Few people have ever said, “I want to backpack across the Pinto Basin.” For that matter, far fewer people visit the Pinto Basin than the western portion of Joshua Tree National Park, with the one exception being the Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus Garden. For the most part the Pinto Basin is a 200-square mile basin void of anything except creosote bushes, and cactus. It is also HOT, with summer temperatures comparable to those in Coachella Valley, or even Death Valley.
The earliest known people to this region once lived in the Pinto Basin, that however was several thousand years ago, possibly as many as nine thousand. The landscape was a bit different then, streams once flowed through the basin, and the surrounding Pinto and Eagle Mountains were forests. The basin floor probably looked like a giant oasis, and food was plentiful. These earliest people we call the Pinto People. Thanks to Elizabeth Campbell, an amateur archeologist in the 1920s and 1930s, a large collection of stone tools were collected from the basin, and are part of the Campbell Collection, housed by Joshua Tree National Park.
Between 1890 – 1892, the Monte Negras Mining District was formed along the southern slopes of the Pinto Mountains. The district received significant attention based on claims of nuggets of gold and quartz of extreme riches. Despite that, work in the district was slow-moving, by 1894 only a few tons of ore had been processed, with unknown results.
The principle mines of the district were the Great Eastern, Venus, Columbus, Summit, Porcupine, Schiller, Hillerman, Ethel, Annie Rooney, Republican, Ramona, McKinley Bill, and Revenue.
The two mines that myself and Ranger “X” had interest in visiting were a part of the Monte Negras District, yet far removed based on geological location, in the southeast corner of the Pinto Mountains. They are the Zulu Queen and the Outlaw Mines. Their recorded history is sparse, mostly nonexistent.
The National Park Service closed all the roads in the Pinto Basin in 1994, when the Park graduated from National Monument to National Park. The exceptions being the blacktopped, Pinto Basin Road and the dirt tracks, Old Dale Road, Gold Crown Road, and the Brooklyn Mine Road. This effort has made the Zulu Queen and Outlaw Mines two of the least visited historic mining properties within the boundaries of the park.
The hike to these two properties took a grueling two days, with over twenty round trip miles across desert pavement, alluvial fans, and washes. There were zero signs of life, and the only water for miles was the fifty-six pounds of it that we had spread out across our backs. The hike began in the morning at the closed Zulu Queen Mine Road, off of the Brooklyn Mine Road. Sadly at least a few people have failed to yield to the wilderness boundary, a few sets of tire tracks lead the way across the route that has been closed for over twenty years.
By mid-morning it was HOT, with temperatures reaching well into the 100s. The only shade across the basin was provided in small increments by creosote bushes. Needless to say, this should have been a winter hike, but when Ranger “X” and myself get something stuck in our heads, we get it done. We reached the Zulu Queen Mine around lunch time, it was only a five-mile trek, but one that required several breaks, including a quick “cat nap” by Ranger “X”. His naps used to annoy me, however I’ve begun to come around to the idea.
The Zulu Queen Mine was one of three mines that were known to be owned by Sunrise Mines, Inc., in the 1930s. The property had a total of eleven claims, and operated between 1933 to 1938. The mine had a vertical two-compartment shaft, which was sunk to 100 feet, with drifts at 50 and 100 feet, and one additional 110-foot adit with winzes. Records from the mine are not known to exist.
Knowing that easy access to the Zulu Queen had been cut off twenty years ago, we were excited about the prospect of finding an amazing untouched site. That wasn’t so much the case however, the harsh desert environment hasn’t been kind to the Zulu Queen Mine. Most of the surface artifacts have been washed away by flash flooding, or trucked off prior to the closure of the road which once led to it. The same can be said about the mine headframes, which have all succumbed to their environment, and collapsed.
Several stone structures remain standing in one form or another, however most having reached being unrecognizable. The most prominent being a single cemented stone wall, with a concrete foundation. What it was used for, I don’t have the slightest idea. Then there is a stone retaining wall along the road, which leads up to the higher of the two adits. In the wash below the mines, we found two outlines of what may have been tent sites, with stones stacked two or three high. Along with this, the ruins of a crudely built fire pit or outdoor cook stove.
After meandering around the Zulu Queen for a couple of hours, we again hit the trail. Our intentions were to reach the Outlaw Mine by early evening, and primitive camp in the vicinity. To reach it, it was another four mile hike east of the Zulu Queen, with an additional mile north up a canyon. The mid-day heat was relentless, with temperatures nearing 110F. The hike across the basin was relentless, brutal, tiring, and mentally challenging. Each of our packs weighed nearly 60-pounds, half of which was water. Every step forward became one that neither of us wanted to take, but we continued on, one foot in front of the other until we reached the outline of a parking area below the mouth of Outlaw Mine Canyon.
Yes, you read that correctly, a parking area! In all the years that I’ve been visiting remote ransacked old mines, I had yet to find one with an outlined parking area. Along with the parking lot, there was a stone outlined walkway, a partially still standing small stone building, and an incredible 1930s era trash dump. One of my favorite things to do recently has been to photograph historic trash, I love the look of the old rusty cans and broken glass bottles. I’m always on the lookout for any identifying features, and at this dump site I came across an Old Dutch Cleanser can top, with the lettering still very visible, and a 1930s era Maxwell House “Drip Grind” coffee can lid. All of this, and we were still a mile from the mine itself!
It was just about sundown as we finished exploring the area around the mouth of the canyon, so we decided to postpone the mine until the morning. We set up our camp, and both called home to check-in using our new Globalstar satellite phones. This was my first experience actually getting to the use the phone, and I was thrilled with the results. The call quality was better than that of a cellular or landline, and it connected quickly and easily.
In the morning we trudged up the canyon to what we had hoped would be the main event…
The Outlaw Mine is enshrouded in mystery, the original claim owner is unknown, however it is thought to have been owned and operated by Sunrise Mines, Inc., the same company that operated the Zulu Queen. That is all in speculation however. In 1949, assessment records indicate assessment and road work was carried out by W.P. O’Connor and J.P. Hayes. The mine itself consists of a 100 foot vertical shaft, and several test diggings.
In 1968, it was reported that at the mine there were two standing shacks, a “variety of disintegrating machinery,” and that the headframe had fallen into the shaft. A 1976 report made mention of the stone lined parking area, trash dump, and the masonry shell at the camp site that I had previously mentioned.
The hike up the canyon that morning was beautiful. The canyon offered a nice mix-up from the long nine previous miles in the wide open Pinto Basin. The floor of the canyon was littered with boulders of all sizes and shapes, with significant evidence of some heavy flash flooding.
When we reached the mine, we found that the two shacks that had been reported as standing in 1968, had fallen over on each other. Their walls now a part of the floor boards. An old metal bed frame and head-board taunt us with images of when the place was in its prime. A significant amount of historic artifacts still cover the area, much of it in a full state of decay. The mineshaft has been sealed off by the National Park Service, probably when it was made a National Park. I found that interesting considering the Park’s own historic research study states that, “visitation is probably extremely infrequent,” going on to say, “it is recommended the site be left to natural deterioration.”
While both mines were further along in a state of decay than we had hoped for, it was still good to get out into a region that sees little in the way of humans. The hike kicked our butts, but we survived, and I can now provide some photographic images of two mines that were virtually forgotten.