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Where to Find Rocks: The Best Places to Collect and Why

Where to Find Rocks: The Best Places to Collect and Why
A man with a rock hammer over a pile of rocks

As a rock collector, I know that the most basic and hardest to answer question for rockhounds is usually “Where do I find good rocks to collect?” It’s the most important thing to know for any rock collector but it’s difficult to find a good answer because local geology is different everywhere. But regardless of where you are, there are some basic types of locations that are always great places to look for rocks.

The best places to look for rocks to collect are quarries, road cuts, outcrops, pay-to-dig sites, river banks, creek beds, mine tailings, beaches, and sites with freshly overturned soil. These locations provide easy access to abundant amounts of exposed, high quality, representative rock specimens.

Each of these location types has its pros and cons, and their availability will vary with your local and regional geology. Regardless of where you live you will always be able to find some locations near you that produce interesting and collectible rocks. I’ll take you through what makes for a good rockhounding location and some best practices when looking in each of these location types.

What Makes a Great Rock Collecting Location

While it’s true that you can find rocks just about anywhere, there are definitely some spots that are better than others. You’re obviously going to be a lot better off collecting rocks in a mountain range than you are in a wheat field, but it’s actually a little more complicated than that. There are four basic characteristics that most great rockhounding locations share.

Exposed Rock

Nicely exposed rock is the most important feature of a good rock collecting location. While this may seem obvious, it can present itself in many different ways. You might immediately think of large cliff faces or mountains, but we’re not limited to just those super rocky terrains.

As long as there is rock showing on the surface the area has potential. That likely means no open grassy fields, marshes, etc. You’re looking for any place that has large exposed outcrops of rock that isn’t covered in dirt, soil, and vegetation.

You don’t have to confine your search to mountains, quarries, cliff faces, etc. You can find nicely exposed rock in areas prone to erosion such as river banks, creek beds, and beaches. The erosional forces cut into the soil and bedrock exposing the native rock but also transport rocks from further away.

Fresh Exposures

Finding exposed rock is just the bare minimum, unfortunately. Lots of rock outcrops are highly weathered or covered in dirt and vegetation. For an ideal rock collecting spot you’d like to find an area with native rock that has been freshly exposed, without it having been subjected to the elements for too long. The reason for this is twofold.

Firstly, your samples will be of higher quality because they haven’t been beaten up and worn down by the elements. Rock faces are very commonly degraded and weathered by the sun, rain, and vegetation growing on them which often causes discoloration and staining. Older, more weathered rocks just don’t make for good specimens in a collection. Ideally, you’d be able to find rocks that have been freshly exposed or broken off by water currents, frost wedging, and other natural processes.

The other reason is simply quality of life. You can probably manage to get good specimens that haven’t been weathered at almost any rock outcrop but you may have to do quite a bit of work with a rock hammer. It’s much better to be able to simply bend over and pick up a rock than it is to have to hammer away at bedrock to reach something worth collecting. It’s also a much more responsible way to collect – rockhounds much prefer to leave outcrops undamaged if at all possible.

Permission to Collect

Even the best looking rock collecting spots may not work, unfortunately. Before you take or collect anything you absolutely have to make sure you have permission to collect from that location. This applies to both private and public land.

If the land is privately owned then try to contact them beforehand via phone or email. You can generally find out who owns a piece of land by checking local and county records. Many people will gladly let you do this if you treat their land with respect, but be prepared to graciously accept a ‘no’ answer.

It can be difficult to determine whether or not rockhounding is permitted on public land, but luckily for you I put together a comprehensive article covering the legality of rockhounding on every single type of public land in the U.S.

If you don’t have permission from the landowner to collect, absolutely don’t take any specimens. It’s up to all rock and mineral collectors to be respectful of the land they’re on so as not to give the rest of the rockhounding community a bad name.

Safety

And of course, we need to be safe when searching for and collecting rocks. Most of the time, rock collecting is about as safe as any hobby can get but there are certainly exceptions. Some otherwise fantastic rock collecting locations are hamstrung by how dangerous it can be to collect there.

Road cuts are a good example of this. There are plenty of road cuts that have areas where it’s pretty safe to collect, but on the other hand there are some that are simply to dangerous to spend any time at. If the shoulder is too narrow, there isn’t a safe place to park, or there is a blind turn, for example, it’s just not worth trying to collect there.

Also, make sure to avoid any places that may collapse on you or are prone to rock falls. This includes old abandoned mine shafts and adits, unstable piles of mine tailings, etc. Use some common sense, and if you have any doubts about the safety of the area it’s best to err on the side of caution. There are plenty of places in the world to collect rocks without putting your health and safety at risk.

Best Places to Collect Rocks

Quarries

There may not be a better place to look for rocks than a quarry. After all, the entire reason a quarry exists in the first place is that the area contains something worth digging for. Quarries may be active or abandoned, but in either case, you’ll need to make sure to have permission from the landowner to collect there.

There are several really great advantages to collecting rocks at a quarry, the first of which is all the exposed rock. Quarries usually have a lot of exposed rock faces from where their excavation equipment dug into the earth, giving you access to the strata that would otherwise be concealed beneath your feet. That means there are a lot more layers and rock types to choose from, plus you get to see the geological setting they originally came from.

Unless they are long abandoned, quarries are also pretty easy to access. They need to be accessible to large trucks and equipment so you can almost always drive right up to your collecting sight with no need for long hikes.

The biggest obstacle to overcome with rockhounding at a quarry is gaining permission to collect from the owner. Quarries are usually privately owned, but can also be publicly owned, especially if they are no longer active. Due to potential liability issues there are a lot of reasons for a quarry owner to deny you access, and virtually no upside for them permitting it. You will probably have more success trying to visit these sites as part of an organized field trip with a local rockhounding club.

