Day Three of the QIA PowWow greeted everyone again with perfect weather. Cool mornings and then long sleeve shirt weather in the afternoon. Wind picking up later in the day but no more than a breeze. —
I was at the PowWow only long enough to exchange a piece of eudialyte that I had bought the day before from Alexander BlagulaAll of the previous night my purchase had bothered me. I had settled for what I could afford, not the cab I truly wanted. Before heading to Quartzsite I stopped at Wells Fargo in Parker to get the extra money I needed. Alexander seemed happy to see me, as I think he knew what I wanted to do. With graciousness he took back my first stone and gave complete credit for the new cab. In the way he talked and acted, I got the feeling that he was glad I was buying his best material. This video is from the day before. —
I took a few videos of the crowd at the PowWow and then moved across I-10 to Desert Gardens. To make it there, I used the frontage road as I had always done. Before you get to Desert Gardens, however, you have to pass through the Tyson Wells venue area. That venue sells a variety of things, not just rocks. It was complete madness, just looking at the teeming crowds put me nearly into a panic attack. I couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily entering that swarm yet hundreds, if not thousands, seemed happy to do so.
Once at Desert Gardens things calmed down. The aisles are wider than the PowWow, making it seem more relaxed. The food, though, expect for the hot dogs, was limited and disappointing. I think the food is prepared by vendors who pay to be there, rather than cooked by happy volunteers. I’d bring your own food as you will probably be wandering for several hours. The big rocks are here, especially of rough of all kinds. Every vendor was from somewhere different, each had their own story and their own experiences. Each was an expert on at least several of the rocks or minerals they were selling. They all have their favorites, although they are often hesitant to name them. A number of fluorescent mineral dealers were at Desert Gardens. I didn’t see any radioactive minerals.
The first folks I met were at P.V. Rocks. Gary Peavy owns this business and he hails from Peoria, Illinois. He does some regional shows but once a year he gets out to Quartzsite. Wide variety of materials with much from the Midwest. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is https://pvsrocks.com. —
— I was finally able to meet up with R.C. of Geological Specimen Supply (external link). He hand carried my latest order to me, rather than posting it as usual. Just what I needed, another box of rocks. He pointed out T-Cat in his van. R.C. always takes a cat collecting with him. He had been looking at PowWow for what I used to call peridot in vesicular basalt. I think he is saying it is actually peridotite xenolith in basalt. I think. I always have to read up on what R.C. says to me. It’s a great learning experience. He answered some of my pesky rock questions and seemed interested in the crazy looking railroad ballast I had seen near the La Paz County Fairground. Yes, rockhounds and geologists are interested in railroad ballast. —
I also caught up with the Keadys of Rockchuck in Schurz, Nevada. (external link) I’ve written extensively on them before. Chelsea is continuing lapidary while awaiting the birth of her first child. I have their video on a previous page, but, what the heck, here it is again.
After many tries, I also managed to find Laura Fitzpatrick, otherwise known as #geologistonboard. She is an Instagram influencer, who has thousands of followers. She writes extensively and in depth on geology and travels the world with her husband hunting and investigating everything rock related. She recently toured the Himalayas, reporting on each step of the way through Instagram. It’s all about the Gram. She agreed to an impromptu interview inside her well kitted Geo Mobile, a specially outfitted four wheel Mercedes van. She turned out to be a real gold bug and marvelled over my gold in quartz jewelry, insisting on taking pictures of the pieces. I tried not to bore her with my prospecting stories but she followed every detail of my accounts. Through the internet she is helping thousands learn about geology and to give people accounts and pictures of places most of us will never see. #geologistonboard
— I also talked with David Bintliff of the Rock Broker. See the video below. My big regret was that I did not stay or ask that he light up these rocks. I tried to make it the next day but bridge traffic was terrible. If you meet David, he does have lamps on site and I am sure he will show you what is happening with these multi-mineral, multi-UV colored rocks.
You can read more about Quartzsite at Rock&Gem’s website and Facebook page. (external link). I was covering the day to day at the PowWow for them this year and I have written extensively on all things Quartzsite in the past. —
The QIA PowWow: Day One, Wednesday, January 15th, 2020
Perfect weather greeted everyone in Quartzsite, Arizona for the first day of the QIA PowWow. Not quite shirt sleeve weather but a light jacket or a long sleeved shirt served well. No wind, a blessing for all of the vendors with shade canopies that normally take sail in a strong breeze.
