Joshua Tree National Park
Text and Photos by pctpacker
The deserts of the Southwest are littered with the ruins of abandoned mines, the remains of failed cattle ventures, and the abandoned shelters of desert squatters who searched for treasure or just simple solitude. Many such stories of local pioneers appear in ghost town histories and in public parks.
In what is now Joshua Tree National Park, the exploits of characters such as the Keys, the Ryans, the McHaneys and Johnny Lang are established history, but the stories of many others are lost in the desert sands, with only a few rusting artifacts left to recall their existence. One such legend surrounds Carey's Castle, a Joshua Tree mystery, sought by many but found and visited by few.
I first learned of the Castle in a campfire story over twenty years ago, but the teller did not know of its whereabouts. Or he wasn't saying. Its location was a long-held secret, probably because the Castle was, at the time, still full of the possessions and furnishings of the former inhabitant, about whom little is known, including where he came from or what became of him.
My curiosity was whetted in 1986 when On Foot in Joshua Tree by Patty Furbush was published, and she outlined her account of the mystery. Since then I'd searched for clues that might help locate the site. I discovered the final piece of the puzzle through the DesertUSA message board. With that, I had finally gathered enough information to begin a search. One problem, however, was that the suspected site was many miles from the nearest trailhead. The area is remote, the route was completely unfamiliar to us, and it is devoid of any water source.
After sketching the route on a homemade map, I set off with my wife through a deeply cut wash, typical of many in the area. We followed the twisting wash between towering cliffs and grotesque rock formations, occasionally stepping around a sunning snake or chuckwalla. At many points, huge boulders or dry waterfalls blocked our route, but we were able to make our way over or around these barriers and continue toward our destination.
The trip itself was reward enough whether we were to locate the Castle or not. The late April wildflowers were blooming in the sands of the wash. Cacti were blossoming along adjacent slopes, including cholla and smoke trees in the lower reaches of the wash, giving way to palo verde and ocotillo along the higher reaches.
About four miles up the canyon, we heard footsteps behind us and suddenly SnowNymph, a companion we had not expected, appeared from around a boulder. Unknown to us, she had tried to connect with us at the campground. She had not made it in time. She found it necessary to piece the route together from my description and a bit of information from a park ranger. Much to our surprise, she caught up with us.
As the three of us neared the area where we hoped to find Carey’s Castle, I scanned the hills but could find nothing; then I spotted some rusting metal on the opposite side of the wash. I investigated. Following the trail of ancient rubble into an outcropping of granite boulders, we walked right up to the doorway of the Castle, a shelter constructed by filling the voids around the perimeter of a huge, balanced boulder with local stone masonry walls. The wooden doorway was closed on the remains of a partly skeletal snake. A key, fitting nothing, hung over the door, which was latched by a bent nail.
Carefully, we swung the door open. We stepped inside. We waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were amazed to see that the furnishings were still intact. Old magazines we had heard about were gone, probably demolished by the resident rats, whose droppings covered everything, but much remained to be explored. The approximately ten by fifteen foot enclosure still contained a folding metal bed and springs next to a small, now collapsing, handmade table. Shelves attached to the boulder wall supported bottles, rusty cans, an old hand mixer, a 1938 license plate and a modern can containing a register for visitors. The latest entry was a month and a half prior to our visit. Only parts of an old stove and flue remained, but there was enough to suggest what the former apparatus must have been.
We wondered what would have encouraged someone to reside here, obviously for many years. We explored the vicinity nearby for clues. We found several signs of earlier Indian habitation, including broken pottery and stone grinding mortars, then we discovered evidence of more recent interestsa path crossing the wash and leading into the hills. We followed it for about a hundred feet and discovered a deep pit mine, with a series of broken wooden ladders. It plunged deep into the desert floor. Carey, whoever he was, had come here to strike it rich. Did he do so? That is one question we'll probably never be able to answer, but we hope that he did. He clearly worked hard. He deserved some reward for his efforts.
If you should discover Carey’s Castle, either through design or by accident, take care not to disturb any of the remaining artifacts. Leave the site as you find it for others to enjoy, and let the location remain in obscurity.
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