Treasure Loop Trail, Prospector’s View Trail, Peralta Trail and Dutchman’s Trail—all of these are ordinary-enough names of hiking trails, but they recall the mystery and legend behind Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. 

These mountains in the Sonoran Desert, 40 miles east of Phoenix, are the most painted and photographed place in the state besides the Grand Canyon, according to AZ Central. They have natural beauty and plenty of hiking for those who want to enjoy the outdoors, and their history of death, disappearances, and legends of gold only adds to visitors’ intrigue.

The Superstition Wilderness Area has been protected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service since 1939, and it now spans about 160,200 acres. Visitors can also experience the area through the adjacent Lost Dutchman State Park—named after the legends that surround the mountains. 

The legend of the Lost Dutchman

First, some history: More than 20 million years ago, there were volcanoes in the area, according to the Lost Dutchman State Park website. The volcanoes collapsed into themselves and formed cliffs; the highest one is more than 5,000 feet. In the 1800s, the areas surrounding the mountains attracted gold prospectors and mines were developed. The Superstition Mountains earned their name for exactly the reason it sounds like: There was a lot of superstition surrounding the mountains.

The Apache tribes thought that the mountains were home to the thunder god, possibly because those in the mountains (to this day) can hear rumbling like thunder, which is likely due to resonating seismic activity, according to the Lost Dutchman State Park website.

Later on, rumors of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine sparked people’s interest and added to the mystery of the mountains. As it’s a legend, there are different versions of it and the details change. But one version of the story goes like this: 

A Mexican family, the Peraltas, had a gold mine in the Superstition Mountains in the mid-1800s but had a run-in with the Apache tribes in the area, that left most of the Peraltas dead and the gold abandoned.

Later on, a gold prospector named Jacob Waltz, known as  “the Dutchman”, saved the life of a member of the Peralta family in a fight. In return, Waltz was told about the location of the gold. In some versions of the legend, Waltz had a partner who mysteriously died. In other versions of the story, as AZ Central says, Waltz killed others to locate their gold, and never heroically intervened in a fight. 

Regardless of how he found the gold, he died in 1891 without ensuring anyone else knew where the gold was. According to the AZ Central, it wasn’t until after he died that rumors about his gold mine were reported in newspapers. However, it is said that he would sometimes disappear and return with gold when he needed money.

The search continues to this day

Over the years, there have been rumors of secret maps showing where to find the gold, but no one ever has, and it’s not for a lack of trying. People have disappeared trying to find it, and some people believe thought at least one did before he was killed. 

Sixty-six-year-old veterinarian Adolph Ruth set out to find the gold in 1931. He disappeared, but campers found a note in a bottle floating down a river and signed with his name. It said he had a broken leg and needed help, but also had this postscript: “Have found the Lost Dutchman.” His body was eventually recovered in the mountains—with a revolver shot in the head, leading some to believe that he was killed for information about the mines.

More recently, in 2009, a man died looking for the mine—it’s believed he fell off a cliff. In 2010, three hikers died looking for the mine, most likely because they weren’t equipped with enough water or provisions for the heat, according to AZ Central. 

Are these gold prospectors risking their life for legend? As far as separating facts and fiction, there are census records that Jacob Waltz from Germany did live in the area in mid-to-late 1800s, according to AZ Central. 

According to a U.S. Geological Survey report from 1983, it’s not likely that gold could have been found in the mountains with prospecting methods of the 1800s. However, according to the Superstition Mountain Museum’s website, it’s not impossible

Visting Superstition Mountain today

If the intrigue of the Superstition Mountains lures you in for a visit, rest assured that it’s a popular place for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. But keep in mind, even for those not looking for gold, the mountains have a reputation for danger. 

According to historian George Johnson, who was quoted in AZ Central, an average of four to five hikers die in the mountains every year.

The area is known for its rugged beauty. It can have fluctuating temperatures and potentially dangerous wildlife like mountain lions and rattlesnakes. The U.S. Forest Service warns that nature there can be extreme, from unbearably hot in the summer to snowy in the winter.

As recently as August 2019, ABC15 Arizona reported that hikers had to be rescued from a strenuous trail in the state park because of the high temperatures and their lack of water. 

But if you take precautions and make sure you’re prepared, you can enjoy the beauty of the mountains. There is a network of hiking trails to take advantage of in the Superstition wilderness.

In particular, Lost Dutchman State Park has trails for everyone, from short, paved and accessible trails to longer and strenuous ones. The park also has campgrounds and cabins for people who want to stay the night,

Plus, those interested in learning more about the legends of the Superstition Mountains can visit the Superstition Mountain Museum not far from the state park in Apache Junction. This museum is dedicated to the history and legends of the Superstition Mountains and surrounding areas.