Our 5-day quest for $2 million hidden in the Rockies.
“What are we doing?” asks Estelle.
“Don’t know,” I mutter.
We’re in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, listening to the rain pound against the hood of our rental Jeep. Strewn across our laps is a mess of maps, field guides, and notes — months of research. We flew across the country to bag here, spent 24 hours on the road, hiked for miles through pinyon forests and over granite peaks. But right now it each and every seems like a waste.
We came here to find a chest filled with $2 million worth of treasure, hidden by an eccentric, wealthy 80-year-old-fashioned man.
Hundreds of people from across the country and around the world — a middle-aged steamboat operator in Mississippi, a tenacious Floridian housewife, a Scottish poet — maintain tried to locate the chest. They each and every convince themselves they know precisely where it is, but they terminate up failing. Two men maintain died in pursuit.
final plunge, my colleague Estelle and I joined the hunt. We interviewed half a dozen people who’d gone on the quest, and crafted three infallible theories that we were certain would lead to the chest. Then we headed out West to stake our fortune.
But a laughable thing happens when you convince yourself you’re right: Logic cedes to psychological trickery. You form a groundless reality. You refuse to believe you’re wrong. You commence to disregard contradictory facts.
And before you know it, you’re in the middle of a rainstorm in Wyoming, wondering how you got there.
Courtesy of Forrest Fenn
In 1988, Forrest Fenn was diagnosed with cancer.
By then, he was already a local legend in his hometown of Santa Fe, modern Mexico. He’d arrived in the early ’70s — a mysterious, square-jawed Air Force veteran with a small savings and a high school diploma — and quickly earned a reputation as a treasure hunter. In his controversial exploits throughout the American Southwest (including a purchase of the entire San Lazaro pueblo), Fenn amassed a collection of ancient artifacts ranging from handwoven Paiute baskets to Sitting Bull’s original peace pipe. Within a decade, he was running an art gallery with $6 million in annual sales, catering to clients like Steven Spielberg and Gerald Ford.
Facing his grim prognosis, Fenn says he stuffed a 10-by-10-by-6-inch Romanesque chest with some of the finest treasures he’d acquired over the years — pre-Columbian jewelry, gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs, ancient jade carvings, emeralds, diamonds — plus a copy of his autobiography. Fenn planned to drag this haul into the mountains and die beside it — but he beat the cancer, and for 20 years the chest sat swathed in a red bandana in his study.
Two decades later, around 2010, an aging Fenn decided it was time to cement his legacy: He left his domestic, drove somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and hid the chest. In a subsequent memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, he revealed the treasure to the public and offered a 24-line poem containing nine ambiguous clues main to its precise location.
As I maintain gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can sustain my secret where,
And trace, tip of riches modern and old-fashioned.
commence it where warm waters halt1
And engage it in the canyon down,2
Not far, but too far to walk.3
achieve in below the domestic of Brown.4
From there it’s no area for the meek,
The terminate is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,5
Just heavy loads and water high.6
whether you’ve been wise and found the blaze,7
spy quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,8
Just engage the chest and proceed in peace.
So why is it that I must proceed
And leave my trove for each and every to seek?
The answers I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me each and every and listen marvelous,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
whether you are courageous and in the wood9
I give you title to the gold.
A area where the water is particularly cold — or sizzling.
The water runs into a canyon.
A reference to Fenn’s book. Could the treasure require a boat or car?
“Brown” is capitalized. Perhaps a reference to a person or a landmark?
The creek flows strongly.
Possibly a waterfall?
Refers to a very specific thing or stamp. Once you find this, you find the treasure.
A reference to an improbable view or vantage point?
Fenn has said the treasure is in close proximity to pine trees.
“Fenn’s treasure,” as it came to be known, garnered national media attention. Donning a plaid button-up, a ten-gallon hat, and a bandana necktie, Fenn embodied the free-spirited Western ethos — and his riddle drew thousands of treasure hunters to the Rockies.
