A Nevada Turquoise Adventure from 2015

November 12, 2022 Update: The Ottesons are again offering fee digs to the general public:


This is a revision of my first article for Rock&Gem Magazine, who has permitted me to present it here. Since this article was published in January, 2016, Dean Otteson has passed away. He was a good man. Rest in Peace.

In 2019 the Ottesons have permitted fee digs on different claims for a few area rock clubs. I went on a recent trip with the Southern Nevada Gem and Mineral Society to the Broken Arrow claim.  We hunted variscite and turquoise on the dumps. The Southern Utah Rock Club, of which I am also a member, was also allowed a fee dig in the last few months.

I Suggested Titles
II Article
III Access and Amenities
IV Captions

I Suggested Titles

A Turquoise Tale – A Field Trip to Dig at The Royal Royston Claim Near Tonopah, Nevada

A Turquoise Odyssey to Tonopah, Nevada – A Gold Prospector Comes to Love and Learn About the Gemstone

A Turquoise Adventure – A Field Trip to The Royston Mining District Near Tonopah, Nevada

II Article

Near the western high-water mark of the Great Basin’s Sagebrush Sea sits Tonopah, Nevada, at 5,394 feet. I came to this high desert town to search for turquoise, to experience a hunt on one of the last gem grade turquoise mines open to the public in the United States.

A friend’s interest in turquoise jewelry had ignited in me a curiosity about the semi-precious gemstone. While I am normally a gold prospector, using my metal detector to find gold in quartz, I became more and more interested in turquoise as I researched it on the web.

An upcoming trip to Las Vegas would take me through Tonopah. From my investigating I knew that the nearby Royston Mining District was famous for turquoise and that the Otteson family of Tonopah offered a tour and a dig at their Royal Royston claim. The $100 dig fee did not deter me since food, gas, books for research, and a hotel room would cost more than that. Besides, what price adventure?

Tonopah is centrally located between Reno, Nevada and Las Vegas, a day’s drive from either city. I began my turquoise odyssey in Reno, principally because I was moving things from Sacramento to Las Vegas, my soon to be new home town. The date was October 20, 2015.

To get in the spirit of things, I first visited the W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum on the campus of the University of Nevada at Reno. The museum is in the Mackay School of Mines Building, a classical looking structure in Flemish-bond brick. I read there was an outstanding display of Nevada turquoise inside and I was not disappointed.

A large display cabinet houses the Luella Margrave turquoise collection. It has samples from around the world, including over 30 specimens from different Nevada mines and localities. Mostly rounded and polished stones, the collection includes a Blue Gem mine specimen that weighs 704 carats! The grouping also shows stones often mistaken for turquoise, such as howlite, chrysocolla, wardite, imperialite, and variscite.

“The Keck” as the staff sometimes call it, houses other fine collections. Gold and silver examples are first class and the history of the Comstock strike is well presented. Any rock hound should tour the museum’s displays of minerals, fossils, mining artifacts, and ores. Vowing to come back soon, I next drove a few miles north to visit the publication sales and information office of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

The Bureau maintains this sales and record keeping outlet at the Great Basin Science Sample and Records Library building on Raggio Parkway in Reno. It’s recognizable immediately by its insulating gold clad windows. During my internet research on Nevada turquoise I kept coming across references to a Frank Morrissey, an inveterate amateur turquoise collector who visited nearly every turquoise mine in Nevada. At “The Bureau,” I bought a copy of Morrissey’s seminal work, Turquoise Deposits of Nevada, field checked and published by the NBMG in 1968. Although the document exists as a .pdf file on-line, I purchased the work for its foldout map and, to a degree, as a souvenir.

After some impulse buying: Geology of Nevada, a boxed NBMG rock and mineral collection, and a turquoise picture postcard, I fueled my truck and headed east on Highway 80 to Fernley, Nevada. It’s necessary to go east to hook up with I-95 South, which takes you all the way to Tonopah.

Click TWICE on a photo to see it full size.

As I negotiated the light traffic and rural intersections I kept looking at the post card I bought, slightly bent and yellowed on the back, perhaps from years of waiting to be sold. Its caption, written by the Bureau, neatly summarized what I was starting to learn: “Turquoise is a complex mixture of copper, aluminum, phosphate, and water, and is found in veins, seams, and nodules in a variety of rocks. It varies greatly in color from the highly prized shades of blue, green, and blue green to almost white or grey.”

