Scott's Blog - Scott's Rock and Gem
Sunday, 31 May 2015 09:32

Rockhounding Susanville, CA


My old rockhounding buddy Rollie down in Susanville, California called me up for a field trip, saying he had finally found a storied black tourmaline and quartz area while exploring nearby Thompson Peak. This after 6 years of searching, with the requisite getting lost, blood loss, and losing your temper, etc. (Rockhounds, you know what I mean!) While at it, I figured I could get some rose quartz from a nearby locality at the same time. Here at the rose quartz area, Rollie's dog Manny takes a proud pose next to some nice pink rocks.  


Since drive time was long for me, and we were only talking two fleeting days of blissful rockhounding, I wasted no time in getting on the road. 


As it turned out, we did neither of the above mentioned field trips, but instead got pulled along on an entirely different adventure. Here local Susanville grandfather and rockhound Floyd Tibbetts checks area quadrangles with Rollie, and a new set of field trips materializes before my eyes. Why do we use the old maps instead of modern technology? Well, in this instance, the maps actually showed more of the various roads that were out there than Google did. Plus we're stubborn old school. We might even like getting lost, what can we say?


We're joined by another local Susanville rockhounder, Scott Cavin, who can be seen here examining the tailings piles of our first objective: the old Last Chance Copper Mining District on the bank of Spring Creek, up above Frenchman Lake.  


We check the mine tailings down to a depth of a couple feet, to get a look at what has been lying buried since the last reported production of the Plumas Copper Belt, back in the 1920's. 

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There is certainly some nice color down in the tailings piles. It's interesting to note that over 65 separate mineral species are present here in what was a complex, polymetallic quartz vein system. Included are some unusual, and rare bismuth species. 


Today, not much is left of the Last Chance mining community. Here, an old ore chute falls apart in the woods below the copper producing area. 


With the day still young and lovely, we get above Frenchman Lake, on the road to Crystal Peak, to check out the old lavender rose quartz quarry that seems to move around up in the peaks above the lake, depending on who you talk to. Armed with our old maps, we think we might be able to nail it down.


A young buck notes our passing. 


After numerous wrong turns, and miles of bouncing over unmarked roads, we ultimately have to just get out on foot and start walking the jeep trails that have been blocked with downed trees, erosional gullies, etc. Finally we see a sign! The soil in the background here is strewn with chunks of quartz, some with the highly desirable lavender color. But the day is more than half gone now.


We get right to work. Here Floyd digs at the edge of the rose quartz tailings to see what is lying hidden just out of sight below the soil. The quarry is largely historical at this point, with the coveted lavender quartz lens having been long ago dug out. The land has been more or less reclaimed here, with the pit filled in. But the soil is strewn with just enough color to keep us going. 

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The most prized rose quartz here has an unusual milky, opalized, lavender-blue tint that makes it stand out as unique among rose quartz deposits. Also, it is reported that the lavender quartz here displays asterism along more than three different axes, (shows a star) when cut and polished. 

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Here's a piece of the lavender rose along side of a very nice gemmy piece of Brazilian rose quartz, to give you an idea of the color difference. And this is one of the lighter shades of lavender that I collected! An interesting side note, and one that speaks to the variability of mineral pricing: it is reported that this lavender rose quartz sold for as low as 3 cents a pound in the mid 1980's when the Layfayette Rock Shop in Contra Costa County had to close due to a freeway expansion project. Ironically, the rough was also being sold by the carat in the Lapidary Journal at nearly the same time. 


Here's a flat of some cut material that I collected showing the range of colors. I found that even though the quartz looked very fractured on the outside, it still somehow holds together for cutting and polishing.


I quickly fell in love with this material. 


Besides the unique lavender, there was some good opalescent pink in the area too. 


One thing's for certain - this color is yummy! 


Day Two: On the shoulder of Thompson Peak, area rockhounds have discovered a smoky quartz, epidote, and feldspar vein. 


Like so many of the quartz occurrances in the mountains south of Susanville, the small outcrop shows up at some elevation,  among the smoothed granite boulders of the high country. 


The site appears to be an aplite type dike that is host to the smoky quartz and associated minerals. Before I go on, I should give my requisite disclaimer: It is the sole intent of Scott's Rock & Gem to provide a record of exploration. I do not advise going into any dangerous, undercut area where overhanging rock could collapse, causing almost certain death. The safest way to handle a scenario like this is to stay out of underground chambers and dig on the tailings piles to see what has come out of the hole. 


Even the tailings piles are not without their dangers, as evidenced by this little critter who came out from under a rock and lashed it's tail vigorously when threatened. Always be vigilant and stay safe! 


Here's a gallery of my tailings treasures! The area had quite a number of these appealing little platey feldspar pieces with olive green, fibrous, and somewhat chatoyant epidote sprays. 


I couldn't resist collecting a number of these. 


There were some quite fine little clusters of epidote sprays. 


Gorgeous cluster of epidote sprays with smoky quartz point, on salmon feldspar.


Beautiful little quartz point with tiny epidote sprays bursting forth. 


A rather odd, shardy but faced tabular smoky quartz "pinwheel" with a surprise on the back side...


It's loaded with epidote! 


A lot of the smoky quartz appeared to be tabular and somewhat shard-like but upon closer examination was actually faced on at least one if not multiple sides. Here's a great chunk that's larger than my open hand with a three inch epidote spray embedded within. 


A little bit crestfallen, Manny finally accepts that we're not going to go racing around in the woods, and instead are going to squat all day by this boring hole!


Just kidding about the boredom. About this time, Rollie hollers up that he's hit a pocket! He's working down in the inner chambers that the rock moles have burrowed out, chasing the smoky quartz vein. You can just make out his shovel in the center of the photo, right by Floyd's head. Rollie himself is out of sight within, but his arm periodically reaches up and hands Floyd up the crystals he is pulling out!


First out into daylight: An absolutely fantastic cluster of hairlike epidote sprays almost completely covering a large platey feldspar. 


Followed by a second, equally stunning piece. 


