Desert Queen Ranch

Trek Date: January 3, 2015

I remember visiting the Desert Queen Ranch over forty years ago, when I was but a mere lad. I was amazed back then at all the stuff Bill Keys had accumulated and built on the property and was re-amazed recently when I had the opportunity to visit it again. He was an amazing man. From what I remember, it hasn't changed much at all over the past forty years, which I think is a great thing. To visit the Desert Queen Ranch, aka Keys Ranch, you'll need to make a reservation. Click HERE for information on how to do that.

The above map was taken from a 1976 edition of The Desert Queen Ranch brochure/booklet that was once produced by the NPS. At one time, you could get these little pamphlets for several places throughout the Monument; they were in metal boxes on posts at trailheads. You would drop your 15 cents (in later years, a quarter) into the slot and take a brochure and then have something to help guide you along such places as Geology Tour Road, Cottonwood Springs and of course, The Desert Queen Ranch. It's a bit sad that these aren't available any longer, but I still have some of mine from many years ago.

If you click on the map, you'll be better able to see small numbers (1 through 29) scattered along the trail. Those are points of interest along the original tour trail, the tour today skips a few of those locations.

Keep reading and I'll show you what I saw on my recent trip. I didn't get a picture of everything listed in the guide, but most of them were captured. And be sure to wander on over the Murbachi's Joshua Tree in 3D website for some great 3D pics of the Keys Ranch. Click HERE!

#1 is shown to be an old Bedrock Mortar and Cave site on the 1976 edition of the brochure. Our group's Ranger and escorts didn't make any mention of it that I can remember, so I guess it's no longer a portion of the tour, unless you know about it and ask the Ranger as you're walking by. There's only so much they can tell a large group of people during the time they have.

#2 marks one end of an old fence constructed of Joshua Tree trunks. I missed getting a photo of that one. However, the stick corral nearby has a few Joshua Tree logs in it.

#3 is the former site of an old Adobe Barn. There's not really much of anything left of the old barn, in fact, I sort of wandered onto the site while taking pictures and was asked to step back, as they don't want folks walking on the few remains. Adobe bricks deteriorate quickly if they're not properly cared for and I guess that's the case with this barn. The map shows a structure at the site, but there's nothing there now. There are a number of adobe brick molds scattered about, like the one in the picture above.

#4 is the old Machine Shop built by Bill Keys. It's made from all sorts of materials; old metal water tanks that have been flattened out, wood flooring, scavenged lumber from other areas in the desert. And inside the shop are all kinds of tools, supplies, bits and pieces of who-knows-what. If you never throw anything away, you'll eventually find a use for it, and Keys was a master at that craft.

#5 is referred to as a "Wood Truck." Willis Keys stated in his book, "Growing up at the Desert Queen Ranch," that he didn't remember ever using it to haul wood. It started out life as an old military armored truck. Keys adapted it for use at the ranch.

#6 marks the site of an Adobe Hopper. This is where Keys would mix up his adobe brick mixture and then pour it into wood molds. It's the wooden structure just behind the old "Wood Truck."

#7 is the Windmill. The Ranger told us a sad story about one of Keys' boys that happened here. While cranking the windlass to pull up a bucket of water, the metal handle either slipped out of the boy's hands or the brake disengaged when he thought it was latched, and the metal handle struck him on the head. He never recovered from the injury and died within a year. Keys installed a handpump shortly thereafter to make the job safer. Years later a gas engine was used to pump water up from the well.

#8 may not look like much now, but it was once a large garden that the Keys family depended on for fruit and vegetables. Apple, peach, pear and plum trees comprised the orchard, of which several Bartlett pear trees still bear fruit. When the trees were first planted, dynamite was used to loosen the hard native soil in order to allow the root systems of the trees to expand.

#9 is a Winch and Boom. There is also a partially completed rock wall here. When Keys was 70 years old, he started work on this stone wall which was going to be a dam across the wash. He would use the winch and boom to lift up rocks and position them into place.

#10 is the Ranch House. I personally think this is an amazing setting for a house and an amazing house for the setting. Keys began construction of this house in 1917, the high stone fireplace being the first thing built. He brought home his wife, Francis, the following year and the two began their life together on the homestead. The house grew as needed over the years. They raised a family of five children and turned this isolated desert ranch into a beautiful home.

#11 is a well Keys dug in order to have water close to the house. That probably made things a lot nicer on cold winter mornings.

