Mission Creek Preserve: The Life and Death of the T Cross K Ranch

The T Cross K Guest Ranch, then and now. Composite by John Earl.

Drive north out of Palm Springs on Highway 62, past Desert Hot Springs, and the appreciative eye is drawn towards the majesty of Mount San Gorgonio to the west. 11,503 feet above sea level, and about 9,000 feet above this place right here, the Mission Creek Preserve.

In a land that is a little bit Mojave Desert, with a touch of the Sonoran Desert thrown in for good measure, Mission Creek Preserve is an often-overlooked gem on the way to its more famous and bigger cousin, Joshua Tree National Park. Mission Creek Preserve offers 4,760 acres of contrast and mystery, just up the road from Interstate 10.

Just what is this place, anyway? Some believe it was a Civilian Conservation Camp from the time of the Great Depression. ‘Taint so! Fact is, it was a ranch of a kind, catering to the Hollywood elite, years before Palm Springs took off to world-class stature.

The Life and Times of the T Cross K

Bulldozed after the big fire of 1960, remains of the former T x K main ranch house can still be found in the creek bed. Here, Jaylyn points to the famous brand chiseled in a large chunk of discarded concrete.

Long before T Cross K Guest Ranch was even a twinkle in somebody’s eye, special commissioner for the Mission Indians, Charles A. Wetmore, encouraged President Grant in 1876 to set aside land for reservations, and in 1877 the Mission Agency was established…one of the reservations created was Mission Creek reservation, of which George Wharton James, author of The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (1906) aptly wrote, “Then the white man came and drove the Indian out (as he had no legal title) and built an adobe house.”

The Mission Creek reservation seems to have been labeled as “hog ranch” for a number of years. R.T. Hill, author of Southern California Geology and Los Angeles Earthquakes (1928), commented that “The eastward continuation of the Mill Creek Fault passes by the little Indian reservation marked ‘Hog Ranch’ on the southeast corner of the San Bernardino topographic map of the United States Geological Survey.” It was again shown as “Hog Ranch” on the Punnett Brothers sectional map published in 1906.

Note: Many thanks to local Virginia Anderson Neal, who informed us the ranch was originally owned by Talmage and Kimberly thus creating the name T Cross K.

Author Cabot Yerxa was the first to write about the ranch by name. He recalled that in 1912 Frank William DeLong (1886-1950) and his wife, Francis, bought the T Cross K as a cattle ranch in Mission Canyon alongside Mission Creek. It even had its own cattle brand. In those days, cattle ranged the desert very freely. But the hog ranch designation persisted, according to a Bureau of Soils Map of 1917. Frank was often a frequent character mentioned in the Desert Sentinel‘s colorful weekly excerpts from Yerxa’s book of the same title, On the Desert, recalling Yerxa’s bountiful adventures and is considered the founding father of Desert Hot Springs.

Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1937.

John S. Brown, author of Routes to Desert Watering Places in the Salton Sea Region, California, published in 1920, was quoted in David G. Thompson’s book titled Mohave Desert Region, California: a Geographic, Geologic, and Hydrologic Reconnaissance, published in 1929 “…to the right is the road to the resort town of Desert Hot Springs; farther along, to the left, is the road to Mission Creek and the T-K Ranch. In this area, the road crosses the Metropolitan aqueduct, carrying water from the Colorado River to Los Angeles…”

Mr. Brown continued, “In January, 1918, a board sign directed along this road to the T-K ranch, 1 3/4 miles away, the old road entered the canyon, passing through the foothills of the San Bernardino and Little San Bernardino Mountains.” Note the differences in spelling of the ranch.

In July 1928, the San Bernardino Sun reported the T Cross K Ranch was sold to Norman Ferra. Evidently Frank DeLong and a local Native American named Steve Kitching, had been feuding over water rights for some years. At the time, T Cross K had about a dozen cabins, a large ranch house, and a swimming pool. Ferra planned on improving the property and establishing T Cross K as a dude ranch, managed by an expert, with a fine string of horses for use by the guests. The Ferra brothers were said to be on very good terms with local Indians. The DeLongs went on a trip to Oregon after the sale. Incidentally, Kitching Peak above Cabazon is named for the the same Kitching family.

Desert Magazine, 1938.

The T Cross K Guest Ranch was doing well in 1935, and was advertised in local newspapers. At that time, a local well driller and oilman in the Coachella Valley, named John “J.R.” Holliday, managed the ranch. In an April 1935 article in The San Bernardino Sun, JR was referred to as the owner of T Cross K.

John Rogers, “J.R.,” Holliday. The photographer’s name is unknown to us, but it just might answer the question of who shot J.R.

