The Ultimate Guide to Rock Hounding for Beginners

It is incredible to think that the planet we live on has been forming gems and minerals for billions of years and we are here now to discover them all. Currently there are 130 varieties of gems found worldwide including amethyst, geodes, diamonds, aquamarine and turquoise just to name a few. You don’t have to travel far to find gems either, some may even be near your hometown!

I have always been intrigued by these beautiful gems and when I found out I could find them while traveling, I developed my hobby and love of gem hunting. When I first started I was a beginner with absolutely no clue on where to look or how to get started, but over the years I have been on many hunts around the USA and have found a variety of gemstones (you can see what I have found here).

This blog post will hopefully answer any questions you may have about becoming a beginner gem hunter!

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What is rock hounding?

Going on rock hunts is basically a real life treasure hunt and you never know what you can find. Rock hounding can be anything from taking a walk to a creek bed and collecting rocks that stand out to you, or traveling the world to dig in sites for specific gems. Many times, beginner rock hunters will start off by following a map and some directions to find a specific location where hunters can go and search for what has been found previously.

Who goes on rock hunts?

Rock hunting is for everyone of all ages and you don’t have to have a special background in geology, paleontology or archeology to get started. This is a great family hobby as well!

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How can you get started?

As a beginner rock hunter there are many options of how you can get started.

  • Internet: The internet is probably the best place to look first. There are lots of guides, personal stories, popular sites that let people dig for a certain fee, books, and blogs you can read to figure out where to start looking.
  • Library: Often times there are sections inside libraries that have rock and mineral books as well as identification cards for you to use. I highly suggest looking for a book for where you live so you can see what is near you, and another one for where you plan on traveling to. The links below are the books I use since they are the states I visit the most. They make one for almost every state!

  • Rock and Mineral Shows: After you have some experience digging, I highly suggest you try and visit a rock show. Typically these are filled with vendors from around the US or the world who discover the rocks they display. Each vendor has a unique collection and some will even invite you out to dig at their site.
  • Local Gem Shop: Typically there are gem shops in towns around the nation where the owners display specimens they have found locally. This would be a great place to start by asking questions about where they were found and where good places would be to look. Many shop owners are rock hounders as well so they are happy to tell you a few great places for beginners.

What tools will you need?

  • Backpack: Having a durable backpack is necessary for transporting out minerals. Rocks can be very sharp and I have learned from experience that you can get some pretty nasty cuts when hiking out with a full bag. You’ll also want one that will fit your tools.
  • Proper Footwear: I can’t stress this one enough. Always wear boots that protect your ankles and toes because you never know what surfaces might be unstable and you don’t want rocks rolling down a step hill into your ankles. (Here is the link to the men’s version)
  • Geologist Hammer: This type of hammer is personally my favorite because it has a pick on one side and a hammer end of the other. This is great because it can pry rocks out of tight spaces as well as hammer away excess rock.
  • Chisel: For a beginner, I would just bring a basic chisel for your first few times out. This chisel kit below contains 3 chisels with a geologist hammer and a bag to carry your tools.
  • Gloves: Sometimes while digging, you will want to use your fingers to sort through a pile of dirt if you are looking for smaller pieces. I always wear heavy duty gloves when doing this especially if you are reaching into a crevase to try to uncover a gem.
  • Spray Bottle: Having a spray bottle is great for spraying a specimen down and then wiping it off to see how it looks since they are typically covered in dirt. TIP: seeing them watery will give you an idea of how a rock will look polished.
  • Paper Towels: I always throw in a small handful of paper towels to wipe the dirt and water of a rock but my dad prefers to just wipe the gem on his pants so its up to your preference on this one. Paper towels can also be useful to wrap up a nice gem to keep it from chipping with others in your bag.
  • Small Containers: Some rock hunts you go on you will probably have quite a few smaller gems that you want to put into a jar or a small container to prevent them from getting damaged. Empty yogurt or butter tubs work great also!
  • Safety Glasses: This one is necessary if you plan on chipping rocks or hammering pieces out of a mountain side.
  • Hard Hat: Depending on your location you may need to bring a hard hat to protect your head from falling rocks or objects if you are at the bottom of a hill, in a tunnel, or near unsteady mining sites.
  • Gold Panner Kit: You can find these online as well as at your local rock shop many times with guides on how to use them. If you will be searching near a stream, these are a great way to sift through the rocks and there is a chance you could find tiny pieces of gold depending on where you are. Here is a kit to help you get started!

