Updated: Apr 7, 2021
A few minutes east of Phoenix lies a mountain range steeped in legend. Lost gold miners, steep cliffs, and ghost rivers abound. One of our favorite wilderness destinations is the Superstition Mountains.
I'm a Phoenix local, so this is the quickest way to get out of the city and get lost. Leaving the hot, dry city and heading east into 'the Supes' grants you natural springs, waterfalls, giant cacti, and even forest. It's a land of the unexpected.
Out the outskirts of the Four Peaks and the Superstition wilderness, you'll encounter off-roaders and shooters. Once you're past them, it becomes you and the wind.
There are some things you should remember before you get out there. The National Forest Service does maintain watch over the area for fires, but they're not always able to put them out. Wildfires here can rage for months if they catch on. The Woodbury Fire (2019) burned 123,875 acres and lasted for over a month, into monsoon season. While campfires are permitted most of the time, they must be handled with extreme caution.
Cellular coverage can be found toward the outskirts and sometimes at higher elevations, but you can't count on coverage once you're in the canyons that you're likely to traverse.
Wildlife is abundant. Fox, skunk, bats, black bear, mountain lions, big horn sheep, lizards, white tail and mule deer, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and all manner of birds and rodents can be found here. Bats, foxes, and skunks are common carriers of rabies here, so keep your distance.
The weather is not to be trusted during monsoon or winter months. The rain and snow bring more than a little moisture. They bring deadly flash floods and amazing waterfalls depending on the terrain around you. Melting snow pack from higher elevations in the north can flow through the area, and the Superstitions themselves on occasion catch snow at both higher elevations and the desert floor.
So why is this place to revered? The Superstitions are legendary to the ancient tribes and modern humans. The Apache believed the Superstitions to be home to the Thunder Gods. While traveling through these canyons, you yourself may hear a deep thunder-like rumbling. Scientists believe this is the sound of tectonic forces still at work in this old volcanic field.
There is another legend that among the gold deposits in the Superstitions; a massive deposit was discovered and lost.
From Arizona State Parks:
The Superstition Mountains (their name inspired by Pima Indian legends) have been a source of mystery and legend since early times. The area is dotted with ancient cliff dwellings and caves, many showing signs of former habitation. It is not certain who these people were; some believe they were Salado or Hohokam Indians who populated this part of Arizona several centuries ago. Later, Pimas and "Apaches" (some of whom may have been Yavapais) occupied parts of the region. However, the name "Apache" came to be closely associated with the Superstitions, and the mountains became an Apache stronghold in the 1800s.
During the 1840s the Peralta family of northern Mexico supposedly developed rich gold mine(s) in the Superstitions. Their last expedition to carry gold back to Mexico occurred in 1848. According to legend, the large party was ambushed by Apaches, and all were killed except for one or two Peralta family members who escaped into Mexico. This area is known today as the Massacre Grounds.
A number of other people were supposed to have known the mine's location or even to have worked it. Numerous maps have surfaced over the years, only to become lost or misplaced when interested parties pressed for facts. Men who claimed to have found the Peralta mine were unable to return to it or some disaster occurred before they could file a claim, all adding to the lore of a "lost mine."
In the 1870s Jacob Waltz, "the Dutchman" (actually a native of Germany), was said to have located the mine through the aid of a Peralta descendant. Waltz and his partner, Jacob Weiser worked the mine and allegedly hid one or more caches of gold in the Superstitions. Most stories place the gold in the vicinity of Weaver's Needle, a well known landmark. Weiser was killed by Apaches, or according to some, by Waltz himself.
In failing health, Jacob Waltz moved to Phoenix and died some twenty years later in 1891. He supposedly described the mine's location to Julia Thomas, a neighbor who took care of him prior to his death. Neither she nor dozens of other seekers in the years that followed were able to find the "Lost Dutchman's Mine." Subsequent searchers have sometimes met with foul play or even death, contributing to the superstition and legend that surround these mountains.
Some say it has been found and mined dry. Others say it was never real. To this day, thousands of people still travel into the Superstitions looking for the lost mine. Most of us are just there for the sights.
While you might not find gold when you visit, you will find spectacular and magical places along the way. Hieroglyphics Canyon is a well-known and traveled spot by locals. Immediately after a monsoon passes over, waterfalls begin to fill swimming holes surrounded by canyon walls covered in ancient petroglyphs.
Arches aren't only in Utah, either. Elephant Arch is past Queen Valley in the southern end of the Superstitions.
The Wave Cave is another popular accessible attraction, as is the hike to Flat Iron at the west end of the Supes and a huge number of trails heading all kinds of places. Some are simple ridgelines or valleys. Some are extinct volcanic plugs slowly weathering in the desert wind and rain.
Whatever you're looking for, you can nearly always find it in the Superstition Mountains. From waterfalls to wildlife and epic sunsets to desert landscapes, it's just a few minutes east of Phoenix.
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