There is a legend of an old Dutchman who on his dying bed in 1892 in Phoenix Arizona revealed that he had endless riches stored within a secret gold mine deep in the Superstition Mountains. Since that time countless hopefuls have searched and searched throughout this impossibly rugged desert mountain range. Many have devoted a lifetime to this confusing landscape searching for the gold, emptying life savings, life dreams year after year hopeful and then hopelessly being alluded by the legend. People have murdered, people have died and people continue to look for it and it has never been found. This lost Dutchman’s mine is only one and perhaps the most popular tale spun as a result of these mountains. There are also stories of shape shifting natives, haunting ghosts and even extra terrestrial activity within these hills. It’s all, in my opinion, inspired by the landscape. This is a place where the imaginative part of ones mind is deeply stimulated. Every corner that you peak around you are rewarded with another unlikely landscape that pulls your curiosity in for an adventure. That’s why we came here, the climbing, hiking, canyoneering, the fun and the adventure.
This mountain range became possible when 20 Million years ago a giant caldera that occupied a good portion of central Arizona blew its lid spewing volcanic debris causing an epic heated mud flow and ash deposit that occupied a region 80 miles in diameter. Over time the forces of nature, wind and water, have chiseled away at this country carving a confusing landscape of deep canyons, large mountain walls, crooked spires and mazes of jumbled rocky variations on landscapes. We began our journey here at Lost Dutchman State Park on the very North Western edge of the mountain range where the flat populated plains of central Arizona meet an abrupt mountain wall.
Apache Junction, one of the nations larger retirement meccas and the most eastern suburb of Phoenix was literally minutes away from our camp. As much of a paradox as these two places are it actually made things quite easy for us as home schooling and office facilities were accessible at the Apache Junction Library. We could have stayed forever. Except eventually the water would surely run out. Almost all of the original water sources for this region are mostly dried up. The Salt and the Gila rivers rarely run anymore except for much higher in the mountain where they are stored in reservoirs. Most of the water that hydrates this area comes from the Colorado River. It comes from hundreds of miles away, evaporating in the hot and dry desert air in a series of canals called the Central Arizona Project.
Every evening here at our camp the big mountain walls and spires above us dominate and turn blood red with the sun set. These wildly exposed spires have earned names such as Vertigo Spire, The Tower, Los Banditos, and the Hobgoblin Spires. Jacob, Elias and I got our start with The Praying Hands. This 200 foot high spire put Jacob over the edge so to speak of his tolerance for heights. I think at some point he was thinking that he’d get to a ledge of some sort or there would be some kind of break but the exposure was always there.
Two days later we climbed one of the Hob Goblin Spires. Spiderwalk, this time a 600 foot climb with unrelenting exposure. I was quite proud of Jacob and Elias on that one. That was by far the biggest thing they’d ever climbed.
Fish Creek is at the bottom of a large and abrupt canyon that defines the northern boarder of the Superstitions. Jacob, Elias and I explored a few of the technical canyons that empty into Fish creek. Some had fun caves you had to crawl through and rappel through. One of them had 500 foot cliff that needed to be rappelled.
After a week we took a four day break from the Superstitions and moved camp to the McDowell mountains. This is a beautiful desert Mountain range sandwiched between two affluent suburbs of Phoenix. The craggy 1.4 billion year old granite mountain range was fun to explore and rock climb in but what was most memorable was the Suburban town of Fountain Hills. This place could be the closest thing I have ever seen to a real live Truman Show. The center of the town is marked by a large rolling green park that wraps around a big lake with THE FOUNTAIN in the middle of the lake. Every hour on the hour it shoots a spray of water several hundred feet into the air, visible from the top of the Hobgoblin spire, an hour drive away.
Now back to the subject of the lost Dutchman and treasure hunters in general, geologists say that there is no natural gold deposit anywhere in the area. The only riches found in the form of precious metal are 7,000 feet below and underneath the eastern part of the range in an older granitic rock layer. Just outside of Superior Arizona in the eastern Superstitions lies the last and largest vein of copper ore remaining in the United States. This copper deposit is worth billions and is quickly and efficiently being mined by Resolution Copper. As an assortment of fascinating characters faithfully apply their heart and soul to finding the Lost Dutchman’s mine, Resolution rakes in profits worth billions with the real treasure.
Queen Creek, one of the finest, most extensive winter sport climbing venues in the country is located right there above all that copper. When mining operations were proposed over a decade ago the climbers and the Resolution Copper mine squabbled at first over whether this precious rock climbing venue would stay open or not, but eventually the climbers proved to be organized while Resolution Copper stayed faithful to their namesake when realizing how important the climbing access is to so many people. Almost all of Queen Creek rock climbing venues are safely and legally accessible adjacent to the mine.
We stayed at Queen Creek for four days climbing on the countless bizarre formations. Every day was met with warm blue skies and a playground of pocketed volcanic rock. We were delighted to curiously work our way around this extraterrestrial landscape exercising our fingers, toes and nerves, the first bolt was always quite far off the ground. Everyone climbed here, even Ila and for some reason we saw almost nobody else.
From Queen Creek we moved to the Southern end of the Superstitions a region that has invoked yet other controversies in the world of rock climbing: The ban on bolting in Wilderness Areas. This has been a nationwide debate on whether the placement of protective bolts on rock climbs should be allowed to any sort of degree in legally designated Wilderness areas. It started in this region of the Southern Superstition Wilderness 30 years ago when a remote hiker stumbled upon a solo climber blasting music from his ghetto blaster* while setting bolts. The hiker complained to the powers that be and since that time the dilemma has escalated to engulf the entire country. Should the use of protective bolts be legal in Wilderness areas? And if so to what degree? Logic and emotions have been slowly searching for common ground throughout the United States for over 30 years now. Just last year the Department of the Interior released a final statement allowing the use of bolts with prior authorization. Although resolution is leaning towards common sense, the debate rages on. The rules are open to wide interpretation and some park management plans remain anti bolting at any cost. Fringe environmental groups have threatened to sue making their view clear that climbing “is not a reasonable activity.” Where and if the debate will ever end I do not know but it started here.
We hiked into yet another completely new landscape of craggy labyrinths of rock spires and walls. A playground, yes, but on a much larger scale than Queen Creek. Tolkien’s Mordor is what came to mind as we climbed steep switchbacks and unlikely ridge lines working our way to the Bark Canyon Wall a sweeping wilderness buttress deep in the heart of Superstitions. This was the coolest part of the mountain range giving us yet another big athletic adventure. The climb followed interesting and varied cracks up the 300 foot wall. Although the climb was mostly devoid of bolts the descent from the top was made possible due to a two bolted rappel anchor……only visible to climbers and birds.
This place has absorbed our attention, our imagination and has become our home for a total of almost four weeks. As we were winding down our time here our friends Amy, Soleina and Auriah came to visit from rainy Bellingham here at the Lost Dutchman state Park. It was only three days but is was a sweet three days of playing, imagination, storytelling over campfires, hiking, ice-cream and sweet memories of Bellingham. Ila woke up for days after asking for “the girls”. What a treat to give our friends a glimpse of our life on our year of adventure.
*Ghetto Blaster: A large, portable, radio cassette player, from the 1980s. It is played especially outdoors, in public places at loud volume.