Pinto Wye Arrastra

Most arrastras were powered by mules. The Pinto Wye Arrastra was powered by a four horsepower gasoline engine.
Most arrastras were powered by mules, this one of a kind design was gas powered.

County: San Bernardino

Primary Mineral: The mill (arrastra) was associated with at least one gold mine. The main one can be found on the hill above. Another possibly related mine can be found in the next canyon over.

Years of Operation: The builder of the arrastra and the name of the mine(s) is unknown. The National Park Service estimates that the arrastra was built in the 1930s.

Nearest City or Landmark: Near the Pinto Wye (a "Y" shaped merge of Park Blvd. and Pinto Basin Road), inside Joshua Tree National Park

Depth: The two mines possibly associated with the arrastra are both shallow, less than 30 feet deep.

The Pinto Wye Arrastra is not marked on maps, and there's no trail leading to it.
Discovered in the 1960s, the name of the mine associated with this arrastra is unknown.


There are dozens of areas and artifacts within Joshua Tree that the National Park Service doesn’t publicize, in their literature or on their maps. The Pinto Wye arrastra falls into that category. There are no trails to it, and you’ll have to do your homework to find it, but it’s a one of a kind artifact and rare historical find.

Closeup of one of ta sweep and a drag stone. This unit made about eight revolutions per minute.
Closeup of a sweep and drag stone. To preserve the structure the sweeps were replaced.

Actually arrastras aren’t all that rare. You can find old arrastra pits all over the Mojave desert, and a few others within the Joshua Tree boundaries. But finding one with the original wooden wheel and pivot mechanics is rare. And the Pinto Wye “wagon wheel” arrastra is “one of a kind”. The Library of Congress lists it as “the only wagon wheel arrastra yet found possessing integrity of location and construction.”

Here's what the Pinto Wye Arrastra originally looked like. Historical photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The arrastra when it was discovered in the 1960s. Courtesy Library of Congress.


The Pinto Wye arrastra actually has no given name. Nor does the mine associated with it. The "dubbed named" comes from a nearby “wye” or “Y shape” where Pinto Basin Road meets Park Blvd. No one knows who owned it or what the true name of the mine was. According to the Library of Congress it was depression era mill, built sometime back in the 1930s.

The Pinto Wye Arrastra was discovered in the 1960s and repaired by the National Park Service.
illustration by the Historic American Engineering Record, and the National Park Service.

This mill was discovered in the 1960s and was in fairly bad shape, which you can see by scrolling up a few photos. Since then it’s been repaired and added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Personally I would have preferred seeing it in its original condition, but eventually it would have fallen to pieces, so I understand why the repairs were made.

The mine on the hill behind the Pinto Wye Arrastra is shallow, less than 30 feet deep.
This is the small mine or prospect on the hill above the arrastra.  It's a shallow one.

The Prospect

The prospect associated with the arrastra is high up on a hillside above the mill. You can see it from a distance if you look for the tailings. On the way to the mine you’ll pass remnants of the old camp. This mine is not a deep one, but would be typical for a small operation using an arrastra as its ore crusher. I’m guessing there were only two or three miners involved in this venture. There’s another small mine in the next canyon over, which may or may not be related. Both mines are crumbly, and I would suggest staying out. 

A view from inside the mine. From here ore was dragged down the hill to the arrastra.
Ore from this mine was processed into gold amalgam by the nearby arrastra.

What Is An Arrastra? 

An arrastra, sometimes spelled "arrastre" is an ancient milling device use to crush and process ore. This originates from the Spanish word arrastrar, “to drag along the ground”. Mexican miners sometimes called arrastras “rastras”. Though slow and crude, these mills were inexpensive to build and were often used for small and remote mining operations.

Near the arrastre several artifacts can be found. I'm not exactly sure what this one was.
Artifact found near the arrastra. A miner's shelter was also found, 1/4 mile from the mine.

