Tours Travel

Caving in the Pinto Basin Turquoise and Gold Mines of Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs

I was about 12 years old the first time I ventured into the Pinto Basin, though I didn’t know what it was called at the time. It was the mid-1970s and I was just a kid brought in with my brother and sister while Mom and Dad were exploring the desert around Palm Springs on a sunny afternoon in a Toyota Landcruiser with their friends. I knew we were a long way from home. It felt as if we had traveled beyond the moon. The land had long ceased to be golf courses and city streets. Now it was just sand, rocks, hills, and occasionally weeds.

Dad and his friend, Lee, came across a group of low hills at one end of a long, barren valley in what is called Joshua Tree National Park. I knew a lot. I also knew, looking up the hill, that the well-worn road was rougher than anything my dad had ever attempted in his four-wheeler. But the need to see what lay beyond the ridge was too great. Rather than risk the car so far from help, we decided to hike to the top and look over the edge. There we saw the moved earth that marked a mine as excavated. So we walked the other way and found not just one mine, but three.

The first turned out to be the deepest and the most interesting. I backed up several hundred meters toward the hill it had been carved out of. At one point, you had to get down on your hands and knees to crawl through the hole remaining from a landslide from the past. Then you had to walk on an old wooden plank placed over a bottomless hole about eight feet or more wide. There was a rickety old ladder that stretched down forever on it. We dropped rocks into its gaping jaws to try to gauge its depth. We could hear the rocks hitting the sides of the hole a couple of times as they fell. But we didn’t hear anything in the background. The board was old, knotted and split. The hole could have been a mile long for all that freaked me out. But I crossed.

Further down the mine I found something so incredible that many people I tell you are hesitant to believe. I am not a geologist. I couldn’t spot a vein of gold if I had a neon sign on it, and that’s what the creators of this mine had been looking for nearly a hundred years ago when they dug it, I’m sure, but turquoise, no doubt about it. It is a deep, brilliant blue-green like all of them, even in its raw form. And right there on the wall of that mine was a line as wide as a man that ran from the floor to the ceiling of the cave, disappeared into the ceiling and ran under his floor.

Before we left that day, he had entered the mine for the second time, claw hammer at the ready and armed with a five-gallon paint bucket. I broke and scratched and ripped those things out of the hands of the mountains until my bucket was full and I brought it all home. he made a neat display in my room framed against a backdrop from my Star Wars album. The rest of the turquoises I gave as Christmas gifts, rocks the size of my fists and blue-green like the Pacific in Hawaii.

The other mines were fun, though not as great. One went straight down like the hole in the first mine. But there was no horizontal path to traverse. The other had an old train track still in place and a broken rusty ore wagon at the mouth of the cave, it went in only about fifty feet and then there was another ladder that went down about thirty feet to what looked like a landing. Since I was the youngest child, my dad chose me to go down the stairs, thinking that if he could hold me, no one older would try. I went to the bottom, but the landing led nowhere, it just ended with no way out.

We drove home that day in the dark with great stories to remember for the rest of our lives.

Fast forward over twenty years to the mid-1990s. I wanted to find it again, but for the life of me, I had no real idea where it was except on the other side of Joshua Tree National Park, and that was quite a desert through which he had to wander. Still, without a better plan, I got a map and divided it into sections. The first time I went in my Jeep Wrangler with only one of my children and my wife. We can’t find it. The second time we rented a Jeep Cherokee, because I had more children, we left the airport and found another section of the desert. No finds yet. But on the third trip, in a large rented four-wheel-drive Ford Excursion, with in-laws and an even larger family, we found gold, or turquoise, you might say.

As we headed down a dirt road that took me further into the desert than I could swear I’d ever gone before, I saw a set of hills in the distance with a rutted, worn road climbing over one of them. My skin shivered. We parked at the end of the road and I grabbed a flashlight, a hammer and a bucket, with a crowd of children and family behind me. At the top of the ridge I saw the moved earth from the first mine, and I came down and behold, at the bottom of the hill near it, there was a beat-up old Toyota pick-up truck, still running, and a small group of men dressed in worn clothes. Apparently others had also found the mine over the years.

