I have a confession to make: I am GPS challenged. Still, when the opportunity came up for me to take my boys on a modern-day treasure hunt, I didn’t let that stop me. I had never heard of geocaching before, so I was surprised to find out just how popular it is. There aren’t many family activities that are diverse enough to accommodate a variety of budgets, activity levels and schedules. Geocaching fits the bill on all levels. All you need to participate is a sense of adventure and a GPS unit. Bug spray and sunscreen aren’t a bad idea, either.
In geocaching, participants hide objects to be found by others with the aid of a GPS unit. The latitude and longitude coordinates of the geocache are posted online, along with any additional clues. By typing the coordinates into a GPS device, geocachers are led to the hidden treasure, or “geocache.” Some geocaches are simple to find, while others involve multiple stages and activities such as rappelling or rock-climbing.
Digital Tips and Treasure Trails
First I looked at the Conservation Department’s geocaching page at mdc.mo.gov/node/3379, a good resource for basic information on the game, as well as regulations for conservation areas. Then I visited www.geocaching.com, which allows you to search for caches in your area. I discovered that there were dozens of treasures to be found in my community—and here I’d planned to drive a couple of hours for our adventure!
Armed with two sets of coordinates and a borrowed GPS, my family set out on our treasure hunt. Our first stop was Rockwoods Range, between Pacific and Eureka in western St. Louis County, a five-minute drive from our house. I pass both the range and the nearby Rockwoods Reservation, just north of the range, at least once a week, but I had yet to stop and check them out.
We parked our car at the range and piled out. Excited, a little nervous, and not quite sure what to expect, we entered our coordinates into our trusty GPS and were off on our adventure.
We walked down a pleasant trail, wondering why we had never visited the Rockwoods areas before. They were enchanting and so close to home. Then we reached a point in the trail where the GPS unit signaled for us to go off the trail. I paused, looking into the woods. I am constantly reminding my boys to stay on the path. I knew that I was allowed both on-trail and off-trail access to the area, but I’d spent so much time at parks that I had to give myself permission to break the “rules” in my own head. As silly as it seemed, it was exciting to treat this area as the wild space it was.
Most conservation lands are fully accessible, but check your location’s regulations before you head out. The two Rockwoods areas are a good example of why this is important—though close to one another, Rockwoods Range allows visitors to leave the trail system, whereas Rockwoods Reservation does not. Regardless of official rules, always be respectful of an area’s flora and fauna.
I gave my husband a mock “bail me out if I get busted” look and headed into the woods. That was all the encouragement my boys needed. They were giddy; not only were they being allowed to go off the trail, Mom was leading the way. We were truly on an adventure now.
We came through the woods and into a clearing, and we soon reached the geocache coordinates. I was certain we were in the right spot. The boys eagerly looked for the prize, even though none of us had any clue what the cache might look like if we found it. While they bounded around the clearing, I experimented with moving in different directions to make sure that the animated car that represented me on the GPS lined up exactly with the “finish line” on the screen. (I had just borrowed a basic vehicle-type GPS for our first adventure. While more than sufficient for our level of adventuring, practicing with the unit beforehand would have been a good idea. There is a range of GPS systems available, but most geocaching requires only a basic system. Don’t be put off because you think you’ll need pricey equipment to play.)
When I moved around, I found the GPS leading me closer to a gnarly old tree with roots that just seemed to be made for hiding treasure. Unfortunately, there was nothing there; someone had removed the prize. While it is poor form in geocaching etiquette not to maintain caches, or to remove them without posting a notice, these things do occasionally happen. Luckily, it doesn’t take away from a good day on the trail, and there’s always another prize to hunt down! If you don’t find a cache where you should, please report back to the website so that it may be replaced or removed from the listing.
The Hunt Continues
Not to be deterred, we set off in search of our second treasure. This geocache hunt took us further down the trail. At one point, a harmless red milk snake raced across my eldest son’s foot, to everyone’s excitement. We also came across a spot where water was bubbling out of the side of a bluff and into a small pool of water. The snake might have been a highlight for my boys, but my favorite part of that hunt was stopping to watch a family of ducks in the spring-fed pond.
Once they pried me away from the ducks, we continued our search for the second cache. Eventually we reached the right spot, according to our GPS unit. Even though we were at the exact coordinates, we searched to no avail. “What did the clues for this one say?” my husband asked, looking expectantly at me.
“Clues? I don’t think there were any,” I hedged. Truth be told, there might have been. I hadn’t thought to check. (Now I understand that hints are an important part of this modern-day version of treasure hunting. Hints are often available on the geocaching site. Some have to be decoded or deciphered like a riddle.)
We were having a good time, but we were still empty handed. Our pirate crew was ready to find treasure. It was time to get serious about finding some geocaches. We gave up on the second hunt and returned home to regroup.