The Mexican method of constructing these units was to lay a circular, level track of stone, with a low wall around the outside.In the center a post sometimes made of a tree was cut off, and another small tree was used to create a horizontal shaft. This arm was attached to one or more large stones, which were dragged around the circular pit by donkey, grinding the quartz into powder. Gold being the heaviest element would naturally fall into the lowest places. Quicksilver (mercury) and water were added to the pulpy mix of crushed quartz causing the gold to become amalgamated. The “gold amalgam” was then collected out of the cracks and low places. The remaining mercury would then be heated into vapor and run through a small tube where it would be turned back into its liquid form, for future use.

About one quarter mile from the arrastra the old miner's camp can be found.
A sculpted rock next to the miner's camp. There's also a rock shelter nearby.

While most arrastras were powered by mules or water wheels, a small number used steam, gasoline engines or even electricity. The one you see on this page was powered by a four-horsepower International upright gasoline engine, which rotated a highly unusual bull wheel, made from two stacked wagon wheels surrounded by a circular frame. The arms that pulled the drag stones along the stone floor were called sweeps. and the outer wall was called coping stone. An arrastra of this size would have processed about five hundred pounds of ore at a time. This was a very slow process, the wheel turned about eight revolutions per minute. At this rate it would require from three to four hours to grind one batch sufficiently.

About one quarter of a mile from the mine there's an old miner's camp, with scattered remnants left behind.
Old bed springs, broken dishes and rusty cans were found at the miner's camp. 

Water was added to the stone floor as the ore was ground, which would eventually turn into a pulpy mix. About 3/4 of an hour before a batch was thoroughly ground, quicksilver (mercury) was added. Depending on the richness of the quartz, five hundred pounds of tailings would contain about three quarters of an ounce of gold. Using the right amount of quicksilver was somewhat of a science. which had to be kept free of grease to insure a proper distillation retort (heating into a gas form), a recovery method to retrieve the mercury for its next use. The final mix of gold recovered was called amalgam. Arrastras were mainly used for gold ore, but sometimes for silver.

The remains of an old tobacco tin, found near other rusted cans at the miner's camp.
An old tobacco tin. Remains suggest that this was a very small mining operation.


Mercury was used for centuries to process gold ore, but was extremely toxic and led to many deaths. It’s still being used in Africa today, but many African nations are trying to outlaw this method. Long term exposure to mercury (quicksilver), especially in its vapor form will often lead to tremors, emotional changes, loss of peripheral vision, impairment of speech, muscle weakness, hallucinations, and eventual insanity. The term “Mad Hatter” comes from hat makers of the 18th and 19th centuries, when mercury was used to process the fur of small animals. Tremors associated with mercury poisoning were often referred to as “hatter’s shakes”.

Another shallow mine found in the next canyon over. This was most likely a Depression era digging.
Another prospect found in a nearby canyon, possibly part of the same mining operation.

In one famous case, a hat maker named Boston Corbett who became a soldier in the Civil War was sent out to track and capture John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Troops were given specific orders to take Booth alive, but Corbett disobeyed orders and, during what he described as a religious vision, killed Booth. Corbett was considered a religious zealot. He had castrated himself with a pair of scissors years before, to curb his labido. After the war he went back to the hat making industry, and eventually ended up in a mental asylum after threatening a group of people with a gun. He disappeared from the facility and was never found. It is my opinion that long term exposure to mercury led to the strange behavior, health problems and eventual death of Johnny Lang, who once owned the nearby Lost Horse Mine. You can read Lang's story by clicking here … Lost Horse Mine

Looking out from inside the second mine. These can be dangerous, so stay out.
View from the inside of a second prospect. This one has since collapsed.

Desert Weirdness

There’s something about desert towns. They seem like something out of yesteryear, as if time stopped in the 1950s. Old buildings never get torn down, and weird abandoned shacks dot the landscape. The Joshua Tree area has always been a magnet for artists and other misunderstood outcasts. Most people who live out here are either somehow related to the military, broke and looking for solitude, or working in the creative fields. Each time I drive down Twentynine Palms Highway something new and strange catches the corner of my eye. A randomly placed WWII bomb mounted on a concrete slab, welded dinosaurs standing watch next to the road, a giant cowboy next to a service station. It goes on and on. Stopping to take photos isn’t always easy, there’s not always a good place to pull over. And the people who live here aren't always friendly towards outsiders.  