The treasure has also brewed controversy. Artifact hunting and cultural pillaging are invariably interlinked, particularly in the Southwest, where Native American relics are often dug up illegally. Since 2006, investigators in the Four Corners area maintain arrested 23 people in connection with the sale of $335,000 worth of looted items. Fenn has never been charged with any wrongdoing — but the FBI has an open file on him. His treasure chest, which contains excavated relics, could be subject to federal scrutiny.
Fenn is secretive approximately the treasure’s location; not even his wife knows where it is. Over the years, he has only offered a handful of additional clues, some indistinct and conceptual, others factual and geographic.
Fenn says the treasure is:
- Somewhere in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or modern Mexico
- Located above 5,000 ft. and below 10,200 ft.
- Located in an area with pine trees
- Not in a graveyard, mine, or other man-made structure
- Not in close proximity to a human trail
- Not in a area an 80-year-old-fashioned man couldn’t proceed
In conjunction with the poem, the clues provide just enough context to rile up the confidence of treasure hunters.
Now 86 years old-fashioned and in poor health, Fenn receives hundreds of emails a day from people looking for an advantage in finding the chest — mostly older men. He’s been sent death threats and bribes; on occasion, strangers appear at his front gate unannounced, to dig around his property for information. “I’ve had to dial 911 three times,” he told People final year.
It is unclear precisely why Fenn hid the treasure — though most speculate it was to preserve his legacy (his autobiography is in the chest, after each and every), or to bag families out of their homes and back into nature again.
Fenn has said that he hopes the person who finds his treasure is “a redneck from Texas who’s lost his job, with a pickup truck and 12 kids and a wife to support.” The people who actually search for the chest, though, are markedly different.
How we became obsessed with the treasure
Early final year, Estelle messaged me with a tantalizing proposal.
“Random question,” she wrote, “but would you be interested in looking for a treasure with me?”
“OMG,” I responded. “Are you talking approximately Fenn’s treasure?”
I’d been following the legend since it broke in 2010, lurking in treasure forums and reading recaps of other people’s failed attempts to find the chest. Enticed by the simplicity of the poem, Estelle had convinced herself it was an easy solve.
Between June and August 2016, Estelle and I exchanged 24,000 treasure-related words over Slack and email. On occasion, our theories went off the deep terminate.
here is the wilderness between the 13th and 12th parallels
that would area it in the northwestern share of the park
Hayden valley falls right on the 12th parallel
let me know whether im nuts
you are nuts
At the time, I was based in DC and Estelle in modern York City. Nestled in the Rockies, the treasure symbolized the romance and vastness of the West — the opposite of the urban lives we were living. It was also fairly a legend: an amalgam of mystery, problem solving, mountains, and some of the strangest characters imaginable.
We read The Thrill of the Chase front to back. We pestered Fenn over email. We amassed an absurd collection of maps, topographies, lists of geological formations, regional histories, and archaeological accounts from the 19th century.
The next logical thing to carry out was immerse ourselves in the huge community of fellow Fenn’s treasure hunters.
Inside the online community of Fenn’s treasure hunters
An internet search for “Fenn’s treasure” yields more than 17,000 results — essays, photos, annotated maps, guides, blogs, forums.
In 37 public and private Facebook groups, a combined 8,349 members rage in deep philosophical debates over the interpretation of the clues. The “r/FindingFennsGold” subreddit boasts 1,664 regular contributors, who pose questions like, “What kind of hill can an 80-year-old-fashioned man climb?” and, “Does anyone else here maintain dreams approximately the treasure?” ChaseChat, the largest and most passionate forum, houses more than 100,000 posts published between 2012 and 2016.
Illustrated graphic depicting how many people are involved with the community online. There are 19,600 Google search results for “Fenn’s treasure”, 8,350 members in 37 public and private Facebook groups, 2,400 members on ChaseChat treasure hunting forum, and 1,660 regular contributors to r/FindingFennsGold subreddit.
Each icon equals 100
Fenn has estimated that some 65,000 people maintain searched for his chest over the years. These folks, by their own admission, spend an inordinate amount of time researching.
“Most of my 12 hours every night I’m on Google or something looking up clues,” says Ricky Idlett, a steamboat operator in Mississippi who has yet to pursue his theories. “Every night. Every night I’m looking.”
