Johnson Canyon and Montezuma’s Gold

A few miles east of Kanab, a deep canyon slices northward through the multihued cliffs of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Johnson Canyon has an eclectic past. During the 1870’s the infamous John D. Lee, chief perpetrator in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, called the canyon home. In the mid-1900’s it served as a movie set for multiple Hollywood westerns. What I found more fascinating though, was the canyon’s central role in one of Utah’s biggest treasure hunts.

In 1914, a man named Freddie Crystal walked down Main Street in Kanab clutching a treasure map. He claimed that his map revealed the hiding place of King Montezuma’s fabled Aztec gold. When the outsider inquired around town, obliging locals informed Freddie that his map resembled a section of the White Cliffs northeast of the city limits.

Crystal spent several years scouring the area, until he ran across some moqui steps carved into a canyon wall. Near the steps, he found what seemed to be three sandstone tunnels. One of the tunnels, he claimed, was blocked off with a stone and mortar wall.

Mr. Crystal returned to Kanab seeking help. In return, he promised to share the treasure lying in wait. Crystal and his newly gathered posse of Kanabites pitched their shelters at the base of the White Cliffs near Cottonwood and Skutumpah Canyons. As they commenced excavation of the tunnels, the group allegedly found multiple chambers and side passages within the cliffs; some blocked off with stone and mortar, just like the tunnel entrance had been.

Hikers in Johnson Canyon

Hikers walk along the base of sandstone cliffs in Johnson Canyon.

An entrance to the sandstone tunnels in Johnson Canyon

An entrance to one of the sandstone caves in Johnson Canyon

After a few months of digging and no treasure to show for it, most of the residents gave up their dreams of gold and jewels. They resumed the humdrum routine of their lives. According to stories, the treasure hunters had found something like a Native American burial chamber: it contained a few artifacts and human remains, but no Aztec gold.

Crystal still believed that he was hot on Montezuma’s trail. He subscribed to old legends claiming that King Montezuma spirited off a portion of the Aztec royal treasury during the conflict with Cortez and the Conquistadors. He thought the Aztecs had chipped those passages out of the sandstone cliff to serve as a cache for their riches. He spent several more years in the canyons surrounding Kanab, searching for new clues.

Keeping all this in mind, I scanned for signs of the excavations as I hiked up the canyon. Thick clouds gathered from the south and light raindrops spattered quietly across the dry soil. It didn’’t take long to spot two sets of moqui steps notched into the canyon wall.

We found three entrances into the cliff, two of which merged into one tunnel system. The third was larger than the others. Inscriptions ranging from the 1930’s to present surrounded the entrance.

Accessing the inner tunnels involved mucking through narrow sandy passages and fending off hordes of long-legged harvestmen arachnids. Some of tunnels appeared appeared natural–as though formed by erosion. However, a few unnaturally smooth segments featured what looked like tool marks on the walls. The tunnels were not extensive. But the intricately winding, narrow passageways solicited further exploration. The most curious features were a few deep pits, which seemed unnaturally deep and circular. I wondered if they had, in fact, been designed by human hands to foil would-be treasure-hunters. Although certainly hazardous, they are easily avoided with a bit of care.

Deep pit in Johnson Canyon Tunnels

A deep vertical pit drops off to the side of a passage in the Johnson Canyon Tunnels. It’s strangely circular, and nearly perfectly vertical.

I searched for signs of foreign rock or mortar inside and outside the tunnels–any kind of evidence that would corroborate that bit of folklore. Unfortunately I came out as empty-handed as the original treasure hunters. If there were any artifacts here in the first place, visitors would have picked them up as souvenirs long ago. It’s hard to know what to believe in cases like this. Did the original explorers really find human remains and artifacts somewhere in these caves? Were there really stone and mortar walls built up in front of the tunnel entrance and side passages? If so, such features would, at the very least, be an archaeological curiosity.

Before he vanished from Kanab, Crystal theorized that the tunnels in Johnson Canyon had served as a temporary cache for Montezuma’s gold. He believed that the riches were hidden in these caves while a more permanent (and more well-disguised) resting place was fashioned.

I may not have found any evidence of Crystal’s hunt for Aztec treasure, but exploring the tunnels in Johnson Canyon was an intriguing experience by its own merits. The canyon provides access to the vibrant desert backcountry of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, including other nearby hiking destinations like Skutumpah Canyon and the John R. Flat Trail.

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