Back at the house, I looked up several more geocaches around town on the geocaching website. There were a variety of options, so I narrowed my search by focusing on those with terrain and ease indicators of one or two—each cache was rated in these areas on a scale of one to five. This time, I scrolled down the screen to decrypt the clues after jotting down the coordinates.
I was fairly certain I recognized the screen name of the creator of several of the caches. I clicked on the name and up popped a picture of my neighbors. I took comfort in the fact that if all else failed, I would go ask for their help. My boys would find a treasure one way or another!
Treasure or Bust!
Our third attempt to find a geocache was in a park next to our subdivision. Instead of taking our usual dog-walking route, we followed our GPS unit’s arrow through a field to the bank of a stream. We fanned out, me trying to align myself to the finish line on the GPS unit screen and the boys looking for anything that smacked of hidden treasure.
“What’s this?” asked Blake, my middle son, as he leaned over to point at a sliver of white in a pile of wood. He reached down and removed a piece of wood to reveal a white Styrofoam box with the word “Geocache” written on it.
Smiles spread throughout the group. We had our first success! We eagerly lifted the lid to find a hodge-podge of “treasures” tucked inside: a gold binder clip, a plastic yellow monkey face and small toys. To my children, it was like the find of the century.
The boys each picked a prize, then replaced them with some other goodies for the next lucky treasure hunter to find. After carefully hiding the box again, we set out on our next adventure. Cache number four was missing, most likely a victim to recent flooding. But we did find a pool of tadpoles, which was just as exciting for our group.
Then we headed to another park in town—another spot I’d driven by before but hadn’t yet visited. We were glad for the excuse to discover yet another new area. Its entrance offered up geocache number five, and the quick success renewed the boys’ energy. They raced through the park to the clump of trees that seemed most likely to hold our sixth and final treasure.
We quickly discovered we were in the wrong spot as I once again tried to align myself to my GPS screen. A different cluster of trees, at the edge of a creek, yielded a round metal object full of dirt. We aren’t sure if that was the cache or just a really cool metal thing that happened to be half-buried in the right place. My kids are calling it a win, though.
After putting the container back in a hidden spot, the boys played in what is now their favorite park. The boys convinced us to try for one last cache, but I navigated us to the wrong side of the river. Apparently I’m still a little GPS challenged.
And so our big adventure came to an end… for now. Early the next morning, my eldest son, Dylan, asked if we could go geocaching again. I promised him we’d go again soon. It seems we have been bitten by the geocaching bug.
More to Come
The boys are already asking if we can participate in some of the more in-depth geocaching hunts. Our first step will be to master the one-step caches near home. We’ll pick a weekend this summer and travel a little further for our next geocaching adventure. I’ve learned to bring not only the GPS coordinates, but any corresponding clues as well, to help us locate the geocache more quickly. And this time we’ll pack a picnic lunch so we can stay longer and explore more.
It’s refreshing to see the boys seeking a common goal. As excited as they were about geocaching, it was the little treasures they found along the way that made the best memories. If you were to ask my 5-year-old, Christopher, what his favorite part of the day out exploring was, he’d tell you it was when they found a giant slug, that the caterpillars were cool, and that he liked the ducks because they were “really cute and quackish.”
Geocaches change often, and some locations require special-use permits that may expire. Be sure to check for caches right before you go to ensure that caches are still active. For example, as of the printing of this article, there are no caches on the Rockwoods areas mentioned here. Other locations that my family visited may also have changed. Remember that the rules and regulations of the parks, conservation areas, and public and private areas you visit should always take precedent over anything you find on a geocaching site. Not all caches are placed with permission, and it is your responsibility to ensure that you are not trespassing or breaking any rules.
The official geocaching website is www.geocaching.com. Basic registration is free, and allows you to search for geocaches in your area and share your experiences.
- Review Missouri plant identification (I realized after the fact that my children didn’t know what poison ivy looked like!).
- Have a general idea where the geocache is—relying too heavily on the GPS unit caused some initial frustration.
- Jot down any clues provided for finding the cache.
- Have backup geocache locations written down, just in case.
- Remember to bring bug spray and sunscreen.
- Wear appropriate hiking clothes, such as jeans and boots.
- Pack water, snacks and other hiking essentials.
- Make sure your GPS unit is fully charged. Bring extra batteries just in case.
During The Outing:
- Remember that caches are usually stashed near a landmark of some sort, such as a large rock, gnarly tree, sign or cluster of trees.
- If you take a treasure from a cache, be sure to leave one for the next adventurer.
- Leave the cache as you found it.
- Do a tick-check!
- Log onto www.geocaching.com to share your adventure with others or to report a missing or damaged cache.