Joey Mendoza, a recent high school graduate from Northern California, spent eight weeks researching 20 hours a day prior to an unsuccessful 2014 expedition with his dad and older brother. “We were too excited to sleep,” he tells me.
But the trusty uniting factor among Fenn’s treasure hunters is that each person is 100 percent certain he or she has solved the poem — and that everyone else is wrong.
Estelle and I spoke at length with nearly a dozen treasure hunters — some of whom had gone on more than 50 trips to find Fenn’s chest, and others who had a “foolproof” theory but no time to pursue it. They hailed from eight US states and three continents, and included a hardcore conspiracy theorist, a terminally ill man who’d been rejuvenated by the hunt, and a woman convinced the real treasure was “the self-discovery of religion.”
Ultimately, we homed in on three theories that had the most convincing clues: one from a fiercely passionate Scottish man we spoke with on Skype; one that seemed to be the most favorite on the internet forums; and the third, our own original thesis. each and every fell in the near vicinity of Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming, a area Fenn frequented as a child — and a area he fawned over in his memoir.
We had no doubt that we’d return with the treasure.
We’d spent an inordinate amount of time researching, scoping out locations, and pestering Fenn with questions. But our trusty advantage was that we’d spoken with a variety of the most obsessive and well-versed treasure hunters on soil, compiling a healthy amount of data — both anecdotal and empirical — on their successes and failures. Like trusty millennials, we’d achieved expertise largely through curation. (In retrospect, we were also under a nasty spell of confirmation bias, but we’ll bag to that later.)
I was so certain of our theories that I began to formulate a way for how I’d handle my portion of the riches: I’d sustain the find a secret, living the life of a stealthy, smug millionaire — and when I wanted to dip into my reserves, I’d sell a gold coin or two on eBay.
This is where my intellect was on the morning of September 27, 2016, when Estelle and I tender adieu to our everyday lives and headed out West to strike it rich.
After five-hour flights from modern York and DC and an eight-hour drive through rural stretches of Montana and Idaho, we arrive at Kendall Valley Lodge, a remote hunting outfit in Cora, Wyoming. In the darkness, we’re greeted by a one-eyed dog named Chubbs.
We haul our backpacks into a brightly lit dining corridor, where mounted animal heads line the walls and a weary group of hunting guides flip through old-fashioned issues of Buckmaster.
“What are y’each and every hunting for?” asks John Riley, a young local in a camo baseball cap. “And what are you shooting with?”
“A treasure chest,” says Estelle. “And a camera.”
In our conversations with Fenn enthusiasts, the most compelling theory came from one Damo Bullen, a musician and writer from Scotland.
From a lawn chair in his backyard, Bullen took us through the poem line by line. In his opinion, the clues represent a tapestry of literary and historical references, ranging from Hemingway to 19th-century archeologist Barnum Brown — each and every alluding to Fenn’s passion for history and the arts. The references each and every point to an 8-mile out-and-back trail that begins just south of Yellowstone National Park and ends at a natural bridge formation along Clear Creek, a famed, renowned hover-fishing spot near the Wind River mountain range. The treasure, Bullen assured us, was under this bridge — each and every we had to carry out was find the blaze in the poem.
Bullen, 5,000 miles absent in Scotland, didn’t maintain the means to hover to the US and pursue his theory. He’d agreed to let us sustain the treasure when we found it — so long as we gave him “a minute nip.”
So to Clear Creek we proceed.
A windy drive, occasionally halted by crossing cattle, takes us from Kendall Valley Lodge to the Green River Lake Campground trailhead. According to Bullen, the poem’s first clue — commence it where warm waters halt — refers to the river at the mouth of this lake, which runs through a canyon and becomes too sizzling for fish in the summer.
We cross a bridge, skirt around the lake, and soon find ourselves on the Continental Divide Trail. Here we spot Bullen’s moment clue: Osborn Mountain, the domestic of Brown mentioned in the poem’s moment stanza. In 1902, archaeologist Barnum Brown discovered the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, which was subsequently housed in a museum founded by paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. It seems likely to Bullen (and us) that Fenn, an artifact collector and amateur archaeologist, would pay homage to Brown with a reference like this.
