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  • Writer's pictureKathy Condon

Joshua Tree National Park History

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Sign of Joshua Tree National Park at Night
Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is special no matter what time of year you go. I hope the information about its history below will enhance your appreciation of this beautiful area of our California deserts. Yes, the park is home to two deserts, the Mojave Desert in the west and the Colorado Desert in the eastern and southern portions.

Joshua Tree National Park History

Paleo people are believed to have existed up to 8,000 years ago in this area. They mysteriously disappeared.

It was thought 500 years ago, the Native American presence began within the confines of the area now called Joshua Tree National Park. The Native Americans migrated with the seasons, for they were hunters and gathers and sought the resources they needed to survive.

Today there are four major tribes: the Mojave, Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla, and there are about 15 sub-branches. The park is rich with artifacts that reveal aspects of their lives.

Small indentations or caves can be found, which are assumed to be their shelters. In front of one of them, there is a large boulder. Made into a mortar and pestle, it is thought to have been used for grinding flour. It is not uncommon to find petroglyphs, and a fortunate hiker is still discovering them.

Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park
Rock Formation in Joshua Tree National Park

In the 1800s, the population of the area changed again. Miners discovered gold in the hillsides. They started setting up camps around their mine claims. Some of them brought their families and settled in using the Homestead Act. However, the mines were not large producers of gold, so many of the temporary citizens of the area packed up and left their belongings behind, and retreated to the Los Angeles area.

The Keyes Ranch History

View of Keyes Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park looking through window of an abandon car.
View of Keyes Ranch at Joshua Tree National Park

Upon his death, Mr. Morgan owed Bill Keyes back wages. Those wages were paid by Mr. Keyes, inheriting the land.

Mr. Keyes met his bride and brought her to the land. Eventually, they had seven children; five of them survived and lived on the ranch. Water was plentiful, so dams and ponds were built.

Mrs. Keyes managed the garden that flourished. She realized many miners and settlers needed food and set up a store. Eventually, she sold things like bonnets for the miners' wives and items made on the ranch by Mr. Keyes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Keyes developed a business where the miners would bring the ore down to his ranch, and he would process it for them. Also, he developed the reputation of being able to fix anything.

Mrs. Keyes homeschooled their children. Other miners and settlers noticed and asked if they could bring their children over to be taught by Mrs. Keyes. Eventually, a one-room schoolhouse was built, and the San Bernardino School District hired a teacher from Burma to teach the children in the area.

Today this ranch is preserved exactly the way Mr. Keyes left it when he died in 1969. Thousands of metal pieces he used as parts can be found in the immediate area, and fences made out of dead Joshua trees and trunks surround the house.

The buildings stand just as they were last used. A peek through the schoolhouse window reveals books still on the bookshelf.

The Superintendent and Jason Theuer, Cultural Resource Branch Chief, fully understand the depth of the responsibility they have to care for this American treasure. Also, both acknowledge that they are far from discovering the treasures that still are to be found in this 800,000-acre-plus park.

So pack a lunch, fill up your car with gas and plenty of water, and explore this wondrous park. AND if you should happen to run across an artifact, leave it where it is, note its location, and report your findings to one of the rangers. You may find a missing piece of this intriguing Joshua Tree National Park history.

Kathy Condon in white shirt and wearing large gold beads.
Kathy Condon Journalist and Travel Writer

Kathy Condon is a journalist and travel writer. She is the Founder of the Palm Springs Insider Guide. Her book It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: It’s All About Communication was named Best Book Finalist by USA Book News 760-902-3094 About

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