It was only a few years ago that I (embarrassingly) thought The Desert was a sort of sand-strewn purgatory, the kind of place you went to avoid other humans, cough up dust, and die. However, after a transformative trip to Mojave National Preserve, followed by a magical romp in the northern reaches of Joshua Tree National Park, I fell hard for the sweeping vistas, extraterrestrial plants, and spectacular silence that defines these stunning landscapes.

Shawnte - Careys Castle 06

Although I spent time in the Mojave and reveled in the geologic weirdness of Death Valley, I fell hardest for Joshua Tree with its bulging boulders, wind-swept corridors, and gold-flecked history. I’ve hoofed it to plenty of mills and mines, hurled myself up numerous rock formations, enjoyed countless loops around Barker Dam, and ogled enough rusted-out stuff to give the entire West Coast a healthy dose of tetanus, but until recently hadn’t been to one of the area’s most iconic – and mysterious – sites, Carey’s Castle.

If you pop those two words into Google, you’ll see plenty of pictures of some fancy Irish estate – but this Carey’s Castle is actually a tiny homestead tucked into a gap between two mega-sized boulders. It was built by a gentleman miner who wasn’t your typical vagrant or hermit – he actually had a family at home and built this far-out mancave to be near his prospects and enjoy some desert downtime. Hiker code stipulates that this is a sacred place, so you’ll rarely find mention of it in hiking guides, which makes it all the more appealing a destination if you’re into hidden desert stuff…and believe me, I am.

Therefore, spurred on by a sort of Nancy Drew-meets-Indiana Jones sense of adventure, I knew I had to “find” Carey’s Castle. The tradition is that you go with Someone Who Knows. This person will most likely pinky-swear you to secrecy (I was asked by my “guide” not to give specific directions), lending the whole thing a very Goonies vibe. It’s our time out here…out here, it’s our time.

Shawnte - Careys Castle 02

Tradition aside, while you can actually (sort of) locate the Castle on a topographic map, you truly do need excellent navigation and route-finding skills to get there, because the trip takes you across a wide wash into a series of snaking canyons. While we saw one very useless mega-cairn stacked right in the middle of an intersection, the path isn’t as clearly delineated as you might hope – this is a full-on cross-country trip with (fun) boulder obstacles left and right and (less fun) false canyons where you’ll huff and puff until you run into a literal wall, like a rather sun-stroked rat in a lab maze.

Shawnte - Careys Castle 03

Luckily, we made it through with no problems (other than having to pry several violent cholla segments out of my tender calves) to find we had the place to ourselves. We tossed aside our heavy packs and poked around Carey’s erstwhile estate, full of rusted-out things and dusted-up stuff, marveling at the weird magic of it all.

Shawnte - Careys Castle 04

Shawnte - Careys Castle 05

That night under a sparkling sky, with no sound other than the occasional rustling of my fellow campers, I felt completely content, settling in with a day’s worth of childlike wonder – that simple joy of striking out to discover something you didn’t know was there, or perhaps thought you’d never see. Yes, you can find GPS coordinates and maps and directions to Carey’s Castle online – and you don’t even have to look all that hard for them – but there’s something to be said for maintaining the campfire mystique of this sandy hideaway in an age where everything is exposed at the click of a button.

And there’s something to be said for childlike wonder.

Shawnte - Careys Castle 07

If you go: Bring a topographic map and know how to read it. Similarly, bring a compass and know how to use it with the map. Carry a lot of water – there is none available on the trail. I brought 8 liters for an overnight and drank every drop. Tote a multi-tool or fork to yank out the inevitable cholla chunk; since this is a cross-country hike, the place is littered with pokey stuff. Be aware of and avoid walking on the cryptobiotic soil – this is a living crust that provides a foothold for the plantlife in the area; our footsteps destroy this. Take only memories – there used to be a lot more artifacts in the Castle, but people have absconded with them over the years. There also used to be a door guarding the entrance – that was vandalized and was removed by the Park Service. And of course, as always – carry your Ten Essentials and Leave No Trace!

I am a curiosity-seeking, adventure-loving, outdoor-rambling professional word wrangler.





8 Comments

Chris Miramontes Jun 7, 2015 14:06

How many miles is it from the parking spot?

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Shawnté Salabert Apr 23, 2015 15:04In reply to: Greg Fowler

Hi, Greg - so cool that you were able to visit so long ago...and that it still looks as it did when you found it; It really is a special place!

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Greg Fowler Apr 18, 2015 23:04

Found it in '91 or '92. Just walked up on it after seeing some 55 gallon barrels. Had just sparse directions from few incomplete reports, prior the internet. Just getting to the parking area was all luck! The latest photos reveal exactly what we saw that day over twenty years ago. What a jewel. Me and Frank Barta are so relieved to know it is still preserved. The place is magic. Greg S Fowler

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Donna Jul 5, 2014 18:07

FYI - It's actually called Cary's Castle (not Carey's) after Arthur Lloyd Cary who had originally staked out the nearby "Welcome Stranger Mine" in 1938.

This site is better as it actually gives a bit more history!

http://deathvalleyjim.com/2013/11/07/careys-castle-elusive-cave-cache-joshua-tree-national-park/

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Shawnté May 5, 2014 16:05In reply to: Tender Branson

Thanks for the tip - I haven't heard of Samuelson Rock; you guys are giving me ideas for future adventures!

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Tender Branson May 5, 2014 14:05

There's a petroglyph on the ceiling too, if I recall, making some un-named ancient the castles' original occupant. For years this trail was mis-marked with rock cairns to lead people away from the place. But considering the environment that probably wasn't a very good idea. Also, if you like finding weird stuff off the beaten Joshua Tree track try finding Samuelson Rock. That's an interesting place too.

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Shawnté May 5, 2014 11:05In reply to: Ellen

Glad you enjoyed this one! I actually learned about the cryptobiotic soil during this hike, and was careful to avoid it during my recent trip to the Eagle Mountain area - gotta take care to protect the places we love! I haven't heard of the home for asthmatics - sounds like something I should research; thanks for the tip!

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Ellen May 5, 2014 10:05

That is so cool. I have hiked there forever and did not know of this spot. Have you seen the ruins of the home for asthmatics by Barker Dam? Also appreciate your note about cryptobiotic soil. Thank you!

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