September 11-17, 2003: A Week-Long Rock Hunting Orgy in Colorado and Utah

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 12, 2008



I took off alone for seven days and six nights to overdose on rock hunting and car-camping in Colorado and Utah. It was enough fun that I decided to write up the story. It turned out long enough that it might be of interest mostly to other rockhounds and not to normal, sane people like friends and relatives...

First, an overview and some numbers... I put nearly 1600 miles on my old Subaru Loyale wagon. I lucked into gorgeous, relatively warm fall weather. I spent the first night indoors at 10,000 feet, and the next five laid out on a tarp with no tent, at elevations between 4200' and 7900'. Dressing in layers, I was warm enough and slept well every night. (If anything wild licked my face I didn't notice.) I returned home (to Fort Collins in north-central Colorado) just as a wet cold front arrived... Not quite enough rain to wash the dust off my car, though, too bad.

This trip was very cheap. I figure I spent about $91 on gas and only $64 out of pocket, mostly for fast food meals, an average of one a day and accidentally never repeating a restaurant type.

This trip was very productive, in a bizarre, non-commercial, unemployed kind of way anyhow. I collected mainly petrified wood and various types of agates. I estimate that I made nine "major" rock hunting stops and 16 "short forays", for a total of over 24 hours of hunting time (and I still wasn't burned out!) I don't know how many pounds of rocks I brought home. Mostly it was smaller stuff anyway destined for tumble-polishing. I snagged only one large chunk of fossil wood for my rock garden.

OK, let's get rolling on the travelogue...

Thursday, September 11 -- Denver

After the usual preparations and hesitations I departed home at about 10 am. My first stop an hour south down the highway was a Holiday Inn, during the second day of the annual Denver fall rock show. As I expected I was bedazzled and overwhelmed by all the beautiful specimens available. But having already shopped there numerous times in past years, and my shelves and buckets full to overflowing, it was easy to avoid buying anything.

OK, so I spent $6 on some colorful bracelets to give away... But only 40 minutes ("heresy!" you say?) I knew I wouldn't collect anything in the next week to rival what I saw, but my fun would be in the hunting and I was eager to get on with it.

Next stop, Jordan Road where it crossed Dry Creek, southeast between Denver and Parker, just west of Cherry Creek. This area used to be rolling ranchlands but it was rapidly turning into suburbia. Over the past few years I'd had fun there collecting orange and well-agatized fossil wood washing out from the recent bridge reconstruction. It seems the creek cut into a fossil forest and the digging disturbed it.

-- OK, my secret is out. If you're in the area go look for yourself, new material seems to surface regularly. (Not so much any more, as of 2007...) There's also fossil wood in Piney Creek and Sulphur Gulch, but it's browner. I've only found the nice orange stuff around Jordan and Dry Creek, and near the end of Yosemite Road where a water tank was excavated a few years ago (now mostly off-limits in the new Bluffs Park).

This time I shambled over a triangular plot of about 20 acres, northeast of the bridge along the creek, with good success. Earlier I'd looked up the owner of this parcel, which is primed for development, called them, and they were indifferent. The land had previously been bladed and graded, so now a fair bit of orange wood could be found between the weeds.

Finally 'twas time for lunch/dinner at Dickey's BBQ on Arapahoe Road... Yum. It's a bummer to burn daylight, but one must eat more than rock dust.

I'd had thoughts of going west on I70 that day and doing a hike up Loveland Basin Ski Area to the Continental Divide. But it was too late in the day, about 5 pm. So instead, after calling my wife, I drove southwest on US 285 and spent the night near timberline in her little cabin in South Park. (Yes, Virginians, there really is a South Park in Colorado!) It was cold outside, but warm enough inside.

Friday, September 12 -- West across Colorado to Utah

Like most of the following mornings I got a pretty early start, not long after sunrise, although a bit later on this first day. I was surprised how long and well I slept.

Since I was in the neighborhood (so to speak), I continued southwest 18 miles to Fairplay, six miles north to Alma, and about four miles northwest (out of the way) to the Sweet Home Mine, the famous source of rhodochrosites. Sure enough, being it was a Friday there were miners at work, so probably I couldn't hunt for pyrite, fluorite, and even small rhodochrosites in their tailing piles as I had done several times this summer and over the past four years or so. Make that "definitely" -- the whole area was now freshly posted off limits!