Other important items to bring:

What to be aware of in the field:

1). Unexpected Weather and Storms – It is important to look up the weather before you head out on your journey. If you will be hiking at high elevations you have the potential to run into major thunderstorms that occur in the early afternoon. To avoid these storms, you want to make sure you are off of the mountain by noon or one at the very latest. Always throw an emergency blanket in your pack incase you don’t get off the mountain in time because the temperature is known to drop substantially at high elevations.

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I have only been caught in one major storm before while hiking and luckily we found a shelter to stay out of the rain and lightening. The morning started off very warm but it dropped about 20 degrees and I wrapped myself up inside of my emergency blanket and it helped me get through the cold. It is also one of my top items to keep in your pack when hiking.

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2). Road Conditions –  Roads that lead up to trails or rock hounding areas are known to have very steep, narrow or require 4 wheel drive sections. If you don’t research this beforehand, your car might not be able to handle it and you may run into trouble when you have to try and turn around on a single lane road. It is better to not risk it and be prepared beforehand than get out there and run into issues.

3). Plants – Depending on where you live or are hiking you will want to be prepared on what plants are poisonous. The two most common plants you’ll run into are Stinging Nettle and Poison Ivy. If you are going to be going off trails or hunting in a new area, you will need to research what plants to watch out for depending on the place you are in.

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4). Animals – Although many times you won’t have an issue with wildlife, you should always keep your distance. There is a higher danger during summer months than there will be in the winter, so always pay attention to what animals could be a threat to you and your family while out hiking. Most will never have an issue unless you threaten them or come in-between them and their babies.

5). Mining Structures & Area Most areas you will be searching for gems will be near an old mining area. Although these structures may look stable, many are not due to falling beams, caved in ceilings and loose flooring. Many of the boards that have fallen have nails sticking out that can scratch you. If you do enter a structure, be careful of the flooring. If there is a section that looks like it doesn’t belong or is a slightly different color than the rest, chances are you have found a mining shaft that goes hundreds of feet straight down. These are also commonly found inside tunnels and mines. If you stumble upon a tunnel or a mine, do not enter it. You never know if these are unstable and could cave in at any time. If they are bolted or closed shut, there is a specific reason for it. Many mines also contain a cyanide gas that you cannot smell but it can kill you if you breathe it in too much. Oxygen levels are also known to be very low deep inside these mines.

As long as you trust your instincts, you will have a great and safe time and come home with tons of awesome finds!

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • If you dig on public land, make sure to fill in the holes you dug in before you leave the area.
  • You most likely won’t have cell phone reception so if you plan on going to a remote location make sure to bring a satellite phone for emergencies.
  • Underground tunnels can contain a poisonous gas so it is best to avoid this if possible.
  • Look up what gems look like in the rough before you go out looking.
  • Always make sure the land you are on does not require a permit, and if it does, make sure to get one before digging.
  • If there are signs up saying do not trespass, don’t!
  • If you walk through any gates, always make sure to securely close them behind you so livestock can’t escape.
  • Crossing rivers can be dangerous so make sure you do not go during the beginning of spring, and make sure there is no rain in the forecast.
  • Getting an early start and being done by about 1 in the afternoon is a safe way to not risk those high elevation storms that are known to roll in unexpectedly.
  • Be prepared for bad weather just in case!
  • Always tell people where you are going and how long you plan on being out and what time you will be returning.
  • Keep an eye out for your children or pets so they do not run off into a tunnel or mining area.
  • Always hike with a buddy!

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How do I know where to look?

