The car sat empty in the parking lot of the Lost Dutchman State Park in the famed Superstitions. “Where are they?” I asked my daughter Brooke, with a twinge of panic at the thought of my parents wandering bewildered among the volcanic spires and violent legends of the Superstitions.
“Maybe they got lost,” she shrugged.
I sighed. Served us right, this played into the whole day’s theme.
My parents, daughters and I had heard of the legend of the Lost Dutchman and his gold mine. We decided to go on a day trip from Payson down the Apache Trail, through Tortilla Flats, to end the day with a hike through the jagged, saguaro-dominated landscape. We wanted to learn about the Lost Dutchman since he is an Arizona legend.
The area we traveled covered the old stomping grounds of Jacob Waltz, a German adventurer who sparked a century-long search for gold in the Superstitions. But when I saw the empty car, gold was the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, a lot of other scenarios played out — were they OK? Had they gotten hurt? Did they need my help?
Before I panicked much more, I tried to give them a call.
They didn’t pick up.
How could they get lost on the 2.4-mile Treasure Loop Trail? It looked so easy on the map, so my older daughter and I had split off from the group — laying claim to the single group map because our route had more complicated transitions.
The Lost Dutchman State Park has a wonderful system of trails radiating out from the parking lot. The park rangers make visitors feel welcome. After we paid our $7 fee, a friendly ranger handed us a map and asked what we planned to do for the day.
“We’re going to hike,” I said.
“Good choice,” said the ranger, “Beautiful day for it.”
The park’s system of trails surrounds the unique formation of the Flatiron, a remnant of a volcano. Trails range from mild to challenging, with elevations reaching from 2,580 to 4,300 feet.
My parents and youngest child had decided to relinquish the map because their route looked simple — but had now gone missing.
“Let’s try to backtrack and meet them at the end of the loop,” I said to Brooke.
As we started, I tried not to think about the stories of death and violence that for a century have attended the search for the Dutchman’s gold.
Brooke and I headed out with high hopes to find our lost family, but we quickly discovered a tangle of trails not reflected on our simple map.
“The map doesn’t show all these cross-cuts,” I said to Brooke, now realizing how easily my parents could have gotten lost.
Preparing for the trip, I’d already gotten lost in the vivid tales that cling to these volcanic peaks. In the Tortilla Flats museum, the story of the Lost Dutchman displayed on the wall differs from the 20-page account Lee Paul tells on outlaws.com. To compound the confusion, Wikipedia offers a laundry list of stories about the mine.
Paul’s account includes a 200-year listing of prospectors and adventurers who scoured the Superstitions for gold and chased rumors of a lost mine. Most accounts agree the Apaches knew about the gold veins first. To the Apaches, the sacred Superstition Mountains remain the home of their Thunder God, who still rumbles warnings from mountain to mountain.
According to Apache belief, the Thunder God placed the gold mine in the Superstitions to aid them in an emergency, said Paul. The Apaches protected their sacred spot, killing any who entered.
According to Paul, the earliest known reference to the gold mine came from the record of a church grant given to Don Miguel Peralta. The grant listed the mine as part of his 3,750-square-mile land grant.
The Peraltas tried to mine the gold for a century until a descendant of Don Miguel in 1874 died in an Apache massacre along with 400 men. With the death of this Peralta, the location of the mine died, according to Paul’s account.
Reportedly, many prospectors searched for the mine in ensuing decades. Most died in their search, except for Waltz, the Dutchman.
Reportedly, Waltz had inside information from his Apache mistress. She led him to the gold. In anger, her tribe killed her for revealing their sacred site, according to Paul’s account. However, Waltz escaped to spend many years mining the gold — or so people believe.
Waltz never had more than a few nuggets on him at a time. Almost 50 when he found the mine, many believe he was a crazy old man who either found a cache stored away by the Spanish or stole gold from travelers along the Apache Trail.
Others insist that Waltz stole nuggets from a gold mine in which he worked near Wickenburg, then made up the story of the lost gold mine in the Superstitions to allow him to cash in the stolen nuggets without getting caught.
In any case, The Dutchman died in 1891. He had no map to his mine, although rumors of a map have lured generations of treasure hunters.
Prospectors continued to scour the Superstitions for another century, sometimes engaging in violent clashes.
Then in 1984, the Department of the Interior turned the Superstition Mountains into a federally owned wilderness area. The government now would require anyone finding gold to turn it over.
Today, the Superstitions draw hikers and climbers, such as my family.
As we wandered about the myriad of paths at the foot of the Treasure Loop Trail and the sun dipped into the horizon, I decided to give the cell phone one last try.
“Hello?” my dad answered.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“We’re at the car,” he said.
Releasing my pent up breath, I told him we’d be there shortly. Except we had trouble figuring out exactly how to get to the trailhead.
Arriving at the car, my mom volunteers, “We got lost. We ended up walking to the highway.”
They found the park entrance, where rangers offered to walk them back to their car.
“The rangers were really nice,” said Mom. “I don’t think we’re the only ones who get lost. They mentioned they help a few people get back to their cars.”
Throughout my mom’s account, Dad sat quietly in the passenger seat. As she finished, he suddenly interjected, “We didn’t have a map!”
I gave him a chagrined look. He was right. Brooke and I had taken the map.
And that lack of a map has haunted all those who searched for the Lost Dutchman’s mine.
“I guess the moral of the story is to never give up the map,” said my mom.
The Dutchman would no doubt agree.
The Lost Dutchman State Park lies at the end of the Apache Trail near Apache Junction.
To reach the park from Payson, head south on Highway 87 to Highway 188. The Apache Trail starts at the Roosevelt Dam turnoff.