Among the oldest of the park’s ranching ruins is the Wonderland Ranch.
Despite that the high desert receives less than 10 inches of rain a year, settlers tried decades ago to farm it. At least in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, those efforts at ranching and homesteading by and large failed. Still, remnants of their efforts on such marginal land holdings remain a testament to their rugged individualism.
Today, you can day hike to a few of those sites.
Before Euro-American settlers arrived in the area that now makes up the park, at least from a distance it didn’t look barren. Creosote bushes were more abundant, and mesquite and screwbeans grew across the area until the 1860s when they were cut and exported to the Los Angeles area for firewood. Ranchers saw the opportunity to raise cattle by letting them feed on grasses that grew across the Mojave.
Four great hiking trails explore the park’s ranching history.
Hidden Valley Trail
Where there are cattle in the Old West, there are cattle rustlers. During the late 1870s, William and Jim McHaney and their cowboys, known as the McHaney Gang, began stealing cattle and horses and began driving them into a 55-acre box canyon known as Hidden Valley. It was an ideal location as a narrow rock gap at the trailhead made corralling and hiding the livestock easy.
There the rustlers would rebrand the cattle and sell them along with the horses to out-of-state markets. They kept this up through the end of the 1800s.
Today, a 1-mile trail heads into the valley. The rock gap at the trailhead isn’t as narrow as it used to be, though. Local denizen William Keys (more on him later) blasted open the gap in 1936.
The best time to hike this trail off of Park Boulevard is early morning and late afternoon, as it will be crowded at midday.
Wonderland Wash Trail
Among the oldest of the park’s ranch ruins is the Wonderland Ranch, also known as the Ohlson House. Not much is known about the family that settled here, when they built their home, or how long they lived it.
Today, crumbling walls – some with window frames in them – and the foundation are all that remain. Tin cans, broken glass, and other odd items also can be found on the site. These items help date the ruins to around the late 1880s or 1890s.
About a third of a mile farther up the trail is a set of ruins for another ranch house. Just the foundation and a narrow staircase heading into an uncovered root cellar are all that’s left.
To see the Wonderland Ranch ruins, you’ll first have to pass through the impressive Wonderland of Rocks on this 2.1-mile trail. The trailhead is the same as that for the Wall Street Mill Trail off of Park Boulevard.
Ryan Ranch Trail
In 1898, Lost Horse Mine owners Jepp and Tom Ryan built a large house near Ryan Mountain. A natural spring once was located here, and to secure its use for their mine, they had to homestead the area.
In addition to pumping water 3.5 miles to the mine, they raised cattle, which helped feed the 60-plus people who worked the mine and ranch during the gold boom of the early 1900s. When the full-time mine ceased operations in 1908, the Ryans focused on cattle ranching.
Today, the thick adobe walls of their homestead, as well as old machinery, a covered well, and graves, are all that remain of their homestead. See if you can spot a bright sheen on the adobe bricks, as they were partially constructed with gold dust from their mine.
An easy 1-mile round trip trail heads along an old ranch road to the homestead. The trailhead is off of Park Boulevard east of the road to Ryan Campground.
Barker Dam Nature Trail
To collect and preserve the desert’s scarce water, ranchers long ago built rainwater catchments called “tanks.” Among them was the Barker Dam, erected by local cattlemen, including C. O. Barker, in 1900.
Originally the dam sat nine feet high and was constructed out of concrete and surfaced with stone. Cattle rancher William F. Keys (remember him?) raised the dam by six feet in 1949.
A colorful figure, Keys spent five years during the 1940s in Folsom Prison for killing a man in a dispute over access to a mine. Keys even erected a stone marker to himself for the killing, and it can be seen along the Wonderland Wash Trail.
Keys’ Desert Queen Ranch is the best preserved of the many ranches in Joshua Tree, but you can only access it through a ranger-led tour.
A 1.1-mile nature loops heads to Barker Dam. Today, it’s among the best places in the park to see wildlife, including bighorn sheep, jack rabbits, birds and even frogs. The trailhead is on Park Boulevard.
They are now making up the national park became a national monument in 1936, and with it, ranching largely ended there. The exception was the Keys ranch – which at the time the national monument entirely surrounded!
Lead photo caption: Hidden Valley Trail
- 03-Ryan-Ranch: Rob Bignell
- Hidden Valley: Rob Bignell