• Sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden

    Joshua Tree

    National Park California

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  • Cottonwood Trails Closed

    Trail access remains closed to Cottonwood Spring Oasis, Lost Palms Oasis, and Mastodon Peak. More »

  • Pinto Basin Road Under Construction; Expect 30+ Minute Travel Delays

    Visitors should expect 30+ minute waits when heading north and sound bound on the Pinto Basin Road. Due to construction activity around Cottonwood Visitor Center, additional waits of 30 minutes may be in place when leaving the visitor center parking lot. More »

  • Deteriorating conditions of Black Rock Canyon Road

    The road leading to Black Rock campground has deep potholes, is deeply rutted, and can be difficult to negotiate, especially in large vehicles. Please drive with caution.

Homesteaders

From 1863 to 1977, United States citizens could claim 16O-acre parcels in the Mojave Desert from the Federal Government—though not after 1936 in the area that became Joshua Tree National Monument. Claimants had three years to "prove up" on their property, which meant building a small cabin and an outhouse. After sending a photo of the improvements to Washington, D.C., the homesteader received a deed to his property.

 
Tractor powered saw
Homesteaders made ingenious use of what was on hand, such as this tractor powered saw.
David Glasglow
 

Several wet years beginning in 1912 provided for crops good enough to attract people to the area. Veterans of World War I, suffering the effects of mustard gas, came hoping to benefit from the dry desert climate. Later, because of hard times created by the depression, some people sought out a rural lifestyle where they could raise their own food without relying on unstable markets and inflated prices.

But the rains didn’t last. Several years passed with little or no rainfall and the crops failed. Homesteaders drilled water wells, but most were unsuccessful. In many cases water had to be hauled several miles even for household purposes. Conflicts between homesteaders and ranchers over water rights became common.

Life in the desert presented other challenges: Summers were extreme for those used to more temperate climates; the work was hard and neighbors far away. Few homesteaders met the challenge. Many farms and small homesteads were abandoned, leaving behind the tiny cabins which still litter the desert in some places.

One family that not only survived but thrived in the desert was that of Bill and Frances Keys. For more information about them, take a guided tour of their ranch.

Did You Know?

Desert Queen Ranch branding iron

In the high desert country that was to become Joshua Tree National Park, rugged individuals tried their luck at cattle ranching, mining, and homesteading. William Keys and his family are particularly representative of the hard work and ingenuity it took to settle and prosper in the Mojave Desert. More...