Forrest Fenn Hid A Treasure Chest Worth Millions In The Rockies — And People Have Died Looking For It

Published January 1, 2019
Updated March 6, 2020
Published January 1, 2019
Updated March 6, 2020

Just a 24-line poem in his memoir serves as a clue to the treasure's location.

Forrest Fenn Treasure Map

TwitterForrest Fenn hid a treasure chest filled with goods worth upwards of $5 million.

In the summer of 2017, a 53-year-old man named Jeff Murphy disappeared shortly after embarking on a hike at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. While it’s sadly not uncommon for hikers to lose their lives while traversing dangerous terrain, one element of Murphy’s death was unique: he was searching for the mysterious Forrest Fenn treasure.

The legend of Forrest Fenn’s treasure is nearly a decade old. The premise for the hunt is quite simple: a wealthy art dealer decided to hide a number of his collectibles in a small chest within the Rocky Mountains with the intention to unbury it when its value has inflated to $10 million.

Fenn claims that all potential treasure hunters need to find his loot is basic geographical knowledge, a map, and a poem he wrote comprised of nine clues within his self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase.

What makes this hunt so attractive is that Fenn’s treasure is reportedly worth up to $5 million dollars at present and has inspired an influx of adventure seekers to the Rockies in search of it.

Even Fenn himself couldn’t have predicted just how large-scale this hunt has become — or how dangerous. So far, at least four individuals have lost their lives in the search. Authorities asked Fenn to end the treasure hunt because of how risky it had become, but instead, he opted to give additional clues to help hunters on their quests. According to Fenn, some have come dangerously close to the treasure’s location.

Forrest Fenn’s Background

Forrest Fenn is a bit of a mysterious figure himself. What most do know about Fenn is that he’s something of a real-life Indiana Jones. Fenn was a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam but in his spare time, he’d accompany archeologists on digs in exotic locations.

Fenn served in the Air Force for 20 years and is said to have survived 328 combat missions in Vietnam. He earned various decorations as a result of his service — including the Silver Star Metal — the third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat the U.S. Armed Forces awards.

Fenn collected more than medals for valor, he bought sculptures from struggling artists and cast them in bronze toward the end of his 20-year career. He managed to sell some of the pieces but traded most of them for Native American artifacts. Over the years, Fenn’s sale of artifacts enabled him to open up his own gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1973, he opened up Fenn Galleries in Santa Fe, N.M.

Forrest Fenn's Artifacts

TwitterForrest Fenn opened his own art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he displayed and sold countless artifacts he’d collected over the years.

By the late 1980s, Fenn’s art collection was so large and exclusive that he grossed roughly $6 million per year in revenue. His noteworthy collection — which included a mummified falcon from King Tut’s tomb and Sitting Bull’s peace pipe — attracted an extensive list of high-profile celebrity clientele. This included Jacqueline Onassis, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Redford — just to name a few.

The Brush With Death That Inspired The Hunt

Fenn was living lavishly with his wife Peggy in Santa Fe in 1988 when he received a grim diagnosis; kidney cancer. When Fenn faced what he thought was the end of his life, he began thinking about what his legacy might be.

And thus, the Forrest Fenn treasure was born.

He purchased a 12th-century Romanesque 10 by 10-inch lockbox and secretly filled it with valuable artifacts including a copy of his autobiography. Fenn planned to haul the treasure into the mountains and die beside it, but he beat cancer and the treasure sat untouched in a vault in his home — until 2010.

22 years after receiving his cancer diagnosis, Forrest Fenn launched his treasure hunt to the world. In its eight-year existence, Fenn claims that over 300,000 people have attempted to find his hidden treasure and he receives 100 emails per day from hunters attempting to solicit clues as to the treasure’s location.

The treasure chest and its contents weigh upwards of 40 pounds. Inside are a number of gold coins, gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs, pre-Columbian gold figures, emeralds, and diamonds.

Fenn Treasure Combo

Twitter/KOATFenn purchased a Romanesque treasure chest for $25,000 and filled it with millions of dollars in goods. He hid it somewhere in the Rockies, sending hopefuls on a wild goose chase to find it.

The treasure was hidden in the aftermath of the Great Recession – a deliberate choice on Fenn’s part. He said in an interview with ABC News, “We were going into a recession, and lots of people losing their job, despair was written all over the headlines, and I just wanted to give some people hope.”

The Nine Central Treasure Hunt Clues

The launch of Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt coincided with the release of his 2010 self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. The book contains the roadmap for finding the treasure in the form of a 24-stanza poem; one that Fenn says possesses the nine clues that will hunters to his grand prize.

The poem, located in Fenn’s memoir, reads as follows (with the bolded phrases signifying the nine probable clues):

As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.

Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.

From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.

