“It should be just ahead, in this clearing. We’ll have to look around for it,” I told my husband as we entered the final stretch of our treasure-hunting adventure, a short walk down some well-traveled trails under towering loblolly pines in Martin Creek Lake State Park. For a treasure hunt, it was decidedly easy: The “X” was marked clearly on my cell phone’s screen as a dark green dot. We followed the phone’s built-in compass as we trekked toward it, passing a few rabbits and one water moccasin along the way.
Then, we spotted it: the cache, a plastic clamshell box fastened to the trunk of a pine tree. Inside, there was a small, waterproof logbook and a pencil; unlike some caches, it contained no other trinkets—no tiny plastic dinosaurs or Eiffel Tower key chains or seashells from foreign shores. The box wasn’t much to look at, nor would it have been considered treasure in any other context, but we were beaming as we scribbled a “Hello from Houston!” in the little book alongside other cheerful inscriptions that grew more faded the further back we flipped in the weathered notebook.
I started geocaching back in 2001, with a chunky Garmin GPS unit that only got me so close to my prize—typically, within a 330-foot radius. Back then, hunting down the cache, sometimes with the help of clues, was often intensely difficult. The payoff wasn’t the treasure itself, of course—no one was blazing a trail through Big Bend to find a tiny box filled with Wet Wipes, a kazoo and a rainbow-hued Slinky Jr.—but rather the completion of a journey, and the chance to commune across time and space with other hikers.
Today, the prevalence of GPS-enabled smart phones with internet access means that anyone, anywhere can geocache—no clunky Garmin units needed—which has led to an explosive growth in the sport’s popularity. Where once only 75 caches were hidden across the U.S., now over 1.4 million await the 4 million people across the world who play the sport each year—including at least a few in every state park in the nation.
Aspiring treasure hunters can visit geocaching.com or download the associated app to their phones to find nearby caches, which vary in difficulty and even in quantity: Expert-level geocachers often set up multi-unit stashes of treasure, with increasingly challenging clues in each successive box, which can sometimes take all day or even all weekend. It’s a great excuse to go hiking, and pretend you’re a treasure hunter.