When Bill and Frances Key homesteaded in the rugged Mohave Desert of Southern California in the early 1900s, they couldn't possibly have imagined that a century later, visitors to a national park would be taking tours of their ranch. The tours in Joshua Tree National Park have become so popular that as of January 1, 2011, reservations will be needed for the guided walks.
The Keys Ranch, also known as the Desert Queen Ranch, was home to the Keys family from 1910 to 1969, and offers an excellent example of what life was like on a desert homestead during much of the 20th century.
The ranch house, school house, store, and workshop at the ranch still stand, the orchard has been replanted, and the grounds are full of the cars, trucks, mining equipment and spare parts that are a part of the Desert Queen Ranch story.
A park spokesman notes, "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 F. Keys and his family are particularly representative of the hard work and ingenuity it took to settle and prosper in the Mojave Desert."
The desert homestead also provided an unexpected benefit for wildlife in what later became a national park. A park report notes that Joshua Tree currently has one of the healthiest herds of desert bighorn sheep in the state, and a California Department of Fish and Game bighorn sheep expert attributes that success to reservoirs constructed years ago on the ranch.
To help protect the historic nature of the site, visits to the ranch are limited to conducted tours. The activities are offered twice daily from October through May, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The guided walking tours are a half-mile in length, last 90 minutes, and includes the colorful story of the 60 years Bill and Frances Keys spent working together to make a life and raise their children in this remote location. Group size is limited to 25 people, and due to the popularity of the activity, visitors will need a reservation beginning January 1.
Reservations can be made up to three months in advance, by calling 760-367-5555 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (Pacific Time) daily, or they can be made in person at the Oasis or Joshua Tree visitor centers in the park. Reservations should be made at least one day prior to the requested date.
Cost of the tour is $5.00 per person, with a discount for children and bearers of the Senior and Access Pass. Space will not be reserved until payment is received; credit cards are accepted. Beginning January 1, 2011, tickets will not be sold at the ranch gate.
At least some of the tours will include a living history bonus, allowing visitors can step back in time as a costumed ranger, circa 1940, engages them with stories, historical facts, questions, and memories. A uniformed ranger introduces the tour and makes the transition to 1940. Visitors are encouraged to participate by asking questions about work, family, diet, school, medical care, and other aspects of pioneer life.
Before ending the tour, the costurmed ranger returns to the present so “the rest of the story” can be told and questions can be answered about post-1940 events and artifacts. Inquire about the availability of the living history program when you call for a reservation.
Joshua Tree National Park is located 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego, and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. You'll find information to help plan your visit on the park website.