Here's a closeup of this beauty, showing a whimsical area of almost clear, interlaced quartz crystals. 


Next up: a large tabular terminated piece with embedded epidote sprays. 


A brilliant and quite large, elestial faced tabular DT with epidot edging. 


A great smoky point nests in a forest of epidote. 


A beautiful, geode-like epidote vug. 


A huge tabular DT takes up the whole top of the boulder. 


Here's a very unique and good sized doubly terminated piece with small crystal poking up. Because of it's odd, somewhat rhombohedral shape, we immediately nicknamed it "the coffin". 


The Coffin, after getting cleaned up a bit. 


How about this striking cluster? 


A beautiful gemmy little doubly terminated crystal with epidote inclusion. 


Here's a big tabby DT with smaller twin DT crystal riding along!


In the days to come, Rollie keeps working the pocket which enlarges to a 5 foot by 5 foot room, and the crystals just keep getting bigger! As far as I know, he's still up there pulling them out!  


Wow! What a great first day of discovery we had! Beautiful minerals... 


...fresh air, and gorgeous country. You really can't ask for much more. 


A stillness settles over the land after our day of activity. For now, my rockhounding time is up, but I'll look forward to the next time I get together with the Susanville Rockhounds! 








Published in Blog
Thursday, 20 February 2014 09:21

Planet Mine and Finch Mine, Arizona 2014


On a fine winter's day in January, I head out of the office, leaving "the boss" in charge. (wink) Two year old Granddaughter Rose takes right to the position, and loves to do anything she's not actually supposed to! 

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If I drive all day from Southern Oregon - and there's not much day in January - I can make it to the land of the Joshua Trees, in the Southern California high desert, out east of Bakersfield, on Highway 58, past Tehachapi, and Mojave. 

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Ordinarily, the landscape outside my car window changes slowly and almost imperceptibly on these long journeys, from the plentiful rivers and pines of Oregon, to the stark and arid landscapes of the American southwest. But when the Joshua Trees appear, it seems abrupt, almost as if one has opened the door upon another world. 


I can't help but stop and take a few pictures of these absurd relatives of grasses and orchids, with their bowed and twisted forms somehow both testing and renewing my belief in the magic of life, all at once! 

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I make it down into Arizona - the home of winter time gem shows, and also some fun field collecting opportunities. Here a full moon is setting, as the sun peeks over the horzion in the Castle Dome area of Quartzsite, Arizona. 

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About 50 miles from Quartzsite, is the famous Planet Mine, which is actually a cornucopia of unconsolidated shafts, adits, and prospects in the reddish copper bearing hills of the Buckskin Mountains. I'm working in some tailings dumps on the north side of the Buckskins, overlooking the floodplain of the Bill Williams River. 

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As mentioned, there are tunnels everywhere in this area. Soon after directions to the mine appeared in Minerals of Arizona written by Neal Bearce, the State of Arizona renewed their fencing efforts, and attempted to block off the most accessible entrances. As you can see, bright blue seams of chrysocolla in the rock above the entrance tempt the rockhound to go chasing down the tunnel. 

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A closer examination of the wall just outside of a tunnel entrance, shows a fascinating webwork of beautiful, robin's egg blue chrysocolla, running this way and that, like lightning through the rock. Miners working the Buckskin Rawhide Fault zone have removed more than 25,000 tons of copper over the years, and also a whopping 15,000 ounces of gold!

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A placard on fencing at the entrance to a tunnel group warns of the danger of entering old mine adits and shafts, but as you can see, determined and perhaps foolhardy folks have gone ahead and pryed their way in. This isn't the most unstable rock I have ever seen in a tunnel, but any tunnel can be dangerous for a number of reasons. 

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Field collector Michael Shannon did make an important find of gorgeous long tufts of chalcanthite a few years back, in an underground room, in one of the tunnels of the Planet Mine. But he is an experienced field collector, with a family history of minerals and mining. For the beginning rock collector, or if you are a first timer at a site, and you haven't done any research on the mines in the area, it is wise (and legal) to stay out of abandoned mine tunnels. 

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You can typically do just as well by moving rock outside the tunnels, as rockhounds have done here, exposing one of the abundant seams of chrysocolla in the area, and safely gaining access to some beautiful collectibles. 

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This is just one of the extensive mine dumps that dot the area of the Planet Mine. The entire slope here is littered with boulders containing seams of chrysocolla. Even if you've never collected rocks before, you simply can't go wrong here. 

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Or you can choose to do as I am doing, and methodically dig through the tailings to a depth of about two feet, which yields piece after piece with the prized blue color. Basically all the tailings rock came out of those tunnels, so digging through the dumps is a safe way to get a look at what was inside. 


The color of the chrysocolla here is remarkable. It's as bright as I think I have ever seen it. 


Most material consists of thin seams of chrysocolla up to about 5 mm but for me, the prized specimens are the ones that contain bright pockets of sparkly, translucent quartz druze over aqua blue chrysocolla. 


There are enough prospects and dumps in this area that a rockhound could make numerous return trips over a lifetime. I'm sure that there are still undiscovered copper deposits in this area just waiting for you. Here, a lovely coating of white, sparkly druzy quartz contrasts against the blue, and comes alive in the sunlight, in a way that the camera cannot convey. 


A super sweet little pocket of bubbly druze! 


A couple of malachite spheres pose like glacial erratics in a crystalline landscape. 


Black and blue druze combine in a stunning little pocket. 


One half of this rock is coated by a sugary sparkle of druze, while the other side sports bright blue chrysocolla. 


A unique piece of lovely, snow white quartz druze.


 A great specimen rock of Arizona chrysocolla!


 How about this gorgeous beauty?


An excellent pocket of intensely colored, pristine druzy chrysocolla. 


What was I thinking? - that's the question rockhounds may sometimes ask themselves after the fact. This single chrysocolla boulder added 35 pounds to my already sagging pack, and I had to pack it down off the mountain, over the better part of a mile. Plus I missed one trail on the way down and blundered off, adding unwanted distance to my arduous carry. But for some reason, I had to have this pretty rock! 


