Treasure hunts in Utah: What’s behind the thrill of the hunt, and the hide?

More people than ever are seeking, and hiding, their fortune in the state’s wild lands, though it’s not without its risks

Cameron Brunt felt like a bloodhound on the scent. Using clues posted on the internet, he had tracked a treasure chest stuffed with $5,000 to the vicinity of Rocky Mouth Falls in Sandy. He knew it was close, he could feel it. And after the fall of darkness forced him to abandon his physical search, he spent the entire night turning the landscape around in his mind.

The next day, when treasure hunt organizers posted a picture of the view from the place the treasure was hidden, Brunt couldn’t get to the trailhead fast enough. He speed-hiked up the path, passing a fellow fortune seeker just moments before scrambling up a steep hillside. There in a cave, shrouded by rocks and dirt, he spotted the bumpy, round top of the chest.

“Finding that $5,000 treasure,” Brunt said, “is like a top-five highlight of my life.”.

The Payson resident added, “I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”

There’s gold in them thar hills!

Or at least stacks of cash.

And the thrill of the chase has caught on in Utah, giving Brunt plenty of company, or competition, depending on the point of view. In recent years, treasure hunts have sprung up all over the state, proving popular with both rabid seekers and with ordinary people just looking for an incentive to get outside. As with any good adventure, though, the hunts carry some risks — for both the hiders and the seekers.

How many treasure hunts are there in Utah?

On Friday, two real estate investors released the first clues for finding a treasure chest filled with $20,000 they stashed somewhere along the Wasatch Front. It is the third consecutive year David Cline and John Maxim have constructed this particular type of treasure hunt, though they have held several others in various forms since 2020.

Last year, a separate real estate agent hid 10 chests filled with between $1,000 and $10,000, plus a national parks pass, throughout the state. Several have not yet been claimed. Meanwhile, a hunt in St. George is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Those free hunts are in addition to numerous paid hunts being held in Utah and nationwide on a monthly basis.

Timothy Draper/contributed Timothy Draper of Washington, right, who owns Treasures in America, and a member of his crew of professional treasure hunters look for relics during recent expedition.

According to Timothy Draper, a professional historical researcher — a term he prefers to treasure hunter since he doesn’t keep most of the artifacts he tracks — the number of people participating in those hunts and other scavenging activities is growing. Based out of Washington, Draper owns Treasures in America, which sells metal detectors, drones and other gear aimed at dedicated treasure hunters. He said that since 2016, the “treasure hunting community has grown 120% in the way of sales and people getting involved and going out and looking for those treasures.”

Draper speculated that the growth is related to the rise of geocaching — using GPS to hunt for typically small treasures — in the early 2000s. He also thinks it’s linked to people wanting to both explore and connect with others.

Draper uses old maps and documents to direct him to historical finds, especially in the West. He has a team of 13 people helping him with his quests and is filming his own nine-episode series, “Uncharted Expedition,” which will be shown on YouTube and Amazon video. Though they are more elaborate, he said his hunts for items like gold bars hidden by Spanish conquistadors bear resemblance to the manufactured hunts that have become so popular. In both, the seekers try to decipher the clues in front of them.

“That is no different than these types of treasures,” he said. “These guys are going out for a purpose. They’re hiding them, and then they’re giving people those clues to go out and look for them. There is a connection. The only difference is that I’m looking for something that someone buried and they’re long gone. But these guys are leaving something and they’re not long gone. They’re still living.”

Why are people hiding treasures for others to find?

Maxim and Cline’s hobby as treasure hiders started when Cline’s first stimulus check arrived in his mailbox in 2020. Unlike many Americans, Cline wasn’t struggling, and it didn’t feel right to pocket the money. So, the avid hiker decided to use it to fulfill a childhood fantasy, one inspired by the adventures of Indiana Jones.

But $2,000 didn’t seem like enough to convince people to get off the couch. So, he reached out to Maxim, a colleague and “the craziest guy I know.” Maxim jumped at the idea, and that summer they dropped $5,000 into a treasure chest they bought on Amazon and hiked out to Rocky Mouth Falls. A few days later, they posted a cryptic poem on their Instagram pages, unsure what kind of response it would get.

“We genuinely were hiking up thinking, ‘Man, no one is even going to do this. We’re going to be coming back up here in six months and digging this thing back up,’ you know?” Maxim said. “We never imagined it would be as popular as it was.”

Based on people who viewed their Instagram stories and those who signed up for an email that would give them clues a day early, Maxim estimates the first hunt drew about 5,000 seekers. It took Brunt just four days to find it. The second hunt, which lasted 17 days last year and was worth $10,000, Maxim said drew out closer to 20,000 people. He said he has no idea how many will seek out this year’s treasure chest, which holds $20,000.

Maxim and Cline have put up all the money for the hunts themselves. This year, with the traditional hunt, plus one that uses QR codes, another that will be a more extreme team challenge and a junior hunt structured toward kids 16 and under, Maxim expects to pony up more than $60,000 in rewards.

Both Maxim and Cline grew up in Utah. They say the intent behind Utah Treasure Hunts is twofold: to entertain themselves and to motivate people to get out and enjoy the state’s outdoor bounty.

