Trek Date: May 23, 2014
Half a mile west of the Cholla Cactus Garden, there are two small hills on the south side of Pinto Basin Road. That fact, in and of itself, is not really a big deal as there are small hills all over J Tree. These two hills deserve mention however, because they serve as a great landmark for the trail/mine road that leads up into the Hexie Mountains and the Golden Bee Mine.
The dirt shoulder is wide enough near the two hills to park safely. Stop your car and walk out a little ways between them, look due north and you'll be greeted with the above view of the rugged and somewhat desolate Hexie Mountains. That's what I did. My plan was to hike about two miles north into the Hexies, to see what I could find at the Golden Bee Mine. And hopefully return to tell the tale.
I had a hunch this hike might be rated tougher than "a walk in the park," so I made sure I had enough water and snacks to last an entire day if need be. And as it turned out, the extra water came in handy. It's amazing how flat, gentle and easy looking open desert can seem when viewed from a distance, isn't it?
My first order of business was to find the old mining road that crosses the desert and ascends into the canyon. Satellite images show that the road meanders a little bit, but I've found that following roads is generally easier than hiking cross-desert. And this one is easy to pick up, as the two-track road was still pretty plain to see, even after years of not having been driven on. I was on my way.
The first half mile or so of hiking along this old road actually did seem like nothing more than a walk in the park. The road was easy to see, easy to follow and fairly firm to walk on. The Cholla Cactus Garden was just a little way off to the east, but the area around this road was relatively Cholla-free. Perhaps I spoke too soon. This little guy was trying to propagate, but I steered clear. I'm always amazed at the concentration of Cholla plants in the nearby Garden and how scarce they are in other parts of the park.
The the road sorta disappeared, or rather, it had most likely been washed away over the years. I knew the direction I needed to go, but now the way was down into a wash, up the other side. Down into another little wash, up the other side. Over a pile of rocks in the next wash. There were a bunch of small washes and a couple very big ones that had to be crossed. Every now and then I would catch sight of a piece of the old road, or a rock cairn marking the trail on each side of the wash.
This was one of the larger washes that I crossed. The sandy banks over on the left side of this photo are about six feet high.
As I got closer to the mountains, the washes were behind me and I rejoined the old mining road. After a short while, it became a little less rocky and a little more easy to hike on.
I stopped for a moment and took a look back at the desert I had crossed. Even from here, it sure looks like a nice, flat land that would be easy to cross. Ha. I know better.
The road began climbing a bit, along the right side of the canyon that leads to the Golden Bee. Just after it passes between these two collapsed buildings, it makes a loop and reconnects with itself. The Golden Bee mining camp was situated in this area. There were at least five wood frame buildings here at one time, several cabin tents and a couple of outhouses. These first two may have been the most substantial, as they have the largest piles of debris left to them.
A trail leads off to the west, along which I found this large tent site.
The "expendable item storage facility" is on the east side of the two collapsed buildings. It's pretty good sized and I had some fun exploring. Here are some of the treasures I uncovered:
At the top of the loop and off to the left are the remains of at least three other frame buildings. They were built on nice, level spots supported with stone walls. The large stone wall visible in this image supports the road that heads up into the canyon. There's a lot of stuff scattered about here, a lot of wood and metal.
I was anxious to get back on the road up the canyon, as I had seen some interesting possibilities via satellite images when I had planned this trip. The road narrows down and gets even rockier, and every now and then crosses over some small ravines.
Taking a brief rest, I took this picture looking back down the canyon into the western end of Pinto Basin. All along the way up the canyon, evidence of mining has been washed down the ravine. The rusting metal tank in the photo above is actually very large. The water must really come roaring down this canyon when it's storming. Old Blue is patiently waiting for me out there, just to the right of that small hill. Can you see it?
Hmmm, that looks promising. I'm tempted to head straight up to it, but I know there's a trail to it just a little farther up the road.
This is the lower section of the Golden Bee Mine workings. The most impressive remnant being the large, corrugated-metal ore bin with its shute coming out the front. Up above it is the collapsed wooden headframe. This is pretty cool, so I take off my pack and start exploring.
There are several shafts, tunnels and prospects along this small ridge. The miners followed the quartz vein wherever it led them. Up here behind the ore bin was apparently a busy place.
Ok, I know you're wondering, but no, I wasn't even tempted to walk out on that board and look at all the gold ore that must surely be in the ore bin. Whoever said 'with age comes wisdom' was a very wise person.
Before reaching the lower workings of the Golden Bee, I had seen another tunnel and tailing pile up on the side of the ridge that I wasn't able to get to from lower down the road. I thought I might be able to get to it from above this spot, so gave it a try. After scrambling up the slope for a few minutes, I decided I wouldn't be visiting that tunnel on this trip. But my short climb did provide me with this great shot up the canyon. It also gave me a stunning vista directly south into the basin.
Back down on the road, I continued heading up the canyon. The main workings were about a quarter mile ahead. The 'road' got even rockier. I'm not sure what that large level spot was for, but it was definitely man-made.
There's something I had never seen before. A giant spindle of steel cable. That's got to be very heavy and really makes me wonder how it got there. I guess it could have rolled down either one of the two canyons that flank the hill on the right in the picture above. I wonder what I could get for it on ebay....
I continued up, taking the canyon on the left and made my way as best I could. There's a lot of desert gold in this little ravine and up at the top, a large wooden ore bin. I was closing in on the main workings of the Golden Bee.
Information regarding the discovery of the Golden Bee claim is scant and mingled with several other claims in the area. The Yellow Jacket Nos. 1 and 2, the Dickey Boy claim, the Mabel lodes and the Ida Quartz Mine. Some of these names may have referred to each other or to the Golden Bee. Hard facts are sometimes harder to find than gold.