— High clouds, bright sun. Sunscreen, big cap, and lip balm time. If you lack a cap, the Quartzsite Roadrunners Gem and Mineral Club will sell you one. Or a nice Polo. As everyone knows, all Roadrunner based apparel enhances life.
I got to talk to only a few vendors but I will be back tomorrow. Jeffrey Anderson of Dwarves Earth Treasures eagerly looked at my first self-collected thunderegg. Although he has cut thousands of geodes and thundereggs, his expression was that of someone truly in love with his trade, who couldn’t wait to cut my rock open and to polish it. He’s not cutting on site this year, but will get it done at his shop before his next show and mail it back to me. Jeffrey is deaf and communicates with a signboard and, as he once wrote me, with some acting. He was selling a great selection of polished and unpolished material. This evening I got an e-mail from him, putting in exact writing what he tried to communicate to me over his show table. He is at Booth 159.
— Jason Fabbi of Las Vegas was at Quartzsite for his seventh year. He is at Booth 330 and his business is called JHF Stones. Jason is a Graduate Gemologist (GIA). He does custom jewelry, often working with a stone a customer found themselves. He is also a lifetime member of the Southern Nevada Gem & Mineral Society which is quite an honor. (external link) Full disclosure, he made a wonderful bolo tie for me last year and this year he fashioned a ring for me that Ringo Starr would be proud of.
— Geologist Wayne Holland was back again with his amazing collection of gold specimens, many he mined himself. His booth is right next to the main QIA building. He is a Total Gold Authority with an expertise that ranges far into a mix of other minerals, some local to the Southwest and exotic. He’ll appraise your gold for a reasonable fee, any money completely worth it to hear him hold forth on his specialty. When an expert like this starts talking, it is best just to listen, take notes, and try to keep up. You’re not getting this experience on eBay!
— I don’t want to stress the vendors too much in this recap. They are great souls but all the visitors seemed interesting as well and all in a happy mood. Striking up a conversation with a random stranger turns that stranger into a friend. For some reason, on Wednesday I ran into a variety of experienced world travelers. They could recount their adventures from China to Mexico to Switzerland. I met a charming lapidarist named Nina and I wish I was still talking to her. You’ll meet rockhounds and jewelry people and other folk who journeyed a long way to get this place. Everybody wanted to be there and it was clear they had been looking forward to the PowWow for some time.
David Walblom once again presented terrific dinosaur sculptures, both here and at Tyson Wells across I-10. David is a treat to talk to and if you are looking for an unusual lapidary tool, well, you came to the right place.
— The volunteers must not be overlooked, the hundreds of them the only way this event can happen. Particularly striking was a young man who was tasked with cleaning the men’s restroom, an awful job that he took on with a smiling face. I thanked him for his work because I have had to clean bathrooms in some of my jobs. He seemed surprised with my compliment as he appeared content to be doing what he could to help. Hours later he was still there, still cleaning with a an uplifted expression. That’s dedication and a testimony to a fine work ethic and character. Other volunteers were equally busy and yet never too busy to explain events, give directions, or hand you a freshly made hamburger. Food prices are very reasonable and there is even a buggy that drives the aisles, like a vendor working a ball park, bringing food and drink to you. — —
People with wheel chairs and walkers managed the gravel surface of the PowWow, with people helping whenever they needed to get their gear on board the shuttle service that takes people from the parking lot to the show. This is a passenger trailer towed by a tractor. I’ve operated a Kubota before but never towed people behind me. The trailer has stairs to mount but everyone pitches in to help people on board.
A dog named Holly. Probably a rockhound. —
Admission free, parking free, experience free. What are you waiting for? See you tomorrow.
You can read more about Quartzsite at Rock&Gem’s website and Facebook page. I was covering the day to day at the PowWow for them this year and I have written extensively on all things Quartzsite in the past.
Quartzsite in Arizona is coming alive for the season right now. Make plans now to get there, if you haven’t done so already. The culmination of rock related activities related in Quartzite will be the 2020 QIA PowWow, a four day show that starts on January 15th and ends on January 19th. But Desert Gardens will get started January 1st as well as lots of other venues. More below.