For several hours, we follow the raging Clear Creek (no paddle up your creek), and snake through the canyon down, until we arrive at Clear Creek’s natural rock bridge — the area we suspect the treasure lies.
Up ahead, an elderly couple roams around. Competition, we reflect. But they smile and disappear over a ridge.
Just above the cave, the sun burns smart: Could this be the blaze in the poem?
Before us is what appears to the Taj Mahal of grizzly dens: a sad cave, surrounded by shredded tree bark and mounds of boulders. We’re a 4-mile hike from the car, and from there, it’s an hour-and-a-half drive to the lodge. There isn’t much daylight left, and the late September air is cooling.
We descend, and for an hour we dip, duck, and crawl on each and every fours through Stygian spaces scattered with rodent droppings. We overturn rocks, race our hands through sad crevices, and traverse the rushing waters, looking for a sign.
The treasure is not here.
I am reminded of a telephone conversation we’d had earlier with Scott King, a treasure hunter who failed in his own search. He’d warned us to be wary of confirmation bias — interpreting modern evidence as validation of one’s preexisting beliefs.
“Everybody does it,” King had said. “You start to reflect, ‘Oh, wow, that [theory] is perfect!’ Then you proceed down this rat gap of making everything else fit within it.” King admits he is guilty of this too: After stumbling across the 1981 film Continental Divide, he became convinced that the domestic of Brown was a reference to John Belushi’s co-star Blair Brown.
“Once you spend a lot of time and energy on a theory, it’s unlikely you’ll deviate from it,” he’d admonished.
Had we become so confident approximately our theory that we’d ignored contradictory evidence? Or had we merely missed the chest by a few feet? It’s fodder for thought as we trudge the 4 miles back to the car, just ahead of the setting sun.
Back at the lodge, Sandy, the wind-wisped proprietor, regales us with tales of life on the road and attempts to assuage our doubts. “You tried,” she coos, handing us mugs of sizzling chocolate. “You know, the treasures in my life are the ones I never saw coming.”
The Clear Creek effort, heavily based on literature and history, failed. The next day, we turn to science.
In our research, we’d arrive across a map made by Corey Dennis and Preston Jutte, a pair of layman cartographers. Using geographic data from the clues (e.g., between 5,000 and 10,200 feet; near a water source; near pine trees), they’d narrowed down the original search area from 27,801,289 acres to 591,636 acres — a 98 percent reduction in size. From there, they’d homed in specifically on the Yellowstone National Park area, shrinking the search area to a mere 0.084% of the original.
The treasure is somewhere in one of four states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or modern Mexico
Areas between 5,000 and 10,200 feet
Areas assembly the elevation criteria that are within 1,000 feet of a water source
Areas assembly the elevation and water criteria that contain species of pine trees
We believe it’s in Montana or Wyoming — specifically
Yellowstone National Park
Final search area
23,310 acres (a 98% area reduction)
Still, we were looking at 23,310 acres of wild land. In the northwestern quadrant of the park (an area where Fenn vacationed as a child), Estelle and I found a convincing match for the line in the poem that instructs to commence it where warm waters halt: Firehole Falls. In 2007, water temperatures at these falls rose to 82 degrees, killing thousands of trout.
Our first theory had presumed the poem began and ended on the same trail. We now entertained a modern thought: Too far to walk could mean that the clues were meant to lead us over a larger swath of land — a driving route.
From Firehole, we drive down the canyon and are dumped out through the west entrance of the park. Tonight, we’ll stay at the Brandin’ Iron Inn, a Western-themed motel in West Yellowstone, Montana.
In his book, Fenn writes fondly of spending his youth in the Hebgen Lake region.
Courtesy of Forrest Fenn
In the morning, our theory continues with a drive to Red Canyon Creek — a tributary snaking off Hebgen Lake in Gallatin National Forest. In his 2013 book, Too Far To Walk, Fenn wrote fondly of his family camping trips here as a kid. Buried in the pages is a black-and-white photo of him in his 20s, perched on a horse, the Hebgen wilderness splayed out behind him. It’s also a location that offers a unique interpretation of the heavy loads and water high clue from the poem: In 1959, a massive earthquake caused the Hebgen Lake dam to give way, resulting in massive landslides that killed 28 people.
