Pleasures and Dangers of Rockhounding Abandoned Mine Areas

Mining Ruins near Leadville, Co

Mining Ruins on Silver King Road near Leadville, Colorado. Photo by Kathy Alexander.

By Sally Taylor

There is nothing quite like finding an abandoned mine site for the rock and treasure hunter. These areas, needless to say, are loaded with dangers, but when you go to a mine site with an awareness of the dangers, a clear head, and with common sense in full function, you can count on many hours of entertaining and, often, rewarding search.

Tailings and site areas can contain various mineral and gem materials. Because miners were interested in what they were mining for in particular, other materials were often overlooked and discarded in the tailings. Some of the nicest crystals I have ever found have come from mine tailings. I have also found tourmaline, garnet, sapphire, and many other minerals.

What you find will vary by area, but you can often pick up some of the mined materials. A caution about tailings is that they may contain the residue of mining chemicals, radiation, and sometimes, especially in gold mining areas, arsenic (arsenic is actually a metal found in rocks and can be very concentrated in gold mining areas).

Questa, New Mexico mine tailings by Kathy Alexander.

Questa, New Mexico mine tailings by Kathy Alexander.

Tailings are not the only areas you want to hunt when looking for gem materials. Any small ravines under the mines will catch materials that roll downhill and are often ignored by hunters.

Any railroad track areas leading from mining areas are great places to hunt for the mineral mined in that area as rocks would tumble from trains in transport. If you can find a spot where a train has derailed and hunt downhill, you are bound to turn up quantities of mineral-bearing rock on the mountainside. Library news archives are great places to find old news articles about such events, so you may want to do some research if you are planning your trip in advance. It is a good idea to check with the local Chamber of Commerce before heading out to the area. They can tell you about restricted hunting areas or sometimes will know of good areas not listed on maps.

They can also tell you if the rocks in that area contain any radioactivity before hunting in that area or use scanning devices when you get there if you have one. Uranium might be valuable, but you really don’t want to wallow in it unwittingly.

Artifacts are another great attraction in mining areas. It is not uncommon to find old coins, tools, and weapons in tailings and around the mining site. Sometimes you will get lucky and find mine camps with the remains of old buildings or miners’ cabins. Searching these areas can turn up all kinds of articles left or lost by miners. When hunting artifacts, you want to check building walls and floors, fireplace walls, and to the right and left of the outside of doors, as many times these people buried or hid their belongings and caches in such spots. In cases of the owner’s unexpected death, these items sometimes remain where they were hidden.

However, old buildings on or around mine sites can contain their own dangers. Many old miners’ cabins and buildings have mine shafts in the buildings. Stepping on old boards that cover the shaft can be a rude and final awakening for the careless hunter. Any time you enter an old cabin, be very careful about where you step. Make sure the boards are solid and that you have footing that will allow you not fall through if a board should give out.

Some of these shafts can run hundreds of feet straight down and don’t allow much hope of survival if you should fall into them. If you see that a piece of flooring is noticeably different from the rest or noticeably removable, do not step on it for any reason unless you can actually see that there is solid ground right underneath you. Never guess about this one as a wrong guess; maybe the last one you ever get.

Old mining areas invariably contain one or more mining shafts or a tunnel. These need to be avoided at all costs. Never step on a board over a mining hole. Even if a hole is filled in and looks solid, it can’t safely be assumed to be safe. Sometimes enough debris will collect to make the hole look solid, but you may get a rude surprise if you step down onto it. Tunnels hold many dangers and should not be explored, no matter how safe they appear.

Mine near Eagle Nest, New Mexico

Mine near Eagle Nest, New Mexico, by Kathy Alexander.

There is no way to smell cyanide gas, but you only have to inhale it once for it to kill you. Many old gold tunnels are full of this gas. Another danger is False bottoms that appear solid but are not, or unstable tunnel walls, beams, and ceilings. Tunnels are enticing, but your best and safest bet is to keep hunting outside the tunnel. If you have children or pets when you explore near shafts and tunnels, you need to keep them under close supervision. I personally know people who can tell you what it feels like to lose a child in a mine shaft.

While old mining areas do hold many dangers, they also are interesting and productive places to gem and treasure hunt. With a little common sense and an awareness of the dangers of mining areas, a hunter can have a wonderful time exploring these historic sites.

© Sally Taylor, 2005, updated January 2024..

About the Author: Sally Taylor is an avid gem and treasure hunter, explorer, writer, and owner of Rockhound Station 1, a global rockhound community website that provides forums, articles, newsletters, and more. Article Source:  Ezine Articles (dead link)

Also See: 

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps

Lost Treasure Tales

Mining History in the United States (historic text 1879)

Mining Main Page