I recommend staying two full days in Quartzsite if you haven’t gone before. Lodging is extremely limited in town, however, you can sleep in your car in the desert. Are there any other questions? Oh, okay.
The article below is the fifth piece I wrote for Rock&Gem Magazine. It appeared in the April, 2017 issue and it is here now due to the gracious consent of the current managing editor, Antoinette Rahn.
Quartzsite, Arizona is a town and a meeting place. In winter it is a gathering of the clan for recreational vehicle Snowbirds, flea market enthusiasts, ham radio operators, off-road motorists, geo-cachers, and rockhounds. Especially rockhounds. Quartzsite is rock and gem heaven.
While many Quartzsite locations sell rocks in the winter months, the biggest production is January’s QIA PowWow Gem and Mineral Show. In 2017 it featured over 550 spaces and 272 vendors. Put on by 300 volunteers, seller’s wares had to be 75% gem, rock, mineral, or jewelry related. Running concurrently with the PowWow at another site, the Desert Gardens Gem and Mineral Show concentrates mostly on rocks, with a little less jewelry than the PowWow. Then there’s the Tyson Wells Rock and Gem Show. And the Prospectors’ Panorama. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Quartzsite is in southwest Arizona, 244 miles east of Los Angeles and 127 miles west of Phoenix. Las Vegas is 213 miles to the north. Located in the La Posa Plain, La Paz County, Quartzsite is bordered to the south by the Dome Rock, Castle Dome, and Kofa Mountains. In its heyday, 39 mines operated around Quartzsite. Mostly gold mines, with one or two cinnabar and lead. A profusion of old mines and collecting sites gave rise to Quartzsite in the mid 1960s as a rockhounding paradise. Quartzsite’s population now stands at roughly 3,000 people.
In 1856 Charles “Charly” Tyson dug a well that would provide water to cross country travelers, nearby ranchers, and to mine workers in the surrounding mountains. He built a small adobe structure and called it Fort Tyson. It eventually became a stagecoach stop on the route from Ehrenburg, Arizona to Prescott. By that time one building had become several, the compound taking on the fuller name of Tyson’s Well Stage Station.
Quartzsite owes its present appellation to postal naming conventions. The postmark “Tyson’s” served the town until 1895 when mail service ended due to the local postmaster falling ill. A new post office opened in 1896 at another location. The Postmaster General decreed that discontinued place names couldn’t be used and, further, only one-word names were acceptable. Quartz Site is what the townsfolk wanted, from all the quartz at a nearby stamp mill. The postal service shortened it to Quartzsite.
The PowWow Gem and Mineral Show first started in 1967 with 18 locals selling items at a small school to about a thousand people. The event progressed into what may now be the largest public rock and gem show in the country. Over these fifty years the entire town has become dotted with rock shops, auction houses, and trading posts of all kinds. While I was there a venue announced the sale of a pallet of American flag products, 4,000 helium balloons, and over 10,000 old Playboy magazines. Essentially, if something has been made, it’s probably been sold in Quartzsite.
Quartzsite’s popularity as America’s largest yard sale and winter retreat probably peaked in the year 2000. In January of 1999, Huell Howser, California travelogue producer par excellence, took his film crew outside the state for the first time to cover Quartzsite. In a warm and engaging hour, which is free to view online, Howser interviewed many townsfolk, mostly about the history of the community. Then, in 2000, National Geographiccame to visit. They called Quartzsite Nowhere, Arizona. Until November:
“Then, like a mob of chattering starlings settling into a too-small tree, the snowbirds start landing in November. By mid-January, the mechanical car counter at the Interstate 10 exit is ticking off 26,000 vehicles a day. Within weeks 175,000 RVs cram inches apart into 79 trailer parks, onto front yards, and spill out seven miles on either side of town. Every year more than a million people reset their internal navigation and drive from Everywhere, North America, to this western Arizona dot on the map. Luxury motor homes, fifth wheels, cab-over campers, trailers, and converted school buses plunk down on the same patch of land.” “America’s Largest Parking Lot” by Cary Wolinsky. National Geographic, January, 2001.
Things have settled down since then. My visit started on Wednesday, January, 18, 2017. Empty RV parking spaces in town seemed numerous. Space looked plentiful at BLM land outside of town. But since few venues charge for admission or parking, there’s no real way to keep count. The BLM did tell me approximately 28,401 people stayed at their free and pay areas in fiscal year 2016. And the Arizona D.O.T. says Main Street now averages 12,400 vehicles in each direction over the course of a year. The city website says 2,000,000 annual visitors. Whatever the numbers, the rock shows continue to draw vendors in record amounts, with waiting lists common for spaces.
