“It’s kind of chilly out here.”

“I’m cold.”

“I thought it would be warmer.”

These were the first impressions I heard from my wife and three daughters on Day 1 of our spring break trip to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Like most Minnesotans, they had wanted to travel somewhere warm for their vacation. We weren’t sure about Mexico with twin toddlers, and Disney World was too expensive plus none of us like crowds. Joshua Tree was my brainchild. The idea of warm, sunny, wide-open places to run, hike and climb seemed like the perfect way to spend a week together. In my defense, it was warmer than Minnesota — maybe a dry 60 degrees on the day we arrived — but those who imagined frolicking in their swimsuit the whole time quickly made me the target of dissent.

We stayed in a hotel just outside the park and spent the first part of the day acclimating to our new location with a car tour, which some members of the family were clear to vocalize as way too long.

Once the dreadful drive was over and everyone was on foot exploring, the tone of the trip began to shift. We found ourselves in a prehistoric-looking wonderland of giant boulders, rocky slopes and mysterious flora. The topography was gentle enough that youngsters could find their way up and over the endless piles of stone but held enough challenges for big sister to be engaged on larger structures. Soon this was actually pretty cool. A couple of us drove back to town to pick up Chinese takeout for a picnic among the sand and stone and everything began to feel like a vacation.

As fun as the new landscape was, the seduction of the swimming pool back at the hotel became too much and small voices became more adamant in their need to swim before the day was over. Thank goodness the pool was heated.

The following days were spent in that precarious balancing act of visiting new places, doing new things and learning about this strange new environment while keeping the kids happy, fed and rested. Luckily with cool-sounding destinations like “Skull Rock” and a variety of other options outside the park proper, like an Old West ghost town, we were able to keep everyone in good times. In the afternoons we would always return to the warm waters of the beloved hotel swimming pool and the mindless luxury of cable TV. Sometimes a family card game or acrobatics on the hotel bed are just as important as hiking through natural wonders.

The biggest adventure was reserved for my oldest daughter and me. She had just turned 9 years old, and we decided to hire a climbing guide. We had spent many afternoons together scaling the walls at Vertical Endeavors but this would be our first time on a real rock face.

Joshua Tree is a popular climbing destination and offers a wide variety of options and challenges. Our guide, Chris, started us on a few easy scrambles but moved to progressively more difficult ascents. Chris was ever patient at the end of the belay rope, offering guidance and direction without making us feel rushed or pressured. As a result, my daughter found the courage to climb higher than I ever would have expected. When she got stuck or scared, Chris encouraged her to just hold her position for a minute and then assess her capabilities. I credit his calm poise during my daughter’s uncertainty for her willingness to push on despite her fears. It was a great experience for both of us.

The week wound up quickly and I felt good about how the trip panned out. I imagined an alternate reality where my family and I were battling crowds of people at amusement parks or cafeteria lines and felt thankful for the amazing wide open places just outside our hotel door.

The true measure of success came when I asked my three girls what kind of vacation they want to do next, and they answered “More trips like Joshua Tree!” I’ll just make sure they pack warmer clothes.


John Lundquist of Minneapolis shares his passion for travel, photography and writing with his three daughters. Next month, he will pile into a four-seat, 20-foot canoe with his family, plus their dog and grandma, for a foray into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “I have traveled much of my life but find discovering new places with my kids to be the most rewarding of experiences,” he said.