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The Enduring Mystery Of Joshua Tree’s Iron Door Cave

The cave is so hidden and far-flung that thousands of climbers, searching for anything new, had over the years walked right past and never saw it.

Nothing embodies Josh’s (Joshua Tree National Park) alien funk vibe like the Integratron, a 38-foot high, 55-foot diameter rejuvenation and time machine based on the design of Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials. The magnificent, all wooden dome, completed in 1959, was the brainchild of the late George van Tassel, erstwhile host of the annual Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention and author of “The Council of Seven Lights.” The entire Joshua Tree province, wrote van Tassel, “is sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex, making it the third most cosmic place on earth.”

The Integratron machine outside Joshua Tree, still in use. (Photo: Jesse Eastland, Wikimedia Commons)

During peak season in the spring, when over two million souls stream through the park (including an estimated three hundred thousand day visits by climbers), every traveler experiences not so much a boundless desert plane as a recital of moods. Searing heat, blinding light, and nights so dark and lonesome “that even coyotes cry.” Countless quartz monzonite domes and outcrops complete the composition, gifting us what likely is the most popular—and eccentric—winter climbing spot on the planet.

The Desert Rats, c. 1960s, first developed Josh as a destination climbing area. Back then, the town of Joshua Tree included a dive bar (the infamous Boom-Boom Room) and a gas station cum convenience store that sold “sody pop” and those grey little sausages in the cloudy liquid that would kill all mankind if you drank it. Over the following 60 years, the little tumbleweed town became a trendy getaway for LA gentry, spawning peyote wellness retreats and vegan glamping as swank little Airbnb’s went up by the hundreds. The empty reaches of the National Park, covering 80,000 acres, had remained largely unknown for going on a century. As the crowds slowly arrived, and outlying areas were explored, travelers discovered the eccentric remnants of the homesteaders, outlaws, and kooks who had prowled these parts since the early 1900s. The Iron Door Cave (“IDC”) was the most curious of these discoveries, Tassel’s Integratron notwithstanding.

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Tradition says the late, great Richard Harrison first stumbled upon the sunken hollow formed by the convergence of several big boulders, the gaps filled in with stone and mortar. The cave is so hidden and far-flung that thousands of climbers, searching for anything new, had over the years walked right past and never saw it. A plate-steel iron door had been cemented into the entrance, through which you have to duck and wriggle. Inside lies a stone chamber, dark and cool and big enough for six to eight people to sit shoulder to shoulder. From the moment Harrison found it, word spread quickly and visiting the little stone grotto, silent for 50 years, became a rite of passage for every visiting climber.

Guidebook author Randy Vogel dug out anecdotal records (from both the Park Service and local historians) about the IDC, unseen for decades because nobody knew where it was.  Accounts vary, but they all revolved around Bill Keys, who between 1910 and his death in 1969, built Keys’ Ranch, with its arrasta and stamp mill, adobe barn, schoolhouse, tack shed, machine shop, cemetery and several houses and cabins, all tossed up in bumfuck desert. At present, Keys’ Desert Queen Ranch, one of the parks’ popular day-hiking destinations, is a shambling, rusty ruin. But the legend of Bill Keys is in fine repair.

(Photo: Library of Congress)

William Taft Keys was born at Palisade, Nebraska, in 1879. After working as a ranch hand and smelter, Keys signed on as a deputy sheriff in Mohave County, Arizona. Later, in Death Valley, Keys befriended Death Valley Scotty, and the two authored a mining swindle resulting in the “Battle of Wingate Pass,” where Keys’ own brother, Cornelius “Corny” Keys, felt the business end of a Bowie knife. Around 1910, Keys pushed on to Twenty-Nine Palms, befriending the petty outlaw and cattle thief Jim McHaney, nursing the rustler in declining health and snatching his properties once cirrhosis put him in the ground.

The Keys Ranch House, Joshua Tree National Park.
The Keys Ranch House, Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Kevin Powell)

Keys married Francis Matilda Lawton in 1918, and they had 11 children, three of whom died and were buried on the ranch. During a dispute over water rights with his neighbor Worth Bagley, a former marshal, Keys blew Bagley’s brains out with a shotgun. He was convicted of murder and sent to San Quentin prison, where Keys schooled himself in the library. Through the efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, attorney and author of the Perry Mason novels, Keys was paroled in 1950. He returned to his ranch in the Joshua Tree desert only to discover he had another problem—his son Jeremiah, then 25 and stark raving mad.

The author, behind the Iron Door. (Photo: Kevin Powell)

Records indicate that Keys built the Iron Door Cave as a lockdown for his son after discovering him cannibalizing the body of a day-laborer named Manuelito Paz, who’d gone missing while working in Keys’ stamp mill (the only remains Bill Keys found were two leg bones and a serape). Other versions say Keys used the IDC “to store his TNT and dry goods in a cool and hidden place.” Or to stash gold from nearby mines—unlikely, since the nearest mine is miles away.

Whatever the case, tromping the half-mile out to the IDC has become ritual for Josh visitors from across the globe. You wriggle into the hollow, pull the iron door closed behind you, stoke the peace pipe or open the cheap jug and start debating how such a bizarre hideout was ever built, and what the hell for. The facts all point to William Taft Keys and his lunatic son, Jeremiah. But most all of the original sources have dried up and blown away so who knows.

It’d be easy to walk by the iron door and never see it. No doubt many climbers have done that very thing. (Photo: Bernadette Regan)

Beyond the cave in every direction the desert fans out in austere lines and magnificent distances. Shadows stretch off the big rocks, black on tan. Joshua Trees, limbs crooked in arthritic attitudes, stand in silent vigil. And on the night of the gibbous moon, if the winds shift to the east just so, the cries of a man eater sometimes drift over the sand.

This article is excerpted from John Long’s new book Rogue’s Atlas. For more information and to purchase the book.