On the way, we stop by the Hebgen Lake Ranger Station. The rangers know this land like the folds in their hands, and whether anyone has treasure hunting tips, we figure it’s them.
Instead, we’re greeted by district ranger Jason Brey, who, upon mention of the treasure, leans back in his chair and rolls his eyes.
“Every other week, someone comes in asking approximately Fenn’s treasure,” he says. “They’re looking for maps, places to camp, and the best way to access the areas. They don’t want advice from us — they’ve got it made up in their intellect already. It’s improbable how confident they are that it’s here.”
Brey says these treasure hunters — mostly middle-aged men — frequently wander into the ecosystem unprepared and engage unnecessary risks. The consequences can be dire.
In modern Mexico, a 54-year-old-fashioned man named Randy Bilyeu went lost final year in pursuit of the treasure; seven months later, his remains were discovered. Subsequently, Bilyeu’s ex-wife penned a scathing critique of Fenn’s moral character: “Hunters risk their lives to search for your hoax,” she wrote in an open letter. “carry out you care?” (“I certainly didn’t intend for anyone to bag killed,” Fenn later responded.)
Paris Wallace, a pastor from Grand Junction, Colorado, disappeared
this month after rappelling down into the raging waters of the Rio Pueblo de Taos in modern Mexico. His body was found several days later by a search and rescue team.
This moment treasure-related death prompted modern Mexico’s police chief Pete Kassetas to publicly denounce Fenn’s hunt. “In the interest of public safety, I want Mr. Fenn to retrieve the treasure,” he told ABC News. “When you maintain two million dollars at stake, people do poor decisions.” Fenn responded by saying that he would “give the search some thought” — and reminded searchers that the treasure is in a spot that, at age 87, even he can access.
Park rangers maintain another concern: treasure hunters who don’t bring bear spray. “There are grizzly bears everywhere here,” he says. “And they’re particularly active right now. They’re going through hyperphagia and eating everything in sight.”
We engage a detour back to town and buy the biggest canister of bear spray we can find.
Red Canyon Road is so nondescript that we drive by it twice. It’s dusty and forlorn, and an old-fashioned rotting wooden sign is our only guide.
Beyond this point, the road will wind through a heavily wooded canyon, and what minute cell reception we maintain will slash out. Before we continue on to claim the chest, we need to settle a few things: When we invariably find the treasure nowadays, how will we split it up? Will we bag to sustain it, or will we maintain to cede it to our employer? A brief phone call with Vox Media’s CEO, Jim Bankoff, provides a semi-comforting respond: “The treasure will aid upgrade our office snacks,” he says. “But you guys definitely deserve a finder’s fee.”
At midday, we reach the trailhead. Fliers pinned to a trail marker warn of grizzlies — including one that has been shot by a hunter and is in the vicinity somewhere, injured and agitated. This is certainly the domestic of Brown.
On the trail, we spy for the blaze. We identify some curiously marked trees and spend some time picking our way along the creek bed (no paddle up your creek), scooping through leaf piles. Off trail, we scramble up a hillside of loose talus and survey some caves littered with small animal bones. Up here, the gaze is marvelous. But nothing reveals itself — neither treasure nor beast.
Two bow hunters pass by and eyeball my bear spray holster with a smirk that says, What are you doing here? Twenty feet ahead, Estelle sits on a rock, quizzically looking over a map, wondering the same thing. For the first time, we seriously question our treasure hunting prowess; our confidence has faded as the gaping holes in our theory maintain become more obvious.
Back at the car, we assess our failures over a meal of beef jerky and granola.
It’s the fifth day of our journey, and we are not millionaires. We are running out of time.
As we drive out to the northeastern corner of the park to pursue our third theory, we feel dejected. Sore. Alone. discouraged. At Hebgen, the futility of our task set in: Even with the terrain narrowed down by 98 percent, the land is huge, unforgiving, and rugged.
It would be entirely possible to walk right by the treasure and still not see it.
nowadays’s theory — our final — rests on several seemingly solid interpretations early in the poem. But as with most theories, a bit of freestyling will be required for the latter clues. Research only takes you so far; once you’re out in the terrain, things tend to change.