Reluctantly, I leave the Planet Mine, and get back on the Arizona highways, heading for the well known Finch Mine, near the mining town of Hayden, Arizona. Here the sun is coming up on another perfect January day for rockhounding. 


The great Cactus Plain, south of the Buckskin Mountains was used by the US Military under General Patton, to train for the invasion of North Africa, during World War II. The harsh but beautiful desert terrain tested the men and machines of war.  


The history of the town of Hayden, Arizona is checkered with the environmental issues caused by Big Copper mining. Here a giant shovel works atop incredibly large tailings piles that look like small hills from the distance. It becomes like an impressionistic painting in the wavering heat of a January day. 


Climbing the Hills above Hayden, one can see the monster tailings mounds left over from the world's insatiable appetite for copper. The mounds are over a mile long, and fill the entire valley of the Gila River in this area. 


A short spur road leads steeply up a small excavated canyon to the Finch Mine and beyond. 


Interestingly enough, I meet some rockhounds from the Czech Republic, up at the Finch Mine. Here Jan Loun on the left, and Petr Cerny unload their flats in preparation for the Tucson gem and mineral shows. They're up at the Finch Mine, and the nearby 79 Mine to do some pre-show rockhounding before they get tied to their booth. 


As mentioned, the Finch Mine though small, is a rockhound favorite, and a Mindat locality which is what brought Jan and Petr out. 


Here again the state of Arizona has fenced off the entrance, and again, people have pryed back the fence. But as far as I've ever heard, there's no real reason to go in the adit, unless you are a mine tunner bagger. 


 The real prizes lie within tiny vugs and pocketing in the rocks of the Finch tailings pile, which were tossed out as tunneling proceeded in this abandoned lead/copper mine. Be careful going through these rocks though, as I did see one scorpion which appeared out of nowhere, from underneath the pile. 


Always keep an eye out for hidden danger! 


I love druzy material, and the rocks in the Finch Mine tailings pile provide lots of small pockets of sparkly black druze, some with exquisite little botryoidal formations. 


Another example of the small, but really aesthetic specimens that will be found with the patient breaking through the rock on the tailings pile. 


Some of the druze occurs over a soothing light blue layer of hemimorphite adding to the beauty. 


 But the real prize here is the uncommon pocket where druze has coated over bright orange tabs of wulfenite. 


 Here's a wonderful vug of black druze with the classic orange wulfenite standing out. 


My best vug ever! Really quite a large pocket for this locality. Sunset

 I sit on the pile, happily breaking rocks until sunset, thankful for any amount of time I can spend out here in this gorgeous landscape. Tomorrow, I will have to get to "real" work, as the Tucson gem shows unfold, but the perfection of this moment is a memory to hold onto. 


Published in Blog
Wednesday, 27 November 2013 21:49

Southern California Collecting 2013


If you've read my earlier blogs, then you know that I make an annual trip to Trona, California, for the Searles Valley Gem and Mineral Society Show, and to go out on the Searles Lake field trips, to collect world class evaporite minerals, such as this marvelously textural, large pink halite.

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One of the great rockhounding sites I pass by, on my way south, down Hwy 395, is Peterson Mountain, also known as Hallelujah. Here the road to Peterson invites me to drive on in and get a little digging done, with the peak directly ahead, and flaring orange in the last light of the setting sun. Believe me, I definitely think about it!

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Anywhere you dig has potential for smoky quartz crystals, but there are two claims up on the very top of the mountain, where permission is needed. In this picture, you can see the slide zone which extends on either side of the main rampart of rock near the summit. Crystals have definitely come from this area, and also from the sage slopes to the either side. 

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How do you know when you're there? Peterson Mountain is about 70 miles south of Susanville, CA, and 30 miles north of Reno, NV. It is accessed by an unmarked dirt road, spurring off of Hwy 395,  that is exactly one mile south of the road signed "Red Rock Road". You will see Red Rock Road as you are traveling south on 395. If you are heading north on 395, you will see these red rock formations, and know that you are very close. 

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Here are some of my best finds from nearly 20 years of rockhounding on Peterson Mountain. It strikes lightning into your heart when you find something like this! But remember, large scepters are rare. Realistically, you would probably need to make repeated trips over many years to hit a pocket that would yield a specimen like this. But then again, I've seen some first-timers that were handsomely rewarded by the mountain. Are you feeling lucky?

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An ancient earthen union, brought to light.

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Huge elestial scepter, with smaller (but still good sized) scepter keyed into it. 

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Here's the other side of this beauty!

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How about this otherworldly design? The main stem crystal actually is terminated, although it's hard to tell from this angle. An almost  ridiculous, yet entirely awesome amethyst and citrine elestial scepter head is partially wrapped around the large central smoky. 

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Who would have believed that such a geometry is possible?

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A burly "turkeyhead", as diggers call these large elestials. 

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Smoky amethyst tips!

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Back on Hwy 395 and heading to Trona, I pass through the scenic Walker River Valley, on the east side of the Sierras, south of Topaz Lake. Snows have been coming early to this part of the country, and you can see the hill on the horizon is dusted. 

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As the highway climbs higher, over on the back side of Yosemite, geothermal features are plainly revealed in the cold snap. 

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Just before I get to Mono Lake and around 7000 feet, I come to my favorite forever view of the high Sierras. Quaking aspens are turning gold, and running up and down just about every draw, as the land does a slow, undulation up towards the cloud capped summits. 

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 Aspens turn to flame beneath the silence of the frozen peaks. 

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Just around the corner, Mono Lake glitters enchantingly in the sullen light. The lake has been pulled back from the brink of destruction since a 1994 ruling mandating that water levels be restored to a higher mark, though still 25 feet below historic levels. Years of water diversion have brought a loss of 98% of the migrating duck population that once visited. The future now seems to hang in balance, like the scene over the lake this morning, with the fullness of the silvery light still shrouded by the circling storm. 

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I drop down from the snow zone, closer to the shore of Mono Lake, and can't resist taking a walk among the Quakies. Their golden bounty is fluttering down to earth, and covering the hillsides. 

