Cottonwoods along the East Verde stand naked and forlorn.The fish hatchery is shuttered and silent. Winter is closing in on the high country. So it must be time to look for legends and gold, down south in the jagged wilderness of the Superstitions.
Time to once more wander down trails haunted by mystery, death — and the legend of the Lost Dutchman.
Fortunately, although the Superstitions hoard their secrets in puzzle boxes of lava and thorn — even a fruitless search for gold yields unexpected treasures.
Mostly, people associate the Superstitions and the 300-acre, hiking-trail-blessed Lost Dutchman State Park with the mysterious, semi-mythological Jacob Waltz — the “Lost Dutchman.”
The German-born Waltz wandered into the area in the 1870s, when Apaches still haunted the rugged canyons and desperate prospectors dreamed of giant gold nuggets. His mysterious life has since been encrusted with myth, like a vein of gold-laced quarts gleaming in a bed of lava.
The uncontested facts are intriguing.
He worked for a time in the rich, Vulture Mine in Wickenburg before wandering into the Apache-haunted Superstitions, already gleaming with myth.
Supposedly, the Peralta family had discovered gold decades before in the Superstitions on their sprawling land grant. However, Apaches repeatedly killed first the Spanish and then the Mexican explorers, ranchers and gold seekers who wandered into that harsh landscape of dead volcanoes, looming lava flows, bizarre hoodoos of fused volcanic ash and boot-piercing scatterings of cholla. No documents have emerged to back up the tales of a mine deep in the contorted heart of the Superstitions, nor of the 1848 ambush of a party loaded with gold. Supposedly, only two members of the Peralta family escaped. They fled back to Mexico, with stories of a hidden mine and gold nuggets cached in caves.
Maybe it’s even true, although historians have uncovered no hard evidence to support the story. Certainly, the Apaches wandered freely through the Superstitions and took a dim view of prospectors. Later first-person Apache accounts say that the Apaches considered digging in the earth for gold profane. Moreover, the Apache had little compunction about killing isolated prospectors invading their territory for their mules, guns and supplies.
On the other hand, the story has several problems. First, gold probably wouldn’t form in the volcanic spires and fissures of the Superstitions — although small deposits could conceivably form as a result of geothermal activity in fissures in the rock. That probably accounts for the modest deposits at Goldfield at the edge of the Superstitions. The lack of documents about the supposedly rich mine in Mexico and the failure of the Peraltas to ever try to reclaim the mine argues for skepticism.
Still, the rumors of buried gold and untold riches continued to percolate.
So when Jacob Waltz and his partner Jacob Weiser emerged from the Superstitions with a small stash of gold ore, the old legends quickly revived.
Several times, Waltz and Weiser emerged from the mountains and sold their ore for a modest grubstake. Eventually, Waltz emerged alone — insisting lurking Apaches had killed his partner. Others suspected Waltz had decided he didn’t need a partner and done the dirty deed himself.
The story has gained lurid embellishments with the retelling.
Supposedly, several prospectors overheard Waltz’s claim that he’d found a vein of ore in the Superstitions and followed him into the mountains, hoping to steal his claim. Most never returned — or so the story goes.
Some now argue that perhaps Waltz had actually stolen nuggets from the Vulture Mine when he worked there and then passed them off as the gleanings from his mysterious mine. Others suggest that he had located deposits associated with the Goldfield Mine, which was officially discovered later.
Certainly, Waltz never brought in more than a dribble of gold. He remained a local character, perhaps reveling in his reputation. As his health dwindled, he moved to Phoenix. He died some 20 years later — in 1891. He was nearly penniless — odd for someone with a hidden gold mine.
On his deathbed, he solidified his own legend by telling the neighbor woman who tended him he had discovered a rich vein of gold in the shadow of Weaver’s Needle, an awesome volcanic plug in the heart of the Superstitions. He claimed he had a map that had led him to the old Peralta Mine. Before he died, he drew a vague map and left it with his neighbor — Julia Thomas.
People have been seeking the Dutchman’s mine ever since. A flurry of frustrated interest after his death faded quickly.
But the legend revived in the 1930s when the elderly Dr. Adolph Ruth arrived in Apache Junction, clutching what he said was a copy of Waltz’s deathbed map. He set off into the Superstitions on a sweltering summer day and vanished. His skull — perhaps with a bullet hole — turned up several months later.
