Many of you have asked where to begin when it comes to rockhounding. Where do I look? What am I even looking for?! We all had to start somewhere, and the reality is you should be constantly learning and adjusting techniques the more you experience and explore. While rockhounding can be very difficult, it is also extremely rewarding! This guide is meant as a quick reference to those just getting started. While it is geared more towards rockhounding in the U.S.A., the concepts can be applied anywhere in the world.
Where do I start?
The first step is to identify where you are, or the general area you will be rockhounding. What state are you in? What is the geology of that area? What rocks are common to that area? Are crystals and minerals known in that region or is it somewhere that fossils typically occur? Lots of questions to be answered, and unless you want to wander around aimlessly all day, the first step might seem counterintuitive. You should start inside. Go to your local library or local bookstore to get some reading material.
Gem Guides and Rockhounding Books are the best place to start
You'll be looking for books similar to the books below. They provide EXCELLENT references to the types of materials you should be finding locally in your area. If you are just starting out, these books are the best reference you can get! Generally they will provide information as to the types of minerals, crystals or fossils you should be finding in specific areas. If you are unfamiliar with a specific type of mineral listed in the book, check out Mindat. It's a great website to familiarize yourself with all the different minerals out there.
Most of the locations listed in these books are on public lands which means it is generally safe to collect. It is important to recognize when these books were published and do a little extra research online to make sure the status of these areas haven't changed. Which brings us to a very important point. Always make sure you know where you are digging.
Do NOT attempt to dig at an existing claim or on private property without permission!
I cannot stress this enough. You DO NOT want to be digging on someone else's mining claim or on private property without permission. By law, mining claims must be marked with corner posts or signage indicating such. It is NEVER ok to dig on a mining claim or private property without permission.
One, it's against the law and two, it's just not cool. Someone worked really hard to find that area and establish a claim, so don't poach their area. You also MUST make sure you are digging on public property such as National Forest land, Bureau of Land Management land or similar public lands that are open for digging. Some areas such as State Parks, National Parks, National Monuments, etc. are closed to digging and collecting. Respect the law so that the rest of us can enjoy these protected treasures! You can always check with your states BLM or National Forest website or contact your local field office to make sure it's ok to dig.
Are you too nervous to go out on your own? Don't stress! Your next option is below!
Local Rockhounding Clubs / Societies
Many communities have local rockhounding clubs, gem and mineral societies, etc. They often do group excursions to dig sites or mining claims that have authorized digging. Check your newspaper or look online for clubs and organizations in your area.
Pay-to-Dig Fee Sites
Some mines actually allow you to go and dig through mine tailings or in pits for a small fee. Usually these sites are very reasonable, between $5-50 per day. Many of them are also family friendly, so call ahead and take the kiddos (or dogs if allowed)!
What should I bring?
Once you familiarize yourself with reference material on what you should be finding in the areas you'll be digging and ensure you aren't on private property/claim without proper permission, you can plan for your trip.
The reference books usually give detailed directions of how to get to the dig sites so a basic map should suffice. The tools you'll need for digging will depend on the geology of the area. When we're digging for fossils, they will be in sedimentary rocks which are generally softer than the hard granites we get into sometimes when digging for crystals. For fossil-hunting I usually bring a standard rock hammer with a pick on one end and a flat head on the other. For harder rock I have a full on pick axe which is great for breaking up harder rocks.
I also always bring some form of sun protection, eye protection, gardening or heavier outdoor work gloves, and good boots. The best thing you can take is a good attitude! After all, you're outside enjoying nature and hiking around, just don't forget to look down! That's where the goodies are :)
Just a Quick Note:
Keep in mind, you likely won't be pulling museum grade specimens out of the dirt. If you're lucky, you'll be finding pieces that are awesome for a home collection and unbelievably gratifying to self-collect. It takes years of searching and practice to find A grade specimens, and even those that have been doing this for decades get skunked sometimes. Just get out there and have some fun!