Superstition Mountains and the Legend of the Lost Dutchman

The jagged Superstition Mountains just outside of Phoenix show another face of the Sonoran Desert, rife with alluring legends of violent death and lost gold mines. That includes one of the most famous tales of the Sonoran Desert, the lost gold mine of the mysterious, semi-mythological Jacob Waltz, better known as 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 quartz gleaming in a bed of lava. He worked for a time in the rich Vulture mine in Wickenburg before wandering into the Apache-haunted Superstitions.

Supposedly, decades before early Spanish settlers discovered gold 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 sharp-edged 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 or the supposed 1848 Apache ambush of a party loaded with gold.

The Apaches wandered freely through the Superstitions and took a dim view of prospectors, believing that digging in the Earth for gold was profane.

Today, the Superstitions are a federally protected wilderness area that showcases the Sonoran Desert. During moderately wet years, the front slope of the Superstition Mountains erupts into a sea of yellow as the desert brittlebushes burst into flower in the spring. About once every eight years, an exceptionally wet winter makes the desert slopes shimmer with seas of Mexican poppies, intermingled with lurid purple outbursts of owl’s clover and other wildflowers. The outburst of color transforms the harsh desert into a fantasy world stolen from The Wizard of Oz.