That correlated with my notes; the United States Geological Service wrote something similar on the web. “Chemically, a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminum, turquoise is formed by the percolation of meteoric or groundwater through aluminous rock in the presence of copper.” Water seems key. Arid climates favor turquoise. Too much water, by precipitation or otherwise, and the enabling chemicals are flushed out of a rock’s cracks and fissures, never to deposit turquoise.

Turquoise’s formula is CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•5H2O. Where Cu is copper, Al is aluminum, PO4 is phosphate, OH is hydroxide, and H2O is, of course, water. The differences in color and shades within a color, reflect the different concentrations of each chemical. Lesser chemicals such as iron also affect color, as does the host rock or matrix of the stone. [Interestingly, Mindat.org and Gemdat.org disagree on the formula for turquoise.]

The Lowrys, writing in Turquoise Unearthed, say that, generally speaking, “Stones with more copper appear bluer, while those with less copper and more iron are greener.” Other experts, such as Colorado College’s Richard M. Pearl, author of Turquoise, are or have been skeptical and left iron’s contribution unresolved. But as I drove on and as the country emptied, I thought less about chemicals and more about the people who first occupied these lonely lands and how they worked turquoise into their lives.

Turquoise mining and processing in Nevada goes back at least 600 years. Research Geologist Joseph V. Tingley once wrote that Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) mined turquoise near present day Boulder City in southern Nevada from 300 to 500 A.D. In Nye County, my eventual destination, George Schmidtlein in 1925 was led by a house servant to what she said was an old Indian mine in the Toquima Range. Fifty miles or so north-east of Tonopah, Schmidtlein found turquoise chips, crude stone tools, and a narrow 12 to 15-foot shaft. He subsequently claimed the property, calling it the Indian Blue mine.

From their center of power in what is now New Mexico, Anasazi traded turquoise for almost everything, including California seashells, copper bells, obsidian, and even macaws from Mexico. But what about this mine near Tonopah? That is Western Shoshone country. Although my research hadn’t yet finished, it seemed likely that those early people also produced finished turquoise for its ornamental, monetary, and sacred value.

Mine scarred hills and tailing piles greeted me as I drove into Tonopah. The city is built on top of countless abandoned tunnels and mine workings; a town alive on the remnants of the past. My destination was the historic and period restored 1907 Mizpah Hotel, whose management partners with the turquoise tour and dig. This arrangement benefits everyone.

The Ottesons are Royston Mining District claim owners and tour operators. They run rock saws and polishing equipment in the Mizpah’s basement as well as a retail store on the first floor. Tour participants get a dig fee discount if they stay overnight in the hotel. And all dig attendees, no matter where they stay in town, meet their guide leader at 10 in the morning in the grand lobby of the Mizpah.

After a wonderful dinner and overnight at the Mizpah, I got out at 8:00 A.M. the next day to walk around the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. The park is right in back of the hotel. Challenging trails lead to a myriad of mining features: hoist houses, a powder magazine, a tunnel, and viewing areas for many now closed silver and gold mines. For the less physically inclined, the Visitor Center offers easy access and plenty of parking. The rock and mineral displays there offer a great look at Nevada’s geological resources. It was here that I saw my first turquoise rough and I found that sight compelling.

Previously, I had always seen turquoise set in jewelry or as polished stones. The rough, by comparison, had a raw and natural look that I liked very much. Royston District turquoise was represented, including an example of the rare and controversial white turquoise, which many argue is not turquoise at all. I will not settle that argument here, but the NBMG did write that turquoise colors could range to almost white and grey. After too short a stay, I hustled out of the visitor center to get to the Mizpah lobby by ten o’clock.

In the Mizpah a small group of us filled out paperwork, were issued a yellow nylon bag for our findings, and were introduced to the personable Dean Otteson. He seemed genuinely interested in sharing his life and his love of turquoise. A family affair, no less than 13 Ottesons have active claims in the Royston Mining District. We would caravan to the claim, he said, so the six of us went off to our three vehicles. We gathered in front of the Mizpah and were soon racing out of town.

