Time Travel in Joshua Tree National Park

By Wendy Craig

Camera in hand, I recently took the historic Keys Ranch tour in Joshua Tree National Park. I am a Volunteer Coordinator with the Big Bear Discovery Center, a program of the Southern California Mountains Foundation and was joined by twelve volunteers on what we fondly call a “field trip.”

Keys Ranch is located a short drive from the National Park’s west entrance, where you wait to meet with your guide, who in our case, was the very knowledgeable Ranger Dave. Ranger Dave explained the history of the Keys family, Bill, Frances, and their children, along with how they utilized the land and the buildings. From the moment you pass the indigenous peoples’ grinding stone, you step into a place where time has stood still.

One thing that encompasses you here is the respect for living in an area where your very existence is given from the land. There’s a garden area, a hand-built dam that holds the rainwater, and a machine to crush gold ore. Nothing was wasted. Here, rusty nuts and bolts abound, organized by size. There are old porcelain stoves (the kind you’d smell a cake baking in at your grandma’s house growing up), a Maytag hand clothes washer, trucks, and bedframes to be used for parts or recycled when the old ones grew weary of use. The Ranger told us that when Willis Keys, Bill and Frances’ son, returned as an adult, he was still able to get the old Mack truck to start and the old Maytag to take a whirl (amazing stuff, built stronger than most of today’s modern amenities).

From Our Partners

My favorite stop was the chicken coop. I pictured putting my squawking ladies into the old car at night, keeping them safe from predators. It was a pretty posh motel for the Keys family hens. I walked past the guest house, imagining I was an overnight guest in this unique spot surrounded by massive boulders and ravens overhead. The outhouse was equipped for two, so you didn’t need a magazine with all that company.

The main house with its beautiful wood patina and creaky screen door begged for a visit. I thought about what it would be like to live there with the hot wind and the stars above. There are places that stir the imagination and places that make you wish you could stay forever. Keys Ranch was both of those. It’s a photographer’s dream and a busy person’s respite. Enjoy.

Keys Ranch Tours resume September 2022.
Find tickets here:

To learn more about Big Bear Discovery Center, a program of the Southern California Mountains Foundation, go to www.mountainsfoundation.org

From Our Partners