Scott's Blog - Scott's Rock and Gem
Monday, 06 June 2016 14:31

Rockhounding Montana


My Seattle rockhound friends announced that they were going to Montana and then on to South Dakota for some rockhounding, and did I want to join them? Immediately thoughts of famed Yellowstone National Park jumped into my mind. 


Though there's no collecting within the park, there are hundreds of miles of trails through some of America's best wilderness. The four winds move about the mountain tops and ragged peaks sigh fog out into the infinite space.


Besides the otherworldly geothermal features, the park is like a zoo without bars. Here young elk practice rutting beneath the steaming travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. 


There's nothing like the bugle call of a bull elk beneath the stars on a crisp Montana night. 


I decide to go for it! Though I'll miss Yellowstone this time out, I'll be happy just to be in the magical Montana high country once again. 


The plan is more or less Bear Canyon fortification agate, fossils, Montana Agate, Teepee Canyon for red fortification agate, and Fairburn agates. What's not to like? Heading over to the east side of the state, my rockhounding buddies and I meet up at Bear Canyon, south of Billings by about 60 miles, and located in the Pryor Mountains. We camp at the mouth of the Bear. The red butte in the near distance is a remnant of the Jurassic Chugwater formation.


 The red rock is not fossiliferous, but the lighter cap rock is, and it extends from the top of the butte, just above the thickest red rock outcropping, and on down the back side of the hill.


A few cottontails live in the red Jurassic soil on the side of the butte. 

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The light cap rock at the top of the butte looks barren, but if you split layers of it, you will find shell fossils. 

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Here's a nice positive and negative specimen. 


We had our best luck searching for coral on the more gentle slopes of the west side of the red butte. Small pieces were randomly around in the soil, but it did seem like there were lucky spots where there was a little more concentration of coral pieces. 

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Thumb sized coral pieces from the west side of the red butte. 

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The surfaces of these corals showed very nice star shaped patterning. 


Time to hunt for the elusive Bear Canyon agate. From our camp, the road enters the main canyon. About a half mile up on the left is a side canyon coming in which we called "First Canyon". You can begin to hunt the walls and floor of Bear Canyon at this point. Below the First Canyon, you do not seem to find much if any nodules. 


The mouth of "First Canyon" is marked by this feature which we called "Hat Rock". Continuing up the ridge from the hat, Billings rockhound Doug True made an important find of a large concentration of Bear Canyon agate nodules about 10 years ago. He filled something like 10 five gallon buckets from just this one dig alone. 

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Here's Doug, fending off a T-Rex attack at a Concord, California gem show. (wink)


The Bear Canyon nodules seem to crop out in certain areas below the cap rock of the canyon rim. Here, Kevin Rust rakes through the soil below the rim searching for agate. 


The nodules have been weathering out from below the rims and rolling downhill for thousands of years. You find them in drainage channels, and erosional features all the way down to the main canyon floor. Here our group searches small meandering runoff flow channels below the rims of "First Canyon".


After a bit, the Seattle gang settles in to dig out an area up near the head of First Canyon, where the Billings rockhounds have previously done some digging.


With determined effort, Kevin McDonald scores a nice agate. It's a partial nodule but what a beauty! 


In the evenings, we were treated to a string of nice sunsets which were so pretty that we even heard locals commenting on them the next day! 


One morning, I decide to explore the gently sloping south facing shoulders of the Pryors, curious to see if any nodules occur outside of Bear Canyon. I don't find any, but I do spot this old foundation of a camp, or homesite tucked up on the shoulders of the south Pryors. Beautiful view, but with the nearest 4x4 road several miles off it's definitely a walk-in site. 


It seems like the nodules only occur within the Bear Canyon, but it should be noted that they do occur on both sides of the canyon walls. Here, I'm digging on the East side of the main Bear Canyon, just across from "First Canyon", at the lower terminus of the rimrock, where the nodules are squeezing out in a little seam just below. 