And I do mean racing. After a short stint on I-95 West, we headed northwest on Gabbs Pole Line Road at a furious speed. We passed SolarReserve’s power plant, whose thousands of mirrors concentrated sunlight on a tower receiver that glowed like a torch. Our small convoy struggled to keep up with Dean’s truck. After twenty miles we broke westward over an unpaved but well graded road toward the Royston Hills. Rain had fallen in previous days but our entourage, a low- slung sedan, a full-size pickup towing an ATV, and my pickup, managed to battle through the occasional wallow. I tried not to think about damaging the paintings and possessions in my truck, the load I was taking to Las Vegas. They would have to take care of themselves – this was a time for turquoise!

After five or six miles on this unpaved track through desert scrub we came to our first stop a few hundred yards from our final destination. Dean pointed out an abandoned mine that at one time supplied turquoise for Tiffany and Company. He said the old tunnel was safe to go into and that a mine room opened to the sky. Regrettably, in my haste to search, I forgot about these old workings and did not tour them before I left. After this stop I followed Otteson to his Royal Royston claim where we parked our vehicles. He motioned to a bank of overburden only steps away. It was in these spoils that we could search.

Dean’s excavator was following and exposing a main vein. As it dug through less promising earth, its bucket would swing back and place overburden behind the machine. That rock was then pushed away from the excavator so we could look through it. Armed mostly with hand rakes, we pawed at the material, turning over dusty rocks and rubble. I regretted not bringing a spray bottle.

Dean said the overburden was a jumble of kaolin shale and rhyolite. This matched my research; the USGS Nevada state geologic map shows the claim area belonging to the Havallah Sequence, Mississippian to Permian age rocks altered by volcanic activity. Fractured and fissured, the rhyolite was subject to turquoise producing seams and veinlets as the gemstone solidified.

Otteson told us to simply look for color. One big rock with a hint of blue caught his attention. Our group had only rock picks and hammers, nothing heavy enough to break open the piece. I said I had a hand sledge in my truck and that I would get it. Upon my return, however, the group had dispersed, each of them hunting on their own.

I looked over the rock, trying to read it. Not wanting to destroy something by blindly flailing away, I remembered Dean had said to hit the rock on the right. So, I did. A three-inch piece broke away, displaying good color. I hit the rock again and it cleaved open, exploding into a sky- blue color that matched any turquoise cabochon I had ever seen. A half inch thick vein of gem grade turquoise revealed itself – I was so excited that I wanted to put the rock into my bag immediately and run off with it. But I hesitated.

Our group found the rock together. I therefore considered it a community rock and so, wistfully, I placed it next to my tool bucket. Later, we would all have to figure out who got to keep it. And while the group had scattered, my prospecting experience taught me never to leave a productive area until it was exhausted. I was soon rewarded for staying close with specimens that showed wonderfully what I had read about while getting ready for the dig: turquoise veins shot through parent rock.

Click TWICE on a photo to see it full size.

These new pieces showed fracture lines and veins more clearly than the first rock but with much less turquoise. I said to Otteson that while interesting, they didn’t seem to be good prospects for working up. He disagreed, saying that it depended on the skill of the rock cutter, that if done properly a good show could result even from these thin veins. I later read about ribbon turquoise and how a narrow line of color through country rock could produce a beautiful cabochon. Otteson was clearly an expert.

Dean asked me how splitting the first rock had turned out. He gave a big smile when I brought it over. I told him I would have to figure out who would get to keep it. He regarded me with a puzzled look, as if to say not to worry about it. Fortunately, a member of our group overheard our conversation. He shouted, “Tom, just keep it!” I happily put it in my yellow bag, already thinking where I could display it in my new home.

One of our company found a round and dense green stone that looked quite gemmy. I hadn’t read that the Royston Mining District produced nodules or nuggets, never-the-less, there it was. I read later in Pearl’s Turquoise that when “a rock cavity is only partially filled, the surface is often rounded.” The others in our group were also equally happy with their finds, mostly hand sample sized rocks showing green and blue.

Having found enough rough to keep me happy, I and several others walked down to where the excavator was used to chase the main vein. Moments before, I had seen Dean’s brother and another hand leaving the mine with five gallon buckets of rough. It all looked very blue. Almost canyon like, a high rock wall loomed over a deep hole that the excavator was burrowing into. The mine had been producing for some time judging by the depth of the pit.

We spent about three hours on the claim. It felt special to walk around a working mine like this on such a beautiful fall day. Otteson encouraged all of us to join a rock or mineral society in our home towns, so we could work our turquoise and find out more about rocks and gems in general. Good advice. For those without access to saws, Otteson offered to cut smaller pieces back at the Mizpah.

