Hiking to the Lost Horse Mine - and Beyond
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Text and Photos by David Taylor (a.k.a. Space Cowboy)
Hiking the Lost Horse Mine Trail is an exploration into history. It is also a scenic adventure into Joshua Tree National Park. The hike to the Lost Horse Mine starts at four thousand six hundred feet and ascends southeast along an old mine road to five thousand one hundred and twenty feet.
For the four-and-two-tenths-mile part of the hike, PCT Packer brought his wife Patty and their two grandkids, Tyler, six, and Kelly, thirteen. Night Owl came too. I brought my wife, the American Dream on all her chat rooms, my son Alex, five, and my old friend, Mason. With us came a local resident, a member of Packer's So Cal Hikers, with the e-handle Stuck2Stone.
Joshua trees, yucca and cholla thrust up through the gray carpet of black bush that drapes the hills. Over our shoulders stood the snow-capped San Gorgornio Mountains. According to Robert Cates in his very useful book, Joshua Tree National Park; a Visitor's Guide, there's an alternate route to the right of the trailhead. He describes it as "Nolina Gulch," and he claims it is actually more picturesque. It is packed full of the Nolina plant, which grows as high as ten feet.
After about a half mile up on the main route, we worked our way to the left and intersected the old mine road that goes up to the Lost Horse mine. A mile into the hike, on the mine road, we spotted the stone walls of a miner's bunkhouse up a small wash. Shortly thereafter, we saw test digs with tailings flowing down the mountainside. I paused and admired the view of Queen Valley on this clear morning. From here, you can see the ten-stamp mill hanging from the side of Lost Horse Mountain. Across the gorge, the stone ruins of the village that grew up with the mine beg for exploration. The main shaft is right behind the stamp mill. The miners hauled more than nine thousand troy ounces of gold out of the Lost Horse. Now a chain link fence surrounds the mill and the shaft, ruining any and all photos you might take.
The area is strewn with the remains of mining operations: stone water tanks for the stamping process, iron rails that once took the weight of ore cars, and metal vats that came later when the cyanide process made it possible for the owners to reap the wealth left behind in the first tailings. "Jep" Ryan did that here in 1936, the last time mining activity occurred at the Lost Horse.
My wife, the three youngsters and Patty, having hiked uphill two miles and having explored the site to their hearts' content, were ready to hike back the way we had come. They had, in fact, only done half the loop. Packer, Stuck2Stone, Night Owl, Mason and I continued, hiking to the saddle of Lost Horse Mountain, where we stood a thousand feet above the desert floor. Stretching away forever was Joshua Tree: Pleasant Valley, Ryan Mountain, Hexie Mountains, Queen Valley, and Malapai Hill. Night Owl calculated we could see sixty miles.
When Packer and his wife had done this hike years before, they had to bushwhack over the top of the hills to the south. Now there's a trail that follows the remnants of the road that once served the mines of the area in a loop. The new trail is not on the topo map. For a quarter of a mile, we descended along the precipice of Pleasant Valley. Rabbitbush hangs below the stone that the road builders stacked to make the road remnants we now traced. Creosote bush grows in groves over the hills there.
We came upon another mine. One entrance had collapsed. The other was a mere hole with weathered beams still holding out. I turned away from the slash in the earth, looking out across Pleasant Valley, and I wondered if the miners ever stood in awe of the view we had over the desert below us.
The trail climbed then, around a ridge, and there stood the crude rock chimney of the Optimist Mine bunkhouse, part of the Gold Standard Mine operation. Rusty tin cans, old broken bottles and a bed frame littered the ridge. Tufts of chia broke out here, growing in the tailings. The equipment is gone, but two shafts are located right next to the trail. We took care. The vertical shaft is menacingly deep. Stuck2Stone showed us something just before we got to the chimney. Cup a leafy branch of creosote in your hands, breathe on it, and the smell of desert rain fills your senses.
There are more digs up the valley, several rock buildings, the remains of a cabin built from Joshua tree trunks, and more shafts. Packer decided to go off-trail. He had discovered a miner’s old shovel the last time he had done this hike, and he had left it where he had found it. He wanted to locate it again.
Bushwacking up several slopes, we never did find the shovel, but the views just kept getting more spectacular. Heading west, we came upon the most pleasant surprise of the hike. Below was a grove of tall pinyon pines stretching the length of the wash, with Joshua trees on the outskirts, and cholla and yucca amongst them. Many tree stumps showed the work of saws. The Lost Horse Mine had ten men constantly gathering wood to power the stamp mill engine. Packer led us down the wash through the pines. We finally came to another wash that would take us north, ultimately back to our cars.
This is an easy to moderate hike, with lots of worthwhile little side trips, but at eight and four tenths miles, it's essential to get an early start. The last part of the trail, the long-gone road that lies in the wash, isn't marked. When you get to the big wash, turn right, north, and right again when you come across the trail, then right again up the dirt road you drove in on to reach the trailhead.
In that big wash, we heard the sharp songs of birds. To our right, little gorges full of pinyons beckoned, and we wondered if there was water up there. I thought about suggesting that we go up and check them out, but it was getting late, and there seemed to be that group momentum that you can't interrupt. Finally, we reached our vehicles. All in all, it took about five hours to do a leisurely hike through this beautiful loop.
To get to the Lost Horse Mine trailhead from the west entrance of the park, head south on Park Boulevard, turn down Keys' View Road, and drive two and a half miles, until you come to a dirt road on the left. This is the Lost Horse Mine Trail Road. Take note of the famous climbing challenge, Cap Rock, on your left. Drive to the end of the dirt road. From here you begin the hike.
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