Colorado is one of the best places in the United States to go rockhounding. Only California has a wider variety of minerals. Some people think it’s a downside that these deposits tend to be small and scattered.
To others, that makes it all the more exciting. Within Colorado, one of the best areas to find interesting rocks is Chaffee County, 127 different minerals have been identified and found. The Weather Channel even filmed their Prospectors TV show here. To make it even better, 80% of the county is public land.
Best Rockhounding Sites in Chaffee County
The best known (and highest) site in Chaffee County is Mount Antero, where a variety of semi-precious stones, including aquamarine and smoky quartz, have been found. This list of sites will tell you where to go and give you information on what types of minerals and gems to discover. Make sure that you avoid trespassing. For example, a popular rockhounding site on Ruby Mountain recently closed to collectors. Private lands are sometimes accessible through the Columbine Gem and Mineral Society
Also, bear in mind that Colorado still has a claims system. Claims are generally marked with pillars or cairns and must be respected. Sometimes a rockhounding club will have claims specific to the group that is available to members.
Which Gems to Find?
Colorado has such a variety of minerals that it can be hard to know what types to look for. The list of sites can help you determine what has been found where.
The official state gemstone of Colorado is aquamarine, found on Mount Antero as well as Mt. White, Mt. Baldwin, and Mt. Princeton. These are all high altitudes (above 10,000 feet), so make sure you acclimate properly before hunting.
Colorado is also known for rhodochrosite. However, it is hard to find on the surface. However, Colorado is also a great place to look for amazonite and smoky quartz clusters, topaz (generally light blue), and fluorite.
Another option is fossil hunting. Colorado has a variety of fossils, and you might even find a dinosaur. Petrified wood is also relatively commonly found. And yes, there are still places in the state where you can pan for gold.
How to Find Gems?
For most casual rockhounds, you are looking at surface collecting. Public dig sites (where you generally pay a fee) can be a good source for more common gemstones, and there will usually be somewhere there to help you look. However, you are unlikely to find anything rare or particularly cool there.
The first task is to learn how to identify gemstones accurately. It’s worth paying a visit to the Coors Mineral Hall at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, or the Geology Museum at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. The former may be an easy trip if you fly into Denver. Both sites have vast collections, including excellent examples of the minerals found in the state so that you can identify the gems you find. You can also get a gem identification app for your phone or go old school and buy a book.
Learning to find gems can be more challenging. For many novices, the best answer is to find a rockhound club with a planned trip, where you can hunt with more experienced people who can help you train your eye and also identify your finds.
What Equipment do you Need?
If you are casually hunting, use just your eyes and hands. However, if you want to get more serious, then you should get the right gear. Here are some things you should consider getting:
- A jeweler’s loupe. A special hand lens that allows you to look more closely at your rock. The loupe can help you identify gems, spot microscopic fossils, etc. A hand lens is the first thing you should get.
- Rock hammer. There are a variety of types of rock hammers, including bricklayer’s hammers, chipping hammers, and geo picks. What you need depends on what you are looking for and where. Rockhounding clubs may have tools to loan if you inquire.
- Rock chisels. You should get a set of rock chisels.
- A rock screen. If you are a beginner, a standard kitchen strainer is quite sufficient. As you become more interested in rockhounding, a rock screen helps go through the dust to find smaller crystals.
- A blacklight or UV light. These are affordable, and they are used to tell whether a mineral is fluorescing for identification.
- Brushes. Ordinary paint brushes will do. Use them to clean dirt and grit from rocks or fossils.
- Safety goggles. If you plan on doing any digging, chipping, or prying, you must wear good safety goggles.
- Gloves. You should also wear proper gloves. Some crystals are sharp and will cut your hands.
- A container to collect your rocks and samples. Labeled Ziploc bags are generally good enough for stones. Fossils should be put in containers with lids as they tend to break.
What To Do With Your Gems?
What should you do with your gems when you find them? If you are serious, you should consider getting a display case or a gemstone organizer — store gems in jewelry bags or gemstone jars.
You can get gems appraised by a dealer, and you can consider selling them if you do find something unusually valuable. Most people, though, collect gems to show them off.
You can even go to a rock and gem show and show off your collection to the public.
Best Rockhounding Activities in Chaffee County
Back to Chaffee County. What kind of rockhounding activities can you find? Here are some suggestions:
- The Columbine Gem and Mineral Society make regular field trips. You have to buy an annual membership, but it is very cheap and is worth it even if you are only going to be there on vacation.
- Cache Creek by Granite is designated by the BLM as a gold-panning hot spot. Make sure to take the right gear.
- The Rock Doc has rockhounding equipment for sale and a small display of local minerals. Their staff also have a lot of knowledge.
If you want to try your hand at rockhounding, Chaffee County is a great place to catch the bug. While you are here, stay at Creekside Chalets – contact us to find out about our excellent accommodation and other activities in Chaffee County.