Coxcomb Mountains, “West Side Mine” (Joshua Tree National Park)

The Coxcomb Mountains are the wildest of places in Joshua Tree National Park. Located along the eastern border of the park, and far removed from the standard tourist thoroughfare. For the most part the mountain range sits within dedicated wilderness, therefor vehicular traffic is not permitted, and restricted to foot traffic only.

The appearance of the range is downright frightening, towering spheres of jagged granite towering up to 4,416 feet, and no signs of civilization for miles around.  There are likely portions of this range that few if any humans have ever stepped foot in.  Only the most dedicated of backpackers and hikers dare to tread here, and even they are far and few. These are just a few of the reasons that the Coxcombs are a virtual black hole in many aspects, and why I have enjoyed focusing my attention on them over the last couple of years (A Journey into the Prehistoric: The Coxcomb Mountains Part I, A Return to the Prehistoric: The Coxcomb Mountains Part II, General Patton’s Coxcomb Desert Training Center, Remote Corner of Joshua Tree National Park Hit By Pot-Diggers, Joshua Tree’s Remote Mystery Mining Complex, Time-lapse Sunset in the Coxcomb Mountains).

My interest in the Coxcombs have spawned many hours of research, most of the time only to come up empty-handed with the same generic information, again and again. There are stories of lost mines, cursed mines, and Native American habitation sites, yet when it comes to real verifiable information of historic sites, and prehistoric sites – it is just the same few paragraphs again and again. I’m alright with this, this is one of the few places left in North America that one can actually use the word “explore,” and it fits the definition, “to traverse or range over (a region, area, etc.) for the purpose of discovery.”

This brings me to the “West Side Mine,” technically a mine with no recorded name, doesn’t show up on any maps, and isn’t listed on any mineralogy report. One day while studying satellite imagery of the range, I noticed what appeared to be the ruins of a camp and mill site. I was able to make out what I believed to be large metal tanks, wood debris, and possibly even a structure. I ended up sitting on the site for a couple of months, waiting for the perfect opportunity to investigate it first hand.

 

Coxcomb Hill and the Sheep Hole Mountains

Coxcomb Hill and the Sheep Hole Mountains

 

Morning light on the Coxcomb Mountains.

Morning light on the Coxcomb Mountains.

When that day finally came, I had everything mapped out and ready to go. It wasn’t going to be a short hike, like I mentioned before, this is wilderness. No roads penetrate the range. I figured on a six-mile hike in each direction, with only minimal elevation gain. I was joined on this trip by my friend, Ronda, a local anthropologist, rock nerd, and desert rat from Joshua Tree.

It was an early morning, we arrived at what I designated as our trail head at around 7:30am. The first half of the hike I was already familiar with, the first two miles being a gentle uphill slope across an open valley, with spectacular views of the Coxcomb Hills, and the Sheephole Mountains. Then a short jaunt through a wash, along the base of the Coxcombs. After this point, it was all new to me. We climbed up and out of the wash, and over a ridge line to find ourselves overlooking the vast Pinto Basin, Pinto Mountains, and the Eagle Mountains far in the distance.

 

Pinto Mountains in the distance.

Pinto Mountains in the distance.

 

The Pinto Mountains

The Pinto Mountains

 

Pinto Basin - Eagle Mountains in the distance.

Pinto Basin – Eagle Mountains in the distance.

The last half of the hike took us into the northern Pinto Basin. We found ourselves descending in elevation, and crossing several deeply rutted washes. As we got to within a mile and a half of the mine, we started to find an occasional rusty can strung about on the desert floor.  A short distance further, we came across a rusty, old Phillips 66 gas can. It was neatly tucked away under a creosote bush, like it was waiting for its last owner to return for it.

It was around 11am when we reached the mystery mine location. The first thing we came upon was an old trash heap in the wash, a pile of rusty cans, and broken glass. I picked up a few of the cans to examine them, and found that a majority were of the “hole-in-top” variety, with small punctures on each side of the top of the can. This is a good indication that these were Borden condensed milk cans, and date from 1900-1940. A little later in the day we found pieces of a broken plate.  Ronda stopped to examine the sherds, noticing a manufacturing date of 1932 on the bottom. Thanks to the can dump, and a broken plate we are able to pretty safety assume that our mystery mine was worked somewhere between 1930 – 1940.

My favorite find of the day, a Phillips 66 gas can.

My favorite find of the day, a Phillips 66 gas can.

 

Can dump in the wash. The cans helped narrow the dating down on the mine to between 1900-1940.

Can dump in the wash. The cans helped narrow the dating down on the mine to between 1900-1940.

 

Glass plate dated 1932. This helped narrow the date of mine down even further, to 1930-1940.

Glass plate dated 1932. This helped narrow the date of mine down even further, to 1930-1940.

From the wash we could see the ruins of the mill site. It was in deplorable condition. What I thought were metal tanks on the satellite imagery were indeed that, but for the most part, along with the wooden mill frame were buried in gravel, and beaten to hell and back from flash floods that had come whipping out of the canyon above. The one tank that had managed to remain unscathed had painted on it, “I.C. Mining Company,” along with two illegible words below it. I thought that this might be a break into the mystery of the mine, but with all research sources exhausted, I could find no record of an “I.C. Mining Company” in the vicinity.

Flash flooding has buried these leaching tanks at the mill site.

Flash flooding has buried these leaching tanks at the mill site.

 

It looks like a bomb exploded the mill.

It looks like a bomb exploded the mill.

 

Painted on one of the tanks, "I.C. Mining Co." Two additional words are painted below, but I can't seem to make them out.

Painted on one of the tanks, “I.C. Mining Co.” Two additional words are painted below, but I can’t seem to make them out.

 


We were wondering where the mine was located, figuring that it had to be near. We could faintly see what appeared to have been a road leading up the canyon, and what looked to be a tailings pile some 500 feet straight up the side of the mountain. From where we stood below it was hard to tell,  but we weren’t about to walk away without finding out. The hike up was 500 feet in elevation gain over a quarter of a mile, we were damn near mountaineering this bastard! About half way up, it because obvious that what we had believed to be tailings were, now we had to hope and pray that the National Park Service hadn’t bat caged or sealed the adit.

Reaching the top of the tailing pile, it took a minute to actually find the adit, the opening was partially collapsed (but not bat caged or sealed), and obscured from our view. What remained of the opening was just wide enough to crawl through, and that is exactly what we did. Inside we found a single horizontal shaft about 200 – 250 feet in length.

Along the "road" up to the mine.

Along the “road” up to the mine.

 

A nice sized tailings pile.

A nice sized tailings pile.

 

Partially collapsed adit opening.

Partially collapsed adit opening.

Ronda noted the following, “Judging by the amount of pyrite and chalcopyrite in the quartz vein, along with the diorite, Black shale, schist, and gneiss it probably was rich enough to yield enough gold to make it seem like a profitable location and was eventually ran out by the “fools gold” instead as they followed the vein farther into the diorite.

Despite finding the site in a wrecked state, it was well worth the journey. The fact that the mine is enshrouded in mystery adds to the excitement and appeal of the place. Maybe one day we’ll actually be able to tell its story, but for now we’ll leave it as it is.

Ronda slides down into the mine.

Ronda slides down into the mine.

 

Lots of color in this mine.

Lots of color in this mine.

 

The ceiling is very low in parts, causing me to perform the limbo.

The ceiling is very low in parts, causing me to perform the limbo.

 

Possible gold specimens.

Possible gold specimens.

 

Ronda inspects the walls for any interesting specimens.

Ronda inspects the walls for any interesting specimens.

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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