A few miles east of Kanab, a deep canyon slices northward through the Vermillion Cliffs of 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 movie set for multiple Hollywood westerns. While being featured in Gunsmoke was no doubt a prestigious achievement, what really fascinated me 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 treasure. 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 fruitlessly scouring the area, until he ran across some moqui steps carved into the canyon wall. Alongside the carvings, he found what appeared to be three sandstone tunnels. One of the tunnels, he claimed, was blocked off with stone and mortar foreign to the area.
Mr. Crystal returned to Kanab seeking help. In return, he promised to share the abundant treasure lying in wait. Crystal and his newly gathered posse of Kanabites pitched their tents at the base of the White Cliffs near Cottonwood and Skutumpah Canyons. As they commenced digging, 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.
After a few months of digging and no treasure to show for it, most of the residents gave up their dreams of riches and resumed the normal routine of their lives. All the explorers had found in the cliffs was a sandstone chamber housing a few Native-American artifacts and human remains. Crystal, however, remained convinced that he was hot on Montezuma's trail. He spent several more years in the canyons surrounding Kanab, searching for signs.
Freddie Crystal believed the Aztecs had chipped those passages out of the sandstone cliff to serve as a secret cache for their riches. He subscribed wholeheartedly to old legends claiming that King Montezuma spirited off a portion of the Aztec royal treasury during their conflict with Cortez and the Conquistadors.
Keeping all this in mind, I scanned for signs of the excavations as I hiked up the canyon. Thick clouds gathered in from the south and light raindrops spattered quietly across the dry soil. It didn’'t take long to spot two sets of moqui steps etched 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 nests of long-legged harvestmen arachnids. Most of the tunnels appeared to have been formed by erosion, but a few unnaturally smooth segments featured what looked like tool-marks on the walls. The tunnels were not extensive by any means, but the intricately winding, narrow passageways solicited further exploration. The only obvious hazards in the tunnels were two or three deep vertical pits, all of which were easily avoided with just a bit of care.
I searched for any sign of foreign rock or mortar inside and outside the tunnels—any kind of evidence that would corroborate the folklore. Unfortunately I came out as dry as the original explorers in their hunt for gold. 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 hiking in Johnson Canyon was an awesome 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.