The suburban Superstitions: Famous range lies handy to Phoenix

Since moving to Seattle, my sister and her husband have become rain refugees. They frequently slip away during the soggy autumn and sodden winter for a dose of rejuvenating sunshine in the desert southwest. For their most recent visit, I exposed them to a place bloody and beautiful, foreboding yet family-friendly. I took them to the Superstition Mountains.

The Superstitions tower over the far eastern edge of the Phoenix valley. Yet proximity to civilization doesn’t diminish their appeal as a rugged outback, defined by angular cliffs and twisting canyons in the lower portion and forested mountains with high grass meadows. Even as the stucco-pavement sprawl gnaws their flanks, the Superstitions seem forever rooted in a wild and woolly past.

Blame it on the Dutchman’s elusive gold.

The Legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine lures would-be treasure hunters from around the globe. There are dozens of variations of the tale, but the main thrust goes like this: During the 1840s, the Peralta family of Mexico operated several mining claims, one a rich gold mine in the Superstitions. An expedition returning gold ore to Mexico was attacked by Apaches, and all the miners perished.

Decades later, a Peralta descendant revealed the mine’s location to Jacob Waltz, a German immigrant forever immortalized as the "Dutchman." Waltz worked the mine and allegedly killed anyone who happened by. On his deathbed in 1891, Waltz finally spilled his secret, providing sketchy directions to friends who were caring for him.

A soaring volcanic plug known as Weaver’s Needle is thought to be a crucial landmark for finding the Lost Dutchman Mine. Thousands have searched for the fabled hole without success. Gruesome murders and strange disappearances followed, cementing the sinister reputation of the Superstitions.

Today, visitors to the Supes (as they’re known locally) are more likely to encounter sunscreen-slathered tourists than grizzled prospectors. The wilderness is veined by a network of hiking trails and ringed by a wide assortment of attractions, ranging from ghost towns to mutant hummingbirds to Elvis Presley memorials.

We started at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden. The 350-acre park was created to study drought-tolerant plants from around the world. Trails meander through diverse habitats such as herb gardens, cactus gardens, palm groves and forests of shaggy-barked eucalyptus trees. Every few steps, I stopped to ponder how a collection of aridity-friendly flora could appear so enchantingly lush.

Boyce Thompson has long been regarded as a birding hotspot, but everybody who shows up these days wants to see one little guy in particular.

"We have a hybrid hummingbird living here," said Paul Wolterbeek, volunteer program coordinator. "He’s a crossbreed of broad-billed and violet-crowned hummingbird parents. It’s really this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see something that rarely happens in nature."

Wolterbeek led us to the hummingbird-butterfly garden, and amidst a cluster of clicking camera shutters, the hybrid perched on a branch. He broke pose only long enough to dive bomb other hummers venturing too close to what he obviously regarded as his personal feeding station.

"He’s just a rock star," said Wolterbeek. "He thrives on all the attention."

Photos are posted in the garden to help with identification. The hybrid can be distinguished from other hummingbirds by his white chest and distinctive blue accents on his head and shoulders.

After spending the morning with the pinkie-sized diva, we moseyed to Goldfield.

Something about Goldfield Ghost Town inspires moseying. The former boomtown went bust just a few years after gold was first discovered in 1892. Nearly a century later, it was painstakingly re-created as a popular tourist destination.

Weathered planks, wooden sidewalks and majestic mountain vistas give the town an authentic Old West feel. And just like back in the day, gunfights break out. Every hour, on the hour, between noon and 4 p.m. on weekends. The Goldfield Gunfighters may be no-good varmints, but they’re punctual no-good varmints.

There’s plenty to do when hombres aren’t slapping leather. We grabbed a tasty burger at Miner’s Grill, dining on the patio because Seattle people never want to eat inside when skies are achingly clear. We visited a small museum where we studied treasure maps purporting to lead to the Lost Dutchman Mine. Our plan was to discover the mine later that evening.

We caught a cowboy crooner at the saloon, browsed the shops and took a mine tour. I secretly wanted to pan for gold, but since the other prospectors looked young enough to squander their findings on juice boxes, I refrained. That’s when I caught my sister flashing a condescending smirk, recognized by siblings around the globe. She knew what I was thinking. Darn it!