As to the PowWow itself, Wednesday was ideal. Bright sunshine and short sleeve weather. I regretted not bringing sunscreen and I later bought a hat from the Quartzsite Gem and Mineral Club. More on them in a bit. To begin with, the PowWow is located just off Main Street at 235 East Ironwood Drive. Follow the cars. A parking lot doesn’t seem obvious, but keep moving along and you’ll find it; everything funnels to the main lot. Two tractor pulled shuttles take visitors to any entrance they like. Drivers give everybody time to get on, including those with walkers. Shuttle, parking, and admission are all free.
I came simply to look around, this being my first time in Quartzsite. Listing everything I saw would be like reciting a lengthy gem and mineral guide. Items varied from Bruneau jasper to lapis lazuli to malachite to Oregon sunstone. One booth sold “Hot Rocks”, with a Geiger counter next to them in case you had doubts. Another vendor had over a hundred sample boxes filled with different rocks and minerals, all arranged in alphabetical order. 21 boxes under “C” alone. That assortment ranged from Terlingua, Texas fluorescent calcite, to Coontail quartz from Magnet, Arkansas, to coyote teeth from British Columbia. And that was just one seller’s table.
A dinosaur sculpture greeted me on one aisle. On the next, oil paintings on marble. As I wandered, I came across Timothy Harned’s tables. He owns Bustin’s Glass and Minerals. I last saw Tim at the 2016 Logandale Fall Festival in Logandale, Nevada. The promoters advertised a Rock and Gem Faire at the event but Tim turned out to be the sole vendor. It was good to see him again and we talked. Again, Quartzsite is a meeting and gathering place.
The QIA building is PowWow’s center. QIA stands for the Quartzsite Improvement Association. Within their building is a limited number of dealers, display cases, and the kitchen and dining hall. Food is sold throughout the day, with all proceeds going toward supporting the QIA and its many community causes. The dining hall makes a great place to reconnoiter with your group, study the vendor list, and then plan what to see next.
The PowWow in 2017 ran from January, 18th until the 22d. As I mentioned, the Desert Gardens Rock, Gem, and Mineral Show was running concurrently and through February 28th. This venue is on the other side of I-10 at 1050 Kuehn Street. It has no parking lot shuttle service. A walk around Desert Gardens was similarly staggering, especially because of larger material. This is the place to find big pieces of rough. Need a spectacular garden rock? You’ll find it at Desert Gardens. The Desert Gardens venue was less busy than the PowWow and had a more relaxed feel. You should visit both. But the appeal of Quartzsite extends beyond the rock shows, to dedicated rock and gem shops and to the clubs that operate throughout the winter. First, the clubs.
The Quartzsite Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club is one of the largest and most organized rock clubs in the country. Membership is only $15 a year and they are active October through March. Field trips go every Tuesday through the season and twice a day during PowWow. Non-members pay $2 a trip. Roadrunners this year during PowWow went to find bacon rock, desert roses, geodes, apache tears, and green banded rhyolite. Among other things. Round trip mileage ranged from 40 to 162 miles over a variety of roads, many of them tough. http://qrgmc.org
The Quartzsite Metal Detecting Club consists of coin shooters and gold prospectors. Membership is a terrific bargain at $20 a person. This lets you in on the club’s 14 claims encompassing 280 acres of gold bearing ground. The club is most active November through the middle of March, however, you are free to work in summer if you can stand the 118 degree heat. If you are a coin shooter, you can participate in their many winter season hunts. $20 for each hunt.Do not mail your dues to them, instead, pay in person at the Miners Depot described further on.
I stayed in Quartzsite for three days, however, with so many club activities, a week would have been a better choice. And then there are the stores.
Quartzsite is peppered with stand-alone and pop up stores selling rocks, gems, and minerals. Quartzsite’s business and souvenir map reveals retail shops like Gem World, T-Rocks, Sunwest Silver, and, less obvious, Hardies Beads and Jewelry. That last store is a Quartzsite institution. While mainly selling collecting supplies and beads, they have an outstanding rock collection installed on their interior east wall. Their museum contains quite a few specimens from the Quartzsite area, including gold in quartz. See the image below.