#12 is an old Willis Jeep. I'll bet this jeep has been to places in the park that most of us will never see. Keys got it from a doctor in 1948, by trading him a mining claim for it.

#13 marks the site of a Fordson Tractor and Wood Cutter. I missed taking a picture of this.

#14 is a group of Ore Wagons. They hauled a lot more than just ore, however. A trip to town to buy supplies, moving equipment from one place to another, taking the kids somewhere. My guess is these wagons saw a lot of use over the years for all kinds of different things.

#15 is listed on the guide as a Cyanide Vat. I saw it, honest. But I didn't take a picture of it.

#16 is a small cabin that was used as a Schoolteacher's House. It was also used as a guest house over the years, as well as a cabin people could rent if they were in the area for an extended stay.

#17 is the small Desert Queen School building. It's located near the Schoolteacher's House, but I don't have an image for it yet. Next trip I will. A hired hand at the ranch became the first schoolteacher for the Keys children in 1932. In later years, there were apparently enough neighbors nearby that could send their children to the ranch for school that a schoolhouse was built and the county took over the payment of the teachers.

#18 Junked Cars are kind of all over the place out here.

#19 is a 1922 Mac Truck. This is a neat looking vehicle, or what's left of it. I like the iron spoke wheels. It originally belonged to the city of San Bernardino and was used as a dump truck. Bill Keys reportedly drove this truck in the 1960 Disney movie, "Wild Burros of the West." Rumor has it that it could still be cranked up.

#20 is the location of an Arrastra. This was one of the methods used by Keys to crush ore. There are a couple of these located elsewhere in the park, a restored one at Pinto Wye and the vague remains of one at the Henson Well Mill. It was a hard way to crush the ore, but could be powered by animals and even people if needed. One of our caretaker/chaperones can be seen in the image above. They sure have a great volunteer job. They get to live out at the ranch for several months, keeping an eye on things, and helping the Rangers with the guided tours.

#21 is a small Stamp Mill, one of the more efficient ways to crush ore to get the gold. Keys had his hand in some twenty mining claims throughout the area. Many of his claims were leased out to mining companies, providing a source of income for his family over the years. In addition to his mining operations, Keys also operated the Wall Street Mill, where he would crush his own ore and also provide custom milling for other mine owners. Often, when those other companies went bankrupt, Keys would acquire their claims and equipment. The ranch grounds prove evidence of that.

#22 Adobe Mixing Machines. totally missed seeing these.

#23 is a Stick Corral. Keys kept a small number of goats at the ranch, perhaps this is where they were corralled. 

Our tour did not include sites #24-#27 listed in the guidebook, probably due to time constraints, but I'll list them here to be thorough.

#24 Chilean Mill - #25 Unfinished Adobe - #26 Foundation of Five-stamp Mill - #27 Arrastra

I'm not certain what the above image is, but I think it's located at spot #24, the Chilean Mill. I was able to take this image with a zoom lens.

#28 is the Southern Schoolhouse. It's actually located at the circle where we parked our cars at the start of the Keys Ranch tour. It certainly has a beautiful setting. I'll bet the kids had fun during their breaks climbing in those rocks, looking for snakes and scorpions to give to the teacher.

#29 is one of many Concrete Dams that Keys built in the area. This was a major water source for the garden and orchard, as well as the animals kept on the ranch. Keys stocked the lake behind the dam with bluegill, bass and catfish. The fish did well for a number of years, until the average rainfall began to decline as years went by, resulting in the lake drying up during dry years.

Here are a few other pictures I took while on the tour:

The water tank located near the work shop and the windmill. Water was stored up here mainly for use in irrigating the garden.

A closer look at the Keys Ranch.

This small building is located right next to the back door of the Keys home. It was reportedly used as a store, holding merchandise, hand-made items, old appliances and other things that might be useful if you were a new homesteader in the area and needed to buy something quickly.

The Chicken Coop (coupe?). A wooden structure for during the day and at night the hens could be secured inside the old car for protection against coyotes.

Appliance Row. There's not much you can't find scattered about the Ranch.

One of the drag stones in the Arrastra, used to crush gold-bearing ore.

Ever wonder how holes are drilled into solid granite?

It was great to get back out to the Desert Queen Ranch for a revisit. There's so much to see, that I'm sure a return visit is warranted. Especially to get some pictures of the places I missed for this post. One thing is for sure, you never know what you'll find at the Keys Ranch.