Still, this was it, again. I went into the mine and crawled through the now even older cave-in, past the deep hole and the plank that spanned it, careful not to let my children do anything foolish near it. And when I got to the turquoise vein I was a bit, but not quite, surprised to discover that my vein had been mined. There were still some fragments left of what I remembered, which I cut out for old times sake. And I found some other blue-green pieces on the floor when I kicked up the dirt. But the main strip of turquoise had gone to other families, boys, who had also discovered it over the years. We had found the mine and I will never lose it again, it is embedded in my mind like some great destination in the middle of nowhere to go: my personal slice of the lost landscape of the Southwest complete with stories of buried treasure, just stories.

A few years after that, a friend of mine, Chris Shurilla, came to see me. He had some rappelling gear and we headed to the mine. We crawled past the cave-in and peered into the deep hole and the ladder that stretched down forever. There was an old wooden lattice built over the hole that I had so far overlooked, probably because I was always looking at where I put my feet and how close I was to the hole on my previous infractions. We tied ourselves to the beam, attached ourselves to the rope and threw two hundred meters of rope through the hole.

Chris wasn’t afraid. He swung across empty space and ZEEEE, ripped the rope apart at a frantic pace. I was cautious like a virgin bride on her wedding night, white-knuckling down the ladder one rung at a time even though I was bound and supposedly safe, secure. One of the ancient runs collapsed under my weight and I swayed into dead space. Chris laughed at me and yelled at me to hurry up. Once I coughed my heart out of my throat, I sped up my descent. When I caught up with Chris, he was dangling in midair from a larger chamber. The narrow gorge had opened up into a cavity some ten or forty meters wide. The ladder still stretched out into the darkness where it was crossed by an old catwalk supported by two-by-fours somehow attached to the seemingly distant walls of the cavern. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. The cat walk ran into a dark side cavern at each end dug into the earth. Chris says faster than I can reply, “I’ll go check it out,” he releases his tether and trots across the ancient suspended planks in the dark light like a cat on a window sill.

“Chris, you idiot,” I yell at him. Those boards are probably a hundred years old. He comes bouncing under me without concern. “Oh, they’re fine,” she says. And while I wouldn’t swear to it, maybe it was just my fear going into overdrive, I thought I watched it bounce off them as a way of testing his mettle. If they had failed, I don’t know what he or I would do. “That end,” he said, jerking his thumb toward the hole he had just investigated, “only goes a few feet and ends in dead ends.” Then he went to the other side, disappearing into the darkness again, “This side too.” He came back and tied himself back to the line and we went down some more.

We had another 75 feet of cold drop before we got too close to the end of the rope for comfort. Chris was still hanging comfortably from the rope with no hands holding the endless ladder or the sides of the rock hole. He was still holding on to the ladder, for what it was worth, because despite his old age, he felt better than nothing. But seeing Chris hanging there and the empty blackness below him, we still knew we couldn’t go any further. We pray a stone from the side of the hole and drop it. Although we were 200 meters from the original starting point, the rock made no final sound as it came to rest. We did it again with another rock. We still couldn’t hear it hit bottom.

We went back upstairs and found that our wives and children were angry with us. We had been in that hole for several hours and they said they had been yelling at us after the first thirty minutes. All they knew was that the rope was still taut and occasionally swayed.

The entire Pinto Basin area is mine-literate. if you go out, you have a high chance of dying. I do not say this to be alarmist. but seriously: there are holes in the ground big enough to drive a car through and some of them are bottomless. There are caves going hundreds of meters into the mountains, passing holes and cave-ins and rotting supports and you’re hours away from help, even by car, if you have a problem. What if the car breaks down?

Do not go out unless you are experienced and prepared. Sometimes I can’t believe I did it as a kid and then did it again with mine and then did it again with a rope, repellent gear, and a fearless friend.

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