For gold prospectors, make certain to stop in at Blake and Lisa Harmon’s Miners Depot on North Central Boulevard. Miners Depot is a desert prospecting store and the unofficial clearing house for gold information in the Quartzsite area. Inquire about the metal detecting club. As with everything in Quartzsite, hours are seasonal.
While shopping, don’t miss a chance to visit the Tyson’s Well Museum. It’s free and enthusiastic volunteers will tell you the history of Quartzsite as a stage station and a supply depot for nearby mines. Speaking of which, outside in back, is the original assay office of the Mariquita mine. The many items speak to the everyday life of miners. The volunteer I talked to was also a member of the metal detecting club. He discussed at length the many mines surrounding Quartzsite. Be sure to notice the museum ceiling made of saguaro ribs.
Quartzsite doesn’t take itself too seriously. The square dance club is called the Cactus Dodgers, a propane supply company is called Passmore Gas, and one street is named, well, No Name Street. Camel references abound and you should know the story of them and of Quartzsite’s most famous citizen before you visit.
In 1857 the War Department directed Edward Beale to pioneer a wagon trail from New Mexico to California. In his company were about 75 camels purchased from North Africa and the Middle East. This constituted a great experiment as to the worthiness of camels as pack animals in the great Southwest. Questions were many, such as, could camels swim the Colorado River? On this journey as packer and guide was one Phillip Tedro, born in present day Turkey and later a Syrian countryman. After converting to Islam, Tedro called himself Hadji Ali. The men in Beale’s company had difficulty pronouncing the name, however, and instead called him Hi Jolly.
After completing the journey, which Beale said went “without an accident of any kind whatsoever”, the troupe of camels were disbanded. (It Happened in Arizonaby James Crutchfield. Falcon Press, 1994) Speculation has it that the camel’s sensitive hooves, although perfectly suited to loose soft sand, could not endure the Sonoran Desert’s often rocky surface. A travel guide adds this, “The camels adapted well to their new environment but were never used successfully, partly because the sight of them caused horses, mules and cattle to stampede.” (AAA Arizona and New Mexico Tour Book, 2014)
Hadji bought a few camels from the company and returned with them to Arizona, where he engaged in various pursuits, including mining and acting as a government scout. He became an American citizen, married in Tucson and finally settled in Quartzsite. At a certain point he released his camels to the desert. He died in 1902 and is buried in Quartzsite’s cemetery. In 1935 the State of Arizona built the pyramidal Hi Jolly monument which you see today. According to the 2017 Quartzsite Visitor Guide , it is the town’s most visited spot. The legacy of camels echoes throughout Quartzsite in postcards, sculptures, and as ornaments in maps and guidebooks.
At any booth you’ll find miners who found and worked up material from their own property or claim. It is this direct connection that makes buying more personable than purchasing a rock through eBay or another second hand source. Two talks with vendors were memorable.
Karen Britton of Britton Apache Turquoise has been mining and working variscite and turquoise for 29 years in central Nevada in Lander County. Her late husband, Lee Britton, had even earlier ties to turquoise and turquoise like rocks. He first staked a Lander County claim in 1974. Their most famous property was the Apache Turquoise Mine. Karen mentioned a Rock&Gem article done by Mark Hatch where he described how he produced a stunning necklace starting from Apache Mine rough. (“Make an Apache Turquoise Necklace” by Mark Hatch Rock&Gem January, 1971). I read the piece later and it was indeed a tribute to the black included stones Britton regularly mines. I bought a cabochon from Karen, partly as a collectible, partly to support her continuing efforts.
After the show I read up on the Apache Mine. Two writers wrote that Apache Mine material once thought turquoise has now been identified as variscite. (Minerals of Nevada, Stephen B. Castor and Gregory Ferdock. Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology Special Publication 31, 2004.) What impressed me on that Wednesday, however, was Karen’s dedication to her beautiful rocks. She soldiers on with no web presence, appearing only at shows like those in Quartzsite. Besides talking to this veteran, I was also struck by a young couple just making their presence known in the rock business.