Feeling recharged by the experience I drove back to the main road at my own pace, enjoying the countryside. The glow of SolarReserve’s tower shone in the distance, leading me to the main highway and from there on to Las Vegas. I thought about the Margrave turquoise collection I saw in Reno at the beginning of my trip. Perhaps, I, too, could start a Nevada collection. Perhaps my turquoise odyssey was not ending but only beginning. What a feeling!


III Access and Amenities

The William M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum is located in the Mackay School of Mines Building on the campus of the University of Nevada at Reno. Handicap accessible with restrooms. Nearby parking is metered and scarce when students are in session. A long walk is often needed.  If you have mobility issues, take a Lyft or an Uber or taxi from downtown Reno and get dropped off as close as you can to the Museum.  No admission charge. (775) 784-1766.

The Great Basin Science Sample and Records Library building housing the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology sales office is located at 2175 Raggio Parkway in Reno. Handicap accessible with restrooms. Plentiful parking. No charge. (775) 682-8766.

The Tonopah Historic Mining Park is located at 520 Mculloch Avenue in Tonopah, immediately behind the Mizpah Hotel. Good parking for most RVs and trailers with an easy pull-through. Visitor center and mineral display room is handicap accessible and has restrooms. Free admission to the visitor center, its store, and the mineral displays. The grounds are not easy for the physically challenged, however, depending on staffing, they may be able to run you around on a Gator. There is a fee for that; inquire. No charge for the store or museum. There is a charge for the walking tour which ranges from $3.00 to $5.00. (775) 482-9274.

NB: Check my file on Places to Visit and Collect in The Southwest for the most current information:


The Mizpah Hotel is located on 100 North Main Street in Tonopah. Handicap accessible with restrooms. No microwaves or mini-fridges in rooms. Coffee provided on each floor in the morning. Corner rooms have great windows, some of which may need help with opening. Claw foot bathtubs common. Restaurant, bar, and lodging. (775) 482-3030.

Click TWICE on a photo to see it full size.

Royston Turquoise Mine tours are arranged and conducted by the Otteson family on Wednesdays and Saturdays from April through October. (775) 482-9889. The claim site itself is unpaved, uneven ground and without facilities. People are escorted in but can leave by themselves. Going? Bring water, snacks, goggles, gloves, a spray bottle and a rock hammer. Check their website for additional items. Perhaps a rented vehicle if you are concerned about your car. Good luck!

November 12, 2022 Update: The Ottesons are again offering fee digs to the general public:


IV Captions

bankofoverburden.jpg: Group members with their issued yellow bags collecting on the overburden bank at the Royal Royston claim.

cabinetsizerock.jpg: This washed three-pound cabinet size rhyolite rock shows a gem grade turquoise seam.

deanOttesonpointing: Royal Royston claim owner Dean Otteson pointing to a possible find in overburden.

excavatorchasingthemainvein.jpg: Excavator at the Royal Royston claim removing overburden of rhyolite and kaolin shale to expose the downward trending turquoise vein.

greenblueturquoisehandsample.jpg: This washed hand sample was typical of the size of blue, green, and blue-green stones found at the Royal Royston claim.

greenturquoiserough.jpg: Low grade green turquoise in rhyolite at the Royal Royston claim.

luellamargraveturquoisecollection.jpg: Luella Margrave turquoise collection at the W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum in Reno.

NBMGRoystonDistrictmap.jpg: The Royston Hills Mining District lies approximately 24 miles northwest of Tonopah, Nevada and it straddles Nye and Esmeralda Counties.
[Note. NBMG materials are not copyrighted, however, they do require a credit line.]

rhyoliteandkaolinshale.jpg: Country rock of rhyolite at the bottom with an overburden of kaolin shale at the top.

roystonturquoisejewelry.jpg: Navaho jewelry with Royston turquoise exhibiting rhyolite matrix.
[Note: Adobe Stock image purchased by myself. No royalty or credit required.]

townoftonopah.jpg: View of Tonopah facing west as seen from the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.

turquoiseseaminrhyolite.jpg: Turquoise seam deposited in fractured rhyolite.

viewfromthedash.jpg: Looking east to the Ione Valley from the Royston Hills Mining District.


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