Did you find what you were looking for prospector?
The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...
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Treasure Canyon Vallecito's Golden Cache
By James McCoy
From page 44 of the October 2000 issue of Lost Treasure magazine.
Copyright ©2000, 2000 Lost Treasure, Inc.
A few years after the Butterfield Stage Line was discontinued,
which was in 1861, a cattle rustler moved into the old abandoned stage
station at Vallecito which is located in the harsh desert lands of
Southern California. Not only was the man a rustler, he was also a
bandit who acquired a large amount of gold, both coins and nuggets, by
robbing miners as they were returning to their homes in the East once
they found their fortunes in the gold fields of California’s Sierra
Eventually, the man decided to leave the country with his loot, so he sent his wife to Mexico City to buy a home for
them. During his wife’s absence, the bandit was killed in a runaway
horse and buggy accident.
A Diegueno Indian lady kept house for him during his wife’s absence and it was through her brother, who
also worked for the bandit, that the story of the lost gold of
Vallecito became known. The Indian women told her brother that shortly
before her employer’s accidental death, the bandit had taken two large
ollas (large clay jars) filled with nuggets, and had ridden off on a
white horse across Vallecito Valley toward the southwest. The Indian
woman stood watching from the doorway of the old stage station as the
bandit left. Later, she saw the horse standing on a knoll in what was
then known as Portrero Canyon. Later, that afternoon, the bandit
returned without the large clay jars.
Following the death of their employer, the Indian woman and her brother launched a search for
the gold, which they were certain was buried in the Portrero. Along the
way, the woman was bitten by a rattlesnake and died. Her brother,
fearing it was a bad omen, left the country.
In due time, the bandit’s wife returned, and spent many weeks searching for the cache of
gold; however, she failed in her attempts and disappeared without a
Many years later, Alexander MacLeod, a Los Angeles based prospector, became friends with an elderly Indian, and from him
learned the story of the lost bandit loot. The informant turned out to
be the brother of the Indian housekeeper.
MacLeod had made one trip in search of the treasure with a dousing rod and a doodle bug. He
had dug a deep hole at a point up Potrero Canyon where the rod
indicated the treasure might be buried, but his food and water ran out
and he had to give up.
During the Great Depression years, another trip was planned by MacLeod, this time with a couple of
friends, Hugh Rankin and Theodore Higgins. Higgins had built what he
called a radio finder, a sort of primitive metal detector. It was an
unwieldy contraption with a huge, three-foot diameter searchcoil
attached directly to a box containing the battery and the electronics.
At any rate, the rig was supposed to locate metallic substances beneath
The three men made their trip in the early 1930s, before the old Vallecito Station had been restored. They turned off at
what’s now called “Sissors Crossing” and followed the then one-way dirt
trail to the valley where the treasure lie buried. Today, Sissors
Crossing is popular with off-roaders and the road south is a two-lane
paved highway that passes the restored Vallecito Stage Station. They
camped that night among the sage, greasewood and ocotillo near the old
Early the next morning, the three men had a good look at the old adobe station. At the time, only one room remained
intact; however, its plaster walls had been scratched with the names of
previous visitors and the roof, made of mud and mesquite poles bound
with rawhide, was caving in. The three men felt sorry for those
previous hunters; after all, they had the real lowdown on the where the
gold was buried — out in Potrero Canyon.
The treasure hunters had to cross the swamp to reach Potrero Canyon or Treasure Canyon as it
is known today. Before long, they passed the hole where MacLeod had
worked so hard for so many days digging for the bandit’s loot on a
previous trip. They tested out their divining rods which indicated that
something was buried at that location. However, their radio direction
finder said “no.” They then tested the homemade instrument by swinging
it over their shovels. The hum in the earphones changed to a whistle,
so they knew that it worked.
Once they reached Treasure Canyon for the first time, the men explored the canyon and climbed up shear
rock faces to search for natural caves where the bandit may have cached
his loot. Hugh Rankin found a broken clay jar of the type used by the
bandit to stash his loot up in the rocks and yelled down to his
buddies. However, MacLeod put a damper on Hugh’s enthusiasm when he
explained that there had been a large population of Indians in the
valley and that broken pottery could be found everywhere. Later, in the
days that followed, all three men ran across large numbers of potshards
scattered throughout the canyon.
That night, bone-tired and a little crestfallen, the men sat around the campfire listening to
MacLeod tell tales of lost mines and the lore of desert trails.
One morning, after they had spent a few days searching the canyon, they
arrived at the site only to find that they had left camp without the
divining rods. Hugh Rankin returned to camp to retrieve them, but got
lost on the way back. When he climbed up onto a huge boulder to get his
bearings, he heard his companions somewhere up on the slope above
talking excitedly. Once he climbed up to where they were, they handed
him the earphones. The early-day metal detector’s high-pitched whistle
screamed in Hugh’s ears, and when they tried the divining rods, they
said “yes,” confirming the fact that somewhere below the surface was
metal — a lot of metal!
The three men were impatient to start digging, but it was late, so they decided to return to camp for dinner
and to come back later with lanterns. On the way back to camp, they
talked about how many trips it would take to get the heavy gold across
the swamp, and what they should do with it once they returned to Los
After supper that evening, the three men carried lamps to the site of their discovery. They worked feverishly through
the night digging a huge, deep hole at the location where they had got
a strong, positive signal from the metal detector. Large boulders were
removed and allowed to roll down the mountainside into the canyon
below. After removing the boulders, they tried the metal detector once
again, but got nothing but a dull hum. Try as they might, using both
divining rods and the early-day detector, they didn’t get an answering
signal. What they had found was what are called “hot rocks,” the curse
of all detectorists seeking gold. And, there are plenty of hot rocks,
which are highly mineralized (often containing iron or silver ores)
throughout the desert region of the Southwest.
Hugh Rankin made one more attempt at finding the buried bandit loot during World
War II in the early 1940s. At the time, he had an improved metal
detector; however, what he found was more hot rocks, hoards of them. He
had the rocks assayed for gold, but, of course, the results were
Today, you can get a good look at the Portrero, or Treasure Canyon as it’s shown on some maps, from Desert View, which is
located right above the canyon in the Laguna Mountains of east San
Diego County just off of Highway S-1. Desert View is a picnic area with
a hiking trail overlooking the canyon. Although the Portrero is not
located within the borders of the Anza-Borrego State Park, the old
Vallecito Stage Station is within the park as is a portion of Highway
S-2 which runs from Sissors Crossing in the north down to Ocotillo in
the south. To reach the old stage station turn south at Sissors
Crossing off of State Highway 78 out of Julian onto S-2, which follows
much of the old stage route. If you are approaching Vallecito Station
from the south, take the Ocotillo Exit north from Interstate-8 and turn
north onto S-2. Rand McNally’s California Desert Recreation Map (widely
available) still shows the old name of Treasure Canyon; that is to say,
The Portrero, which is located south of the renovated stage station.