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Creamy boulders of granite, smoothed by the weathering of eons are everywhere on the back side of the Sierras. To the stones, the brief pagentry of the trees must appear as only some quick flame that exhausts itself before one can turn and behold it. 

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I make it to the desert! There's some daylight left, so I decide to explore the mine grouping around the Talc Hills, accessed out of Lone Pine, via Hwy 190, just before it drops into Panamint Valley. The Talc City Mine produced nearly all the steatite grade talc in the US. By 1950, it's total production was a quarter of a million tons.

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A ramshackle talc ore chute falls apart at the top end of a cut. 

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A logo is still visible on one of the metal sheets. 

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There is a little druzy botryoidal chalcedony around here, but not much. 

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The miners' last ride. A rusted hulk sits down in the bottom of a talc pit. 

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The next morning, I catch the dawn at the Trona Pinnacles just south of Searles Lake. The murky hold of night is slowly washed away by the oncoming light. These ancient tufa towers are composed of calcium carbonate, deposited by calcium rich groundwater mixing with alkaline lake water during the Pleistocene Ice Ages. 

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During this time, massive runoff spilled from the Sierra Nevada, creating a chain of "inland seas" - a system of interconnected lakes that stretched from Mono Lake, to Death Valley, and included Searles Lake. 

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The silent monoliths from a bygone time stand witness as the muted tones of the night are thrown off in a golden sunrise. 

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Markers of ancient groundwater upwelling episodes that spanned 90,000 years, the ragged spines of pinnacles run out into the emptiness of the new day. The steam from the Searles Valley Chemicals processing plant is barely visible at the top left of the picture. 

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Interestingly, I learn from an interpretive sign that over 30 film projects a year are shot here at the Trona Pinnacles, including movies like Star Trek V, The Gate II, and Planet of the Apes. 

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Let the gem show begin! Bonnie Fairchild, shown here staffing the show office, along with her husband Jim have been the show anchors for decades. Without them, and a small number of volunteers from the club's membership, there would be no show and field trips! 

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Outside the show building, Jim Fairchild gives instructions to hundreds of eager field collectors, who are lining up for their once a year opportunity to collect some excellent pink halite. Check some of my other Trona blogs to get more details of this very significant weekend of field tripping. 

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Another pillar of the Searles Valley Gem Show, resident and miner Gail Austin cuts hundreds of geodes for attendees at the show. Here he shows off his 1873 first generation Peacemaker, made by Colt. 

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It's "the gun that won the West", and has been fully, and painstakingly restored by the same person who does antique gun restoration for the Smithsonian. 

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Additionally, I'm hanging out with rockhound Monica Travis, who is showing off an excellent boulder of Ballarat marble that she has found, just south of the ghost town of Ballarat, in Panamint Valley. The beautiful salmon colored marble with forest green streaking takes a very nice polish.

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This rock has about as nice a patterning as I've ever seen. 

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We are joined by University of Texas at El Paso geology graduate students Jade Brush, and Josh Glauch who are doing some masters work in the area, re-mapping geological units in Pleasant Canyon, over in adjoining Panamint Valley. As Jade put it, "When I looked at the existing geological map of Pleasant Canyon, the units just didn't make sense."

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We all set out on a field trip to the Stockwell Mine, on the flanks of the Slate Range, east of Searles Lake, where it was reported that a couple of sheriff's deputies, who are also rockhounds, made a find of chalcanthite earlier in the year. Soon after this photo, the road gets washed out and not even Josh's 4x4 can proceed. 

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 We move up into the canyons on foot. Josh is a strong hiker, and he is able to access multiple ridges, looking for the mine. Jade tries to recollect the exact location from memory, as she was here years before, but at that time, you could drive right up to the mine. 

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Like many mines in this part of the country, the Stockwell Mine is actually a mine grouping. We are looking for a specific tunnel, but there are numerous adits and shafts in various canyons in the area. Josh and I get distracted by an old can dump at the bottom of an ore landing.

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In a neighboring canyon, Jade has confirmed that this is the tunnel she visited earlier, and where the chancanthite was reported. It's showtime at the Stockwell! 

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Before we go in, my disclaimer: Exploring a mine tunnel is inherantly dangerous. In posting this blog, it is the sole intent of Scott's Rock & Gem to provide a record of exploration, and not to encourage anyone to enter a mine. To do so is to enter at your own risk. In fact, the common wisdom among rockhounds who operate safely, is to stay out of all mine tunnels! We have it on the authority of the two sheriff's deputies who explored this tunnel and located the chalcanthite, that it was safe. Also our miner friend, and Trona local, Gail Austin has said that it is a good tunnel. But as we make the decision to go in, each of us knows in the back of our heads that anything can happen. 

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We head in, and the light of day drops away behind us. The air deadens and grows stale. Large piles of rodent dung lie drifted here and there, and we try not to think about the dreaded hantavirus. Or falling rock. Up ahead, the tunnel tees and we make a right, into complete blackness. 

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A ladder descends into a vertical shaft that is just big enough to admit one person. Josh goes for it. Again, we had the assurance from miner Gail that the timber in this mine would be good. He based that on his knowledge that the mine had been worked as recently as 1975, and his experience of how well wood holds up over time in mines in this arid land. But as each of us takes hold of the top rung and we begin to lower ourselves into uncertain darkness, there is no doubt in our minds, that this is getting more dangerous by the minute.

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The ladder holds and we drop down into a lower tunnel, which quickly confronts us with another ladder. Still no chalcanthite in sight. We start to doubt ourselves because the deputies had only mentioned one ladder. Did we miss something somehow? Did we get off track? Josh forges ahead, determined. But the second ladder drops us onto a makeshift plank scaffolding that traverses a vertical shaft of unknown depth. Without a doubt, things are getting a bit hairy.

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Here, Monica descends a third ladder, and navigates a missing rung, while Jade spots. Josh has already continued across more funky planking, and has discovered a fourth ladder. I'm starting to think that we must have missed it. But just then, Josh calls up: "Chalcanthite!"