I get a small pile of nodules in just a short time. Many of them do not have the prized fortification inside. (I've cracked them to see with the intent of windowing any nice ones) But one out of every 10 or so does show some nice pattern. 

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 Here's some nice ones that I dug out and windowed. The most sought after nodules are the ones with black and white fortification pattern. This one has a druzy quartz geode center as an added bonus. 

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A striking double geode with a little bit of white lining to emphasize the quartz crystal cavities. 

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Another nice druzy! 

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Here's one of my favorites: It's a little short on fortification, but makes up for it with a marvelous black druzy botryoidal interior, and an extra large size that made even veteran agate hunter Doug True whistle in surprise! 

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Just cracking nodules at the doorway of the heart. 



On the Helt Road, to the nearby oyster beds. 


 The soil here is totally littered with fossil oyster shell fragments. 

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A patient search will turn up oysters that are largely, if not fully complete, and have both valves present! 


Also scattered in the soil are tiny fragments of pentacrinus, the star crinoid, shown here with a fragment of an ancient sea urchin shell. 

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In some areas, rocks of lithified clay are weathering out containing multiple oysters. This piece had a beautiful arrangement - a trident of three oysters bound together for eternity. 

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How about this whopper. I cleaned the multiple oyster chunks I collected by dunking them in muriatic acid for about 5 seconds, and then neutralizing them in a bucket of water. The resulting beautiful display specimens had shiny, crust free oyster shells popping off of lighter clay matrix, as if they had been professionally prepped! 


On our way back to Bear Canyon from the Oyster Beds, we explore up the Red Pryor Mountain Road. There are a couple old mines up there and a site where you can dig for Red Pryor Mountain agate. 


The red agate dig is about a half mile up Red Pryor Mountain Road on the left. There is a flat landing with lots of agate in the soil, and the dig site pictured above is just downhill from the landing. 


One of the sweet things about some of the agate here is the nice bright sparkly druze which isn't conveyed well by the camera, but is rockin when you see it in the sunlight with your own eyes! 


Nice double rainbow over Bear Canyon upon our return. 


In camp, we're joined by local rockhound Leroy Pickens (on the left). Leroy is a master stone knapper. 


A close-up of a double flow obsidian knife that Leroy has made. 


The next morning, we say goodbye to Bear Canyon. I have to return to Oregon, and the group is moving on to Teepee Canyon in South Dakota. 


A sign on Highway 310, heading north to Billings. 


This life sized T-Rex provides a whimsical vision that is appropriate for the land I'm driving through now, even though this artist's conception was an installation at the 1964 World's Fair in New York! 


On my way back west, I can't help but to stop at Montana's famous Crystal Park and dig around for part of a day, looking for the sought after varietal quartz crystals that come from here. In the photo, the cratered moonscape of Crystal Park commands a view of a lovely alpine valley, with the East Pioneer Mountain Range on the horizon. 


On the back side of the hill, a couple of diggers from Washington State are already hard at work. Screening the soil really does help here. 


They've each got a little to show for the morning's work. 


A nice little amethyst head pops out! 


In the heat of afternoon, a group of deer move in and lay down in the pits, seeking the coolness of the shade and the shadowed soil. 


In the evening, my camp is visited by a Great Gray Owl. 


It fixes me with a fierce glare, and I'm glad I'm too big to carry off! 

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A handful of little treasures that I pulled out of the park. 

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A pagoda crystal.

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 My best scepter with light amethyst tint at the tip, and several smoky phantoms within. 

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Another beautiful little smoky amethyst scepter. 

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A third smoky scepter with distinctive growth lines on the facets - a signature of Crystal Park. 


Here's one dug by Kevin and Norma McDonald on a subsequent 2016 trip to Crystal Park. 


It's a super nice little star-shaped crystal with smoky amethyst points shooting out in all directions. 


Meanwhile, in South Dakota, locals have shown the group a site where Jurassic age dinosaur bones are weathering out of a clay badlands type formation. It's illegal to collect vertebrate fossil on public land, and in this instance the bones are extremely friable and would basically fracture into hundreds of pieces if handled. It's a look only site, but what a wonder to see this type of fossil bed.


