In the high desert country that was to become Joshua Tree National Park, rugged individuals tried their luck at cattle ranching, mining, and homesteading.
Protected by granite walls and watered by sparse rain and snow run-off, the Keys’ Desert Queen Ranch stands as a monument to our ability to persevere and sometimes even prosper in times of economic depression and in challenging environmental conditions. Although not the first to discover that this site was a good place to settle, for it had many of the essentials necessary for desert survival, the Keys family were the longest year-around inhabitants. For centuries, Native Americans had seasonally visited the area for the spring and fall bounty it offered. Then the McHaney brothers came in the 1870s to ranch and occasionally enlarge their herd by the time-honored western tradition of cattle rustling. Gold mining led them to tempting new-found wealth and inevitable bankruptcy.
Seeking to recover their investment, the holding bank set about looking for a man of many talents who could serve as their overseer in the fields of mining, gold milling and ranching. Such a man happened to be prospecting in the area at the time, by the name of Bill Keys, and so he began his long association with the site. Undeterred by lack of pay, shortage of help, loneliness, weather extremes and other frontier hardships, he kept the bank’s interest intact and ultimately obtained ownership of the Desert Queen enterprise. It was to become his life’s work, the site of many family triumphs and devastating tragedies. Loneliness is always a companion on the frontier, but Bill Keys and Francis Lawton married in 1918 and, together, faced the joys and hardships of frontier desert life with resourcefulness, creativity and perseverance. They had to be self-reliant, opportunistic and hard-working as they salvaged, restored, modified, and traded to succeed in making a home for themselves and their children in the Mojave Desert.
Just how they did this is a tale you will hear if you choose to take the ranger-led Keys Ranch tour. Because the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and protected by numerous federal regulations, it is accessible only by these ranger-led tours. They are given every day (October through May) at 10:00 AM and 1:00 PM and last approximately 1 ½ hours. You have your choice of a traditional tour with a uniformed ranger telling the ranch story in 3rd person which has been the way the tour has been given for a number of years.
Or, you can choose to take part in a new program that is being offered this spring. On Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, there will be a ranger in a 1940 costume who will do the majority of the tour as if the time was indeed 1940. This is an opportunity to get more of a feeling of the time, place and mood of the ranch and its inhabitants. Near the end of the tour, your guide will return to the present time so you can ask questions and the rest of the ranch story can be told.
Either way you choose your visit, you will be rewarded with a rare visit into the past where the frontier values which set the pattern for settlement all across this great nation will be explored. Call 760-367-5555 for tour reservations or visit Oasis or Joshua Tree Visitor Centers. Tour cost is $5.00 per adult and $2.50 for Senior and Access Card holders and children ages 6 to 12.
Experience history at the Keys Desert Queen Ranch!