An experimental analysis of soil water retention was conducted on three substrates (an abandoned road, an overburden pile, and a heap leach) created by gold mining activities in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. We mixed each substrate with straw, and the overburden pile and heap leach with growth medium, then applied surface rock mulch to half the plots in an attempt to increase soil water-holding capacity for revegetation efforts. For each of the six treatments (controls included) we monitored soil water with time domain reflectometry following both a simulation of a rainfall event and a natural rainfall that occurred immediately following the simulation. Both the simulation and the rainfall increased soil water between 3 and 8%, depending on the substrate. Water retention patterns in the two-week periods following each water addition were similar between the simulation and rainfall, and among all substrate types as values returned to background (pre-water) conditions. The abandoned road substrate had higher background water content (16.5%) than the overburden pile (6%) and heap leach (5%). The road also had three times higher organic matter and five times higher soil nitrogen than the other two sites. Soil water retention was improved on the overburden pile by the addition of just surface rock mulch or of straw-plus-rock mulch. On the heap leach, increases were found with rock mulch only or with growth medium-plus-rock mulch. Rock mulches did not improve soil water retention and straw additions decreased soil water on the abandoned road. Judicious use of soil amendments can improve soil water conditions and improve revegetation efforts on disturbed lands in desert environments.