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Getting down and dirty in a quest for gemstones.
Photo: Paula Riley
Murmurs of appreciation greet the stones Alan Felker displays in his gently cupped hands. “When I saw the glimmer in that bucket,” he tells his fellow rockhounds, eyes crinkling with pleasure, “I about fell off my perch.” The shimmer of a rainbow caught in hunks of precious fire opal is a just reward for a long drive and sweat-filled hours spent picking through clots of dusty earth.
Felker is proficient at this type of hunting and gathering, but virtually anyone can prospect for gemstones, natural bling of off-road adventurers. Before you set out, here’s a brief geology lesson: Nevada does rocks like no other state. Nevada’s upper echelon includes opals, garnets, and smoky quartz. To get your hands on some, start by acquiring basic knowledge, then gather a few supplies and seek a little help from your rock-loving friends.
The novice collector can find inspiration from the family-oriented Reno Gem and Mineral Society, an educational-social club with a focus on teaching basic identification, important because a stone’s outerwear can disguise its inner beauty. Members such as Felker share success stories and hunting hints at regular gatherings. The club also organizes monthly field trips for collecting en masse, especially beneficial for beginners. Ernie Kastenbein, long-time member, says, “Specifics are what you get from others who have been there and done that.” Norvie Enns, the club’s shop director and an instructor, agrees. “Find someone who’s already been there,” he says, “and go with them.” He favors the group approach, but adventurous souls could take the indie route.
Several commercial opal mines and more than 200 private claims operate in Virgin Valley territory, the high desert of northwest Humboldt County, where prized black opals and many-hued fire opals result from silica and minerals deposited in the cavities of disintegrating buried forests. Opal hunters search for crusty tree-limb shapes or broken bits protruding from the pale dirt.
Michelle Blowers, a Californian who hunts in Nevada, says, “There is nothing like spotting that glint of color in the grey sand. Your heart leaps. You brush off the dirt…the colors burst like tiny rainbows…after that you are hopelessly hooked. There is no cure for opal fever but more opals.”
Fees for digging at private opal mines can range upwards of $100. Take U.S. 95 north from Winnemucca 28 miles to State Route 140, then north to Denio 70 miles. Virgin Valley, situated in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and containing mines such as Royal Peacock and Rainbow Ridge, lies west of Denio near the Oregon border.
In eastern Nevada, garnets, a type of feldspar, are abundant at Garnet Fields Rockhound Area—turn at the sign six miles west of Ely off U.S. 50. At the top of Garnet Hill you’ll find wheelchair-accessible restrooms, a picnic area, a few camping spaces, and plenty of parking. Admittance is free. Kick along the roadway to unearth crystals glowing like luminous red eyes in pale-colored rhyolite. Hunting is easiest following a heavy rain or after snowplows have cleared the road. Better yet, “Get away to where there haven’t been too many people,” says Enns, who has found ¾-inch jewelry-quality garnets off the beaten path. You can try the southwest quadrant of the hill.
Mine tailings near the top of Petersen Mountain, approximately 33 miles north of Reno, yield pale brown to black smoky quartz, a type of silica, ideal for displaying as is or cut and polished as gems. Distinctive flat sides and corners distinguish their crystal shapes from ordinary dirt and rocks. With a hand-held rock pick, rake a portion of the loose tailings toward you, then sift through it by hand. You’ll need four-wheel drive, work gloves, a pick (or shovel), and a bucket. To reach Petersen Mountain, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, travel north from Reno on U.S. 395, continuing exactly 10 miles beyond Hallelujah Junction. Turn east onto the unmarked dirt road, which will take you to a parking turnout at a gate near the top. Walk in to the tailings that have been dumped nearby. Beware of signs marking active mining claims, and do not trespass on them.
Most guidebooks and Web sites suggest necessary tools and safety measures for successful gemstone hunting. You should have sturdy boots, sun and wind protection, potable water, and a cell phone, although not all areas receive cell signals. Sites that charge fees for digging (fee-for-dig) might rent shovels and buckets; otherwise, bring your own tools. Don’t go alone into the back country, and remember, collecting is forbidden in state parks.
