A challenging and rewarding hike delivers not-so-hidden “gold” in the Sonoran Desert
Are you interested in finding the romance of the Old West, with a big side order of natural grandeur located less than an hour outside of Phoenix? Meet Lost Dutchman Sate Park. As a winter, spring or fall camping and hiking destination, it has a lot to offer with its desert wildflowers, Saguaro cactus, and magnificent rock structures.
Lost Dutchman State Park is located at the base of the Superstition Mountains, five miles north of Apache Junction — about 40 miles east of Phoenix. The park’s name is derived from a fabled lost gold mine. More on that later.
The town was named as part of the Apache Trail, a travel route for native people for hundreds of years. The Pima Indians, whose legends held these lands as mysterious and sacred, inspired the name “Superstition Mountains”.
Nowadays, 35 regular campsites, big enough for large RV use, lessen the “mystery” of the park area. Plus a variety of hiking trails, nature trails and picnic facilities exist. It’s no longer quite what the Pima and the Apache experienced … but camping there provides an opportunity to awake on the slope below one of the most imposing and gorgeous rock facades you’ll ever see. We arrived early last March for an overnight stay with an eye toward two hikes. One recreational … and the other the recreational kind that hurts a bit the next day!
Full moon rising over the Superstition Mountains before nighttime hike at Lost Dutchman State Park.
Of Moonlight And Mythic Miners
Our first hike was a special 2.5-mile moonlit walk led by park rangers that is offered nearly every month at the full moon. It was billed as “child-friendly,” which was good because we had along our 4-year-old son walking (mostly) and 15-month-old in a backpack carrier. It ended up being both a pretty and educational experience.
We learned about the magnificent Saguaro cactus, a prominent feature of the park. Just think “cowboy movie” and that’s it … tall, thick, fluted trunk, often with large “arms” curving upward. It’s native only to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, southeastern California, and northwestern Mexico. The largest Saguaros are estimated to be 200 years old and average 30 feet to 50 feet high. When they die, their “skeletons” often stand for hundreds of years; a “ghost,” as they’re called.
Our large group moved along, enjoying the almost alien experience of the desert landscape bathed in the silvery glow of the moon. At a resting point, a ranger spoke of the park’s history … and, naturally, told the story of “the Lost Dutchman.” He was Jacob Waltz, who in the 1870s located a rich gold mine that had been founded in the 1840s by a northern Mexican family. He and a partner worked the mine, maintaining complete secrecy, and in 1880 emerged with a substantial fortune in gold. They also allegedly hid one or more caches in the Superstitions, possibly near Weaver’s Needle, a landmark stone formation. After Waltz’s death in 1891, several people sought the Lost Dutchman’s gold … but the only “yield” to date has been his legend.
Pretty, but prickly! Desert terrain demands a bit more caution than the average hike.
The hike ended with a large bonfire, marshmallows and campers’ camaraderie. The next day’s hike was going to be definitely “adults only.” Approximately five miles, with ascent to The Flatiron, the ridge of the park’s rock face, at an elevation of 4,861 feet, which was a little more than a half-mile above the park’s 2,000-foot elevation.
Scrambling In The Sunshine
We set out at about 10 a.m., perhaps a little late for the anticipated five-hour to six-hour trip, as it put most of our exertion right at mid-day. But we were game, and fairly well stocked with water and snacks.
The park recommendation (for summer, anyway) is one gallon of drinking water per day, but it wasn’t going to get much above 65 degrees for us. The first mile or so is a pleasant, gradual ascent, with views of park features such as the “Green Boulder” and “Praying Hands.” After that, one starts to get into the “folds” of the mountain itself, with impressive sheer walls and sheltered near-caves to poke into.
Spotting small lizards can become a game. The trail has occasional markings and is fairly obvious because it’s well traveled, — and basically the only way is up. In somewhere over an hour we reached the remarkable Basin, at 3,100 feet. It was a sight to behold. It’s a large rock “bowl” with sides so smooth that you get a bit nervous about sliding, although really there’s enough texture for safety.
Desert deception … the Flatiron may look “right there,” but there’s still well more than an hour of increasingly steep, winding trails from this point.
