Agates are some of the most popular rocks for collectors, and it’s easy to see why. These semiprecious stones are highly desirable for their unique ring patterns and their variety of colors. They are also some of the most highly sought after rocks for rock tumbling hobbyists (myself included) because of how amazing they look once polished. While agates are relatively common, they can’t be found just anywhere. I decided to write this post to help anyone hoping to find their own agates.
Agates can be found on the beaches of oceans and lakes, along road cuts, and in areas with exposed gravel. In the U.S., agates are most commonly found along the shores of the Great Lakes, the beaches of the Pacific Coast, and in the deserts of many western states.
If you don’t live near any of those areas that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to find agates. There are certain types of areas that you can search and many useful techniques that will increase your chances of finding agates. I’ll dive deeper into how agates form, why certain areas are better for agate hunting, and give you tips on how to give yourself the best shot possible of finding your very own agates to add to your collection.
The Best Places to Look for Agates
Agates are relatively common as gemstones go, but that doesn’t mean you can find them just anywhere. Like most rocks and minerals, they require a fairly specific geological setting to form, and more geological processes to become exposed for us to collect. I’ll get into that later, but for now, I’ll focus on the best places to look for agates.
Note that this list and the specific locations I mention are far from exhaustive. Agates can be found all over the country (and the world), so just because you don’t see a location listed near you doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck. I would recommend checking mindat.org for specific locations wherever you live.
Beaches are the best places to look for agates. The powerful, constant wave action, tidal forces, and large currents provide the perfect geological setting for both the erosion and transportation required to expose agates. Beaches have long been a favorite destination for rockhounds, and their propensity to produce beautiful agates is a big reason why.
Unfortunately, not every beach lends itself to agate collecting. Beaches that are close to agate source rock will obviously be much more productive than beaches that aren’t. It also helps if the beach is well known for aggressive tides and/or frequent storms. The choppy water and heavy wave action tend to transport and uncover fresh agates, so those beaches tend to make for much better rockhounding destinations than calmer beaches.
You don’t necessarily need to be on an ocean beach in order to find agates. Many lakes and even river banks are well known for producing quality agates – most notably the Great Lakes. If you do a little research on your local area you may very likely find at least one location that is known to produce agates.
Whatever beach you choose, there will likely be some areas that look more gravelly than others. Those are the locations you want to check out; avoid the parts of the beach that are almost entirely sand. You want to find a part of the beach that has a bunch of rocks that are about the size of agate you’re hoping to find. If there are agates anywhere on the beach, they’ll likely be mixed in with that gravel.
Another great aspect of hunting for agates on beaches is that the rocks tend to already be well rounded and relatively shiny due to the prolonged time they have spent being tossed around in the waves and sand. That constant motion polishes the rocks, making them extremely beautiful and relatively easy to spot. The distinct color and translucence of agates really makes them pop in contrast to most other rocks you’re likely to find on a beach.
Where to Find Agates in the Pacific Northwest
There are plenty of amazing ocean beaches in the U.S. where you can find agates. Here are some of the best beaches that I’ve found, along with some information on the type of agates you can find at each. At most of these locations, you’ll have the most success hunting in the winter or early spring when storms are larger and more frequent.
|Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site, OR
|Short Sand Beach
|Oswald West State Park, OR
|Oceanside Beach State Park, OR
|Agate Beach, OR
|S of Yachats, OR
|S of Yachats, OR
|Cannon Beach, OR
|Gold Beach, OR
|Grays Harbor, WA
|Puget Sound, WA
|Port Townsend, WA
|Olympic National Park, WA
Where to Find Lake Superior Agates
Lake Superior is famous for its world-class agates. Still, not every beach maks for a good agate hunting destination. Here are some of the most well-known and popular beaches on Lake Superior for agate hunting.
|NE of Duluth, MN
|Flood Bay State Wayside
|NE of Two Harbors, MN
|SW of Split Rock, MN
|Mouth of Beaver River
|Beaver Bay, MN
|Mouth of Temperance River
|Grand Marais Harbor
|Artist Point, MN
|Kadunce River Wayside
|NE of Grand Marais, MN
|SW of Judge Magney Park, MN
|SW of Grand Portage, MN
|Crisp Point Lighthouse
|W of Whitefish Point, MI
|Whitefish Point, MI
|Muskallonge Lake State Park, MI
|Lake Superior Beach
|Tettegouche State Park, MI
|Little Girl’s Point
|W of Port Wing, WI
Of course, beaches aren’t the only places you can find agates. Any place where the earth has been cut away or dug out has the potential to reveal some agates ripe for the picking. You’ll need to do some research into the local geology of your area, of course, because only specific kinds of rock produce or contain agates.