I chatted briefly with one of the miners outside the shack. Apparently some idiot hurt himself while hunting (trespassing) on their piles this past summer and threatened to sue. I guess you couldn't blame Bryan Lees for giving up and no longer looking the other way around weekend scavengers.

The miner told me I was welcome to return with my truck (even a small pickup) and take away as much of the graded tailings as I wanted, but I would have to do it on a weekday -- no self-hauling on a weekend, they must load your vehicle (I wonder if they are gentle?) They give away the tailings now in order to keep working the mine; they are not allowed to add tailings on the property.

Anyway, the party is finally over, unless you want to haul thousands of pounds of crushed rock away to sort it somewhere else. (And then what? Feed it through the blender and serve it to your friends as Sweet Home Rockaritas?)

I did learn of a recent dump of mine tailings by the town of Alma itself around the foundation they'd just poured for a building in progress. Back downhill in the village, I had fun gathering a few pyrites from this site... No one nearby at Town Hall seemed to care.

Oh, along the way I did a brief bit of panning on the South Platte, Michigan Creek, and the stream near the mine... Nothing interesting noted.

Time for lunch... I went north over Hoosier Pass and down to the KFC in Frisco. Afterward I debated between turning east and going back home, or, "do I really want to drive all the way to Utah now?" Yeah, I guess I did! So I turned west on I70. This was my longest day's drive of the week, nearly 400 miles.

I stopped at a nice rest area in Eagle, where among other things I checked out the gravel in the river... Ho hum, no surprises. Later after a snack at McD's in Fruita and buying some veggies from a fruit stand, I parked at the Rabbit Valley dinosaur excavation site north of the highway, just east of the Utah border.

I'd toured there once before, but never walked the mile and half loop trail in the foothills. It was interesting and well done, with numerous interpretive signs and dino bones visible in hard sandstone at two points. However, the trail itself was getting badly eroded at spots. (Bad bentonite -- stay!) The loop walk took me under an hour. No rock collecting was allowed behind the fence, but I found a few bland jaspers on the way back to my car along the gravel county road.

Next I crossed the highway south and went about half a mile into the BLM lands of Rabbit Valley. Here I strolled around some dry washes for a while in several places. A bit more dark agate found, but again nothing special.

Onwards west into Utah... I decided to camp for the night in Klondike Bluffs, an area of Morrison formation exposures about 15 miles northwest of Moab and 15-16 miles southeast of I70. This wild open space is on the fringe of Arches National Park. Its relief is a part of the same uplift that exposed the Entrada sandstone to the sky to create the famous openings. I'd hunted in the Bluffs several times before, and it was rich with silicates and fossils.

The turn off the pavement was well marked and there was no longer a swing-gate to open and close. I drove north and then east nearly six miles in the dark with a full moon rising, and saw no one else. I turned onto a subtle two-track path I knew about that only went a couple of tenths of a mile over a hill to a dead end and an old rotting couch (!), out of sight of the main road. (Actually the couch makes a fine landmark, as well as a very slow piece of performance art as it decomposes.)

It was a calm, warm, clear, beautiful evening. This and each of the next four nights I pulled in around sunset (7:30 or so) or later, found a good place to sleep, then ate, read, or listened to audiotapes in the car for several hours before sacking out. Ironically, this evening at about 10:40 pm, just as I was laying out my tarp in the vast silence, headlights came toward me on my "private" side trail!

Fortunately when I flashed them with my headlamp the other car stopped, turned around, and departed. I suspect they were as shocked as I was at seeing someone else! From then until I left at 12:30 the next day I saw no one except a few occasional passerby on the main road in the distance. (Although on the way out of the Bluffs the mountain bikers were thicker than mosquitos! Each to their own.)

After my adrenaline rush subsided I slept just great -- but still with my rock hammer hidden in reach for a false sense of security.

