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Secret Hidden Pioneer Treasure of Joshua Tree

Mack Truck Keyes ranch photoJoshua Tree National Park celebrates its 75th Anniversary in 2011. The California desert land speckled by the angular spiny trees and the fascinating and mystically beautiful piles of rock was first named a U.S National Monument in 1936, though it wasn’t made a National Park, requiring an act of congress, until 1994. The park will commemorate the birthday with a number of events throughout 2011, but newly inaugurated and continuing into future is the walking tour into one of the wilderness’s secret treasures, neither buried, nor a pot of shining gold, but a legacy of the American pioneer spirit, the Keys Ranch Guided Walking Tour.

Desert Queen Ranch House photoIt takes a special sort to settle and prosper in the desert. A lonely self-sustaining existence with no urban services, takes a rugged and hardy individual. William F. Keys was such a fellow. A few other Californian pioneers had tried their hand at taming the desert, cattle ranching on the hard scrabble shrub-stubbled earth, mining and homesteading. Bill Keys left Nebraska at the age of 15 to make his way across the west working odd jobs until becoming an assayer at the Desert Queen gold mine in 1910. He acquired the mine after the owners death, but the mine. He filed a claim on 80 acres of desert in a box canyon with only one road in to build his personal view of paradise. Bill Keys lived his ranch until he died in 1969, acquiring the land from another local character, a sometime cattle rustler Bill McHaney. He built his own dam to hold the precious little water the desert provides, pumped from the ground in only sporadic fits, built a dwelling and barn workshop from scraps of lumber, fences from odds and ends. He found the love of his life, Frances Lawton in 1918, and convinced her that living out in the middle of nowhere under starry skies of the Mojave Desert was the dream of a lifetime. Once the mine was exhausted, Keys maintained his life by gathering the discards of others and supplying parts and goods to his neighbors. Keys named his little corner of the world the Desert Queen Ranch, borrowing the name from the mine. Desert fans have to travel a long way to visit ghost towns like Bodie, but the Keys' Desert Queen ghost ranch is only about an hour from the oasis idylls of Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree Keys Ranch House and Jeep photoOn the Keys Ranch Guided Tour a park ranger historic specialist tells the story of the 60 odd years Bill and Frances Keys toiled to make a life and raise their five children in this desolate and remote spot. The ramshackle ranch house, school house, their own store, and workshop shed still stand as if the Keys had just gone away for the afternoon. The incongruity of the Desert Queen ranch is the strewn with remaining junk which actually sustained the Keys family operation, with the grounds filled by the cars, trucks, and mining equipment, the spare parts of a past gone by.

One Room School House Joshua Tree photoThe tours are an easy half-mile long of walking on mostly even ground and last 90 minutes. Groups are limited to 25 people. Some special theme tours allow park visitors to step back to the 1940s with the ranger guide in period costume answering questions about the all the aspects of pioneer life. Beginning in 2011 Evening Tours, beginning at dusk will allow ranch visitors will take part in activities the Keys family would have prepared for the coming night, listen to period radio programs and music, and be told family stories before bidding the Keys family goodnight.

William F Keyes at his Ranch photoKeys Ranch Guided Tours are offered twice daily at 10am and 1pm and the evening tours at 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursday thru Saturday. The tours cost $5 per person aged 12 and over and $2.50 for children 6 to 11. Kids under six are free. Golden Age Seniors and Golden Access passport holders only pay $2.50. Entrance fee to the park itself is $15 per car which is good for seven days. Book a tour by calling 760-367-5555 between 8 am and 4:30 pm any day of the week, tickets can be paid by credit card, purchased at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Centers at Cottonwood, Joshua Tree, Oasis entrances. To find the Desert Queen Ranch, pass the entrance to Hidden Valley Campground and, turn left at the Y-intersection, follow the road about two miles to the locked gate to meet the guide.
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Joshua Tree Nat Park

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