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The Stockwell chalcanthite zone exists as a secondary mineralization after mining, in a very fractured seam of white clay. It's quite rich with nice, fibrous blue crystals of chalcanthite filling in between the fractures in the clay. But there are some large lumps of fractured clay up at ceiling level that look like they may want to come down. Hopefully, not on anybody's head. Believe you me, I am looking up at that ceiling frequently, as I gingerly pull a few samples from the crumbling wall. But there is a good amount of chalcanthite, and no rocks fall. Everybody gets some nice samples.


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I think we all breathe a sigh of relief as we round the last corner on our exit, and see the heavenly light of day. 

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Back outside, Josh shows off an awesome, large chunk of clay just chock full of brilliant blue chalcanthite sprays. We work quickly to seal the mineral specimens with a clear coat of varnish. This is because chalcanthite is a pentahydrate. Having five waters in each molecule, it wants to give off water and dessicate very quickly. It must be sealed and protected from direct sunlight, and heat. 

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Here's a great piece, with large area of undamaged, bright blue fibers.

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Another very nice specimen with good coverage. 

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A superb, larger than hand-sized specimen with feathery tufts exploding across the surface. 

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How about this blue? Just to cure any skepticism: no photoshopping of any sort has been done to this photo! If you've made it this far, thanks for reading. As always, I wish you good times in the field, good memories, and good luck in your collecting!










Published in Blog
Tuesday, 20 August 2013 23:01

Precious Opal from the Virgin Valley

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While the high desert of northern Humboldt County, in Nevada may at first appear empty, unpopulated, and even desolate, you might be surprised to learn that within the Virgin Valley mining district, there are thousands of claims, some of them patented, which mean that the Federal Government has passed the title to the claim owner, making it private land. Here, a BLM sign points the way towards a precious opal mining adventure for those rockhounds who want to fee dig at one of the several mines that allow public digging.


The Virgin Valley mining district is contained within the Sheldon Antelope Refuge. It's the middle of June, but this female still sports a bit of winter scruff and she might still need it. With elevations on the refuge ranging from 4000 to 7000 feet, cold temperatures are never far away. 


Throughout the valley floor, low mounds of eroding clay yield small chips of petrified wood, yellow colored selenite, and in certain areas, precious opal! 


Scattered black cap rock from an ancient horizon that is now all but gone, gives little clue as to the fiery treasure that could be hiding at depth below. 


About 20 million years ago, this area was forested, and received over 50 inches of rain annually. This opalized limb of an ancient tree was buried in volcanic ash from eruptions that occurred 12 to 20 million years ago. as the limbs from trees disintegrated in the ground, they left hollow casts which were later filled with a silica solution, as hydrothermal water flows percolated through the ash layer. 


Not all opal is precious. While the rind, or outer skin of this awesome limb shows the mesmerizing play of color that is characteristic of precious opal, you can see that its core is composed of milky opal, also called common opal, which is glassy and beautiful, but does not have the play of color. 


There are varying kinds of "fire" or "play of color" in the Virgin Valley opals. Here a fiery little limb displays "direct fire" which is where you can see the color directly head on, whichever way you turn the opal in the sunlight. 


In this photo, a clear glassy opal (known as crystal) displays "contra luz" fire. Literally meaning "against the light", this type of fire emerges in the opal when you hold it up to the sun, and let the sunlight come through the opal from behind. 


Stringy fire - I'm not sure if this is an accepted gemological term, or if it is one of those rockhound names, but you can see that the fire in this lovely opal is definitely stringy in the main mass. Towards the edge, the fire goes more into "broadflash". 


Black Fire - this is the most rare of all the types of opals from the Virgin Valley. And, it's what the Virgin Valley is famous for. By some accounts, this area is really the only place in the world that produces true black fire opal. 


Opals from the Virgin Valley come out of a wet clay layer, and must be kept immersed in water or they will dry out and craze (show a million fractures) possibly greatly reducing their fire, or totally losing it (and with it, their value). While opinions on the successful stabilization (drying out without fracturing) of Virgin Valley opals will vary, one claim owner shared his opinion that the percentage of unstable opals from the area was in the high 90's. In other words, very few Virgin Valley opals can be used for jewelry making. They are specimen opals only. 


But if the fire can be taken away, it can also be given! Some opals that at first appear only milky, have the potential to "fire up" as they dry out. Here, a freshly dug milky opal still holds that mystery. Some opal hounds have a practice of keeping everything, just in case the white opal decides to fire up later on. Others toss their un-fiery opal, and the tailings diggers coming behind them are hoping to come across some of these discards that have gained fire.


The first mine workings in Virgin Valley were started in 1905. Today, there are more people, claims, and encampments then ever, but it's still a pretty isolated, and tiny enclave of humanity. Here, opal hounds caravan down dirt roads leading to various claims where they can pay a fee to dig in the tailings, dig in the opal bearing clay on the virgin wall, or buy their opals direct from claim owners and millsites in the valley. 


Let's get digging! Here comes a load of virgin opal bearing clay, fresh out of a mine, as opal diggers wait with great anticipation. 


Fresh out into the daylight! A completely opalized limb holds potential for play of color. 


Here, a limb over 6 inches long surfaces, held in the 20 million year old embrace of clay. It doesn't appear to have any opal content, but still, a long limb like this is a beautiful geological treasure in and of itself. 



After a day of digging, the nearby CCC camp offers free camping, potable water, restrooms, and a tepid swimming pond complete with toe nibbling minnows. 


The Friends of the Refuge have restored the old bath house at the CCC Camp, so you can have a shower. 


Or just soak your cares away after a hot day's labors.


A sweet touch at the CCC Camp, from a local boyscout troop. 


For a quick access field trip that is a good wind-up, or wind-down to opal digging, go directly across Hwy 140 from the main entrance to Virgin Vally, and check the low, chocolate brown rocks that outcrop on that side. 


Small chips of a nice, gummy bear orange carnelian can be found throughout the soil below the rock outcrops. But you will need to search dilligently, as this area has been rockhounded by several generations of surface hunters. 