At some point in the future, Maxim and Cline would like to organize treasure hunts as a profession but for now they both say it’s strictly a pleasure. Both said they are determined to keep the hunts free, even if that leads to them pairing with a sponsor or eventually stopping the hunts if they become too costly.

“The money is the carrot, but the prize, people find out, is usually not the money,” Maxim said. “People who have never found the money love this so much and will do it every time because it’s just so great. But they wouldn’t go do it if there wasn’t the promise of that money at the end of the deal.”

Perhaps it was because their motives were mainly altruistic that Maxim and Cline underestimated how voracious and aggressive the treasure hunters would be.

They each receive about 500 to 1,000 messages from treasure hunters each day when the hunt is happening. A subReddit formed around these hunts bubbles over with chatter about different ways to decipher the meaning of clues in the initial poems. And then there are those who are scanning for shortcuts.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Maxim, left, and David Cline insert $20,000 in cash into a treasure chest in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. The pair have been holding treasure hunts since 2020, and plan to place four this summer using poems as hints.

Maxim said what he found when he stumbled upon that subReddit last year made him uneasy.

“When we got on there, people were talking about our schedules and following us from home and work just to figure out where the treasurer is,” he said, noting they now wear disguises and change vehicles multiple times on their way to hiding their treasure. “You start to get a little more paranoid when you see stuff like that.”

Is treasure hunting dangerous?

Treasure hunting can be dangerous for those seeking it as well. The feeling of being close to uncovering untold wealth can grip people like a fever.

One of the most famous treasure hunts in recent history was orchestrated by an art dealer named Forrest Fenn. Fenn reportedly hid a chest full of gold and jewels from his personal collection somewhere in the Rocky Mountains in 2010. He then published a 24-line poem full of clues, and more were hidden in his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.” Expected to be worth between $1-2 million, the riches tempted treasure hunters from all over the world.

Five of those seekers died while looking for the bounty. When the treasure was reportedly found in 2020 [much mystery still surrounds its whereabouts and the finder], it was soon after two snowmobilers searching for it became stranded in Utah near Dinosaur National Monument. One of those men died.

Brunt, who has become a regular treasure hunter since finding the $5,000 chest in 2020, said he can understand how people can get into those kinds of situations. He recently was looking for a $50,000 bitcoin treasure during a hunt near Escalante and was thankful the organizers noted that it could be reached by walking on flat ground.

“The clues led you to a bench or a shelf. And so really, you’re getting close to a cliff,” he said. “And it was important that I had that clue or else I probably would have kept getting closer and closer to the cliff. You know, like, ‘Oh it’s just around the next boulder.’”

Maxim said he and Cline are taking precautions to keep that from happening to anyone looking for their treasures. One is hiding them in areas that are not especially remote (which they hope also keeps people from trampling off-trail foliage and digging holes in hillsides). They emphasized that the 2021 summer hunt could be done in flip-flops. This year’s treasure can be reached by a 6-year-old, they said. Another step they’ve taken, Maxim said, is to cap the treasure amount at $20,000 per hunt.

“We figure once you get above $20,000, people start to get a little more desperate,” Maxim said. “We don’t want it to be about that.”

Even in the $10,000 hunt, though, more than 20 members of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team had to be called in to tend to a treasure hunter in Ferguson Canyon. A rock had fallen on his foot, but even as he waited for help, he continued to look for the chest.

Wayne Bassham, a former commander of the Salt Lake County SAR, said calls have gone up since the pandemic because of an increase in people using the trails. The treasure hunts are great, he said, because they get more people outside. But that also adds more people to that equation. Often, Bassham said, he’s noticed they’re not prepared to be in the wilderness.

“Standing at the trailhead, like at Ferguson Canyon, and all these people walking up in flip-flops and open-toed sandals and no water and no sunscreen or the rain’s going to come in,” he said. “They’re just totally unprepared because they’ve got 15 or 20 minutes left in their day. They’ve got this wild hair that, ‘Hey, we’re going to go find this treasure and get lucky.’”

Bassham suggests anyone going into the wilderness, be it a quick-look treasure hunter or a long-haul hiker, make sure they have what the SAR has deemed “The 10 Essentials.” They include plenty of water, a flashlight, a map, sun protection and something to start a fire, among other items.

The thrill of treasure hunts

The potential dangers haven’t deterred treasure hunters or hiders. If anything, it adds to the thrill. And the rewards — even if that reward ends up being a new friend or a weekend spent scanning the woods with teenagers who otherwise would spend that time scanning their phones — seem to be worth the risk for a growing number of people.

Maxim said he and Cline have received messages from people who were suicidal until they got involved in the hunts. One woman used a hunt to bond with family after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

For Brunt, finding the treasure chest was no less life-changing. When the hunt was announced, he’d just been laid off from his job as a social media manager. The money gave him some time to figure out what he wanted to do and now he, like Maxim and Cline, is working in real estate.

He said it’s now his dream, when he’s more financially settled, to help others in a similar way.

“I think I’m even going to put something in my will,” he said, “where a portion of my life insurance goes to be hidden in some treasure hunt.”

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