Those Last Steps Are A Doozy
After we started upward from the Basin, it looked like the Flatiron peak was practically at arm’s length for the touching. But looks can be deceiving … when they’re practically straight up, through clear, dry desert air, gazing at a completely unfamiliar place. We still had almost 1,800 feet yet to ascend, and more vertical than previously. So it kept looking like we were there, and then we were NOT 20 minutes later.
The going wasn’t exactly treacherous, but sturdy, supportive hiking boots … solid, to wedge into footholds as you pulled yourself up … came in handy. After going at it for about 40 minutes, we were met by a group of experienced older hikers coming down. They were in their 60s, roughly, and their experience was obvious by patches that said things such as “100 Peaks Club.” They had another proof of experience, too … leather gloves on, which we realized would be nice for all the grabbing of rough surfaces we were doing.
The Flatiron, overlooking Apache Junction, the city of Phoenix … the entire “Valley of the Sun.”
After some tight spots, and just a couple wrong turns due to markings that weren’t clear and multiple ways to go, we clearly were nearing the actual top. And the payoff was there … a gorgeous panoramic view of Phoenix in its “Valley of the Sun,” plus views of the top of the ridge we had just achieved. We could have, and wanted to, explore around the top a little more, but we knew that often going down is as tough as going up — so we wanted to get started to finish in daylight.
So did we find the Dutchman’s treasure? No, but for me, just seeing the Basin was precious enough and everything else was just a bonus!
Making The Trip
For more information on hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, call 480-982-4485 (phone/fax), or check out the website: http://www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/dutchman.html
Or write to:
Lost Dutchman State Park
6109 N. Apache Trail
Apache Junction, AZ 85219
The park is located five miles north of Apache Junction, off of AZ 88 (the old Apache Trail), at the base of the Superstition Mountains. It’s about 40 miles east of Phoenix.
The park is open 365 days a year from sunrise to 10 p.m. Entrance and camping fees apply. Call the park for current fee information. I wouldn’t recommend this park in the summer because temperatures can easily soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But it offers moderate temperatures October through May. Winter daytime temperatures average above 50 degrees. Summer temperatures average 85-plus degrees.
There are two family-fun destinations in the immediate area, great for non-hikers, kids and hikers done hiking. One is a re-created mining town, Goldfield, with souvenir shopping and food, “town residents” in costume, and authentic paraphernalia from the gold mining era.
The other is the Superstition Mountain Museum, offering an extensive history of the area. An extra pleasure currently at the museum is “the old miner Teton” and his mules, who have set up camp beside the museum. “Teton” is a gruff, but gracious host and a real kid-pleaser.
Both attractions are very near Lost Dutchman, on North Apache Trail.
– A visitor center selling maps and publications;
– Picnic areas with tables and grills;
– A campground with 35 units (no hook-ups); and
– A dump station, restrooms, showers, and group use areas
Mountain biking is allowed up to and on Jacob’s Crosscut trail, on the lower, flatter area of the park. By personal experience, caution is advisable. Rocks and deep ruts abound … and hitting a Saguaro will violate both the rules and you.
Harsh, dusty terrain contrasts with the vibrant colors of cactus blooms and wildflowers.
Here are the trails in the park:
Treasure Loop Trail: Length 2.4 miles round trip; rated moderate; elevation change of 500 feet. It terminates at either picnic area.
View Trail: Length 0.7-mile; rated moderate. It connects Siphon Draw Trail with Treasure Loop Trail also connects with Jacob’s Crosscut Trail.
Jacob’s Crosscut Trail: Trail runs 0.8-mile along the base of the mountain; rated easy. It connects Treasure Loop Trail with Prospector’s View Trail, and continues 4.5 miles past the park area along the base of the Superstitions.
Siphon Draw Trail: 3.2 miles round trip; a very scenic hike; this trail winds up into a canyon known as Siphon Draw. It is possible to hike up to the Flatiron, although it is not a designated, maintained trail all the way. It’s advised that only experienced hikers in good shape attempt to hike to the top, as the climb is steep and difficult to follow. Allow at least five hours to the Flatiron and back.
Discovery Trail: Connects the campground and day use areas. Features information signs, a wildlife pond, bird feeder and viewing bench.