Hungry Bill’s Ranch & Johnson Canyon (Death Valley National Park)

Johnson Canyon - Having missed the trail, I'm navigating through this thick brush.
Wilson Spring in Johnson Canyon

Wilson Spring in Johnson Canyon

 

I feel like such a noob for having just made my first hike to Hungry Bill’s Ranch. While the hike to the old Indian ranch isn’t on the list of “popular” hikes in Death Valley, it is one of the more well know among back country junkies. With so much back country to traverse, Hungary Bill’s just happened to get placed by the wayside.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I planned a mini-trip to Death Valley. I had already spent half of the month traipsing around the park, but I guess that I hadn’t had my fill yet, so I gave myself a couple of more days. I didn’t want to get into anything overly strenuous, or crazy – so I looked into some areas that I hadn’t previously visited, or areas that needed a revisit. I was mostly looking for places that I could drive into, and limit my hikes by a couple of miles in each direction.  Hungry Bill’s Ranch in Johnson Canyon happened to fit into that agenda mighty nicely.

It was an early morning start, from my home in Joshua Tree, a minimum of a three and a half hour drive to Johnson Canyon. I was on the road before 5am, and pulled on West Side Road in Death Valley around 8am and finally arrived at the turn off for Johnson Canyon a half an hour later. My timing was spot on!

Johnson Canyon Road runs from the floor of Death Valley and travels several miles up an alluvial before entering the confines of Johnson Canyon, and finally to Wilson Spring. The length of the 4×4 trail is roughly 10 miles,  and at the time of this writing, it doesn’t pose many difficulties with the exception of a couple of rocky spots. Remember however that road conditions in these areas can change quickly, one cloudburst can alter the landscape significantly. It took just a little over an hour to travel the duration of the road. 

 

The trail leading away from Wilson Spring, up Johnson Canyon.

The trail leading away from Wilson Spring, up Johnson Canyon.

 

One of three Spanish arrastras in Johnson Canyon.

One of three Spanish arrastras in Johnson Canyon.

 

Once I pulled into Wilson Spring, it was time to set off on foot. I was impressed with the beauty of the oasis which included a small grove of Cottonwood Trees, surrounded by vibrant green desert scrub, and a small perennial stream. A well-groomed trail left the oasis, and traveled up the canyon following the path of the spring. Several times early in the hike, the spring is crossed, but fellow hikers have made these crossing as friendly as possible, by placing stepping-stones across the slick and muddy spring.

Not far up canyon from the oasis, I came upon the ruins of a Spanish arrastra. The trail runs directly past it, but it can be easily missed among the assortment of brush that has grown up around the very primitive mining mill. The sidewalls and base of the arrastra remain intact, however the drag stone, which would have been used to crush the ore is missing. Further up the canyon, the ruins of a second arrastra lay in a state of unrecognizable ruin, with a third located near the actual ranch site.

A half a mile or so into the hike the canyon quickly narrows and becomes overgrown with dense vegetation, the trail leaves the floor of the canyon and ascends high above on the eastern wall. Elevation is gained quickly, but again the trail is well maintained. Once hiking along the ridge, I caught my first glimpse of the large stone walls, that I had heard so much about. A large retaining wall slithers its way from the trail down 200 feet to the canyon bottom. This wall is no joke, a considerable amount of time and effort was put into building something of this magnitude.

Johnson Canyon begins to narrow.

Johnson Canyon begins to narrow.

 

Johnson Canyon - The 200 foot long stone wall.

Johnson Canyon – The 200 foot long stone wall.

 

Johnson Canyon - The same stone wall as above, just a different angle.

Johnson Canyon – The same stone wall as above, just a different angle.

 

Roughly a quarter of a mile past the behemoth stone wall, the trail comes to an abrupt end, with a good 40 feet between you and the floor of the canyon. This is the most technical part of the hike, and potentially could cause some puckering to anyone not accustom with maneuvering their way down a cliff face.

Once in the canyon below, another magnificent stone walls sits among the overgrown desert oasis. While not near as impressive as the 200 footer, it is still a testament to the skills that went into building it. Here is also where the trail picks back up; crosses the canyon, and ascends the western wall of the canyon. I of course didn’t notice that the trail picked back up, and forged my way through the dense vegetation. The going was rough, reminding me a bit of a scaled back Beverage Canyon (in the Inyo Mountains). I soon found myself with the option of trudging through a swampy marsh, or heading up the western canyon wall. I decided on the wall of the canyon, in which I would find the trail which I should have followed all along.

Johnson Canyon - It is a jungle down there.

Johnson Canyon – It is a jungle down there.

 

Johnson Canyon - Having missed the trail, I'm navigating through this thick brush.

Johnson Canyon – Having missed the trail, I’m navigating through this thick brush.

 

Johnson Canyon - A lone Cottonwood.

Johnson Canyon – A lone Cottonwood.

 

The trail led me through a patch of gnarly, asshole shrubs with big and pointy spines. I was lucky, and didn’t leave any flesh or blood behind – but there were a few close calls. Finally past the garden of puncture wounds, I entered the lower portion of Hungry Bill’s Ranch. The ruins again consist of substantial well-built stone walls, and the first trees of the old fruit orchard. One has to wonder where the time was found to do anything but build stone walls – and why so many?

Exploring the ranch site was interesting, consisting of some period rusty relics, fruit tree orchards (which still produce fruit), smoke damaged caves, and even more stone walls. The highlight of the journey wasn’t so much the ruins, but rather the gorgeous canyon filled with lush springs, rock formations, and the overwhelmingly positive feeling of being a lone in the remote desert/mountainous landscape.

Johnson Canyon - The lower portion of Hungry Bill's Ranch.

Johnson Canyon – The lower portion of Hungry Bill’s Ranch.

 

Johnson Canyon - Brilliant stone walls at Hungry Bill's Ranch.

Johnson Canyon – Brilliant stone walls at Hungry Bill’s Ranch.

 

Johnson Canyon - Fig trees, and more stone walls at Hungry Bill's.

Johnson Canyon – Fig trees, and more stone walls at Hungry Bill’s.

 

Johnson Canyon - Of course, even more stone walls.

Johnson Canyon – Of course, even more stone walls.

 

You are probably wondering at this point, who was this Hungry Bill character, and what is the story with this remote ranch…

The earliest history on the ranch, is that it was built and the orchard planted by William Johnson in 1873.  As you might have guessed the canyon is named after this bloke.

Johnson would peddle his wares to the miners in Panamint City, until it went bust in 1876. Johnson would quickly move on, and leave the Death Valley area. 

Hungry Bill was a full-blooded Shoshone Indian, he lived and ranched at this site as early as 1880; having been deeded the ranch after Johnson abandoned it, for his payment as a scout in the Modoc Wars. He was born around 1839, and married a full-blooded Shoshone woman named, Ce-un-ba-hobe. Together they would raise two sons, and two daughters.

Hungry Bill received his name from miners, because of his habit of entering mining camps to beg for food. Bill and his brother Panamint Tom had quiet the reputation in their younger years, leading horse-stealing raids into Los Angeles. Both Bill and Tom would settle down in their later years, and helped in the construction of roads across the Death Valley salt flats.

Hungry Bill died in 1919 of the flu and his wife passed away three years later. 

 

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.

1 Comment

  • Fascinating story and wonderful pictures. Who knew that an orchard could survive in Death Valley without human interaction?

    And the stone walls and structures are amazing. I would hope that much of the construction took place during the winter months.

    Thanks for taking us along.

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