Saturday, September 13 -- Near Moab, to Hidden Splendor

Ah, rock hunting... There were beautiful "Moab agate" chunks at arm's length from my sleeping bag... Lots of it, in various colors of white, red, yellow, orange... Also carnelian. There was more and better than I recalled from previous visits some years ago; perhaps more has weathered out? I forced myself to do the usual morning ablutions and eat some breakfast before eagerly starting my walk. Then I hunted on three forays for a total of four hours.

My first outing was up the hill to some massive fossil logs, perhaps three feet in diameter, that I'd found previously. They were still there, but slowly decaying of course. It was interesting seeing the rate of erosion and/or chipping-away done by other rockhounds. There was still a lot of nice "new" material to collect for tumbling or to give away as-is. Most of it was tan to brown on the outside, black on the inside, but with some interesting white or red silication patterns too. Some smaller bits washed down the hill had white silicate "frosting" reminiscent of Blue Forest branches.

I selected carefully, looking for especially nice patterns or good tumbling material. After two more forays I had a bucketfull of wood and agate, plenty to keep me tumbling for some time (or for handing out at Halloween). I departed the site amused that I had, again on this trip, not explored any other spots in the enormous Klondike Bluffs. Yet when you find a good place, and it's still good (dare I even say, "world class") when you return, why go elsewhere?

I did make a couple of short stops here and there to check out the alluvium. More of the same, and I already had plenty. I returned northwest to I70 and ate a nice lunch further west at the Arby's in Green River. Called-in to home and re-provisioned, I continued west, then south on the road towards Hanksville.

There's a lot of Morrison formation east of the San Rafael Reef, but it's been fairly barren of agates in my numerous scouting outings. However, I knew of two places with dino bone evident, both near the highway, one now fenced off. The other place which I found more recently was worth a stop to meander around for an hour admiring the bone chips and noting their locations. They are spread over a large area, maybe an acre? Much more than the single spot I located previously.

(Since returning home I've conversed with a paleontological curator about this site. It seemed worth reporting to him. He knew of it and had little interest in it because the bone there weathers out from coarse alluvial conglomerate, meaning hard digging of mostly roughed-up (pre-fossilization) and disarticulated bones... But it's still illegal to collect it... Oh well.)

It was getting late in the day and for once I had a destination to reach. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance annual campout was Friday and Saturday nights, and I wanted to join the fun for my first time, for at least the second night. So I headed south to the Goblin Valley turnoff and then 40 miles (!) west, northwest, southwest, and south, to reach the the Hidden Splendor airstrip on Muddy Creek. Only the first seven miles were paved. It took me about 1:20 to drive the dusty distance, to end up just 19 miles from Hanksville (GPS direct, but you can't get there from here). I arrived at a big canopy tent at 6:30 pm, just in time to join the potluck dinner.

The turnout surprised me, there were several hundred people present, including as expected Kathy Glatz and Dorothy DuVall of Denver. Not being from Salt Lake City I didn't know anyone else present, although I recognized a few names from the SUWA newsletter.

Dinner and presentations lasted until dark. Then I car-camped on the rim of a humongous deep side-canyon near Kathy and Dorothy and Kathy's two dogs for another delicious night out. Moonrise was getting late enough to allow a brief period of spectacular dark, starry skies.

Sunday, September 14 -- Toward Hite

Back at the tent an excellent and even humorous free breakfast was provided by the SUWA staff. (Some men just do not look good in skirts.) Before leaving, I walked southwest and west on the side canyon rim admiring the sheer dropoff. The rocks were not very interesting for polishing, even those weathering out of a conglomerate layer. I decided not to take the time to drive or walk down to the floor of Muddy Creek far below. As it was I didn't head out until about 10:30 am.

I made several short rock scouting stops along the way back, all fun but unproductive. I couldn't believe how many miles of Utah backcountry desert offered how little silicated rock, but it was consistent with the geology. Near the end of the pavement I sidetripped a mile or so to check out a mine site, nothing much there either.

Once back on the highway I went south to Hanksville for a good lunch (awesome milkshake too for sure) at Stan's. It was weird being there while not on my way to or from Lake Powell. After eating I headed southeast toward the Bullfrog Marina. I did a short side trip west on one gravel road after mile marker 15 to explore what looked like Morrison formation but probably wasn't, where I found only some scattered bits of orange jasper.