If your local area has volcanic rock beds that have been exposed by road cuts then you may be in luck. Agates form when hollow cavities in lava are later filled with quartz and other minerals precipitating through the rock, so any volcanic beds are a good sign. Depending on your local geology you may also be able to find agates in conglomerates that have formed from volcanic source rock.
Also keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to road cuts – any sort of freshly exposed rock faces will make for a potential agate hunting location. You’ll have better luck if you do your research beforehand. If there are agates to be found in any particular location you can be reasonably certain that rockhounds have already made note of it. Your best bet will probably be to check around with local rockhounding groups or rock shops.
One of the downsides to searching for agates at road cuts and similar locations is that they will likely not be nearly as well polished and clearly distinguishable as they are on beaches. Unless the agate has been freshly broken and is relatively clean it will likely be much harder to identify than a smooth agate you might find on a beach. You will likely have to be more diligent and methodical in your searching than you would at the beach.
Exposed Gravel Areas
Believe it or not, you can sometimes find agates in gravelly areas like gravel roads, gravel pits, landscaping rock, and construction sites. Any place with a bunch of rocks exposed on the surface is a potential source of agates, especially if you’re in an area that is prone to agates or the gravel has been hauled in from an area that is.
Sometimes these gravelly areas can also be quite dusty, especially if it’s been a while since the last rain. It can be very helpful to take a spray bottle with you so you can quickly wash off the superficial dust from small areas to check for agates. Gravel roads are especially bad about this because dust gets kicked up and coats the agates.
Not all gravelly areas will contain agates, so if you are checking out a location but you haven’t found anything within 10 or 15 minutes then you’re probably going to be out of luck. If you do happen to find a good spot, chances are you will be able to go back to that location over and over again and still be able to find more agates, especially if there is a storm or two between visits.
Deserts of the Southwest United States
One of the most highly sought-after types of agate is the fire agate. Fire Agates are an incredibly beautiful (and aptly named) fiery red, orange, and yellow species of agate and are highly prized by rock and mineral collectors. You can find them in Mexico and the southwestern United States, specifically in California, New Mexico, and particularly Arizona.
As with any rockhounding adventure, make sure you are allowed to collect rocks at any location you’re searching. The vast majority of BLM land is open to rock collecting, but if you are wondering about any specific type of public land I wrote an extensive post about rockhounding laws and regulations for just about any type of public land you can think of.
|Black Hills, AZ
|Pay-to-dig private mine
|Opal hill, CA
|Pay-to-dig private mine
|Deer Creek, AZ
|Privately owned, permit required
|Round Mountain, AZ
|Saddle Mountain, AZ
|BLM Recreation Area
|Cuesta Fire Agate Mine, AZ
|Pay-to-dig private mine
How to Find Agates
Now that I’ve covered the types of locations to look for agates I’ll get into how to actually go about planning your trip to the field and some best practices for increasing your chances of finding good specimens. While finding agates is often as simple as walking around and picking up any pretty rocks you see, there are a lot of tips and tricks that will save you quite a bit of time and backaches.
Research Prospective Locations
Most great rockhounding trips start with a bit of research, and this case is no different. Before heading out you’ll want to do at least a little bit of research. There are several ways to go about this, the easiest of which is to do some digging online. I would also highly recommend asking around at a local rock shop, or even joining a local rockhounding group that will be filled with people who know all of the best spots.
If you’re relatively new to rock collecting or are just looking for some tips on how to plan your trip to the field, I’d recommend checking out my how-to guide for rock and mineral collectors.
Take Note of the Weather
One of the best things you can do before looking for agates is to check the weather. The best time to search for agates (especially in a beach setting) is right after a storm. The churning waves will have brought in fresh material for you to search, so even if you go to a very popular location that is normally picked clean there will probably be some good finds available for you.
Of course, you’ll also want to check on the current weather. It’s always more enjoyable to go rockhounding on a nice, sunny day, but there are more practical advantages to having good sunshine when searching for agates. If you go early in the morning or late in the day, the angle of the sunlight will catch the colorful, translucent agates at an advantageous angle, making them much easier to spot.
Research the Tide Tables
If you’re planning on hitting up a beach to look for agates then make sure to check the tide tables for the best time to go. Ideally, you’d like to plan your trip around low tide, so show up shortly before the water is at its lowest point to give yourself the biggest window of opportunity.
The reason for going at low tide is because more of the beach will be exposed, giving you more ground to cover. Fresh material will be churned up and you’ll be the first person to take a crack at finding anything. Plus, other rock hunters may have been to that same location at high tide so they will have missed anything that was underwater at the time.
