Turquoise might be the first mineral that comes to mind when thoughts turn to precious rocks found in New Mexico, but the state boasts dozens of rockhounding sites known for everything from geodes to smithsonite to “Pecos diamonds.”
“Each corner of the state has something that’s collectible,” says Virgil Lueth, state minerologist and director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources museum.
Rockhound State Park is an obvious destination.
Set in the rugged slopes of the Little Florida Mountains near Deming, the southern New Mexico park is popular with campers during the spring and fall and attracts day-trippers during the hotter summer months.
“This is the only place in New Mexico and one of only two places in the U.S. where you can take something from a state park,” says Manager Robert Apodaca. “The most prevalent thing that’s readily available for surface collecting is jasper.”
Visitors to the park also find geodes and thunder eggs, pearlite and quartz, Apodaca says.
Digging geodes out of the hillside is tough but rewarding, according to Ruta Vaskys and Martin Freed, authors of “Rockhounding New Mexico: A Guide to 140 of the State’s Best Rockhounding Sites.”
“The interiors are beautiful,” they write. “Many have hollow centers with quartz and/or calcite or other species of crystals surrounded by agate. Even the solid nodules have beautiful agate interiors.”
Although the park has been open 50 years, there still are treasures to be found.
“People have the idea it’s been picked through, but the erosion farms the minerals back up,” Apodaca says, adding that searching in washes and ravines after a monsoon rain spell is a good strategy.
There are other public lands where rockhounds can head for great collecting. The best strategy to figure out where to go is to talk to local experts with gem and mineral clubs.
“That’s the best way it works,” Lueth says. “Another thing they can do is check with their local rock and mineral store. People there are usually knowledgeable.”
While some people travel to New Mexico with the sole goal of rockhounding, casual tourists also can find adventure looking for rocks and minerals.
Susie Welch, geologic extension services manager for the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, recommends doing some homework before heading out.
“We advise people come to the mineral museum. We’ve got quite extensive New Mexico minerals cases and they can see examples,” she says. “Actually, buying a rockhounding guide is a really good idea, too. We sell several of those in our bookstore here.”
Pecos diamonds are highly sought-after quartz crystals that range from microscopic to an inch in size and are found in the Roswell and Artesia areas.
“They weather out of the gypsum as perfect crystals and in different colors sometimes,” Lueth says. “People like the color of them. They look like diamonds.”
One popular site to find the crystals – and petrified wood – is on Bureau of Land Management land about 15 miles northeast of Roswell.
Don James, owner of Ancients of Days rock shop in Roswell, says it can be difficult to find the right spot to look, but finding the actual stones once you’re there is simple.
“There’s just thousands of them,” he says.
James offers a hand-drawn map to one site near town, but says there are “multiple different spots you can go to” around the region, including near Artesia and Hagerman. “You definitely have to have a map or a guide.”
The region also is known for alabaster, a variety of gypsum that can be carved and polished, and transparent selenite crystals. Farther away, near Orogrande, rockhounds search for Apache tears, a nodular obsidian, James says.
Pay to dig
Another rockhounding option is to head to a commercial site where you pay a modest fee to dig for specimens. The Magdalena Nitt and North Graphic Mines south of Magdalena, for example, are well-known. Permits are sold at Bill’s Gem and Mineral Shop in Magadalena.
The area is “famous for a mineral called smithsonite, which is blue-green and quite lovely,” Lueth says.
Grace Dobson, who sells $5 collecting permits for the two mine tailings, says there is some smithsonite at the Nitt Mine, but it’s hard to find.
“Occasionally, somebody finds a decent piece,” she says, adding that azurite, calcite and malachite are more common. At the Graphic Mine, pyrite is the main find.
Dobson recommends calling the shop at 575-854-2236 to check on road conditions before heading to the area.
Also in the Magdalena area is the Kelly Mine. Tony’s Rock Shop sells $10 collecting permits and hunters might find pyrite, commonly known as fool’s gold, and other minerals.
Rockhounds also often head to some of the state’s historic mining localities to look for specimens in mine dumps, Lueth says.
The Harding pegmatite mine site southwest of Taos was donated to the University of New Mexico to be preserved as a mineral collecting site and outdoor geologic laboratory. It was temporarily closed in the spring, so check on its status by calling 505-277-8843. When open, visitors are welcome with a permit.
“There’s beryllium there, pink lepidolite, pegmatites,” Lueth says. Others have reported finding a wide variety of minerals, and Vaskys and Freed call it a “must-go-to for any serious mineral collector.”
Pegmatites are igneous rocks that form during the final stage of a magma’s crystallization. They contain exceptionally large crystals and they sometimes contain minerals that are rarely found in other types of rocks.
No matter where you go, check with land managers – whether it’s the BLM, the Forest Service, the State Land Office or a private owner – before collecting.
As far as how to go about finding specimens once you’ve reached your rockhounding location, there are two ways to go about it.
“Some people like to dig into the ground. Other people like to look on the surface,” Lueth says, adding that taking along a hammer and chisel is a good idea.