Summer at Yellowstone Park usually means a steady stream of tourists, but this year a different kind of visitor has rangers on alert — one hoping to strike it rich by digging in the park.
Armed with metal detectors, shovels and camping gear, treasure hunters are making their way to Yellowstone in search of a gold-filled, 42-pound chest that a New Mexico millionaire, 84-year-old Forrest Fenn, says he hid in the Rocky Mountains four years ago.
Fenn resigned as a trustee of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West earlier this year. He donated the Joseph Henry Sharp artist’s cabin and a number of Sharp paintings.
Patti Albrecht, who owns the Earth’s Treasures store in Bozeman, has been selling more metal detectors to Yellowstone visitors.
But treasure hunting at Yellowstone Park can land you in jail.
“People are coming into the park unaware of the regulations that protect the resources that preclude invasive treasure searching techniques such as digging, metal detectors, anything that destroys or impacts the resources,” Chief Ranger Tim Reid said.
At more than 3,400 square miles, Yellowstone is roughly half the size of New Jersey. But the enormity of the park does not mean violators will be able to hide from law enforcement.
On April 27, rangers picked up a couple for having a metal detector and a digging shovel in the area known as “Little America,” by the Lamar River. Darrel Seyler and Christy Strawn, both of Washington State, were discovered again May 9 and accused of camping without a permit and of starting a small fire, according to documents from the U.S. District Court in Mammoth Hot Springs.
Strawn has been banned from the park for five years.
Seyler, whose case is pending, faces 16 citations and has said he did not intend to use the metal detector.
The two were part of a group of five who had to be rescued while attempting to cross Slough Creek on a homemade raft.
Reached at home in Santa Fe, N.M., Fenn said he understands the treasure hunters had to be cited for violating park rules, but is not sure the penalty fits the crime.
“I think banning them from the park is going too far,” he said. “In the big picture of Yellowstone, how terrible is it to have a metal detector in your backpack?”
Metal detectors are banned from Yellowstone, but visitors are still buying them at nearby stores such as Earth’s Treasures.
Albrecht says she warns customers they’re not supposed to use them on park property, but that people insist on buying them because of what she calls the “thrill of the hunt.”
Customers say they’re looking not just for the treasure, but for any gold that may be buried there.
“People really seem to like what’s down below, whether it’s antique or it’s modern, like gold or modern coins,” Albrecht said.
Fenn, a former art dealer, says he filled his chest with rare coins, gold nuggets and jewels and hid it as a legacy.
He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1988. When he was told his life was in jeopardy, he started thinking about burying his treasure.
A collector of rare items from all over the world, his intention was to give people motivation to enjoy the great outdoors while searching for his multimillion dollar chest.
“I said, ‘If I’ve got to go, why don’t I just let somebody else have as much fun with this as I’ve had?’” he told NBC News.
He published a book titled “Thrill of the Chase” that includes a poem with hints as to where to find his treasure. Fenn’s second book, “Too Far To Walk,” includes a map which shows the treasure is out in the mountains somewhere over 5,000 feet elevation between the Canadian border and Santa Fe, N. M.
Now with his cancer in remission, Fenn says he’s enjoying hearing about people searching for the treasure all over the Rocky Mountains. He was unavailable for further comment the past two weeks.
(Cody Enterprise reporter Rachel Walton contributed to this report.)