The desert is full of myths and legends – we have everything from the Yucca Man of Joshua Tree National Park, the witch of Tahquitz Canyon, to thousands of unfounded UFO sightings. One such legend is the Japanese Camp that overlooks Johnson Valley and Landers – while no monsters, witches or extraterrestrials are involved – it is an interesting story, but with no facts to back it up.
The story is a simple one, and has now been passed on for several generations – a Japanese family or families, fled to this remote location in the San Bernardino Mountains, to escape detainment, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. But where is the meat of this story, and what facts are it based on?
Let’s look at some of the facts of the area during this time period:
There were no paved roads in Johnson Valley – Old Woman Springs Road would not be paved until the 1960s.
This part of the Mojave Desert was very remote, and still is today.
The only people crawling through these mountains during this time were miners.
For a family or families to pick up and relocate to such an isolated and uncharted area would have been extremely difficult. This leads to a series of questions – How would they have known where to find water? How did they traverse the landscape, without knowing it? How did they manage to transport lumber to build buildings, and furniture? How did they manage to get enough food, and basic living supplies to the camp, to sustain themselves for the period that they were in hiding?
With the vast number of miners in these mountains in the 1930s and 1940s, we also have to take a look at this angle – was this simply a mining camp? There are several mines in the vicinity of Japanese Camp. It is very likely that a mining camp, operated by Gold Basin Mines Company was located on the same spot ten years prior to when the Japanese families are rumored to have lived here. There are several foot trails connecting the mines to the camp.
After contemplating these scenarios, I decided that I had to see this place for myself. First, I needed to figure out the location – it is one of those places that the locals will willingly talk about, but won’t tell you where it is located. I sat down on Friday evening, and went over my materials, within an hour, I had a pretty good hunch as to where I would find Japanese Camp, and how I would get there. The following morning, I would put my theory to the test.
Leaving Joshua Tree at 9:30am, I turned on Old Woman Springs Road in Yucca Valley by 10:00am, reaching New Dixie Mine Road by 10:30am.
I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I took my time winding up the sandy wash, enjoying the scenic granite boulder formations that line the wash; stopping on several occasions to inspect overhangs and caves for possible pictographs. I came up empty – no pictographs, not even so much as a lithic scatter. I was surprised, this canyon would have provided easy access to higher elevations from the desert floor, and vice versa. Because I didn’t find anything, doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything there, with miles of boulders, there are unlimited potential locations, I had just failed to find them. This happens more often than not, searching for these kinds of sites is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Several miles in, New Dixie Mine Road, leaves the sandy wash, the topography flattens out, and the stacks of boulders are only visible in the distance. This entire area has always resembled Joshua Tree National Park to me, only better, with dozens of rugged off-road trails, and fewer people with equally as beautiful landscape, and breathtaking vistas.
A few miles later, I left the New Dixie Mine Road for an undisclosed northern running trail. This road was more rugged – with boulder strung passages, it was far less traveled than the main access road. For much of the duration, I was treated with a view of Johnson Valley, some 3,000 feet below.
One final turn, on an even less traversed road, and I was at my destination. From here, the camp’s location was less than a half mile, but well hidden from plain view.
Now on foot, I dropped down into a nearby wash and hiked east. The sandy wash revealed extensive mountain lion activity in the vicinity, with a superhighway of tracks leading through the wash, and up and down the rocky slopes.
I wasn’t hiking anymore than a few minutes in the wash, when I came upon the first sign of the abandoned camp. Lumber, from what is said to have been a bathhouse lie in a pile on the side of the wash, along with a pipe, and a small dam that was built to control water flow.
In order to sustain life at this remote location, water would have had to have been regularly available. The fact that a bath house had been constructed, damming, and pipe laid, may very well prove that at one time, there was a significant source of water here.
Near the fallen bath house, an old trail led out of the wash, and into the upper confines of a canyon; the location of the mysterious camp that has been a topic of discussion for seventy-odd years.
Coming down the hillside, I first took notice of a roofless stone structure. It had been built into a tree and an outcropping of boulders. This was likely done for a couple of reasons – the tree, to supply a steady dose of shade from the unrelenting desert sun, and the boulders to provide structural support. If that was indeed the case, the plan had worked – the stone walls of the cabin remained standing where the boulders had provided support.
Below the stone cabin, a large wood structure remains partially intact, the front of the building fully collapsed, leaving just the two back rooms. I entered through the back door, noticing the low height of the doorway and the roof inside. At my height of 6 foot, I was forced to duck to get through the door.
I have heard the ceiling and door height used as reasoning to back the Japanese camp story, , but you also have to figure in some other elements. In the 1940s, the average man’s height was five foot seven inches, compared to today’s average of five foot nine inches. People were shorter, thus a lower door way or ceiling makes sense. There is also the fact that in such a remote area you used the supplies that you had, it wasn’t like you had a Home Depot a few miles from your home.
Inside of the cabin, some shelving and a desk remain. The shelves filled with broken bottles, and rusty cans that had been found near the camp. A guest book is located in a coffee can, it reveals that I’m the first visitor to sign in, in six months.
Back outside, I realize that several additional stone and wood structures had once stood at various place. There are also extensive can and glass dumps.
I sat in the heart of the camp for a period, and I contemplated. There is no doubt in my mind, that this was an elaborate camp for the time period. There is plenty of evidence that it was the home of either a large family or multiple families, but there is still no “proof in the pudding,” to the claims of Japanese refugees hiding out in this remote corner of the desert. Every bit of logic points to the ruins of a well-built mining camp that was poorly documented.
We will likely never know the truth, and the legend of Japanese Camp will likely go on to be told to several more generation of desert rats. I’m ok with that, because legends and myths make life a little more interesting.