Carey’s “castle” is anything but. It is in fact a primitive hovel beneath a giant granite boulder located in the remote southern wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park in the Southern California desert. A hermit miner named Carey excavated this rustic, nearly subterranean shelter in the 1930s. He mortared a couple rock walls to cover the openings, hung a small wooden door and installed a solitary window. Like a desert tortoise in its burrow, Carey lived in this cavelike abode for over 10 lonely years. By day he pecked and shoveled underground in his nearby Welcome Stranger Mine. By night he crouched into his “castle”, prepared beans and coffee, and read by the light of a kerosene lantern. He extracted enough gold dust to resupply himself on rare trips into town, but there is no evidence that Carey struck it rich. Sometime in the 1940s he abandoned the meagerly producing mine, gathered a few valuables and left the remote shelter largely intact as if he planned to return. He never did.
For decades the remote mine — one of hundreds of diggings scattered among the rocks of what is today Joshua Tree National Park — was rarely visited. The trail into the site was all but obliterated by the sands of time. For many years rats, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and the occasional park ranger or backcountry explorer were the only living visitors to Carey’s abandoned shelter.
We first hiked into the “castle” in December, 2000. Listed as a “strenuous adventure” in Philip Ferranti’s 75 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs (out of print), the nine-mile round-trip hike was not easy. Ascending tiring sandy washes and boulder-filled draws, the route was unmarked and confusing. As we topped out of a serpentine canyon we encountered odd bits of rusted equipment before rounding a house-sized boulder and saw the tiny door, tall as a second grader. It creaked open on aged hinges as we stooped and entered the cool, dark interior. Along the west wall were shelves laden with rusty tin cans, coffee pot, utensils and tools. A small screened window admitted some light. There was a wash tub, a stool and a derelict bed frame with rusty springs. We explored the small room with the aid of our headlamps. On the rough rock ceiling was a red ochre pictograph, evidence that ancient ones had used this shelter long before Carey.
Outside, we walked a faint trail 100 yards to the west where we encountered a gaping shaft leading steeply down into the earth, the entrance to Carey’s Welcome Stranger Gold Mine. (It has since been sealed by the Park Service for the public’s safety.) After lunch on a plank bench beside the door to Carey’s abode, we explored the jumble of giant boulders to the south of the shelter. We found a “mortero” where Indians had once ground seeds and grains, further evidence that the area had once been a camping spot for Native Americans. Perhaps 300 yards away we encountered a house-sized boulder with a concealed opening. Inside the hollow rock we found a trove of old cans, broken pottery and glass, shreds of clothing, boxes and magazines dating to the early 1940s. We surmised that this was Carey’s “secret” supplies storehouse. Like the “castle” itself, this stash had clearly been pawed through by treasure hunters. There was little of obvious value other than the age-faded Atlantic Monthly, Popular Mechanics and National Geographic magazines dating back to before World War II.
The sun was setting over the Santa Rosa Mountains after we retraced our steps down the rugged canyons and finally got back to the car parked near Chiriaco Summit. It had been a tiring hike but fun to have found the legendary Carey’s Castle. We treated ourselves to date milkshakes in Indio on the way home.
In 2013, we returned to Carey’s Castle, and this time the route finding was much easier. Hikers had erected rock cairns at the key canyon junctions and there were plenty of boot prints in the sand. Inside the shelter, there seemed to be fewer artifacts and someone had left a geocache in an ammo can. The mine entrance had been closed by a massive steel grate with US Park Service signs warning of the danger of entering mine shafts. We looked and looked for the huge hollow boulder where Carey had cached his goodies, but were frustrated in our search.
Several days ago, in February 2016, came news that Carey’s Castle and another remote site, the El Cid Mine, had been vandalized. Unspecified items had been stolen from both historic sites. In the case of Carey’s Castle, they had, among other things, stolen the small wooden door that led to his home under the massive boulder. Until a full inventory of what had been taken is completed, the Park Service has closed Carey’s Castle and the El Cid Mine to visitation.
Why are some people compelled to deface and steal old artifacts from our National Parks?Perhaps they can fetch a few dollars at a flea market for a rusty Folgers coffee can or a 1941 copy of Vanity Fair. Or maybe they think it is cool to display a beat-up old mining lantern on their mantlepiece back in the city. But by selfishly stealing these items, they deprive all visitors of seeing such historic treasures in context, in the places they were used.
It was thrilling for us 16 years ago to clamber our way through nearly five miles of wilderness to discover the remains of Carey’s Castle. And even more thrilling to see an assortment of the day-to-day belongings of the tough old miner, still on his shelves 75 years later.
Shame on the thieves. But blame also must be shared with the National Park Service for inadequately patrolling and protecting such historic sites. If it is a matter of inadequate funding, then the US Congress must give the Department of the Interior the resources it needs to more effectively manage and protect the priceless natural, historic and archeological treasures in our National Park system.