Joshua Tree National Park’s Pinto Basin is virtually a black hole in terms of modern-day visitation, with of course the exception being anything within walking distance of Pinto Basin Road, and Old Dale Road. The further east you travel into the basin, the blacker the hole becomes. In the not so distant past there were several roads that traversed their way across the basin, but those have all since been closed. Today the closest that one can get via vehicle to the eastern half of the basin is via a series of utility roads from Kaiser Road, near the defunct Eagle Mountain Mine. The utility roads end about a mile outside of Pinto Basin at a locked gate.
While planning my expeditions into the Coxcomb Mountains over the last two years, I’ve often looked at accessing the range from this vantage point, but as of now I haven’t. That didn’t stop me from exploring the area via satellite images, and one thing that had piqued my interest was what appeared to be a small compound just as you enter the basin. I would eventually learn that this “compound” was actually the Pinto Wells Pumping Station. Now abandoned, the pumping station was used by Kaiser Steel to pump water out of the aquifer below Pinto Basin for their Eagle Mountain Mine.
Despite there being zilch, nadda, nothing out there historically about the Pinto Wells Pumping Station, I did manage to find both the pump and well listed on a 1935 map, drawn by William H. Campbell and Walter Ketcham, for Southwest Museum Papers: Number Nine – The Pinto Basin Site, by both Elizabeth and William Campbell. This map predates the Kaiser Mine by 13 years. It is safe to assume that the well and pumping station had been used previously to Kaiser by earlier mining properties in the Eagle Mountains, as well possibly the Coxcombs.
I finally visited the site in September of 2015, as part of an exploration trip into the eastern portion of the Pinto Basin. From the locked gate, the trek to the Pinto Wells Pumping Station is roughly two miles along a well-traveled NPS access only road. The NPS still actively travels the road to a weather/research station located beside the pumping station.
The pumping station looks like something out of a 1970s horror film, with a barbed wire and chain link fence half surrounding it, and sun bleached “Danger, High Voltage” signs. It consists of two corrugated sheet metal buildings, the largest containing over a dozen large circuit boxes, each labeled with a different pump number. Hanging above, a string of fluorescent light fixtures. Outside the pumps, and pipes remain prisoners of their surroundings, encased in concrete. Two tanks, both bone dry, sit thirstily, wanting and waiting for precious water to overflow from them once again.
While the Pinto Basin Pumping Station wouldn’t sit very high on my list of “must see” locations in Joshua Tree National Park, it does show the historic struggle of obtaining water in this harsh desert environment. I can also now officially stop wondering about the mystery “compound.”