Across the road from Goldfield sits the Superstition Mountain Museum, housing an extensive collection that mingles history, folklore and Hollywood. The main building is flanked by the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel and Apacheland Barn, structures that survived a fire at nearby Apacheland Movie Ranch. Both are instantly recognizable to fans of westerns.

Through the years, dozens of movies were filmed at Apacheland, including "Gunfight at the OK Corral," "Ballad of Cable Hogue" and "Charro," starring Elvis in a nonsinging role.

The museum includes additional maps to the Lost Dutchman Mine. This was going to be a breeze. Our confidence was bolstered after meeting Clay Worst, a founding member of the museum. The 78-year old was friends with the son of a man who knew the Dutchman well.

"The mine is out there. I don’t have a doubt," said Worst, who still works his own gold mine daily.

We began our quest for untold riches in Lost Dutchman State Park, hiking the Siphon Draw Trail. The wilting light of late day softened the stark cliffs ahead. The mountains seemed warm and welcoming. Part way up the canyon, we stopped to savor the bruised-peach sunset draping the horizon above shimmering lights of Phoenix, the city we had all but forgotten.

"It’s so pretty," my sister sighed. "And it’s not even raining."

Later, hiking down in near-dark, we realized we had forgotten to discover the Lost Dutchman Mine. Darn it!

 

GETTING THERE

Location: Superstition Mountains, in central Arizona, about 337 miles from Las Vegas.

Directions: From Las Vegas take U.S. Highway 93 south for 105 miles to Kingman, Ariz. Merge east on Interstate 40 for 22 miles to U.S. 93 South toward Wickenburg. Drive 107 miles, turning east on U.S. 60. Follow U.S. 60 for 38 miles to Arizona Loop 101 and turn north. Take Arizona Loop 101 for 43 miles, to U.S. 60 east toward Globe. Travel 20 miles to Arizona 88 and turn north 2 miles to Apache Junction. Most trailheads can be accessed along Arizona 88 and U.S. 60.

Superstition Wilderness Area: Most of the Superstition Mountains, more than160,000 acres, has been designated a wilderness area. The area is starkly beautiful, but can be dangerous. Stay on designated trails and always carry plenty of water. Tonto National Forest Mesa District, (480) 610-3300, www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto/wilderness.

Attractions: Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 37615 U.S. 60, Superior, (520) 689-2723, www.arboretum.ag.arizona.edu. Goldfield Ghost Town, 4650 N. Mammoth Mine Rd. (480) 983-0333, www. goldfieldghosttown.com. Superstition Mountain Museum, 4087 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction, (480) 983-4888, www.superstition mountainmuseum.org. Lost Dutchman State Park, 6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction, (480) 982-4485, www.Arizstateparks.com.

Apache Trail: From Apache Junction, this stunning and historic 48-mile drive brushes past the Superstition Mountains and man-made lakes in hairpin curves. More than 20 miles between Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt Dam are unpaved. RVs more than 40 feet are prohibited; any large camper or trailer will have difficulty with the very narrow switchbacks.

Lodging: Best Western Apache Junction Inn, 1101 W. Apache Trail, Apache Junction, (480) 982-9200. Gold Canyon Golf Resort, 6100 S. Kings Ranch Rd., Gold Canyon, (800) 827-5281, www.gcgr.com.

Treasure hunting: Rockhounds and prospectors will find equipment from metal detectors to drywashers and information at Pro Mack South, 4650 N. Mammoth Mine Rd., Goldfield, (866) 983-7011, www.goldfieldghosttown.com.

Tours and cruises: Apache Trail Tours, Goldfield, offers jeep, hiking and geo-caching adventures led by knowledgeable guides. Visit Indian ruins, pan for gold, or traverse treacherous mountain roads. (480) 982-7661, www.apachetrailtours.com. Explore the secluded inner waterways of Canyon Lake aboard the Dolly Steamboat, a replica sternwheeler. Nature cruises, as well as lunch and dinner cruises are available. (480) 827-9144, www.dollysteamboat.com.

 

Contact Roger Naylor at rnaylorinaz@msn.com.

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