Hidden among the north’s hills and hiking trails is a multitude of plunder for the finding, but not quite the taking. Tucked into old oak tree hollows or stuffed under weathered stumps are concealed parcels often camouflaged in plain sight—geocaches—made from repurposed ammo cans or Tupperware wrapped in tape. These caches, abundant in natural areas and public lands, are planted for the enjoyment of all amateur treasure seekers. And—unlike the geocaching of the early aughts—you only need to download an app, lace up your hiking shoes and head outdoors.
Geocaching began to take shape in the early 2000s when GPS accuracy improved for civilian use. A pioneering computer consultant named Dave Ulmer tested this new capability by placing a bucket (filled with a logbook and some trinkets) in the woods of Oregon for others to find and posted the geographic coordinates online. Thus, geocaching was born from the binary ether.
The spirit of the sport was also born from that lonely bucket in the forest. Though it was filled with a few keepsakes, the implied intent was to “take stuff, leave stuff,” meaning if you want to claim that cool troll doll for your car dash, you need to leave something in return. The spirit of this reciprocal zero-sum search and exchange persists today.
While this may seem like an antiquated pastime, gone the way of MapQuest and plug-in car GPS, the universal use of smartphones with improved GPS capabilities makes geocaching more relevant, accessible (and fun!) than ever before. Pair that with a thriving geocaching community that’s adopted online models to monitor, improve and add to existing cache locations, it’s a real boon for woodland explorers who started out on a hand-held Garmin brick GPS (like yours truly). Download the free “Geocaching” app on your phone, sign up and you’ll soon have a detailed treasure map at your fingertips.
Once logged in, users can pull up the “Maps” function to find geocaches in their area. Decent places to start are usually nature preserves or maintained hiking trails, as these often have several caches throughout the property. One introductory location to explore is the Grand Traverse Natural Education Reserve in Traverse City. Covering the expanse of the former Sabin Pond, this regenerating river valley is tranquil, scenic and replete with established hiking trails. It also happens to house several hidden geocaches.
Use the app to plot your route. Once you’re in close proximity, the app measures your steps to hone in on the prize. While the GPS in your phone will get you close, it’s not perfect. Luckily, the patrons of these caches often provide hints to help you find them. Scan high and low, in search of anything that appears out of place. Look in hollowed-out trees, rotted stumps, near small rock cairns or even under the boardwalk beneath your feet. (Try to leave the area as undisturbed as possible as you seek out your treasure.) Geocaches will often have a small logbook where you can leave your initials to prove you’ve uncovered the cache.
An added benefit of geocaching is that it’s accessible to all ages, and leaving small toys for younger users to find can turn a humdrum hike into a kid-friendly adventure. Download the app and venture outside—chances are there’s a cache close by and underfoot. You just have to know how to look.