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.
Related: This mellow hike to Lost Ranch ruins in Phoenix South Mountain Park is just right
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.
this is being dictated so there may be spelling mistakes.
It is highly possible that what you call the Lost ranch was a former rest home if it is on the side of South mountain above Levine. When I was born my parents were living in a cabin actually it was more of a bungalow type very small in a rest home on the side of South mountain and there were several other cabins of various sizes around the area. There was one large home where three world War I nurses lived that ran the area. The three world War I nurses became my aunts because all of our family was in Nebraska. The big house I remember mostly had a porch a sun porch that had glass bottles that would turn colors by the Sun and there was a living room a second living room and my aunt’s had a grandfather clock and they were not really my aunt’s. I was not born there but my parents were living there when I was born and they got to Good Sam hospital before I was born but they went back to the bungalow on the side of South mountain and live there until summer when they moved down to the base of the mountain to a yellow house that had a cooler in it. The bungalow or whatever you want to call it and I have a picture of it in the rest home was just a very small building it didn’t have any cooling at all except fans and I’m not sure it had any heat except space heater. I do know it had a kitchen because my mother told me that for some reason there was a fire in the kitchen and it was only put out by a barrel of rainwater that they kept outside. I remember we used to go there after we moved out of town and it would be night when we would get there and the old car with Brian I can still hear the gears grinding as it goes up the mountain and crosses over a bridge that went over a creek. It was later sold to a man who raised dogs and it’s my understanding that that caused the place to become so dirty and stinking that the house had to be burnt down I do not know if that is what you call the Lost ranch but I do not remember anything else or any other type of buildings like it on the side of South mountain but then I was just a baby and the last time we visited I think I was maybe 5 years old I believe one of the one was named one of the nurses was named Grace another one was Mac and I think the other one was I can’t remember the name of the other one but I have pictures of her. I know Grace lived until I was in high school and that would have been in the 60s. I don’t remember the name of the road but I can find it on the map I thought it was baseline but that’s not it it goes to Levine and go straight up the mountain to the rest home and there was a yellow house pretty much at the base of the mountain where my parents moved when it got hot in the summer. We’re talking about the early 50s. I don’t know why my parents who live in there it was after world War II and it may have been the only place in Phoenix they could have found to live. Plus my father was supposed to have had tuberculosis and was in a hospital in Phoenix but I don’t know whether that was after he got married or after the war or what anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it cuz I know it existed there was several cabins and a big house where the three world War I nurses lived and I mean well to me it was a big house
Back in the late 80s my pop and I used to explore the mine in the first ravine to the right of that place. Found a couple ore carts in there think he still has one of them
I have a vintage wooden sign I acquired several years ago from a friend that is about 2.5-3″ wide that reads “rancho del cerro perdido” , I’ve often thought it may have hung to welcome visitors to a ranch… do you think it may be original to this ranch?
Hi Heather, that’s very possible. Do you know if the sign has origins in Phoenix?
My Spanish is terrible so I used Google translate and apparently that means Lost Hill Ranch.
If you’d like to send me a pic of the sign, I could post it in and see if any readers can shed some light. My email is azwonders @ outlook.com (without spaces)
Everything else that the CCC built in the park is still up and running, but this considerably larger structure in a heavily used portion of the park was left to ruin? Still not sure… It could have fallen out of use like some other lookouts and places in the park. Or maybe the CCC DID build it, just the way is appears today, to attract people and create wonder in us all.
Has anyone attempted to cross reference any of the information about Lost Ranch with the fairly well documented history of the other fascinating structure known as the Mystery Castle, just on the north side of South Mountain? That 18 room wonder was constructed by Boyce Luther Gulley. Records indicate he lived there, building this “castle” from anything and everything he could find in the surrounding area. He lived there from 1930-1945. His wife and daughter were notified of his death, where they lived for years, mystified by the disappearance of their husband and father from Seattle. Once Gulley’s lawyer notified the 2 women, they moved to Phoenix and into the Mystery Castle. According to all of the Phoenix history records, the daughter, Mary Lou Gulley, continued to conduct tours of this amazing piece of architecture into shortly before her death, several years ago.
When I visited Mystery Castle last year, there was a huge amount of written information about the builder, Boyce Luther Gulley, and his many discoveries while he lived and worked that piece of South Mountain.
The time frame you suggest for the construction of Lost Ranch coincides with Gulley’s most active and productive period of building. He was trained at Texas Tech as I recall, and there was a plethora of information from him and discoveries his wife and daughter made after relocating and exploring this man’s amazing structure
I would be interested to know if you found any insights from this one man architect!!
It’s interesting to me that a structure so young would completely fall apart like that. In Tucson, there is a trail that starts south of the road to Gates Pass. Just 30 or so minutes in, there is a rock house, wit no roof, that had been built by a newspaper man. It has most of its walls still.
I would think because it’s not protected. A lot of people go there. And unfortunately deface the structure. 10-12 years ago my daughters Girl Scout troup walked out there to help paint over the graffiti and clean up around it.