Nine miles (out of 42) from the turn south off the Hite road toward Bullfrog, I stopped to explore a couple of slot canyons and went no further south. For years I'd driven over these deep, incised meanders, but never found time to descend into them. This time they were a planned stop.

Going down and coming back on the steep roadfill was tough but worthwhile. At the bottoms it was possible to go only a short distance upstream before encountering flooded narrows, chockstones, etc. The big surprise was that instead of steel culverts under the highway, the roadmakers had bored long, rectangular tunnels through the sandstone as water passages. These were hundreds of feet between daylight, and interesting to carefully walk through from the upstream to downstream sides before ascending on the opposite roadfill.

The rocks in this area were boring as expected, mostly sandstones and a lot of igneous poryphry (I think) -- large white crystals in a finer grained gray matrix, common in this area around the Henry Mountains.

I returned north to the Hite road and then continued east on the scenic drive down North Wash. At the impressive Hite Overlook I was amazed to see what was left of Lake Powell, presently down 95' from full pool -- basically no lake at all here at the upper end! One hundred forty river miles from the dam, there was just a muddy Colorado River winding through expansive gray and vegetative-green silt flats and a few stranded puddles. Way downstream in the distance I could see a little of the lake proper, and the relocated houseboat buoy field. The Hite Marina way down across the wide canyon was entirely dry and abandoned.

Still the scenery was quite lovely. I stopped several times for pictures, and also on the deserted Narrow Canyon suspension bridge to drop some rocks into the swirling brown river far below -- four seconds away.

Needing a bath, I was disappointed that due to the years-long drought, Lake Powell no longer reached Hite. Nonetheless I drove to the bottom of the boat ramp, changed into a swimsuit, grabbed shampoo and a towel, and hoofed five minutes through the weeds to the nearest muddy pond, which I dubbed "Hite Lake #1".

Sure enough the area was all freshly deposited silt and the water was shallow, brown, and ringed by mud. I took a bath anyway... Ahhh.... Back at the car I used most of my four gallons of water to finish cleaning up! I had goop up to my swimsuit and splashed on me in a few other places too. Weird, but memorable.

On the way out of Hite I found everything closed up. But drinking water was available at the sanitary station and I could refill my jug. By now it was pushing sunset! After calling my wife from the (closed) visitor center pay phone, with no further ado I skedaddled east toward Natural Bridges National Monument to find a campsite.

I turned south on the road toward Halls Marina, a few miles before NBNM, and shortly obtained a primitive pulloff deep into trees -- with deep sand as the floor. I could hear cars on the asphalt in the distance, but no one came near.

Monday, September 15 -- Red House Cliffs, to Colorado

Up at sunrise, warm enough, another pretty day. I thought I'd have gotten further on Sunday, but apparently not without rushing. So I abandoned any remaining notions of continuing my loop south into Arizona and back through New Mexico. Time pressure thus relieved, I went 17.3 miles west from the Hite/Halls junction to the Clay Hills Crossing turnoff (12 miles by road north of the San Juan River). I rock hunted in that area for several mellow hours.

With Lake Powell so low there was remarkably little traffic on the isolated highway, which was nice since I had to park on the shoulder. A few years before I'd noticed a couple of large dry washes on BLM land crossing the road from north to south, just a mile or two east of the Clay Hills turnoff, south of the Red House Cliffs. I'd found some Chinle wood in the larger drainage to the east and I wanted to explore this area more thoroughly. (If it makes any sense to speak of "thoroughness" in hundreds of square miles of desert!)

First I went north a few hundred yards in the smaller drainage. There was a little fossil wood scattered about, but as expected it wasn't very exciting. Most of the Chinle stuff in this area of Utah is black inside with little texture or detail, just interesting surfaces. Being eager to spend time in the larger drainage, I returned soon to the car and drove east back over there.

In the bigger arroyo, at the upstream side of the culvert under the road, I noted vegetation debris stranded nearly up to highway level. There must have been a recent, very heavy rain that filled the gully perhaps 20' deep and nearly crossed the road, despite a pipe below that was tall enough to walk through. Wow! If the drainage had been scoured recently... Visions of "fresh meat" (OK, rocks) were in my mind.

