Rockhounding the Northern Deserts

By Sally Taylor

Southern Idaho desert

Southern Idaho desert

The Northern Desert regions of Southern Idaho, Northern Utah, Northern Nevada, and South-Eastern Oregon hold a wealth of rock and gem material. Hunting in these areas can be a bit different from other rockhounding terrains, however, and the hunter needs to be aware of these differences when planning a desert outing.

The first things you must prepare for when hunting in the desert are the roads and 4-wheel paths. It is not uncommon to be driving along very nicely and suddenly finding yourself in a “sinkhole”. These are a lot of fun, trust me, I’ve spent some time in them. Some otherwise solid roads will have some soft sandy spots. Others have clay or other types of mud areas that can’t be seen as the surface will dry in the sun, but underneath, the mud remains soft. These are “sinkholes”. You may look straight at a sink and not see it.

So when planning your trip, make sure to include boards to either use as tracks for stuck vehicles or to place your jack on so it won’t sink as you jack your vehicle up so you can push it over toward solid ground. All in all, if you drive slowly and carefully so you don’t sink your whole vehicle, you can get out of most sinks, but it will take a lot of work to do so.

Roads in these regions can also quickly become unsurpassable during rain, turning soupy and boggy almost immediately when wet. It is very easy to go down a hill that you can’t get back up if it begins to rain due to clay dirt becoming slick. If you have a steep hill to get back up in the rain, you might as well park and rest for a bit. A good rule of thumb is that if it has been raining, there are no roads. Fortunately, it usually only rains in early spring and late fall.

The next thing you want to prepare for is heat. The weather forecaster in your area may tell you it is eighty degrees out, but when you get to areas of sand with the sun beating off it and no vegetation other than brush, you can plan on temperatures being much higher than reported. Always carry an umbrella with you for shade when going into desert terrain, and carry a lot of water. I have been in desert canyons early in the morning to beat the heat of the day, and when it starts to warm up, the heat literally rolls in like a wave. When it does, you will be miserable without your umbrella and plenty of drinking water to get you back to your vehicle. For this reason, it is best to hunt in the spring after the roads dry or in the fall before the rains start. If you are going to hunt in the hot seasons, plan to get there at daybreak and be out by eleven o’clock a.m. at the very latest. Weather in the mid-sixty to mid-seventy degrees is great weather for desert rock hunting.

Animal life is a bit different in the desert, too. You are bound to see plenty of wildlife while out there. There are rabbits, horned toads, brush and kangaroo mice, lizards, and voles, to name some of the harmless species. They can be much fun to stop and observe. There are also a few species to watch out for. Rattlesnakes are not uncommon, nor are scorpions, badgers, or coyotes.

It is important to watch where you are walking and hunting. Do not put your hands into any area you can’t see, and be careful when moving rocks. You may just end up getting stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake if you are careless. A snake won’t always tell you that it’s there. I have come very close to stepping on coiled snakes that never once shook their rattles. Snakes don’t always strike just because you are near them. If it is a molting season, however, they can become blinded and will strike at anything that moves. Your best policy is to watch very carefully where you are going. Remember that a snake can travel two-thirds of its body length when it strikes.

Some people carry walking sticks so they can toss a snake if they need to. Your best defense is just to watch out for snakes and scorpions and simply stay away from them. Given enough distance, they can make for some very interesting observations.

Ruins in Bullfrog, Nevada

Ruins in Bullfrog, Nevada

When hunting with your dog, you must carefully track your pet. Most dogs have an instinct to avoid snakes, but some will actively agitate a snake if allowed to. Also, I have not heard any stories of people being attacked by coyotes and have never been attacked myself, but they are well known to lure dogs back to their packs to attack and kill them. If you need to keep a leash on your dog to keep him from chasing a coyote, then it is wise to do so. Unless you are out early in the morning or in the evening hours, you most likely will not see any coyotes. If you are camping, make sure your dog can’t sneak off while you are sleeping. After dark, you will want to take special care of smaller pets to make sure owls don’t carry them off. Every now and then, you may get fortunate and see a bobcat, too.

These animals are unlikely to attack humans, but dogs will find them formidable if provoked. Badgers are more aggressive and will rip a dog to shreds, and the owner as well, if they can catch you. If you do not get too close to these little guys, they usually don’t seem to pay much attention to you. If you do surprise and upset one, it may chase you, but they are easy to outrun without having to go too far or fast. The terrain can vary wildly in these desert regions. You may stroll through gently rolling hills or climb through deep canyons with steep or even vertical walls. Live streams and lake areas are rare but provide excellent camping and material hunting areas and excellent wildlife observation points. Often, fortunate hunters may also run across hot springs to soak in. Some of these are charted. Finding others is just pure luck.

When you plan your trip, allow for time to explore rock formations and hills on the way to and from your chosen site. Many types of minerals are scattered throughout these areas, and while one hill or rock formation may be barren of collectible specimens, the one right next to it may be covered with exciting material. While you will find some major hunting grounds on your maps or in guides, there are many that have not been listed but are just as productive.

The Northern desert areas may look quite barren and inhospitable, but with some exploration, you can find some incredible canyons and scenery. You will surely take home a grand cache of breathtaking photographs, exotic mineral specimens, and great memories and stories. A trip to any of these Northern desert regions is a worthy adventure for any rock hunter.

©2005 Sally Taylor, updated January 2024.

About the Author: Sally Taylor is an avid gem and treasure hunter, explorer, and writer and was the owner of Rockhound Station 1, a global rockhound community website that provided forums, articles, newsletters, and more.

Article Source:  Ezine Articles (dead link.)

Also See: 

Abandoned Mine Areas

Lost Treasure Tales

Tales of Ghostly Lost Treasure

Tips For Traveling in the Desert