Know What to Look For
When searching for agates, it’s important to know exactly what it is you’re looking for. Agates can present themselves very differently depending on your location. Sometimes they are extremely easy to spot, but in some cases they are almost impossible to distinguish from other rocks without a practiced eye and more meticulous work.
Most agates that you’ll find will be about walnut sized or smaller. Certainly there are exceptions, but in my experience you’d be pretty lucky to find an agate much larger than that. Rough agates have a better chance to be a bit larger because they haven’t been heavily weathered and worn away.
Agates are well known for their color banding, and those colors can run the gamut from red, orange, yellow, gray, pink, black, blue, and green. Most commonly they are a reddish orange with alternating white bands. When looking for agates keep your eye out for any rock that appears a bit more colorful or radiant than surrounding rocks. The entire rock may not present the distinctive banding – it depends on how it has eroded over time.
If you’re searching in good sunlight (especially in the morning or evening) the sun may cause the agates to show themselves more clearly. Their translucence tends to catch the light and almost make them appear to glow, especially when compared to the more ordinary rocks around them.
If you’re searching in an area other than a beach then the agates will likely not be as shiny and easily recognizable. Look for rocks that have a roughly round or oval shape that are at least slightly more colorful than the majority of rocks in the area. Some faces of the rock will probably still display some luster that almost appears greasy.
Unpolished agates commonly have pitted-looking surfaces because they conformed to the rough surface of the lava vesicle they formed in. Some people describe it as looking like a potato skin – generally fairly round and smooth, but with some rough spots and pits on the surface.
Use the Proper Tools
Looking for agates is usually a pretty straightforward process once you’ve found the right place and you know what to look for, but there are definitely some tools you can bring along that will improve both your quality of life and your likelihood of finding agates. Here are the most useful tools to take agate hunting:
A spray bottle is one of the most useful tools for agate hunters. Agates show off their distinctive colors and luster much better when they’re wet, so if you are searching in a place that hasn’t seen rain in a while then a quick spray of water can be a great way to quickly check if a rock is an agate or not. The water will remove any dust from the surface of the rocks and help the colors pop.
In a similar vein, a flashlight can help you to distinguish agates from other rocks, especially jasper. One of the defining characteristics of agate is that it’s translucent. If you hold a prospective agate up near a flashlight and you can’t see any light penetrating through the rock, then you’ve found something other than agate. If it looks similar to agate but isn’t translucent, it’s probably jasper (a great find in and of itself).
Flashlights can also be really helpful when searching in the early morning or at dusk. If you shine your flashlight on the rocks in front of you, any agates will tend to ‘glow’ in the light. This makes it really easy to pick out a bunch of agates from an area very quickly.
This is a pretty specialized tool that can greatly improve your quality of life if you plan to spend any significant amount of time hunting agates. It’s basically a wire mesh scoop on a pole that allows you to pick up rocks without having to bend over to pick them up. That may sound trivial, but it will save your back from a world of hurt! I would highly recommend this tool to anyone wanting to hunt for agates on a beach.
The rock picker than I’d personally recommend is this one on Amazon, which has a detachable scoop on the end so you can use it as a walking stick when you’re not picking up rocks. It also collapses down for easy transportation and storage, and seems pretty durable.
Hopefully, you find a bunch of agates on your rockhounding trip. But where are you going to put them all? I like to bring a satchel, or sometimes even my favorite backpack for rockhounding. Other people like to bring a 5-gallon bucket along with them which works just fine, although I find that to be a lot more cumbersome and uncomfortable.
How Agates Form
Now that I’ve covered where and how to find agates, you might have some nagging questions about how agates form and why they can only be found in certain places. The geological process by which they form is actually pretty cool!
Agates form as secondary mineral deposits inside of cavities (called vesicles) in host rock, most commonly in the remnants of ancient gas pockets in volcanic rock. As mineral-laden water precipitates through the rock over time, it leaves behind concentric circles of microcrystalline quartz.
The different varieties of agate stem from the myriad impurities and accessory minerals that accompany the quartz during the formation of the agate. The concentrations and composition of the minerals in the water change over time, which is responsible for agate’s famous banded rings.
Agates take their form from the vesicle in which they originated. Since most agates form in the pockets left by gas bubbles in solidified lava flows, they tend to be roughly spherical or oblong in shape. As I discussed earlier, their surface is usually rough and pockmarked because that is where they were in contact with the host rock.
Since agate is made up primarily of chalcedony (a form of microcrystalline quartz) it is very hard and resistant to weathering. When the host rock around the agate is eroded away, the agates remain intact and remain for us rockhounds to find.
Agates can be transported great distances from where they originated, most commonly by glaciers, ocean currents, and rivers. This is a big part of the reason it can be helpful to understand your local geology when hunting for agates. As with any rock, the further an agate travels the more smooth and rounded it tends to become.