I meandered north about a mile in an hour and a half. Before long I started noticing something very exciting that I hadn't seen on my previous short stop there... Copious quantities of hematite nodules. (Probably not magnetite, I thought, and sure enough back at home they show no attraction to a supermagnet. Not meteoritic either, as I briefly hoped at first -- there was just too much of it.)

The nodules ranged from lighter and rocky to very dense and steely gray. They varied from nearly smooth to very rugged on their surfaces, with rusty red adornments and/or crystal inclusions. Sizes went from a few cm to bigger than I wanted to take home! I did treat myself to a grapefruit-style blob with an interesting rounded, crystalline surface... It was quite heavy to lug back. And it's interesting to hand to people if you don't warn them first.

There was a fair bit of fossil wood to be found too, but mostly large, black, rock-garden-type pieces. I was choosy and didn't collect much of it. However, I did find one nice palm-sized "sandwich" of petrified wood around quartz crystals, tan on the outside and black on the inside with other bits of included color. I already polished one end of that beauty and it's pretty neat.

I don't know exactly the source of the wood and hematite in these drainages. I think the flats in this area were down in the Moenkopi formation; a thick, red, well-weathered layer. The Chinle blue and red mudstones were visible rather higher on the cliffs to the north. It would be fun sometime to hike longer and further trying to follow the "trace" up to the source of the hematites. It would require discipline not to load yourself down with pretty metallic nodules on the way up!

I nearly staggered back to the car from this long hike with a daypack full of hematite. I was very selective with it as well, as there was a huge amount of it scattered around.

Next I did a second foray in the drainage, this time downstream, not very far. There were hematites galore emplaced in the tall compacted alluvial east wall of the gully. Near where the stream cut subsided again, I found "one that got away" except for a photo. It was a boulder of hematite, still in the wall, at least a foot across, and which might have been too heavy to carry! Someday when I'm younger I'll have to go back and see if it's still there, and give it a try.

(Two years later I retrieved this boulder. It weighed 197 pounds. But that's another story!)

I did, however, carry out a foot-long chunk of "rock garden wood". It had the usual boring black interior, but an exquisite, deeply etched external pattern.

You know it's been a good rock hunting trip when you have the vehicle all to yourself and still you must look for more places to stash rocks to take home.

In any case it was time for me to head toward home. At about 1 pm I left the area to drive the scenic highway east to Blanding (southeast Utah) where I had lunch at a Subway. My one stop along the way to scout, east of Comb Ridge in a gully in colorful mudstone, revealed no interesting silicates.

Next I went north to Monticello for a brief nap and a decision in the car... I might as well meander back home a few more days the "south way", rather than running north to Moab and I70 and getting home late that night. To my surprise I was not yet jaded about rock hunting! (Perhaps a bit agitated, I mean agatized, but not jaded.) There were several sites in southwest Colorado I wanted to explore or revisit.

My drive back into Colorado was kind of long, but pretty. I got to Durango (southwest corner of the state), ate dinner at a Wendy's, and skedaddled east to find a campsite in the Rio Grande National Forest before dark. I barely achieved this because the road went up over a pass, and I kept going to reach lower elevations on the east side for warmer sleeping. I found a nice, forested spot in Fossett Gulch.

Tuesday, September 16 -- Wolf Creek, Twin Mountains

Up at sunrise again, well-rested, in quiet surroundings. Whee, it's Wolf Creek Pass day! First I stopped a while in Pagosa Springs to provision, including a grocery store, and to check out the visitor center and hot springs pools on the south side of the river. I paused at the Treasure Falls parking lot to enjoy a breakfast of cabbage-leaf and peanut butter "tortillas" (try it before you gag). Then I parked just below the huge roadcut in geode-bearing rhyolite (I think) eight miles west of Wolf Creek Pass.

Like the last time several years ago, I put on hiking boots and a pack for a very serious scramble down and up the massive tailings below the highway. But first I walked up the pavement along the base of the roadcut. To my surprise I found a fair number of nice chalcedony nodules there, a few potato-sized, probably solid but still good to tumble.

