here for more info about the app.

Sun shining through teddy bear cholla or cactus in Joshua Tree National Park with blue sky and white clouds.
Teddy bear cholla can have a lot of character and are fun to see in Joshua Tree National Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image..

Where to stay when visiting Joshua Tree National Park with kids?

If you won’t be camping in the park, there are several campgrounds outside its borders. There are also numerous hotels to be found in the towns surrounding the park and of course in the Palm Springs Area.

But for many families, a full-service vacation rental house or condo in one of the 9 Coachella Valley communities might make an ideal base for exploring the wider area.

We’ve found great value in family vacation rentals in La Quinta, a small town southeast of Palm Springs and Palm Desert. It’s on the edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains (I love looking at those mountains) — and also puts you near the the scenic Book Hoff trailhead!). Click here to see available vacation rentals in La Quinta.

Alternatively, you might check for deals at the Cathedral City Hampton Inn & Suites. It has some very large rooms for families, free breakfast, and an outdoor swimming pool with a nice mountain view (we saw snow on the mountains during our stay!). Click here to check availability and pricing for your dates.

Hiking with Kids Southern California: 45 Great Hikes for Families by Shelly Rivoli includes hikes in 5 national parks as well as several state and city parks, nature preserves, and national Forests.

2. An Anza Borrego Desert State Park Family Adventure

A flowering ocotillo and spring wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image..

Approximate drive time: San Diego 2 hours, Los Angeles 2 hours 45 minutes, San Francisco 9 hours

What You’ll Find:

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a favorite spring break destination for many reasons. One of the best known reasons is the potential for its spring wildflower spectacular (especially in super bloom years!).

Golden brittlebush, beavertail cactus, desert woolstar, wild heliotrope, pink-blooming cheesebush, barrel cactus, and then some. Seriously, how many state parks have a dedicated wildflower hotline for updates? Just dial (760) 767-4684 for the latest updates. (For a great Mojave Desert Wildflower guide, see this book.)

But Anza Borrego is more than a world-famous destination for desert wildflowers. This 600,000-acre park is home to big-horn sheep, not to mention dramatic canyons and badlands, and California’s native palm trees and oases.

Colorful mixed varieties of spring wildflowers in Anza Borrego Desert State Park during a super bloom
Mixed wildflowers putting on their show during a super bloom in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image..

Better still, there is evidence of human history and culture here dating back more than 5,000 years (see my post for a fairly easy hike that will lead you to a cool pictograph and kitchen rock!).

And dig this: The Colorado Desert portion of the park to the east has a fossil record dating back 7 million years! This arid landscape was an ancient inland sea teaming with life 5 million years ago?

Good to know:

The best place to start your visit to the park is at the Borrego Visitor Center. The exhibits give a great overview of the flora and fauna (and geology) of the park throughout time. And the rangers will give you updates on the best locations to visit and hikes to do at the time of your visit (and a heads up if there’s anywhere you should avoid!).

Dad and daughter adventure through The Slot, an unforgettable hike through a slot canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image..

Where to Stay for an Anza Borrego Family Vacation

You can camp in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and enjoy its starry dark-sky splendor (make reservations well in advance at ReserveCalifornia.com). Or choose from several campgrounds and RV parks, hotels and motels, and vacation rentals nearby in Borrego Springs–which is literally surrounded by the park. Click here to check available accommodations and pricing in Borrego Springs.

3. The Bucket List Desert Family Vacation: Death Valley National Park

Approximate drive time: Los Angeles 5.5 hours, San Diego 7 hours, San Francisco 9 hours 20 minutes

Death Valley’s staggering landscapes can surely bend the mind. I wish everyone the opportunity to see its salt flats, sand dunes, jagged peaks, waterfalls both wet and dry, craggy mountains, captivating canyons, and bewitching badlands. (That’s why I included hikes that explore them all in my guidebook!)

Death Valley NP, is in the northernmost part of the Mojave Desert (on the border of the Great Basin Desert). The park actually comprises TWO valleys: the Panamint Valley and Death Valley. However, most visitors enter the park from the east side (from the east / Las Vegas side). And many never make it to the Panamint Valley side — though both sides are worth exploring!

Secret waterfall in the desert??? Let my guidebook lead you to it on one of our family’s favorite Death Valley hikes. ¬©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image.

Good to know:

In 1913, Furnace Creek in Death Valley was recorded as the hottest place on earth at 134 Fahrenheit (56.7 Celsius). The record is yet to be broken, though the same location came close again in 2023. As you can imagine, Death Valley NP is no place to take kids in summer! And be warned that it can feel plenty hot already in mid to late spring.

It’s always a good idea to check the weather forecast and plan your sightseeing and activities accordingly. Here’s a sample day in Death Valley:

  • Hike in the early mornings
  • Do other outdoor activities later morning,
  • Visit the air-conditioned Furnace Creek Visitor Center in the afternoon
  • Get ice cream and go for a swim in the afternoon
  • Visit Artist’s Palette at sunset.

But remember, if there’s any chance of precipitation, steer clear of the canyons — flash floods and mud slides happen!

Also, when you visit Death Valley with kids, your accommodations can make a big difference how you structure your days. Not to mention how much you’re able to enjoy your time there. Which brings me to…

The view over Death Valley and Badwater Basin from Dante's Peak.
An epic view over Death Valley from Dante’s Peak. ¬©SHELLY RIVOLI. License this image.

Where to Stay for a Death Valley Family Vacation

There are only two hotels located inside Death Valley National Park. And given the size of the park and likelihood of hot temperatures, I highly recommend staying at one of them.

And for families coming for spring break, I recommend staying one of these hotels in particular. The sprawling Ranch at Death Valley is family friendly and well located for exploring the major attractions. It gives you the advantage of short distances and an early start compared with those staying outside the park.

In addition to air-conditioned rooms and cottages for afternoon siestas (if needed), there is a huge outdoor swimming pool. And you’ll find lots of outdoor areas for visiting, playing corn hole or horse shoes.

You won’t have a kitchen, and the on-site dining prices may make your eyes pop (hello, $20 hot dog). But you will be so efficient with your time in the park with this as your base. And the kids will really enjoy that pool when it heats up! So it could be well worth the high cost of hot dogs for a short stay. Click here to see availability and pricing for your dates at The Ranch at Death Valley.

Get more California Family Vacation Ideas:

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Get More Family Vacation Ideas:

Promo for Hiking with Kids Southern California by Shelly Rivoli with photos of Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia National Park

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