Many Reno Gem and Mineral Society members learn to cut and polish gem shapes from their favorite specimens. Annual membership runs $21, with classes in lapidary, silversmithing, beadwork, and wire-wrapping costing $6 or less.
Don’t despair if you come home with specimens good only for gracing your garden. Unlike with fishing, you get to determine the keepers. As Enns says, “I don’t have to know what a specimen’s mineral content is to think it’s pretty.” So what if your finds aren’t precious gemstones? They might be any of the hundreds of collectible minerals native to Nevada, and before you know it, you might be hooked—and headed toward becoming a rockhound.
Mystical properties of gems and rocks
Weekend prospectors forage for gemstones that can be polished and set into jewelry. Some folks believe some stones have mystical, even magical, properties, and they are intrigued by lore dating back thousands of years. Here’s a sampling of Nevada minerals and their spiritual meanings:
Need to predict the future? Look to the state’s official precious gemstone, the Virgin Valley Black Fire Opal. Northern Nevada has the corner on North America’s supply. Once considered more valuable than diamonds, opals are associated with good luck, hope, and purity.
Wisdom and the ability to align chakra are properties assigned to turquoise. Since the early 1900s, Nevada has been a major producer of the blue stone, which was prized by the Pharaohs and later by Native Americans.
If you want to know whether you were George Washington in another life, check out garnets.
According to legend, the gem helps you view past incarnations.
If you are addicted to chocolate, the purple amethyst can break habits as well as boost contentment.
Carnelians ward off rage, envy, and fear, and at the same time promote love between parents and kids. A bowl full at the dinner table might work wonders.
Malachite was the cosmetic of ancient civilizations. It not only produced a vibrant green eye shadow but supposedly protected children against evil spirits.
Onyx, which is sometimes used in cameos, is associated with happiness, good fortune, and wisdom.
And, the bloodstone is all about energy and renewal. You might want to carry one to a Sacred Stone Massage appointment at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas in Henderson.
Information on gemstone meanings and lore can be found in: Love is in the Earth: A Kaleidoscope of Crystals, Updated (726 pages), Earth-Love Publishing House, 3440 Youngfield St., Suite 353, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033.—By Ann Henderson
Celebrate Nevada Mining Week
As part of Nevada Mining Week, observed October 21-27, you can spend the afternoon in a 4,500-square-foot simulated underground mine, pan for gold, examine more than 150 minerals and other mining artifacts, and explore the mining industry’s importance to Nevada. The free activities will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, October 26 at the McCaw School of Mines, located at Gordon McCaw Elementary School, 57 Lynn Lane, across the street from the Henderson City Hall and Civic Center off Basic Road.
The Nevada Mining Association and the McCaw School of Mines Foundation will host the family event in recognition of Nevada Mining Week. For more information, call 702-799-3546.
Reno Gem and Mineral Society
Bureau of Land Management, Ely office
Virgin Valley Opal history, fee-for-dig opal mines, and travel tips
Nevada Mining Association
WORTH A CLICK
WORTH A VISIT
Nevada Museum of Art
160 W. Liberty St.
Carol Foldvary-Anderson’s Real Nevada Rocks: Jewelry and Gems of the Silver State
Art for home and garden
Michael & Son’s
2001 E. 2nd St., Reno
Reno Gem and Mineral Society Craft Fair
Reno Town Mall
McDermitt’s annual rock and mineral show
Held in September
NEVADA’S A GEM
A list of many of the semi-precious gemstones found in the Silver State:
Agate, amethyst, apache tears, beryl, black jade, blue amazonite, blue chalcedony, bloodstone, citrine, chrysoberyl, corundum, dumortierite, garnet, jasper, onyx, opal, smoky quartz, topaz, turquoise, and wonderstone.
Source: Minerals of Nevada, Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, Special Publication 31 and University of Nevada Press, nbmg.unr.edu, unpress.nevada.edu