Searching the Superstition Mountains for treasure

The magnetic lure of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine has been attracting treasure seekers into the wilderness of the Superstition Mountains for over a century and a half and finally it drew in me and my wife. There were plenty of beautiful hikes in the Tonto National Forest, but we chose our three-day backpacking route so we could hike through the canyons where the Lost Dutchman Mine was hidden. Trisha and I were excited about our first backpacking trip into the desert, but never did we think we'd uncover the location of the mine.

Our journey began on a warm, sunny day in early February. The Peralta Trailhead was an easy 45-minute drive from the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn. The trail began in a narrow canyon with a stream that watered mesquite and other thick bushes. As we ascended, the stream disappeared and the tall bushes were replaced by sagebrush, yucca, prickly pear and stately saguaros. The trail was well-marked and not very steep, and we passed groups out for a day hike including a family with a five year-old. Two miles from the trailhead we crested Fremont’s Saddle at 3,800 feet. We stood with the day-hikers staring at the 1,000 foot tall spire rising out of the canyon below – Weaver’s Needle.


The legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine began back in 1864 when a German immigrant named Jacob Waltz and five other prospectors stumbled onto a ledge of pure gold in the Superstition Mountains, but before they could mine the rich vein, they were attacked by Apaches. Two miners were killed, but one managed to slip away and run through the night to Fort McDowell. By mid-morning, just when all seemed lost, the US Cavalry reached what was left of the besieged men and rescued them. Because of the continuing fierce Apache resistance, none of the miners dared return, and over the next quarter of a century, the location of the gold was lost.

By 1891, Waltz was a destitute old man living in a shack in the back of an ice-cream parlor in Phoenix that was owned by Mrs. Julia Thomas. One day when Julia was fretting over the bills, Waltz told her he could help solve all her financial worries. At first she scoffed at her penniless tenant, whom everybody dismissed as “That Old Dutchman,” but she listened when the beggar told a story about a ledge of pure gold hidden in the Superstition Mountains. Julie asked more questions and the old Dutchman told her that the gold was in a ledge of quartz, well-concealed by brush, high above a gulch running north and south. Julie pressed for the location of the ledge. “A short distance back from the western end of the main Superstition Mountain,” the Dutchman whispered. Julie pushed for more details and the Old Dutchman said the ledge was near a high peak where he had almost been killed by the Apaches. By the time Jacob Waltz died, Julia was blazing with gold fever. She closed her failing business and set out on her own to find the treasure in the canyons surrounding the Superstition Mountain’s most prominent landmark – Weaver’s Needle.

Trisha and I left the day-hikers behind as we descended into Boulder Canyon. The unused path was overgrown and immediately we lost the trail. We carefully picked our way through scrub and cactus as we descended along the west shoulder of the canyon. I was worried about rattle snakes and twisted ankles, so I didn’t spend too much time examining each rock clef we crossed for veins of white quartz. But it didn’t escape me entirely that we were hiking through the brush above the floor of a canyon running to the north, while the spire of Weaver’s Needle shot up directly in front of us - all clues to the Lost Dutchman’s ledge of gold. After about an hour of stumbling around, all we had to show for the rest of our efforts were scratches from the thorny mesquite, but at least we were back on the trail.

Back in 1894, Mrs. Julia Thomas had fared no better than Trisha and me. For two years Julia searched the country all around Weaver’s Needle, until she finally gave up, but not until she infected two brothers with the Dutchman’s gold fever, Herman and “Old Pete” Petrasch. They lit out for the canyons around Weaver’s Needle too.

Trisha and I descended deeper into Boulder Canyon. The Peralta Trail ended at the intersection of Forest Service #104 – The Dutchman’s Trail. This was the trail that Julia and the Petrasch brothers crossed and re-crossed looking for the elusive ledge of white quartz that held the Dutchman’s gold. I scanned the canyon walls for white quartz outcroppings, but I only observed deep red and orange bands, volcanic rock that was devoid of precious minerals.

What must it have been like to bet your entire life on finding The Lost Dutchman’s Mine? Days, months, years of dirty, lonely existence rooting in the dirt, picking at the rock, disappointment after disappointment, punctuated by the need to slouch back into town, facing ridicule, to beg for the next grubstake. The thirst for gold was an enigma; it was a disease like alcoholism or drug addiction, to be sure, but one where the drug wasn’t hidden, it was worn on the index finger of the left hand, or in a chain around the neck.

We hiked while I stared down at the trail, looking for telltale bits of quartz and found none. Instead, I marveled at the water that splashed over the smooth sandstone rocks of the desert stream beds. Succulent plants grew all about. Though the sky was blue and the temperature was in the 80’s, Arizona was experiencing a wet winter. We carried a lot of water in our backpacks, but it was unnecessary on this trip - water was everywhere in this desert. Around 4pm we were pretty tired, so we chose a lovely spot along a stream next to a white boulder to camp for the night. We stripped off our backpacks, while Trish soaked her feet, I jumped into a deep pool.