Or take hammer and chisel and attack the rocks themselves, which are the source of the carnelian, and offer tiny pockets of this material. But be forwarned, the rock here is extremely tough!  


If you can't find opal when you go digging, you will almost certainly be able to find some "standard" brown petrified wood. Here, a good sized limb that is not opalized has come out of the wall at the Royal Peacock Mine. 


Now this is getting better! Here's a piece of petrified wood with a thin seam of precious opal traveling through its interior. 


A Virgin Valley oddity: an opalized limb with petrified rootlets within. As one claim owner explained, millions of years ago, the area had lakes. As these lakes dried up, willows were among the first trees to colonize the drying lakebeds, and they had aggressive root systems which plumbed some of the hollow casts left in the deeper soil by decayed wood. As the casts filled with silica solution, the roots were encased and fossilized along with the limb cast. 


You have to look close. Precious opal can sometimes be easy to miss. This piece of opal didn't appear to have any areas of fire at first. 


But when a small chip was popped out of the center, it revealed a nice area of rare black fire core that was stable! 


Despite all your best efforts, you might get skunked, and it's not really your fault if you work hard and find nothing. As one claim owner at the Bonanza Mine put it, "Your chances of finding opal are slim to none". I dug the wall hard for 7 hours at the Royal Peacock Mine, and got nothing to show for it. But I saw a digger right next to me pull a beautiful precious opal limb! 


Here, a nice long opalized limb has been found in the opal bearing clay, but shows no hint of color. 


Here it is cleaned up, and it's really quite a nice specimen of crystal (glass clear) and white opal limb, even if it doesn't have any color. But this piece could mysteriously fire up later on as it drys out, and of course that's what everybody hopes for! 


A wild burro brays in the distance, and the sound is overly large and obnoxious in this empty land. It's as if the burro is laughing at the fool diggers out there scratching at the dirt. And it's true: we're pretty far out of our element and engaged in the rockhound equivalent of a Quixotic quest, searching for that proverbial needle in a hundred haystacks! 


But the lure of black fire keeps diggers coming back to try again! 


Opalholics, we're called! And you can see why. Here, a beautiful, large, domed limb shows deep reflected points of colorful fire that dance within, in a way that the camera cannot possibly convey. 


A fiery white limb section shows off some poppin' flashes. 


A real sweet, direct fire limb. 


How about this whopper! What are Virgin Valley opals worth? While travel videos on TV toss out big figures as diggers pluck opals from the wall, other claim owners prefer to keep quiet, and let the opal speak for itself. I will say this: some of the opals in these photos, which I purchased from the Bonanza Mine millsite, back in the mid 1990's, were not very expensive. I'm not sure I am able to believe some of the pricing I'm hearing today. 


One miner told me that if the Virgin Valley opal was stable, he would just be cutting, and not running a fee dig. I think that's a telling statement. It's true that the very best specimens of any kind of mineral, including opal, will always command a high price. So a fantastic specimen opal from the Virgin Valley might be right up there in price, when compared to a fine cuttable opal from Australia. But in general, the capricious, unstable nature of the Virgin Valley opals will probably always preclude them from being readily embraced by the gem industry.  


It's good to admire beauty for beauty's sake, without notions of price, and the Virgin Valley opals make it easy to do just that. The wall of fire in this opal looks like some other-dimensional realm out of a Star Trek movie. Live long and prosper. And maybe get an opal dig in while you're out there travelling the universe!




Published in Blog
Monday, 25 February 2013 20:44

Tucson 2013

Published in Blog
Sunday, 28 October 2012 13:09

Rockhounding Around Trona, California

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Light and shadows easily slide together on my annual pilgrimage to the world class halite digs, and the gem show, in Trona, California, during the second week of October. The southern terminus of the Inyo Mountain Range comes alive as hillocks and peaks flare in the sun, and subside. Geology is laid bare here, but what you may not catch on a cloudless sunny day, is the depth and three dimensionality of the range. This aspect is strikingly apparent, as big cumulonimbus clouds travel the skies above, like stage hands clearing the set, after a patch of winter weather left snow in the high Sierras just a couple hours ago.

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Backing up a few hours, to a time just before the winter storm hit, I'm driving past an abandoned cabin, about 6 miles up Hwy 108, from its junction with Hwy 395. An obscure book I picked up years ago in a Lone Pine, California rock shop, titled "Where to Find Rocks and Minerals in the Owens Valley, CA", by Irma Kittle, advises that an area called Leavitt Meadows, is a "good area" featuring "agate w/black dots & sunbursts, Cinnamon obsidian, Sagenite". I see from my map, that the meadows are about 7 miles up the Sonora Pass Highway, so I'm on my way to take a look, but can't help stopping by this iconic little cabin, perched on a small hill overlooking the Walker River. 

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 A stone's throw from the cabin is this interesting structure - possibly a storage facility of some sort? As I understand it, there was once a vacation lodge up here, with housekeeping cabins. Now there are only these small, derelict buildings to speak of the former golden age of tourism to the Sierras. The varying elevations of the rockwork foundation suggest a real homemade style of construction. The initial groundwork migrates from using the rounded river stone which is abundant in the immediate area, to using hewn flat slabs for better structural strength, but more laborious to bring in. 

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Today, during the second week of October, the tourists are absent, and the placid Walker River passes quietly by a small campground that is closed for the season. A horseback riding facility that is just upriver, is also battening down for the winter. The main meadowland looks to be on the other side of the river, so I rock-hop over, across the bar to the right in the picture, heading for some talus slopes on the other side. My rockhounding instinct tells me that if I were an agate, I'd probably hang out over there. If you have children with you, there is a footbridge that crosses the river out of the lower end of the campground. 

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The very first place I check, at the foot of the talus slopes, shows a crystal lined vug in the vessicular volcanic rock. Other small pockets show up nearby, with some tell-tale white stringers in some of the matrix rock. 

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Some of the amygdules are filled in with either agate, quartz crystal, or in this case, a little of both with some interesting reddish golden fine haired sagenite. 