Over at Teepee Canyon, the group has exposed a large formation that is ripe with rounded nodules. Note the red agate showing at the bottom of the photo. 


Then the fantastic happens! Kevin Rust randomly splits a nodule to check for red agate and reveals an inner amethyst chamber with perfect golden calcite crystal perched in the middle! 


How cool is that? 


I can't stop rockin! On my way through Eastern Oregon, I stop at my favorite white plume agate site along Stinkingwater Creek. Within 15 minutes I find this 12 inch botryoidal beauty with white plume. There's a ton more here just waiting for you. Happy rockhounding! May your luck run strong, and your buckets fill fast! 


Published in Blog
Wednesday, 17 December 2014 21:24

Southern California Fossils and other Surprises

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A full moon sets over the fabled Sierra Nevada Mountain Range as I head from Oregon down into Southern California in search of Trona halite and other field trips in the great rockhounding region of Owens and Searles Valleys.

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I'm joined by the intrepid Kevin and Carol Rust, who had to drive much farther than I did, coming all the way from Seattle. Here they are pulling together a pile of Ballarat marble, gathered from the gravel fans just south of the ghost town of Ballarat, at the south end of Panamint Valley. 


If you're unfamiliar with this material, it's a beautiful salmon pink marble with dark green streaking, and it takes a nice, high gloss polish. 

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Kevin's got a nose for rocks, and almost immediately upon heading up an unnamed canyon off the Ballarat road, He finds a deposit of natrolite. The seams are exposed, but not too damaged, just a little dusty. The rock here is laced with stringers of natrolite. 

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I've always been fascinated with this zeolite, but its delicacy does present a true challenge in getting it out of the host rock, and in from the field in one piece. 

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Below the main outcropping of natrolite, the deposit seems to grade into seams of a more flowery aragonite coated material very reminiscent of cave formations I have seen. 

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Some of the natrolite is actually fairly clean and gemmy. 

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Here's a beauty with double hedgehog mounds of radial crystalline sprays. 

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We collect up a fair amount, enjoying the silence of the canyon, and the camraderie of collecting out a pocket with enough material to make everybody happy. At some point, the rock gets a little harder to move, and we just give up, even though the seams continue to run on back into the country rock. We've definitely got enough! 

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Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Trona local Gail Austin has been commissioned to create a table centerpiece for a cowboy wedding that will soon be held. The "groom" is rared up a fixin to lasso his darlin, but hold onto your spurs folks - she's already got him bull-whipped around the midsection an he don't even know it! (wink)

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Night peacefully blankets us and an amazing bright full moon is out. I alway feel more connected to the celestial nature of existence when I am out in the desert.

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In the morning we head up to Mazourka Canyon, outside of the town of Independence. The Mazourka Canyon road heads east off of Hwy 395, and accesses the interesting north-south running canyon, with its multiple outcroppings of fossiliferous Silurian age limestone. Here Kevin Rust strikes out to explore the small hill of tilted and uplifted parallel beds of fossil bearing strata. 

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Fossils are not hard to find here. They abound on virtually just about any fin of exposed limestone. Most are sponges and colonial coral. 

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Multiple coral branches with quite good detail network across the rock, and stand out in bas-relief, having been partially etched from the encasing limestone by centuries of rains and weathering. 

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A horn coral floats among the debris of an ancient sea floor, some 425 million years old.


 Ascending through a Silurian sea bed. There's more rock here than we can possibly look at. Multiple fins of black limestone erupt and cover the hillside, and this is only one of the exposures that Mazourka Canyon holds. 


Once I got some of these pieces back home, I etched away some of the limestone with hydrochloric acid (Muriatic acid) to reveal a little more of the coral. 


After something like 5 or 10 minutes of acid washing, the lovely detail of the myriad corals and sponges of the primordial ocean becomes more visible, allowing you to "create" some very nice display pieces. 