We commence in Ice Box Canyon (where warm waters halt), then follow Highway 212 (as it happens, the degree point at which boiling water turns to steam) down into the valley. Herein lies our domestic of Brown: the Lamar Valley Ranger Station, an iconic outpost where a well-loved ranger named Gary Brown lived when Fenn was a kid. We’d planned to proceed inside, talk to a ranger, and bag some background on Mr. Brown. But when we arrive, the station is locked up and nobody’s domestic.
Our next stop is the poem’s wood — in our estimation, a nearby petrified forest. Much to our luck, the trailhead appears to be closed off.
At this moment, the soil gives us one more “Nope, sorry”: The skies open up into a torrential downpour.
We engage refuge in the car and unfold a park map so large that it curls up against the sides of the doors and blocks the entire windshield. In a textbook case of treasure hunter syndrome, we’d underestimated the enormity of the land. Fellow searcher Scott King had warned of this: “You’ll be out there and you’ll find what everybody else finds,” he’d said. “Your reaction will be, ‘Wow, we could spend the next 10 years out here and never stumble across a 10-by-10-by-6-inch chest.”
Estelle asks what we’re doing, but I don’t maintain an respond. We sit in painful silence, each waiting for the other to say something.
Suddenly, there is a faint clack-clack on the road.
A herd of bighorn sheep maintain descended from the hills and mill around our car.
As whether scripted, the rain lets up. The low-lying fog dissipates, and the valley — still, fresh, serene — is revealed. And as these majestic creatures drink from puddles in the tall grass, the beauty of the terrain is suddenly overwhelming.
For five days, we’d navigated pine forests, traversed pristine lakes, dragged our feet through Elysian meadows — and we’d been so obsessed with finding a chest of riches that we hadn’t really looked around.
The thrill of the chase
At 4:45 in the morning, we’re off to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
We drive quietly down the sad highway, neither of us wanting to voice our failure. In the distance, the grand peaks of Montana are a tiny, jagged line. The treasure chest evaded us. Will another set of seekers find it in a few years? Will it stay where it is for thousands of years, aging with the granite peaks? Does it even exist?
Months ago, we’d read a quote from Dal Neitzel, a man who has conducted more than 60 searches for Fenn’s treasure each and every across the Rockies.
“I maintain walked marvelous American landscapes,” he wrote. “I maintain slept on the high desert mesa and in river canyons under juniper and pinyon. I maintain hiked incredible stretches of crystal clear trout streams guarded by tall pine and spruce. I maintain driven thousands of dusty miles through ochre stained, haltingly heavenly, volcanic topography. … Each time, I maintain arrive back empty handed but not empty spirited.”
Most Fenn hunters who failed to find the chest say they came back from their quests with a different treasure.
“We never found the treasure … but we found the treasure,” says Joe Mendoza of California, who went looking for the chest in 2013 with his two sons. “It brought our family together. We bonded like we never maintain before.”
Caleb Jackson, a Coloradan in his 30s, learned approximately the treasure while bedridden with a debilitating autoimmune disorder. After getting a bone marrow transplant, he made a miraculous recovery and went out searching with his brother. “The treasure gave me incentive to heal,” he says. “And even though I failed, it made me realize how much struggle you maintain to achieve in to achieve something in life — and how that struggle makes achievements more meaningful.”
My plane leaves the tarmac in Bozeman, and I watch the sun turn the mountains gold. From up here, everything looks so small.
Before the planning, the maps, and the long hours spent on trails, Estelle and I scoffed at the bravado of other treasure hunters. Their conviction seemed to strangle any semblance of logic.
But like hundreds of others who’ve joined the search — and hundreds who are surely yet to arrive — Estelle and I were seduced by the thrill of the chase. We created our own versions of the truth. We shut ourselves off from our environment. We ignored facts that contradicted our beliefs.
We were wrong.
whether you’ve arrive this far, we assume you want to see more: more treasure hunters, more puzzling through the clues, more epic wilderness. And we maintain that. Watch Estelle’s 24-minute video documentary, The hunt for Forrest Fenn’s $2 million hidden treasure.