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Here's a sweet little banded agate, with alternating layers of gray, blue, and white. I didn't see any pockets that were very large, everything seeming to come in around one to four inches in size, but there's enough material here to make a good outing for beginning rockhounds, or families with children. Besides the possibilities of finding some interesting collectibles, you are in beautiful country, and there's plenty of open space to explore. 

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The air starts clouding up, and what appears to be the first rain of the season begins to dampen the ground, falling on the summer's dry, cracked mud, and putting up that indescribable smell of wet rock, and earth. Unknown to me, winter is taking a first crack at the Sierras, and before I get down off the Sonora Pass road, the snow will be flying!

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Here's a look at the nearby agate bearing talus slope, from back on the road side of the river. I only walked along the leading edge, at the bottom of the slope, and saw a reasonable amount of little agate tidbits. I'm sure there is more material for the climber, who wants to search up the talus, or even climb to the top, where the monolithic boulders of agate bearing rock are gradually letting their treasures tumble downhill. Caution should always be used, as loose scree can cause sudden loss of footing. 

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The rain chases me out of Leavitt Meadows, and I high-tail it down the road, through falling snow. But the storm doesn't really last, and as I head down to Bishop, there are already starting to be sunbreaks, with incredible freshly snowcapped peaks appearing and disappearing through the swirling clouds, like fleeting visions of Olympus.

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Surely, this must be where the Gods live!

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I drive down the east side of the Sierras every year, on my way to the gemshow, and field trips at Trona. Each year, my amazement is rekindled by the sheer dimensions of this mighty range. Tremendous granite peaks do an abrupt and soaring rise, off of the floor of the Owens Valley, and the younger man in me begins eyeing out routes on the mountain walls, half toying with the idea that it might not be as hard as it looks to climb one of those mountains, if you could just find the right approach. Then I look higher, above the formidable ramparts, above the clouds, to where the supreme citadels stand, unassailable in their icy raiments, and I have to concede that I am peering into the rarified, thin-air realm that only the very experienced mountaineer will ever know first hand. Alas, to be a younger man! And to climb one more glorius peak! 

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Instead of scaling a lofty summit, I keep on schedule, and drive lower into the desert valley. Here, there are colors with no names. Hills seem to undulate, like rollicking water, frozen in time. It occurs to me that landscapes, cloudscapes, rivers - these are all flows, with varying degrees of time. While it is often said that our lives are just a blink, still each moment gives a view of an infinity. 

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The winter storm seems to sense that it can go no further, as it drags its belly on the peaks of the southern Inyos, pummeling them with rains, but balking at stepping out into the sun dappled desert. 

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I head over to Trona via Panamint Valley, because it's empty, loney, and beautiful that way. Just before dropping down into Panamint Valley, The first stands of joshua trees begin to crop up, waving their weird arms at a stunning sky. 

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The sun flares on the furrowed slopes of the Grapevine Range, on the east side of Panamint Valley. Joshua trees stand in silent witness, as that special, peaceful time of late evening unfolds, and the western flanks of the desert mountain ranges redden in the long, low light.

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The next morning, after thunder and lightning played through the night in Panamint Valley, to the beat of soft rains, I take the Quarry Road, at the northern end of Searles Valley, which climbs to the ridgeline of the Slate Range. From the top, you get a good view of the Briggs Gold Mine, an expansive, and conspicuous open pit operation that has drawn fire from environmentalists. The mine has produced over 550,000 ounces of gold since production began in 1996.

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After setting up my show at the club building in Trona, I head for the hills behind the town, to scout for a route that will take me close to Argus Peak, where locals have reported smoky quartz outcroppings. Here the red blush of evening stops my explorations for the day, and I get a view of Searles Dry Lake, where we will be slaving away, collecting halite in a couple of days.

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Ahead of me, and looming tantalizingly close, yet still so far, are the ramparts of Argus Peak. The quartz crops out high up on the shoulder of the peak, and the Argus Range is roadless wilderness. All forays into this country must be done on foot through steep and treacherous terrain. I've tried several years in a row to get up there, but my attempts have been thwarted. Tonight, I stand in the deepening dusk, and peer at that shoulder, another year older, but still desirous of my chance.

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Up the large wash that comes down along the south flank of Argus Peak, I can see Christmas Tree Spring, about a half mile or so distant. It's tempting to think that one might find a route to Argus up this wash, but it is said that the Navy has sensors in the area, and if you are picked up beyond Christmas Tree Spring, you will be taken to Barstow, and detained for three days. Not a good way to finish a rockhounding expedition!

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Jim Fairchild, of Searles Valley Chemicals, is the Searles Lake field trip leader. He, along with his wife, Bonnie, and a handful of others, are pretty much solely responsible for the outstanding collecting opportunities that have been offered to rockhounds during the 2nd weekend of October, for decades. Jim begins and ends the timed field trips via instructions over the megaphone. I've lost count of the number of times he's yelled at me with that darned contraption, telling me that my time is up, and I need to GET OFF THE LAKE!

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Out on the lake, the first field trip has begun. Stan Esbenshade, an Arizona mineral dealer uses a unique trowel to search for rare sulfohalites, scraping through the piles of salt, mud, and brine that were spewed out of the blowpipe for the 600 rockhounds that attend this outing. Another Arizona dealer approaches Stan and advises him that he is only scratching in "gibbely gravel". Stan raises his mud encrusted trowel, protecting his turf, and makes a grim reaper style swing through the air. The encroaching dealer backs off. (wink)

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In one of the most unique field trips that a rockhound could ever take, the Searles Valley Chemical crew uses a drill rig complete with blowpipe, to jet brine and crystals out in a 360 degree ring, onto the flat pan of the lakebed. Before they can pump, a hole must be drilled in the salt crust, and explosive charges must be detonated under the salt pan, to loosen up the hanksites and other crystals. Then the blowpipe is inserted in the hole and pressure is pumped under the surface, firing a gushing stream of crystals out into the air, to land about 30 feet away from the pipe. Collectors rush in to scoop up the newly deposited treasures.

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A closer look at the drill rig shows how the pipe is inserted into the salt crust, down to the reservoir of hanksites, halites, and boraxes below. 