Back in 1894, Julia Thomas only wasted two years, but the Petrasch brothers squandered the rest of their lives searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine. By 1943, Old Pete Petrasch couldn’t stand the disappointment any longer, so he put his shotgun barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger. Herman Petrasch tried to recall clues to the Dutchman’s gold right up to the day in 1953 that he died, alone in a tiny shack he built out of adobe and sheet metal scraps.

Nowhere in this entire valley were there any indications of gold-bearing rock. Thoughts of lost gold forgotten, Trisha and I enjoyed being alone in the desert at our perfect campsite. There was no wind in the protected canyon. Behind us and up the valley, Weaver’s Needle shone orange in the setting sun. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of freeze-dried beef stroganoff and sat around a small fire while the full moon rose over Black Top Mesa. Stars shone in the clear sky. When it turned cold we snuggled into our down sleeping bags for the night. I slept easy, no longer worried about water, and never once did I dream of the Dutchman’s gold.

While I slept without fantasizing over lost gold, others could not. Many more treasure hunters began searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine and the clues multiplied. By the time of the Petrasch brothers’ deaths, the legend had morphed to include a Spanish nobleman named Peralta, famed Apache Chief Geronimo, a skull with two bullet holes, and stone hieroglyphics. Today the Lost Dutchman Mine is the most famous lost mine legend in American folklore.

The next morning as we struck camp, I kicked at the little pieces of white rock along the ground at my feet. Quartz! I stared at the white boulder next to our tent. Was it possible this was quartz too?

For an instant my imagination ran a wild spectrum. The quartz ledge hidden in the cliffs above, the flash of gold in the mesquite, the glory and fame of discovery, the independence from financial worry, the fun and excitement, excess and decadence, dark dissolution, aloneness. “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver,” said a warning voice. I shouldered my pack. What is wealth, really? It’s love, health, friendship, beauty, understanding, challenge and acceptance. I already had all of these things in my beautiful wife, children, family and friends.

I didn’t find the Lost Dutchman Mine, but I did glimpse the avaricious disease that must have poisoned Julie Thomas and the Petrasch brothers. I looked around. The verdant landscape was emerald green, the butte above shown golden in the morning sun, and the cloudless sky was a turquoise blue. Ahead was the challenge of an unknown trail. How many more riches do we really need that we don’t already have?

We followed the Dutchman Trail east to Parker Pass and then out of the Superstition Wilderness. We walked down a hard packed dirt road and then along the shoulder of the highway leading to Apache Junction. We reached the Lost Dutchman State Park where we camped for the evening. We were sweaty after our ten mile hike, but the showers were clean, warm and free. With a view of the Superstitions rising from the flat plain right in front of us, Lost Dutchman State Park was one of the most beautiful state parks we’ve ever camped at.

In the evening we walked down the highway about a mile to the ghost town of Goldfield. Though Goldfield is a cute tourist attraction, the gold mines that surround the town are real and have produced millions of dollars of gold ore over the last 150 years. Trish and walked up the hill through Goldfield to the Mammoth Saloon. There on the deck we ate thick steaks and drank cold beer while we sat back and watched the sun set on the western edge of the Superstation Mountains.

I read to Trisha from a thin booklet, Dutchman’s Lost Ledge of Gold, by John D. Wilburn, one of the hundreds of books, pamphlets and papers written about the Lost Dutchman legend. The phrase, “behind the western edge,” jumped out at me. The author pointed to one of Jacob Waltz’s clues in particular. Waltz told Julie Thomas that the ledge of gold was, “a short distance back from the western end of the main Superstition Mountain.” Back from what asked the author? To Julia and all that followed her into the Superstition Mountains, that clue meant the mine was to the east of the western edge of the mountains around Weaver’s Needle. But what if “back” meant the other way? What if the mine was to the west instead?

Using local mining history, Wilburn concisely reasoned that the Lost Dutchman Mine was actually located in the Goldfield Mining District and the ledge of gold was the rich Bull Dog Mine and that was claimed in 1892. The Bull Dog mine produced over $8,000,000 in gold. Wilburn’s evidence is convincing that the Lost Dutchman Mine was unknowingly found the year Julia Thomas gave up her search. All the subsequent gold seekers that had searched for the Lost Dutchman Mine for the next century and a quarter had dedicated their lives to finding a mine that had already been found. Their bitter disappointments were all for nothing and that seems sad to me.

Though Trisha and I had a problem-free, few days backpacking the Superstition Mountain Wilderness, here are a few cautions and disclaimers. The Peralta Trailhead is 45 minutes east of the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn, just past Apache Junction on I-60. There has been vandalism reported at the trail head, so don't leave anything of value in your car. Trish and I were lucky in that we had no major safety issues on our trip, but be cautious! Backpacking the Superstition Wilderness is dangerous. You need to watch for rattlesnakes, flash floods, thirst, and getting lost, just to name a few issues. The authors or anybody connected to this website accept no liability for accidents or injuries in connection with this article. This article provides general information of interest to hikers and would-be hikers; readers are cautioned to supplement this article with other sources of information when planning your backpacking trip. Additionally, readers should be aware that reported conditions may change, that there may be errors in the article or on this website, and that certain hazards are inherent in backcountry travel. Always carry essential equipment that will aide during emergencies and inclement weather.

Story and Photos by Bret and Trisha Wirta