It's most likely that a man by the name of Eloge "Frenchy" Auclair was the man who discovered the Golden Bee. He was working the Dickey Boy and the Mabel lodes in the area in the late 1930s, when he most likely discovered what would become the Golden Bee claim.
The main shaft of the Golden Bee was about 150 feet deep, with the hillsides nearby prospected and honeycombed with minor shafts, prospects, drifts, crosscuts and irregular passageways. Most of the workings have since caved in. Two men (most likely Auclair and a man named Leahy) reportedly worked at the mine in 1940, aided by a portable compressor, air drills and a twelve-horsepower gas-driven hoist.
While the Golden Bee was one of the later mines to operate in J Tree, it was never very profitable. Between the years 1935 and 1942, an estimated 800 tons of ore was processed, returning 0.6 to 0.7 of an ounce of gold per ton and a fraction of silver. The mine never had a lot of equipment, but it must have had some period of prosperity, as evidenced by the large camp at the bottom of the canyon and the number of buildings at the upper workings. Or, maybe like many other mining ventures, the Golden Bee only profited whoever promoted the mine. Afterall, someone had to pay for all the work that was done at the mine.
Here's another little ravine filled with leftovers from the 1940s. This is all located to the right of the wooden ore bin. I didn't give it a thorough search as I was more interested in getting to the top and checking out was what left of the mines and buildings.
Getting closer to the top, I think I was following what's left of the old road. It's basically a rocky landslide now, but offered a nice side view of the ore bin.
While standing behind the opening of the ore bin looking down the canyon, I spotted this rockwall-reinforced building site off to my right. I could see lots of wood, so headed over to check it out.
At one time, this was a substantial building. It had a cement foundation and was probably either a supply building or maybe a bunkhouse. I'd guess that the workers up here had some place to stay, rather than having to make the trek back and forth to the bottom of the canyon twice a day.
This is one of the inclined tunnels up above the ore bin. It's been safety-meshed to prevent people from falling down that deep hole.
I'm pretty sure this shaft directly behind the ore bin was the main shaft of the Golden Bee; if so, it was at one time 150-feet-deep. The gas-powered hoist that used to be here was mostly likely used to haul material and men up from the depths of this shaft.
The scenery behind the ore bin is pretty cool. This is the hillside that has been thoroughly mined and prospected; a lot of the workings have long since caved in on themselves. The main shaft can be seen at the very bottom left corner of this photo. Above that, what appears to be a tunnel in the rock, actually leads to the inclined tunnel I mentioned earlier, which has been safety-meshed over the top. Off to the right, the jumble of timbers is some shoddy wooden timbering of a shaft, with a wooden ladder descending partway down, to where it has been caved in.
A bit southwest of the ladder to nowhere is this cement foundation, rock wall, machinery footings and tank. It looks like something substantial was here at one time, perhaps the engine that powered the hoist. On the front of the footing at the left of the picture we have an inscription in the cement: Frenchy Mine Nov. 30, 1937. That's pretty good proof that Frenchy was here as early as 1937..
It was interesting to look around in this area and try to imagine what all was here back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And also to wonder, like I do at so many places, about the time and effort involved in getting all the materials up here on the side of this mountain. They must have also had to haul their water up here.
This last section of the old road leads to a point overlooking the valley. Just at the end is a large pile of wooden debris and pieces of corrugated-metal roof. It was probably the mine office, being situated away from the mine workings and machinery. It has totally collapsed in on itself, but is an impressive pile. On the right is a closeup of the stone retaining wall that kept the road leading out to the point in place.
Up on the point near the collapsed mine office, I saw this mine across the canyon to the west. I could see that the mine opening had been gated shut and that there were some pieces of corrugated metal scattered about. I'd bet the metal came from the mine office roof. After taking a short rest and enjoying the view north into the valley and basin, I headed back towards the main mine operations for a last look around to see if I had missed anything.
I spotted this small structure, which I think may have been "the facilities."
This is a short tunnel that leads to an open pit on the other side. Inside there, the top is open to the sky, but safety-meshed so no one might stumble in. Inside and at the very back is the inclined tunnel mentioned and shown earlier, that leads down into the mountain.
After traipsing about the side of the mountain long enough to make sure I had seen pretty much everything that there was to see, it was time to head back down the canyon. I made sure I had all my belongings and set out on the rocky descent. The trip down was uneventful, but I enjoyed seeing things from the return perspective. More clouds had started filling the sky and I welcomed the occasional shade they provided. It was pretty warm and I was getting low on water by the time I reached the bottom of the canyon.
About half way across the basin, I stopped to take this panorama looking due east. There was a large cloud above me and most of the desert floor was in shade.
I was almost back to old Blue. Regardless of who discovered and worked it, there is a lot of neat stuff up there in the canyons of the Hexie Mountains and the Golden Bee turned out to be well worth the hike. I had logged about five miles in a little over four hours, gaining nearly 1,000 feet in altitude. There are a couple other mines higher up and probably part of the Golden Bee, but from the satellite views they appear to be pretty risky to get to, so I left them to their ghosts and stayed where it was safer. If you enjoy gold mines, history, desert gold and grand views, you'll like this hike as much as I did.
In case anyone is wondering how the Golden Bee came by its name, Daniel Leahy (who worked with Frenchy in the mine), stated in a 1975 interview that honey bees almost drove him and Frenchy out of the area. The bees were attracted by a large tank of water kept at the mine. Someone apparently dropped a cyanide tablet in the water, which killed all the bees. So it's a good guess that the honey bees provided the name for the mine.