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A look at the rigging of the drill truck. You would not want to have to do a field repair on this baby!

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Getting off the lake, we pass by some prime lakefront real estate! 

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On Sunday, we all get to have at it again. 600 rockhounds spread out quite well in the expansive pink halite collecting area. This year is exciting because we are collecting at a brand new area which Jim calls "the pond effluent area", but which I have come to call "the rose petal area" because the halite that comes out here has a lovely rose pink color that is delicate and beautiful. Halite is abundant, and nobody goes home empty handed. 

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A gorgeous example of pink halite that was collected from the "Rose Petal Area" during the field trip. Note the botryoidal area just right of center, below the cubic hopper crystals. I pulled up some salt plates that were just covered in this interesting bubbly formation, and I had not seen this before in the old traditional collecting zone. 

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At the north end of the Rose Petal, or Pond Effluent area, some diggers cross over the service road, and begin pulling up some very nice clusters of dark pink, to red halite. Before long they are joined by others, and in no time at all, it's "ants in the sugar bowl" over there. Note the large culvert style pipe in the foreground. A network of these monster pipes is used by the company to manage solution flows out on the lake bed. 

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On Monday, after the show, I have some time on my hands, and I am still itching to try to get to the quartz deposits up on Argus Peak. I approach from the Great Falls Basin route, as there is a trailhead here that gains some elevation, before giving out in the upper granite wilderness, below the shoulder of Argus. I take the trail up out of the Great Falls Basin wash, and when it ends, I rock hop through the wilderness for a mile and a half or more, gaining as much elevation as I can, and trending in a generally southward direction. 

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All of a sudden, I start seeing quartz! Here, a partially exposed knob of white rock quartz has been dug out by either rockhounds, or early miners who were up here in search of gold. 

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Multiple quartz veins are present in the host granite here, some of them over a foot thick. The quartz seems to be located within an area that is about 1/4 mile wide, and 1/4 mile long, and is weathering out, high up among the granite domes. I don't find any large crystals here, and there is none of the rumored smoky quartz in this particular area, but there is a lot of nice druzy quartz, much of which has a high degree of sparkle in the bright sunlight. 

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A nice botryoidal druzy quartz, pleasantly colored by iron oxides, is alive with sparkle, though my camera doesn't convey this very well. 

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Some of the druzy quartz had a nice peach-purplish coloration. 

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I spot one mine shaft in the quartz area, plunging at least 40 feet straight down, following a massive quartz seam, visible on the far wall. Those early miners in this area had strong willpower, and perseverance. Imagine hauling 100 cubic yards of material up out of a hole, using only a bucket lashed to a timber at the top of the hole. There were no roads, and no machinery in the early days of prospecting the Argus Peak wilderness. A Trona local, who worked in the early days as a "powder monkey" and later as a prospector, told me that all the old mines in this area are hand dug. 

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A lovely, large botryoidal quartz with marvelous coloration proves too big to conquer with my backpack. I'll have to come back with my helicopter! (wink) There is lots of druzy and botryoidal material here, and the area is largely untouched by rockhounds, due to the remote location. If you have a chance to get out here, this is a fun trip. 

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One thin cloud in the sky is not enough to cut the still 90+ degree temps of mid October. Creamy granite knobs begin to bake in the afternoon sun, and my water is mostly used up, having gained 1500 feet of elevation in a couple of miles, and having done a couple more miles of bouldering. Looks like I'm not going to gain another 1000 feet of rugged elevation on up to the smoky quartz area on the high shoulder of Argus Peak. For 2013, My plan is approach that zone from Indian Joe Canyon (slightly more direct, but straight up with no trail), focus on gaining the el, and not get too distracted by druzy quartz. Next year, I'm going to make it! 

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There is precious little time in a year, to wander these desert wilderness areas, and this years trip was made possible through the kindness of a Trona neighbor, Gail Austin, who did me the big favor of lending me his 1940's jeep. It's the best rig I have been in for navigating the deep sandy washes. Back at the bottom of the Great Falls Basin trailhead, looking due west, the mountain wall forms an amphitheater of sorts and juts abruptly from the soft sandy floor. Seven waterfalls cascade down through the notch in the wall, during a rain, giving the place it's name. 

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A view into the interior of the jeep. Note the custom made howlite stick shift knobs. If there is a rockhound heaven, it might look something like this! Happy hounding!



Published in Blog
Sunday, 20 May 2012 06:51

New York City Metro Show

Published in Blog
Tuesday, 26 October 2010 11:55

Sisters, OR 2010

Published in Blog
Sunday, 15 August 2010 20:50

Trona, CA 2009

Published in Blog
Thursday, 16 April 2009 11:31

Quartz, Rose Quartz & Smoky Quartz

Download our Wholesale Pricing PDF for a more complete list of items and approximate prices. Important: for current pricing and availability, call 541 621-2558, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Clear Quartz cut & polished points, sizes up to 150 grams, 3 lb minimum.
Clear Quartz cut & polished points, sizes 150 grams and up, 5 lb. minimum.
Clear Quartz cut & polished points, XL (5 - 10 lb/ea). Special Order.
Rose Quartz cut & polished points, sizes up to 150 grams, 3 lb minimum.
Rose Quartz cut & polished points, sizes 150 grams and up, 5 lb. minimum.
Smoky Quartz cut & polished points, sizes up to 150 grams, 3 lb. minimum.
Smoky Quartz cut & polished points, sizes 150 grams and up, 5 lb. minimum.

Natural Quartz Clusters, specify SM (1" - 2") (pictured at left), MED (2" - 3"), or LG ( 3" - 4") (pictured Right).
Natural Quartz Points, SM (1.75"-2.25"), 11 lb. lots.
Natural Quartz Points, MED (3-5"), 22 lb lots.
Natural Quartz Points, LG (6"-9"), 44 lb. case.

Natural Rose Quartz Chunks, 1"-4".

Download our Wholesale Pricing PDF for a more complete list of items and approximate prices. Important: for current pricing please call 541 621-2558, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Published in Wholesale