Fifty-one days. That’s how long it took for Chelsea Gotta of Pella, Iowa, to find the treasure chest containing $25,000 that two Utahns hid in the state’s great outdoors for the fourth year in a row.

The chest was masked under heaps of pine cone dust at the base of a tree off Mueller Park Trail in Bountiful. Gotta almost gave up before she found it. In the midst of her third trip to Utah for the hunt, she knew she needed to start her 16-hour drive back home soon to make work on Tuesday. 

“My time was running out. I was getting frustrated, I was crying,” she said. “I’m like ‘I’ve wasted all this time. This is ridiculous. What am I doing?’”

Moments away from heading home, Gotta decided to look one last time. She stood up, brushed around the tree she was sitting at and felt the top of the chest. Gotta, covered head to toe in dirt, immediately fell over and cried. She is the first out-of-state winner. 

“Everybody at work thinks I’m crazy, everybody at home thinks I’m crazy,” Gotta said. “I just started texting people from work, ‘I told you.’” 

The contents of a small trunk that Chelsea Gotta of Pella, Iowa, found off Mueller Park Trail in the mountains east of Bountiful on Sunday, July 16, 2023. Gotta has been in Utah multiple times over the past weeks to search for the hidden treasure. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The journey to $25,000 began one morning when Gotta was laying in bed and saw something about the treasure hunt on Facebook. 

“It crossed my mind to come out here, but I was like, ‘Eh, it’s too far away.’”

Fortunately for her, that soon changed. Gotta began following the hunt’s masterminds John Maxim and David Cline on social media and saw other people post their own attempts at finding the treasure. She thought to herself, “It can’t be that hard,” and began researching. 

Gotta figured out most of Maxim and Cline’s clues back home, but knew she was especially close after zooming out on Google Maps and seeing that Mueller Park Trail forms a church steeple upside down from afar, a reference to a line in the treasure hunt poem that read “What points toward Heaven but is upside down.” Gotta kept getting closer and closer until she settled on a clearing about 60 feet off the shoulder of the trail. It took a little while, but she found the X that marked the spot. 

Now, she plans to throw her own treasure hunt with the money.

“After the first time I was out here, I did a small treasure hunt in the town I live in and people went crazy over it, so I’ll probably throw most of the money (toward that) and get kids outside again the rest of the summer,” she said. 

But before she leaves Utah, Gotta is trying to find the family of three little boys who scoured Ensign Peak with her during an earlier search. The kids wanted just $200 from the chest. Gotta is making sure they get it. 

 “It’s just in my heart to do it.”

A record-breaking hunt

The Fourth Annual Treasure Hunt was the longest in the event’s history, leading to several long nights for fortune seekers. 

“I got about two and a half hours of sleep the other night,” one treasure hunter told the Deseret News. 

After last year’s search ended in just eight days, Maxim and Cline knew they needed to step up their game. They began work on the 12-line poem around Valentine’s Day, and it took them nearly three months to complete, according to Cline. 

“Every word in there was debated and thought out,” he said. “We did our homework up front, and it’s paying off.”   

Clues were released every Friday and adventurers were urged to watch “Back to the Future” and brush up on their Utah history. Maxim and Cline said they will release a breakdown of how the poem was meant to be solved shortly. 

But even though the hunt is now over, the two organizers have no plans to stop anytime soon. A day before the treasure was found, the search temporarily subsided for a few hours as dozens of treasure hunters came together in downtown Salt Lake City to flip a house. People worked on the roof, knocked down walls and did everything in between to raise money for future treasure hunts, because Maxim and Cline don’t want to ever make participants pay to play. 

“It’s not a real treasure hunt if you have to pay for it,” Maxim said. “You should be able to wake up one day and go find it.” 

The scene was a testament to how much the Utah treasure hunts have grown and, more importantly, brought people together in the three years since the first treasure hunt was staged during the 2020 pandemic. That chest contained just $5,000 and was found in four days. 

Oh, how things have changed.

Maxim and Cline have become local — and maybe even national — celebrities. Cline was recently stopped by a few people at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, and media outlets all over the country ranging from The New York Post to the Miami Herald have covered the story.  

Cline and Maxim now have sponsors and a public relations specialist. The first hunt, where participants relied on a poem to find the chest, has morphed into various other forms. Cline and Maxim introduced a QR code-based hunt in 2021 and junior treasure hunts for kids. Due to popular demand, they’ve even started organizing treasure trips all over the world. Next up, Zion National Park in August and Costa Rica in January. 

Chelsea Gotta of Pella, Iowa, walks back to her car after posing with the trunk of money she found off Mueller Park Trail in the mountains east of Bountiful on Sunday, July 16, 2023. Gotta has been in Utah multiple times over the past weeks to search for the hidden treasure. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

How it all began

Cline had the initial idea for a treasure hunt while in Vietnam and began brainstorming potential partners he thought might be crazy enough to get on board. He settled on his real estate buddy, John Maxim, to whom Cline sold a house the first time they met. Maxim’s childhood love for “Indiana Jones” and “The Goonies” had never faded, and he said yes without hesitation. 

“‘That’s the greatest idea I’ve ever heard,’ I think were my exact words,” he said.

And so there they were hiding a chest at Rocky Mouth Trail, where Cline used to take his Friday night dates, for the First Annual Treasure Hunt. 

“We joked that in a few months we’d have to come back and get it ourselves because no one would care,” Cline said.      

They were wrong. Cameron Brunt, the inaugural winner, told Maxim and Cline that the entire area was flooded with treasure hunters. No parking spots were in sight. And for Brunt, who was laid off during the pandemic, the $5,000 allowed him to obtain his real estate license, according to ABC4

However, the impact of Maxim and Cline’s treasure hunts goes beyond the money. It’s as much about the journey as the final result. Countless participants have messaged Maxim on Instagram to express their gratitude, and he often posts them on his stories. 

That included someone who overcame depression through leaving the house and making friends on the hunt, and another who quit his job and started a business after his self-esteem rose by solving Maxim and Cline’s clues. Stories like these are what Maxim calls “the real treasure.” 

Lisa Stanworth and her five kids have done every junior treasure hunt and come close to winning several times. But for her, family bonding time is more important.

“I would absolutely love to get the treasure, but we’ve made so many memories.” 

Eric Jensen, nicknamed “Dr. Know” because of his encyclopedic knowledge of past treasure hunts, is another staple of the treasure hunting community. 

“He remembers more than I do about (the hunts),” Cline said. “Anytime I have any questions about any detail, I go back, I’m like ‘Hey what was the safe combination in 2020 with this one thing,’ and he’s got it.” 

With his sister, Jensen “gets his ‘Indiana Jones’ fix” by searching for treasure. Why does he do it? Because it’s fun, simple as that. 

Friends Abby Sondreal and Chrissy Dixon brought the hunt to the workplace, where they originally met, and their co-workers often ask them about their current theories. And the hunt welcomes newcomers too. This was Amy Abel’s first year involved in the event. She likes how realistic it is. 

“I appreciate the vague clues,” she said. “The reason why is if you look back at the old treasure hunter days, like Oak Island, they didn’t have someone say, ‘Oh, go to Second and Main and the treasure is going to be there.’ It’s almost like you have to figure out what it means. You have to look at a map, and you have to solve that problem in order to get that treasure.” 

Abel’s quest has also helped her learn the history of her home state and discover new places she never knew existed. 

“It’s made me appreciate the state that I live in.” 

When Maxim and Cline put $5,000 of their own money in that treasure chest three years ago, they never knew how many lives they’d touch. And to them, that is priceless.