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Joshua Tree National Park flawlessly combines breathtaking beauty, incredible recreational opportunities, and a colorful, wild-west history. Before it was a national park, Joshua Tree was home to cattle rustlers, gunslingers, miners, and rugged homesteaders. It was a harsh environment to eek out a living, and nobody did it more successfully or profitably than jack-of-all-trades, Bill Keys and his homesteading family.
The Keys family lived in what is now Joshua Tree National Park for more than 60 years, raising five children, and surviving on perseverance, luck, and shrewd dealings. The story of the Keys Ranch and the people who called it home for so many years is fascinating. The ranch itself has been meticulously preserved, and remains almost exactly the way it was left when Keys died in 1969. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Touring the Desert Queen Ranch
In order to preserve the authentic nature of the Desert Queen Ranch, visitors are not allowed unless they are part of a ranger-led tour. Securing your spot will take some extra work, but it is so worth it! Tours are available from May to October on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 2 pm. To make matters more complicated, you have to buy your tickets at the Oasis Visitor Center the morning of your tour. Visiting and photographing the Desert Queen Ranch was one of the highlights of our visit to Joshua Tree National Park. The ranger giving the talk knows everything there is to know about the Keys family and the history of the ranch. He’s super funny and really engaging.
You’ll spend about 1.5 hours walking around the grounds hearing stories about Bill and Frances Keys and their eclectic life on the Desert Queen Ranch. You can’t go into the house the family lived in, but you can peak in the windows, and you can check out all of the outbuildings on the property. The Keys Ranch tour is great for older kids who enjoy history. My teenager loved checking out all of the artifacts and taking pictures as we toured the property.
History of the Desert Queen Ranch
The land where the Desert Queen Ranch now stands was home to the Cahuilla and Serrano people for 500 years before Europeans came on the scene. They were nomadic people, who arrived in Joshua Tree in the spring and stuck around until the cold weather drove them south. Miners, cattle ranchers, and homesteaders began settling the area at the turn of the century, and they quickly depleted many of the resources that the native peoples used for their livelihood. The Cahuilla and Serrano people departed permanently soon after, but they left behind enigmatic pictographs and petroglyphs that can still be found around the park today.
Bill Keys came on the scene in 1910, as the superintendent of the Desert Queen Mine. He was young and single at the time, and in 1915, when the mine was floundering, he took ownership of the property in lieu of back pay that was owed to him. Bill married Frances May Lawton soon after and brought her back to the ranch to homestead the land more than 50 miles from civilization. Together they would thrive at the ranch — Frances kept a huge garden, an orchard, and livestock to feed her growing family. Bill would keep busy building roads, staking claims, rustling cattle, scavenging, prospecting, collecting machinery, and building dams.
Before there were cars on the Desert Queen Ranch, a trip to town required two days and lots of planning. With the exception of sugar, coffee, and flour, everything the Keys family needed was produced right on the ranch. They butchered their own animals and canned several hundred jars of food to get them through the harsh winters. For a time, Frances homeschooled her children, but in 1932, Bill built the Desert Queen School and hired Oran Booth to teach the kids, along with the children of several other homesteading families in the area.
The Shootout: Welcome to the Wild West
In 1943, Bill Keys was traveling home from town on a road that crossed his neighbor, Worth Bagley’s property. There had been ill feelings between the two for years, but on this particular day, Mr. Bagley was waiting in ambush for Bill. He claimed that Bill had shot some of his livestock and pulled a gun on him. Worth Bagley fired several shots at Bill, but missed every time. When Bill fired back, Worth Bagley fell down dead.
Keys immediately turned himself in to the local authorities, and he was quickly convicted of murder and sent off to San Quentin. While Frances struggled to keep the homestead running, Bill spent five years in prison reading, writing, and relaxing. For a man that worked as hard as Bill, a stint in prison was a bit like a vacation. Bill was fully pardoned in 1956, when it was determined that he acted in self defense.
The End of an Era
Joshua Tree National Monument was created in 1936, and Bill and Frances took full advantage of the tourists by renting out cottages on the ranch. This brought a bit of extra income to the ranch. By the 1960s, many of the neighboring homesteaders had moved away, and Bill and Frances’s own children had all married and settled elsewhere. Frances died in 1963, and Bill sold the ranch to the National Park Service. He continued to live on the ranch until his death in 1969. He was 89 years old.
Tips for Visiting the Keys Ranch and Joshua Tree National Park
Where: Joshua Tree National Park is located in Southern California, within a day’s drive of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
When: Joshua Tree National Park is open year round, but the best time to visit is early spring or late fall. Tours of the Desert Queen Ranch are offered Thursday through Saturday at 2pm, from October through May.
Cost for admission: $25 per carload will get you into the park. It’s good for seven consecutive days. Tickets for the Keys Ranch tour are $10 per person.
Amenities: There are four visitor centers in the park, all with toilets and running water. There is no cell service or Wi-Fi.
Transportation: Most people fly into Las Vegas. Find a great deal on Skyscanner, and then rent a car to drive to Joshua Tree. It’s a three hour drive, but quite lovely. Dozens of car rental provides are available right at McCarran International Airport. Book Now & Save 50% on Rental Cars – Search, Book, Done!
Lodging: There is no lodging within the park, but several gorgeous campgrounds. Read our review of Jumbo Rocks Campground, which is awesome for families. You can find all types of lodging in Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. We scored a $69 room in Twentynine Palms on Trivago during our January stay.
Road Trip Ideas: Bucket List Publications has a fabulous post about road tripping around Joshua Tree National Park. It includes a jaunt on Route 66 and a visit to the baron Salton Sea.
Want to learn more about visiting Joshua Tree National Park? Check out these books (click on the photo for more info):
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