Back out front on the Owens Valley floor, Kevin has discovered a suspicious looking boulder. It's some type of marble with bright lime green streaking. I get after it with my pry bar! 


In her little known, and out of print book, "Where to Find Rocks in the Owens Valley", Irma Kittle mentions that there is green opal somewhere out on the Mazourka Canyon road. Could this be what she is talking about? I get out my hammer and chisel and beat on the mighty boulder with all my strength. To my delight, the boulder almost magically splits in half along a green seam, revealing an interior laced with the fine green color. 


With my manly factor dangerously elevated from boulder splitting success, I set about breaking down the boulder halves into more manageable chunks. For the sake of our survivors, we saved a few requisite "giant chunks" which took all the muscle that Kevin and I had to get up into the rig. Oregon rockhound Jack Benedict has noted that these apparently impossible acts are done with "brute strength and ignorance". I don't fully understand it, but there is some old rockhounding tradition that requires one to pepper their pile with chunks too big to fit in any saw, evidently for the sheer purpose of confounding their survivors after the crusty ole rockhound passes on. 


Once cut though, you can see that this is a truly beautiful material and we were lucky to find, and be able to collect the giant boulder. Upon seeing this rock, an old timer identified it as "Verdi Antique" marble, and said that the green is a nice, translucent variety of serpentine, which means that Irma Kittle's green opal must be still lying out there somewhere in the canyon!


 We pack up and part ways, with me heading over to the Kern River and the famous Ant Hill fossil bone beds, and the Rust's heading north along the rainbow road. 

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Scott's Rock & Gem arrives at the Ant Hill! 

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Though the land is under private ownership here, access for fossil digging was open when I visited during the second weekend of October, 2014. However,it does seem to be hit and miss. I have heard that this same gate that I walked through is currently strung with more barbed wire than the Berlin Wall.  The hills in the background have seen some epic digging at the proper horizon by scores of fossil hounds, and the trenches appear like a roadcut near the top of the front hill, and dip down, following the layer to near the base of the back hill.

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Here, a set of marine mammal ribs is exposed in the sandstone of the Round Mountain Silt formation, which is of Miocene age and is dated at 18 to 13 million years ago.

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It doesn't take me long to pull out a large whale bone partial - probably pelvis section, encased in rock. I'll carefully chip back some of the surrounding rock, to reveal the bone more fully and it will make an awesome display piece!

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Almost every concretion in the layer contains miscellaneous marine mammal bone fragments. One large concretion that I split reveals an entire whale vertebra.

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The consistency of the rock grades into more soft, moveable sediments in some areas and I am able to recover this beautiful whale vertebra with great spiny processes largely intact. 

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A nice partial shark tooth with good complete tip appears out of the sediment. 

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Here's a beautiful complete tooth in matrix. Hard to see in the photo, but there is a section of a marine mammal bone just underneath the tooth - a great sample piece showing a combo of fossils. 

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I recommend paying attention to the small details at this site. Here, a tiny bony plate from the jaw of a fish or small shark is cemented onto the sediments attached to a rib bone section. 

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A gorgeous full tooth shows it's ferocious and deadly curve. 

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I enjoy a peaceful evening sunset, rich with changing colors that are hard to name. In the following days, I head north to Placerville, and connect with a rockhound friend of mine who has made an important find of large, beautiful plates of druzy quartz on a brecciated serpentine matrix, near Washington, California. What follows are some photos of these wonderful specimens. 

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This druze has a very bright sparkle that is not conveyed by the camera! 

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Some amazingly sculptural and frothy pieces have been recovered. 

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Beautiful sub-surface colors lend blues, pinks, yellows, and greens to the various pieces. 

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Large, multi-layered pieces adorned with bright chalcedony icicles are my favorites.

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How about this monster museum piece?


Once again, I am amazed at the things that vigilant and persistent rockhounds are bringing in out of the field these days. Makes me want to get back out there as soon as I can! Happy Rockhounding! 




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