A randomly placed dinosaur beside Twentynine Palms Hwy. There are a few others nearby.
Roadside oddity on Twentynine Palms Hwy. This desert is a magnet for creative people.

Pioneertown - Revisited

I’m not crazy about tourist traps, but occasionally I’ll drop by one to snap a few photos. Pioneertown is located up in the hills above Yucca Valley. Started in 1946 by actor Dick Curtis, it fell into the hands of San Bernardino County in the late 1960s. This was originally a motion picture set themed after a late 1800s western town. Hundreds of Westerns and early television shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan’s Judge Roy Bean. 

Pioneertown was started in 1946 by actor Dick Curtis. Hundreds of westerns were filmed here.
Pioneertown was a western movie set built in the 1940s. There's no admission cost.


This town had one of the oldest continually running bowling alleys in California, called Pioneer Bowl. Roy Rogers himself rolled out the first ball in 1949. The bowling alley finally closed in 2010. Every episode of Gene Autry’s show was filmed there. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame and other notable musicians frequently played inside a building called Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Today Pioneertown is an actual small town, with a population of 350 people. It nearly burned down in 2006 during the Sawtooth Complex Fire, but firefighters were able to save it. There’s no admission charge and it’s open 365 days a year. Click here for more photos of Pioneertown.

Western buggy found on a road near Joshua Tree. I think it's an ad for Pioneertown. 


The Bizarre Story of Gram Parsons 
Gram Parsons was an enormously influential star of both rock and country music in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Named one of the 100 Greatest Artists by Rolling Stones Magazine, Parsons was credited with founding both the country rock and alt-country music genres. He became enamored with Joshua Tree National Monument, where he frequently partook in psychedelic drugs and reportedly experienced several UFO sightings. During one of his visits to the desert with friends in 1973 he booked two rooms at the Joshua Tree Inn. During a bar hopping session he drank six double tequilas and later purchased morphine from an unknown woman. Later that night he returned to room number eight at the Inn, where he injected morphine and overdosed. Parsons was pronounced dead on arrival at the High Desert Memorial Hospital on September 19th.

This memorial for Gram Parsons at Cap Rock gets sandblasted occasionally.


Before his death, Parsons had stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and that his ashes should be spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature. Now the story takes a strange twist. Back in Louisiana, Parson’s stepfather Bob organized a private ceremony and neglected to invite anyone from the music industry. Bob stood to inherit Gram’s share of his grandfather’s estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, so he wanted to ensure that Gram’s body was buried there.

Gram Parsons death at Joshua Tree Inn started a strange chain of events.


Phil Kaufman, Gram’s record producer, wanting to fulfill his friend’s last wishes, borrowed a hearse and drove to Los Angeles International Airport, where the body was about to be flown to Louisiana. Somehow he convinced the airline staff to release Parson’s body to him and drove it to Joshua Tree. Upon his arrival at Cap Rock he flung the coffin open, poured five gallons of gas on the body and struck a match. The result was an enormous fireball, which caught the attention of the local police. They gave chase to Kaufman as he took flight in his borrowed hearse, but Kaufman escaped. He was arrested two days later, but at that time there was no law against stealing a dead body, so he was only fined $750, for stealing the coffin. What was left of Graham’s remains was eventually buried in Louisiana. 

This concrete slab, originally located at Cap Rock was relocated to Joshua Tree Inn.


A fictionalized movie called Grand Theft Parsons was made in 2003 about the bizarre incident. The site at Cap Rock was marked by a small concrete slab over a large rock that rock climbers refer to as the Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. It was eventually removed by the National Park Service and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn. Today the memorial site at Cap Rock is marked only by a few hand painted marks by fans, which are sand blasted by the park service from time to time.