John Keady and Chelsea Thompson operate Rockchuck Gem and Mineral Gallery in tiny Schurz, Nevada. It’s just north of Walker Lake in Mineral County on I-95. The pair create cabs and jewelry, notably using turquoise and variscite from different Nevada locales. They also mine their own Hellsfire agate. Keady is by training a stone mason. I didn’t know all this until I came across their booth. I vaguely recalled a rock shop sign near Schurz but I never investigated it. And now, here were the owners. The shop had come to me. There’s more.
The last time I passed Walker Lake I stopped to read different information signs. They were installed on impressive monuments made of local stone. It turns out Keady built one. What were the odds I’d meet the builder of something I noted on a lonely road to Reno? And what were the chances I’d run into two such young and creative people almost six hundred miles from their home? As I said before, Quartzsite is a gathering and meeting place. For people you’ve already met. And for the people you will.
Some Quartzsite Tips
Many sellers and restaurants take only cash so be prepared. The only bank in town is the Horizon Community Bank. Take a notebook to keep track of purchases, vendors, and details. Bring sunscreen and a cap. A raincoat and a heavier coat for rain and wind that may well happen. Don’t forget your loupe and a camera. Remember, too, that Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time. Most things get going around 10:00 a.m. And look out for pedestrians while driving at night. They are everywhere and all dressed in black. One more thing. Bring your patience — you’re among friends.
Essential and mostly free publications to pick up around town:
Quartzsite, Arizona Visitor Guide
Quartzsite EZ-Guide (a map of vendor spaces for the four major shows)
QIA PowWow Gem and Mineral Show Guide (available at the PowWow)
The Quartzsite Nugget and Winter Visitors Guide
Where IZZAT Business Map (Absolutely vital for navigating Quartzsite. $2.00)
Desert Messenger News (Community paper)
Most publications won’t be available until the end of the year. Until then, keep abreast of Quartzsite happenings with the excellent Desert Messenger. Read it here:
Stagecoach Restaurant and Motel (928) 927-8161 904 West Main Street
No true web presence. Call.
People also stay in Ehrenberg, AZ or Blythe, CA, about 18 miles and 22 miles away, respectively. Parker, AZ is about forty miles north on I-95 but the road crosses many washes and could be cut off in a rainstorm. Still, I like the drive and often stay at the Hampton Inn in Parker.
Quartzsite comes alive in winter. January sees a gathering of rock, gem, and mineral collectors and sellers from all over the world. I’ve written about this extensively at my blog, https://southwestrockhounding.com. See you there in January.
Quartzsite Museum aka the Tyson’s Well Stage Station
161 West Main St Quartzsite, AZ 85346 928-927-5229
Mining artifacts and assay office. Seasonal hours. The Tyson’s Well Museum is a must-stop. It is free and enthusiastic volunteers explain the history of Quartzsite as a stage station and a supply depot for nearby mines.
The Quartzsite Roadrunner Gem and Mineral Club is one of the largest and most organized rock clubs in the country. Extremely active, especially October through March. Field trips go every Tuesday through that time and twice a day during the QIA’s PowWow. Non-members pay $2 a trip. Roadrunners may go to find, among other things, bacon rock, desert roses, geodes, apache tears, and green banded rhyolite. Major shop facilities and classes.
566 North Central Blvd Quartzsite, AZ 85346 Messaging through their website
33°40.538′ N 114°13.033′ W
Miners Depot is desert prospecting store and a clearing house for gold information in the Quartzsite area. Detectors, tools, screens, lots of screens, the place to stop before heading out. Generally open six days a week during the main prospecting season, from about November through mid-March.
Mailing Address PO Box 3102 Quartzsite, AZ 85359-3102 928-927-7150 Meeting address (Miners Depot) 566 North Central Blvd Quartzsite, AZ 85346 33°40.538′ N 114°13.033′ W
A club of coin shooters and gold prospectors. Membership is a terrific bargain at $20 a person. This lets you in on the club’s 14 claims encompassing 280 acres of gold bearing ground. The club is most active November through the middle of March, however, you are free to work in summer if you can stand the 118 degree heat. If you are a coin shooter, you can participate in their many winter season hunts. $20 for each hunt.
Of special note, they do not mail memberships. Sign up and pay dues at their club meetings, coin hunts, their table at the PowWow in January, and at Miners Depot. Really, though, get out to Miners Depot. It is well worth your visit.
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
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.
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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, 2019 Update: The Ottesons are again offering fee digs to the general public:
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.