All gems form in their own unique way, so there is no specific answer. Thats what makes the “treasure hunt” part of the trip exciting! Although I can’t tell you exactly where to start, there are places that you should look always look first, including:

  • Steep Hills: If there are locations where rocks are loose and falling down a hillside or mountain, I recommend looking at the bottom where rocks stop. This is where I have found tons of geodes specifically because they break open as they roll down hills. Keep in mind that you should wear a hard hat just in case rocks come down unexpectedly.
  • Cliffs: Rocks tend to break off of large cliffs and roll down steep hills. If you can get to where the top of the hill stops and where the bottom of the cliff begins, chances are you can find the source of what you are finding that rolled down to the bottom of the hill or mountain side.
  • Old mining excavation piles: If you are gem hunting near old mining structures, there are typically large piles of rocks that were discarded by miners if it wasn’t exactly the mineral they were looking for. For example, when miners were looking for silver, they would discard gems like amethyst since at the time it wasn’t what they were looking to find. Excavation piles can be found on the hillside where an old mining tunnel use to be. I recommend wearing gloves when sorting through these piles.
  • Caves/Tunnels: Before entering a cave or tunnel, make sure it is absolutely safe to enter. Wear proper gear and try to just pick gems up that have fallen off the walls so you do not risk the cave caving in on you.
  • Creek Beds: Depending on where you live you may be able to look through creek beds and find some hidden gems.
  • Deserts/Dried up Lakes: One of the coolest places to find gems is in the desert. You have a chance to find petrified food for example just outside of the Petrified Forest National Park at Dobell Ranch for a fee.
  • Glacial Runoff Streams: If you are hiking somewhere near glaciers during the end of springtime, I always recommend using a gold pan to sift through the sediment that is in the runoff. As snow melts, it exposes minerals that were buried previously and they can come down from there in those streams.

While collecting your gems, I recommend always picking up the ones you find on the ground first. This will give you a nice collection without even having to chip into mountain sides or dig up gems and you will have an idea of how to know what to look for. While you’re picking these up, pay attention to what types of rocks they are formed in or on and the landscape around you. This way you will be able to identify locations that your particular gem could also be on future gem hunts.

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Bringing your Treasures Home

Once you get back home, take out the gems you found and wash them off. Using an old toothbrush or paint brush is a great way to clean the dirt out of the crevasses but make sure you do NOT rinse them in your own home sinks because they can clog and damage the drains. Filling up a 5 gallon bucket or using a hose are great ways to clean them instead.

How to Identify your Gems

After your gems are cleaned, you may notice you have a variety of different types or variations of the stone. There are ways to identify them such as color, hardness, cleavage, density, luster, streak and form, but that can be difficult for a beginner. I would gather up a small collection of what you found and bring them to a local rock shop or geologist and they can help you identify it. Many geologists will even teach you basic ways to identify your gems in the future. (Thats how I learned over the years and now I am teaching new beginners!)

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After you get Home

Once you arrive back home I always make a note of where I was, how to get there, what can be found, and how long it takes so that way you can go back to that site in the future. I personally have a notebook dedicated to all the rock hunts I have been on so I can take my kids there someday. You can also make a note of what specimen was found and put a label on the bottom of a larger sample so you have a reference to show new people what they are looking for.

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What can I do with the Gems I Found?

  • Display: Many geologists love displaying rocks inside their homes, lining their driveways, putting them in a garden, organize them inside of your garage, etc. Depending on the size of gems, you can decorate your home however you like!
  • Make Jewelry: There are tons of online tutorials for how to wire wrap gems. They are great because you can customize them and wrap gems that are special to you.
  • Tumble, Cut, and Polish: Some craft stores sell tumblers which you can put smaller rocks into that will tumble them until  hey are small and polished. This is perfect if you’re just looking to make the stone look not like it just came out of the ground. If you are wanting to cut gemstones, there is machinery available online or you can visit a local gem shop and talk to someone there that does lapidary. Lapidary is the cutting of gemstones and is what many jewelry shop owners have if they cut their own pieces. (For example, like buying a topaz necklace that is shaped like a diamond)
  • Sell: Some gem shop owners and museum displayers will buy gems off of you if they are unique and looking to have some of their own. There is also the opportunity to sell them online.
  • Learn the Healing Properties: Each gem has different meanings and healing properties and is the reason many homeowners have gems strategically placed around their home. I personally keep Amethyst pieces around my home because it is a stone of protection and purification.

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Have any other questions or things I should add?

Contact me or comment below!

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Ultimate Guide to Rockhounding

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Hi! I'm Liz, a college student who fell in love with traveling and exploring the world. I'm majoring in Park Management and Conservation and found some of my best moments occurred while I grew up hiking among the pines which is where I get my blog name from. There are many types of pine trees that all have their own unique beauty, just like all the places I have been. My goal is to explore the entire world and share my experiences and tips with you all. Click here to read more about me and why I blog.

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