Treasure hunters showed up periodically in the ensuing decades. Several died lonely deaths from exposure, cave-ins or undetermined causes. The gold fever peaked in the 1950s, when two groups of prospectors camped in the shadow of Weaver’s Needle started a shooting war. Three died before a truce was declared.
The search for buried gold has settled down since, spawning daydreams, occasional forays and a wealth of books and articles — without a trace of ore.
Of course, gold ore hunters will miss the real buried treasure.
Perhaps that’s because wet years in the Superstitions are scarcer than sweet-smelling prospectors.
Which brings us to the Lost Dutchman State Park, which offers year-round solace and unpredictable golden bonanzas.
On most even moderately wet years, the front slope of the Superstitions — especially along the several miles of hiking trails threading through the park — erupt into a sea of yellow as the desert brittle bush burst into flower in the spring.
After consistently wet winters — which come about once every five to eight years — the real treasure erupts suddenly from the tough, volcanic soil — seas of Mexican poppies, intermingled with lurid purple outbursts of Owl’s Clover and other flowers.
Local residents wait hopefully every year for the riotous outbursts — except in obvious droughts. The outburst of color transforms the harsh desert into a fantasy world stolen from a chapter in the Wizard of Oz.
Of course, even if in those long dry spells between the flower riots, the Superstitions in general and the Lost Dutchman Park in particular, offer myriad attractions. You enter the park off Arizona 88, the Apache Trail, just north of Apache Junction and pay the $6 entrance fee. The park runs up to the base of the lava and ash cliffs of the Superstitions and includes five different hiking trails, most of them easy to moderate. The park draws some 80,000 visitors a year, especially during the spring wildflower season. Many people just drive to the picnic areas — with bathrooms, tables and grills — and gaze up at the mountains and out across the Valley. Many enjoy the meandering hiking trails.
One of the most popular trails is the 2.4-mile-long Treasure Loop Trail toils up the jagged slope to the base of the bizarre rock formations the bristle at the base of the mountains. The tougher Siphon Draw trail climbs the front slope and then enters a narrowing canyon.
The Lost Dutchman Park offers the most accessible route into the Superstitions. Trails from there connect to more extensive hikes into the wilderness area. However, the Peralta Trailhead just down Highway 60 toward Globe offers a better jumping-off point for the interior of the Superstitions. The trailhead, well marked on the highway, lies down a long dirt road.
Either way, a visit to the park or a trek into the wilderness will yield a guaranteed wealth of scenery — especially in the winter when the temperature trends toward perfect on a long hike.
So no need to wait out the winter in front of the fire, the Dutchman awaits.
Just watch your step.
If you go
Good roads, small towns and popular lakes ring this 160,000-acre wilderness crammed with wild, volcanic scenery, wildlife, and history. To start the Superstition tour, just take State Highway 60 east from Phoenix about 40 miles toward Apache Junction. On most days, you can see the imposing front face of the Superstitions from Phoenix itself.
The Superstitions boast some 180 miles of formal trails and 12 trailheads. You can obtain information about trail conditions and maps from the U.S. Forest Service in Phoenix, 2324 E. McDowell Rd. or Box 5348; 85010 (phone: 261-6446).
Trails from Don’s Camp:
Take U.S Route 60, the Superstition Highway, on beyond where it turns from freeway into divided highway and turns east to run along the front of the Superstitions. Look for a brown Forest Service sign about eight miles east of Apache Junction marking the road to the Peralta Trailhead, down about six miles of well-graded dirt road. The trails all start from the north end of a small parking lot at the very end of that dirt road.
Trails to Weaver’s Needle:
Cave Trail to Fremont Saddle: Intermediate but steep in spots, 2.2 miles.
Peralta Trail to Fremont Saddle: Easy, 1.8 miles.
Fremont Saddle to Weaver’s Needle: Easy, 1.4 miles.
Peralta Trail isn’t difficult, except for a series of switchbacks up to Fremont Saddle. Stay to the left where the trail forks right out of the parking lot. The hike from the saddle to the Needle is a long, easy grade with a few switchbacks. Water may be obtained west of the Needle at Piper’s Springs.