Searching for microcline crystals atop Mosquito Pass. © Vicki Witte.
By Kevin & Vicki Witte
There are lots of reasons why you might want to consider rockhounding this summer. Perhaps there’s a budding geologist in the family. Or you’re looking for a different kind of outdoor activity that involves Colorado scenery and burns some calories? Or maybe you just need some solitude. But be forewarned: Rockhounding can be addicting.
Colorado is well-known to rockhounds worldwide, whether it’s topaz in the Tarryalls, aquamarines on Mt. Antero, or quartz crystals and amazonite on Pikes Peak. Just don’t think you’ll ever get rich rockhounding.
While you probably won’t find a mastodon’s tooth or the skull of a saber tooth tiger sticking out of the ground (vertebrate fossils can’t be collected anyway), you can collect leaf imprints, ancient insects, petrified wood, and invertebrate sea creatures that lived millions of years ago.
What drew me (Kevin) to rockhounding was the thrill of the hunt and eventual discovery of minerals and gems hidden from view since they were formed millions of years ago. My best discovery was last year when I was walking through the Hayman burn and found a small piece of blue-green amazonite poking through the dirt. Careful digging exposed a pocket of smoky quartz and amazonite crystal combinations. While these specimens weren’t world-class, they did find a safe place in the curio cabinet my wife bought me for Christmas.
The best way to get started in the hobby of rockhounding is to join a local club. Nearly every large town in Colorado has one, and even some small towns like Lake George do, too. For a mere annual fee of less than $50 Colorado’s geology and the hobby of rockhounding can be opened up to your whole family.
Old timers will be glad to show you the ropes and offer you personalized instruction on how to go about prospecting for various specimens. A club may even have rights to certain claims that would otherwise be off-limits.
One of my favorite family outings each year is going to the Holcim Cement quarry east of Cañon City. Every year clubs set up field trips to this private quarry to collect fossil shells, pyrite, and calcite crystals. All the kids always have a good time.
You can also find other sources of information on rockhounding on the web, or see your local library for rockhounding magazines like Rock & Gem, or check out a book on Colorado rockhounding. If you purchase a book, just make sure it’s a recent edition, as many areas become claimed over time, while others open up to collectors. I would recommend you start with Voynick’s Colorado Rockhounding.
Get a feel for the depth and breadth of the hobby by attending one of the dozen or so annual rock shows in Colorado. One of the best is the Denver Gem and Mineral show, held every September. Dealers come from as far away as Australia, Pakistan, and Morocco to show and sell their spectacular finds.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you set out:
- Don’t trespass private property and don’t violate state and federal rules. Never enter an area without first knowing the collecting rules. Check first with the Bureau of Land Management.
- Never enter mine shafts. Poisonous gases, rotted support timbers and unseen shafts filled with what may look like puddles of water are life-threatening hazards.
- Watch for scorpions and rattlesnakes on the plains, bears and cougars in the mountains. The buddy system is just as important when rockhounding as it is in swimming.
- High altitude and changing weather conditions can ruin a trip. If you hear thunder, no matter how far away, it’s time to head for safety.
- Be well equipped. Essentials include water, snacks, and first aid kit. A four-wheel drive vehicle with GPS can also be very helpful.
- Let someone else know what you are doing, where you are going and when you’ll be back. Cell phones often don’t work well in the mountains.
Just remember, the better prepared you are for a trip, the more likely you will come back with something you were looking for as well as lasting memories.
Vicki Witte is a freelance writer and editor living in Colorado Springs. Her husband, Kevin, is an avid rockhound. Follow his blog at rockhoundingkw.blogspot.com.