If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.

So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.

So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.

Treasure hunters have analyzed and dissected this poem countless times, studying each word in great detail and theorizing multiple explanations for each individual clue. There are forums and entire websites dedicated to Fenn’s treasure. Hunters share information, tips, and advancements they’ve made in solving the riddle.

For example, the first clue for the Forrest Fenn treasure (and the start point of the treasure hunt), “Begin it where warm waters halt”, could hold several different meanings. Some hunters believe that this line is intended to lead treasure hunters to one of the many hot springs found in the Rocky mountain range.

Another, more detailed theory suggests that it’s the point where warm water turns into cold water within a river.

Trout only swim in cool waters, and Fenn is an avid fisherman who in the past has specifically mentioned that he often fishes for trout. There are specific points in rivers and streams where warm waters turn cold – where trout can be found. Many believe that “where warm waters halt” refers to these points, marking the beginning of Fenn’s trail.

There are various different blogs and Reddit threads that treasure hunters turn to where they debate what each part of the poem means.

Colorado Rockies

JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty ImagesTreasure hunters have traversed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, and New Mexico in search of Fenn’s famed treasure chest.

Not everyone shares their conclusions, for fear of another hunter copying their trail. However, the community often shares new hints that Fenn himself may have knowingly (or unknowingly) shared with the public.

Forrest Fenn’s Treasure Hunt Turns Deadly

The various interpretations of the nine clues, as well as the others Fenn has subtly dropped over the years, have led hunters into dangerous terrain. In some instances, people who went looking for Fenn’s treasure have sadly lost their lives.

So far there have been four known deaths related to Fenn’s treasure hunt; most recently Jeff Murphy’s in 2017. In the same month that Murphy went missing — June 2017 — 52-year-old Colorado native Paris Wallace also went missing while reportedly looking for Fenn’s treasure. Wallace’s body was discovered in the Rio Grande rivers only a couple of days later.

These deaths have alarmed authorities, who have called on Fenn to cease the treasure hunt altogether. But Fenn insists on keeping the hunt alive – instead offering treasure seekers additional clues and cautioning them to stay safe.

Fenn wrote that “in the light of a recent accident, and in the interest of safety” he felt he owed it to the community to divulge more information.

“The treasure chest is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice, and it is not under a man-made object” Fenn wrote. He also reminded hunters that he was 80-years-old when he hid the treasure, so the hiding spot would be a place that an elderly man can easily access.

“Please be cautious and don’t take risks,” Fenn advised. He also reminded treasure seekers that the hunt is meant to be fun.

To this day, the Forrest Fenn treasure has yet to be found. Fenn anticipates that this hunt will last for decades to come — but that eventually, one lucky hunter will discover his famed multi-million dollar jackpot. The draw of Fenn’s treasure has spawned a community of thrill speakers and dreamers — which is what Fenn intended when he hid the treasure in the first place.

The Forrest Fenn Body Count Keeps Growing

Undeterred by those who’ve come before them, the treasure hunters keep on coming. Though it’s still a free country, and wading through the Rocky Mountains itself isn’t a crime, the rising loss of life has frustrated the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office to no end.

According to CNN, Montana law enforcement went as far as issuing a warning on Facebook on June 18, 2019. Their primary goal was not to tell hunters to stay out — but to at least urge these potential risk-takers to reassess their deadly quests before burdening emergency services.

“In the last couple of years, two people have died, two have been rescued near death, several have had run-ins with local law and federal law enforcement, and one told his wife today he was injured but not where he was,” the post said.

“These people were all near Yellowstone National Park and they were looking for the Forrest Fenn treasure.”

Sheriff Brian Gootkin issued a few choice words of his own, regarding this dangerous draw to Montana’s tough terrain.

He said that some hunters only provide rough location data to their loved ones before venturing out in a misguided attempt to protect themselves from competing hunters — which also makes emergency rescues nearly impossible.

“You must know that this country is unforgiving if you don’t give it the respect it deserves,” said Gootkin, adding that bears, snakes, rivers, and shoddy cellphone service are often unexpected hurdles for hunters.

“We encourage everyone to vigorously pursue their outdoor passions, but think like a local,” he urged. “Before you go after the treasure, consider your level of skill, preparation and knowledge of the area. Consider the volunteer hours spent searching if you need to be rescued, and the anxiety of those left at home.”

In the end, that’s certainly a straight-forward, respectable thing to ask for — particularly from those tasked with saving treasure hunters’ lives.

After this look at the elusive Forrest Fenn treasure, read the story of the mysterious Oak Island treasure. Then, check out the history of gangster Dutch Schultz, who also left behind a buried treasure.

Bernadette Deron
Bernadette is a digital media producer, writer, and a proud native New Yorker.