Then going down and back up the tailings hillside, loosely cemented together at the maximum angle of repose, was very difficult and challenging, even a bit scary at times. I actually had to use my rock hammer repeatedly to cut small steps in the packed debris. I found enough geode nodules to make it barely worthwhile, but I can't recommend it.

This time I dropped all the way down to the creek far below, where there was no agate. Then I labored back up to the highway while watching for chalcedony. Most nodules I found were solid light or white agate, but I did find some interesting crystals including one small bit of amethyst, and also some red or green/black cinder rock riddled with small bubbles mostly containing green or white "glass".

All in all I collected only about a gallon of good material in about three hours of hunting. It was fun but hard work!

When I'd had enough, I drove on east to Del Norte. From there I went north, per directions in Voynick's mostly excellent guide to Colorado rockhounding, to check out the Twin Mountains agate/jasper area about eight miles from town.

Unfortunately the "two tracker" he mentioned appears to have evolved into a graded gravel road, and it was clearly marked as private. I went three more miles up the main road and saw no public access to Twin Mountains. I suspect there's some legal way to get there, but I'd have to research further.

(A few years later I did find another way in, further west, and had fun collecting there.)

Nonetheless I enjoyed a couple of hours of windy, dusty treasure hunting just along the margins of the public road in six different spots. I didn't find much, but enough, a few scraps of bland fossil wood for the tumbler, and occasional white chalcedony blobs and nodules. None of the rural residents who drove by occasionally slowed down or even waved.

At about 5:30 pm with a couple hours of daylight left I returned almost to Del Norte and continued north and east up to La Garita, then north and northwest to Crystal Mountain. This was even more disappointing as rocks went. It was a fun drive and excellent sightseeing, to the mining area and out across the San Luis Valley east to the Sangre de Cristos near sunset, but I found almost no crystal quartz or amethyst anywhere I stopped. Maybe I just looked in the wrong places?

Since it was high and a bit open to the wind I elected not to camp in the area, but returned south to La Garita. About three miles west of town off forest road 41G, there was marked "public land" as the map indicated. Near the highway was a lot a trash (sigh), but a little further I found clean, quiet, dark comfort nestled into huge granite boulders.

Wednesday, September 17 -- Houselog Creek to home

Heading-home day... One more stop anticipated. I followed 41G north up over Carneros Pass, a fine forest road with pretty scenery and little traffic, to the Houselog Creek junction also described in Voynick's book. I'd been there several times before to camp and to dig geodes, or at least rhyolite-encased clear/blue agate lenses, out of the hillside below lava flow cliffs. The area hadn't changed much.

I dug around a little with a big shovel but it seemed like hard work, or else all the good spots were already dug out. I did have a little success near a place I'd hunted previously, under trees, digging in brown dirt that hid rocks, finding mostly broken geode fragments. In the past I'd recovered whole nodules there, though few of them had any hollowness at all.

Being kind of tired and not enthused about serious digging, after a while I just foraged for other people's discards -- and I did really well. I snagged a couple of gallons of good tumbling material. It seems like serious diggers reject the solid lenses of agate, and I found enough to make me happy. One half-tennis-ball of red rock with blue agate is even worth hand-polishing.

To my amazement I still wasn't tired of rock hunting after seven days, and more than two hours that morning, but I wanted to get home before it was too late. I missed my wife and the rest of my life. So at about 11:15 I drove the final six miles north to pavement, 15 miles east to Saguache, and then north and east via Poncha Springs, Fairplay (where I caught the tail end of the lunch buffet at Pizza Hut), Bailey, and Denver.

Along US 285 I observed that many distant peaks that had been nearly solid white from an early snow when I passed through six days before were now mostly melted back to summer tones. The aspen trees were closer to fall splendor, but on the whole not there yet.

Did you know, "fossil flowers come from the Petrified Florist"? I'd have made it home at 5:10 pm except for a side trip to "collect" some non-fossil flowers for my wife. Once my car was safely in the garage, the unloading, washing, and sorting began...

Postscript: Hematite is remarkably messy stuff to tumble. The slurry is a dark blood red that gets everywhere and sticks almost like paint, especially to rough skin.