Perhaps to distance himself from the more famous John “Doc” Holliday of Tombstone fame, J.R. Holliday appeared to be doing well, and the ranch was a popular attraction in the Coachella Valley.

The Main Ranch house and Dining Room at the T Cross K Ranch.
Photo courtesy of Pomona Public Library.
Today, only the giant fireplace remains. Composite by John Earl.

These four stone cabins are at the entrance of Mission Creek Preserve and contain shaded concrete picnic tables nearby a dry fountain, former swimming pool and tall stone fireplace. Complete with a babbling brook, everything is within an easy walking distance from the parking lot. The awe inspiring Mount San Gorgonio –the tallest peak in California– stands as a Goliath sentinel in the background.

Snow capped Mount San Gorgonio can be seen from many vantage points in the Preserve.
An abandoned blue-painted pool, fountain and stone fireplace are easily accessible. You will also find many rock-lined but overgrown paths near them. There is also a picnic table under a gnarled tree.
The ranch land was once a Mission Creek Indian Reservation.

By the 1950s, we find that the T Cross K Guest Ranch had undergone a name change by its lease owners, Jack and his registered nurse wife, Jerry Wilkenson, but remained a popular guest ranch. In early 1952, a local newspaper article deemed it “King Saul Guest Ranch” but advertisements later that same year referred to it as “King SOL Guest Ranch.” Its Grand Opening took place on August 16, 1952. Ads in local papers claimed Bessie, the ranch’s cook, whipped up dinners that couldn’t be topped.

Desert Sentinel, 21 August 1952.

The Desert Sun, 1 December 1956.

Owner Thompson W. Burnam, wealthy inventor of a fog nozzle that became standard fire fighting equipment, spent $600,000 on improvements in 1952 on the 250 acre property to make accommodations for 26 people. Thom’s wife, Aletha Burnam was a Desert Hot Springs socialite and president of the Desert Hot Springs Women’s Club. Thom Burnam passed away in June, 1954.

Then a little family drama became public…

The San Francisco Examiner, 17 August 1957.

Still an attraction to the elite and health-minded, the Ranch which apparently reverted back to its former name of T Cross K. An ad in the local paper in March, 1960 sought to sell 25 French windows, a 10 KW diesel, horse trailer and other items.

The T Cross K remained in operation until May 1, 1960, when a fire destroyed the two main buildings, leaving only the fireplace and the walls of four stone cabins. Five fire units fought the blaze for 8 hours. The fire damage totaled $42,000 dollars. It was attributed to faulty electrical wiring.

Desert Sentinel, 2 December 1960.

Mrs. Burnam got re-married to Dudley Walters, a professional horse racing gambler, six months later, in November 1960. They had a lavish wedding reception at Highlanders Restaurant in Desert Hot Springs on January 15, 1961, which was attended by over 250 guests.

The ranch eventually became the property of the Wildlands Conservancy, the largest private non-profit landowner in California, that operates the Mission Creek Preserve to this day. It’s doubtful the former owners ever imagined the ranch would someday be part of something called the Sand to Snow National Monument. But how did it all come about?

Although the small round pool is not diving depth, it looks like it would have been refreshing on a hot summer day.

You see, way back in 1994 under the California Desert Protection Act, conservation of the San Gorgonio wilderness was increased to 38,000 acres, allowing the creation of Mission Creek Preserve. In 2004, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a strong proponent for the Desert Protection Act, was the guest speaker at Mission Creek Preserve for a gathering to celebrate the Act’s tenth anniversary.

So who were the bearers of the ranch’s original initials, T and K? We still do not know but we will follow up with more research.

By December of 2010, Senator Feinstein introduced a 170-page bill called the California Conservation Act of 2010 which fleshed out previous conservation acts for consideration to the Senate Energy and State Resources Committee, seeking to balance beauty and growth. Spurred by conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, Wildlands Conservancy, Mojave Desert Land Trust, Defenders of Wildlife, The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Desert Mountains, Senator Feinstein took further action. Come 2015, the Senator urged President Obama to create national monuments.

We assume this was once a flower bed in the gardens near the pool.

In February 2016, invoking the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Obama via executive order authorized the creation of the Sand to Snow National Monument, which encompasses Mission Creek Preserve, thrilling conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts who had long fought for the beloved landscapes be protected from development. The Sand to Snow National Monument stretches from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the peak of San Gorgonio, comprising 154,000 acres. The Mojave Trails Monument is larger, spanning 1.6 million acres and surrounding historic Route 66, between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

Photo courtesy of Calispere, University of California.

