Tucked into a small valley of South Mountain Park on the opposite side of Phoenix proper is a little known ruins site that has generated all sorts of urban myths.
I stumbled onto the place shortly after I moved my family to Phoenix in 2012. That’s when I began hiking often.
We lived in an Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood. Nearby was a trail head leading to the many hiking trails on the south side of South Mountain Park.
It wasn’t long before I experienced the place from which so many legends have been born.
From a distance, you can barely make out the stone frame of a fireplace. As you get closer, a second fireplace becomes visible. When you arrive upon the site, it becomes evident this was once an elaborate structure.
I began to ask my neighbors about it. Some had never heard about. Others had conflicting stories.
It’s called Lost Ranch. That’s one detail nearly everyone agreed on.
We moved out of that neighborhood in 2016 and I accepted the fact that I may never know the true origins of Lost Ranch, until recently.
In January 2019 I met a friend at the 19th Ave and Chandler Blvd trail head for a 14-mile hike of the National Trail that runs east-west along the spine of mountains that up South Mountain Park.
Shortly after daybreak, we meandered through Lost Ranch on our way to the ridgeline. My hiking partner began asking me questions about it. I had few answers. We took a few pics before continuing on.
The day after our hike, I did some research online. Below are some of the more notable theories I uncovered.
Some of the myths about Lost Ranch in South Mountain Park
Excerpts from online discussion boards:
If this is the location I think it is, I’ve seen it from the top of the mountain, on horseback. From there it appears to be just a slab of concrete with a dirt road approach. The masonry work is very good and would probably be a bit much for a mining camp.
The blocks have the look of adobe but as you can see they are hollow, which probably means slump block. Slump block was one of the more expensive choices of building materials and was popular in the 50’s and early 60’s.
I’ve been told by several sources that it was a nudist resort for the Hollywood types. The concrete outpads were private bungalows. It was a failed venture at any rate and my guess would be that few came because it was near the nowhere town of Phoenix and because of the difficulty getting there during the 40s or 50s.
Resort or a dude ranch of some sort? It was very remote indeed from the city when it was built, obviously, although this is not too far from the old automotive test track south of the range. Water must have been a real challenge here.
“The fireplace is too fancy to be a mining structure, although there are some small mine workings to the east on the hillsides, and old trails up the ridgeline. Supposedly there was some rusted mining equipment in the area southeast of the ruins there once but by the mid-90’s when I explored here, it was gone, as development crept westward.”
Take a close look on the west side of the approach road and you will see some concrete pads that would have been used for tents/cabins.
Marty Gibson wrote an interesting article about this site in the Ahwatukee Foothills News of December 5, 2008. It’s on page 6. They have electronic versions of the paper at ahwatukee.com. The park rangers call it the Lost Ranch, and Marty’s sources think it may have been a speakeasy during Prohibition.
I believe it was a mining camp that had a place for the men working the mine. I have been all the way down and in many of the mines. It is a lot of fun but of course it is dangerous. Once, there was a huge opening to get inside but was closed by the city as now, only one hidden entrance remains only few know including myself.
Take note of the steel cable which is anchored to a rock up the road from the ruin and the diggings farther up the canyon. There is a trail from the ruin to the diggings, so the two features are probably related.
What I heard was that it was constructed in the ’50s by International Harvester to intertwined visiting execs.
I may have actually found the real story behind the origins of Lost Ranch
One participant in a discussion board had this to say: It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1930-1942 under President Roosevelt. She backed up her claim with a link to an entry on the City of Phoenix official website.
Read the full post: History of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) – South Mountain
Here is an excerpt from that post:
Between 1933 and 1940, four thousand (4,000) men worked out of two camps at South Mountain Park. During this time the men constructed over 40 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, 18 buildings, 15 ramadas, 134 fire pits, 30 water facets, water dams, and other features within the park. The architectural style for the buildings built at South Mountain Park between 1933 and 1937 was a cooperative effort between the National Park Service and the City Parks Supervisor. The slab stone masonry buildings were consistent with the Park Service’s use of regionally traditional themes utilizing environmentally compatible materials. See list of Arizona CCC Projects.
Despite the contributions made by the CCC enrollees, Americans began to question the need for the program as the nation’s economy began to improve and the availability of jobs became more widespread. The program was still held in high regards but many believed that the workers should be transferred into factories or the expanding armed forces. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shifted America’s focus to the war effort and soon a number of CCC camps had been assigned to work on military bases. By June of 1942, congress had agreed to eliminate all funding for the program, thus ending its nine years of existence.
Programs such as the CCC helped move America through the Great Depression. It proved to be a source of training and discipline for countless young men whose next battle would not be an economic fight waged in the forests and fields, but a very real shooting war fought in far-off lands where training, discipline, and respect for authority meant the difference between life and death.
Although the real story of the history of Lost Ranch may not be as fun to ponder as the many myths floating around out there, I think I may have actually uncovered the truth about the legendary place.
Want to see Lost Ranch for yourself? It’s an easy hike from the trailhead mapped below. Begin by following the way to Pyramid/Bursera Trail. When Bursera begins to steepen about a quarter mile into the hike, veer to the right and follow the Lost Ranch trail to the northwest as it crisscrosses the wash (dry river bed).
Check out this detailed hike review: This mellow hike to Lost Ranch ruins in Phoenix South Mountain Park is just right
The trail can be easy to lose in the sandy bottom of the wash. If you keep an eye on the right bank of the wash, eventually you’ll see the trail rise up a fairly steep but short slope.
Once out of the wash, you’ll be able to see a fireplace chimney poking up from the ruins back about 1/4 mile in a southwesterly direction – where two opposing mountain ridges come together.