However, in September 2018, the Desert Hot Springs City Council voted 4-1 and approved Adkan Engineering to build Mission Creek Trails, a 481-acre development which could include almost 2,000 homes, commercial space, a park and walking trails if fully built out. The project, which has come before the council in different iterations, sits on the west side of Highway 62 at the entrance to Mission Creek Preserve and Sand to Snow National Monument. In October 2018, conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the proposed project. The project area is home to imperiled wildlife, including the burrowing owl and Palm Springs pocket mouse.

The rear of the casita’s have wooden plaques on them that likely once were marked with cabin numbers.

Cholla cactus and Mojave yucca dot the desert landscape at the preserve entrance while a single crag of the San Jacinto mountains splits the horizon.

Rusty cans of old are a reminder of those who once lived here long ago. Remember, all artifacts are protected.

The moderate eight-mile trek one way from the entrance of the Mission Creek Preserve parking lot, adjacent to the remains of the T Cross K, to the Whitewater Preserve has a 1,300-feet elevation gain and one of the best spring flower displays following a wet winter, and great views of Mount San Gorgonio.

Note the same rocks in the fireplace in the present and from the past (below).
Photo courtesy of University of California.

The ranch, in its heyday, sported a wading pool and fountain in addition to the standard fare of dude ranches everywhere, horseback riding.

Mission Creek is only a few inches deep but has proven last Winter it can fill up quickly past its banks. Stay aware of the weather.
View from one of the casita’s picnic tables. The ceilings are open but wood slats provide shade.
Somebody got fancy with Aqua Net hairspray and Avon Cotillion cologne. Remnants of the former ranch remain in the area. All artifacts are protected by law. Leave them for others to enjoy.
Mission Creek runs all-year round. Its rushing water makes for a peaceful sound. However, under certain circumstances it can turn into a raging river.

If you want to hike further into Mission Creek Preserve, and we hope you do, you will find the spacious “Stone House” just one and a half miles from the picnic area down a scenic trail, mostly next to the creek. It re-opened last April after damaging floods eroded the road. The rock strewn trail is rated moderate. Closed toe shoes are recommended.

Wetlands between the Stone House and the casitas harbor many forms of wildlife.

Mission Creek Preserve is open to the public free of charge seven days a week from dawn until dusk.

Seeing blooming wildflowers in December is always a nice surprise following a few seasonal showers earlier in the month.

It’s fun identifying the many resident and migrating birds in the area. Dogs are allowed on leash.

Wildlands Conservancy accepts group reservations 48 hours in advance for tent camping and use of the house. There are clean facilities and potable water on site. You will be able to drive past the gate for the 1.6 miles from the parking lot to the Stone House.

We enjoyed looking at the maps and informative wall displays in the spacious Stone House.

You can hike two more miles past the stone house to reach the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from Mexico to Canada. The PCT runs up Mission Creek, through San Gorgonio Wilderness and Sand to Snow National Monument, from about mile 226 to mile 240.

There are two restrooms near the Stone House. To our delight, they were well stocked and very clean. Since the water is highly fluoridated, it is recommended children not drink it.

So there you have it, folks. Scandal, intrigue, and politics. Nothing’s as simple as it appears on its surface, that’s for sure. We suggest you put all that aside, and let the desert work its magic on you. Breathe in that fresh air, listen to the trickling of Mission Creek, maybe even watch a hawk or two soar thru the sky, but above all drink in that precious commodity called silence. Let your mind drift and know that at least for right now, this very special spot on the planet will live on to infinitum thanks to the diligent efforts of champions behind the scenes. It will renew your spirit and bring you peace.

Although there were some minor puddles on the floor from a rainfall the night before, the Stone House looked very comfortable.

DRIVING DIRECTIONS TO MISSION CREEK PRESERVE: From Interstate 10 past the Highway 111 turnoff, exit Highway 62 toward Yucca Valley then proceed 5.5 miles to Mission Creek Road (see the small green sign on right)…. turn left on Mission Creek Road and follow it approximately 5 miles on a two lane dirt road to the gate.

Recommended Resources:

A Peculiar Piece of Desert, the Story of California’s Morongo Basin by Lulu Rasmussen O’Neal, 1957.

https://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_missioncreek.html

Topo Map

https://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lon=-116.61422967910765&lat=34.0014493251897#.XXLwY39lCUk

https://wagwalking.com/lifestyle/trails/mission-creek-preserve

https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/local/desert-hot-springs/2018/09/20/desert-hot-springs-oks-california-homes-near-sand-snow-monument/1364234002/

https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2018/Mission-Creek-Trails-10-25-2018.php

Jaylyn

Seek the Heat at The Desert Way with us! https://www.youtube.com/c/thedesertwaywithjaylynandjohn/ facebook.com/thedesertway twitter.com/desert_way instagram:the_desert_way

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