Road Cuts

A rockiy outcrop in a road cut

Road cuts have been some of the favorite destinations for rock collectors for a long time. When it’s too difficult or inconvenient to build a road over a large hill, construction crews cut into the hill with explosives and excavating equipment which leaves the rock inside the hill exposed. This creates a great opportunity for collectors!

The biggest downside of road cuts is the safety concern. Because of how they’re constructed it’s not uncommon for there to be very little shoulder space and limited visibility for drivers, making them an unsafe location to do any amount of collecting. If you want to collect at a road cut makes sure that it has a suitable place to park your vehicle and enough buffer space between the road and the rocks.

Of course, if you do find a safe road cut it’s a great place to find some awesome rocks. I have a road cut about an hour south of me that I’ve visiting four or five times as part of a group field trip or by myself and the rocks there are just spectacular. As is common with road cuts, you can really get a feel for the local geology of the area by taking in all of the stratigraphy, faulting, and folding.

Don’t limit yourself to just the large, exposed rock faces. If you wander around a bit to the sides of the road cut and even on top you can often find chunks and piles of rock from when the road cut was made. This can give you a lot easier access to collectible pieces and are better to use your rock hammer on than the rock face itself.

Outcrops

Rock outcrops are a bit of an all-encompassing term for any solid exposure of rock from the surrounding terrain. Unlike quarries or road cuts, outcrops are naturally occurring and you never know exactly where can pop up. They are some of my favorite places to collect rocks because the best places are usually in more remote, natural settings.

The most commonly thought of outcrops are places like cliffs, rocky hillsides, and mountainsides. Any places with a mass of rock not covered by soil and vegetation is what you’re looking for, and those locations are definitely some of the best. Check near the base of the outcrop for rocks and boulders that you can take a specimen from without doing more damage to the outcrop itself with a hammer.

What you find at the base of the outcrop is usually a good indicator of the type of rock above you. If you find any specimens with nice crystallization or coloring then chances are there is more of it above. Depending on the type of rock, it might be worth trying to trace the source to see if you can find a nice crystal pocket in the outcrop.

Since you can find these outcrops in almost any kind of terrain it can be overwhelming trying to know where to go. I’d recommend checking with local rockhounding groups or buying a rock collecting field guide for your area that can point you in the right direction. And as always, make sure you have permission from the landowner to take anything you find.

Pay-to-Dig Sites

If you want a sure fire place to find some awesome rocks without worrying about researching places to look or getting permission to collect, then I’d highly recommend looking for a pay-to-dig site near you. These locations are well known enough for their quality rocks and mineral specimens that they have turned it into a business.

You can probably find a pay-to-dig site fairly close to you – there is at least on in just about every state. What you can find at each location will obviously vary from site to site, but most places have quite a variety of possible finds to add to your collection. I’ve put together an article with information on some of the best pay-to-dig sites in the U.S.

Pay-to-dig sites are great because you’re almost guaranteed to find something worth keeping and the quality will generally be better than anything you’re likely to find while wandering around on your own. They’re great places to take kids for a few hours or an entire day because there is usually a lot more action and less time between fun finds.

Some of these places let you actually dig and work at their mines – the real source of the material. Others will haul in material from the mine and let you sift through it in their sluice. Make sure to read up on any particular place you’re considering to ensure that the experience they offer is right for you.

River Banks

River banks are some of the most fun locations to collect rocks. I used to live in a house with a small river running right behind it and there was always something cool to find there. The running water and changing water levels ensured that new rocks were always being turned up and exposed, so I could keep going back time after time.

The best place to look for rocks in rivers is along the sandy banks and sandbars. These banks are usually on the inside of the bends of a river where the current doesn’t flow as quickly, allowing for the rocks and sand to fall out of the current and accumulate there.

The best time to go is when the water levels have receded after a big rainstorm. The increased water flow will have transported new material from far upriver, changing the landscape of the river banks. Most of the rocks you find will be well rounded and relatively smooth because they have been well worn by the weathering effects of the river over time and distance.

You can also often find nice outcrops and cliff faces on the outer bends of rivers where the running water has cut into the surrounding terrain. While they don’t make for great rock collecting locations they are always fun to look at and can give you a sense of appreciation for the local geology. As always, make sure to be cautious if collecting around rivers. It would probably be best to go with a friend just to be on the safe side.

Creek Beds

Similar to river banks, creek beds are some of the best places to look for rocks to collect. Even better, they are extremely common and easy to find almost regardless of where you live. They also tend to be a lot safer and easier to navigate than river banks because most of the time there isn’t nearly as much (or any) running water.

Creek beds make for great collecting locations because they cut into the surrounding soil, leaving their banks exposed. This gives rock collectors easy access to rocks that would have otherwise been buried, and sometimes they even cut down far enough to hit bedrock. Creeks also tend to collect any rocks that have tumbled down from surrounding hills or mountains.

Depending on the local geology of your area the types of rocks you find here will vary, but compared to rivers and beaches the rocks will be much more local. They won’t have traveled nearly as far because creeks don’t have the sustained heavy water flow required to transport rocks very far. On one hand, this is a good thing because you have a better idea of where the rocks you find originated, but on the other hand, you’ll get less variety.

This also means that the rocks tend not to be as well worn as what you’d find along the banks of a river. You’ll get a lot more variety of shapes (not just round river rocks) and if the rocks have any sort of good crystallization it is much more likely to be preserved if found in a creek bed.

Mine Tailings

Mine tailings are maybe the most popular spots for rock and mineral collectors because of the ease of access to potentially great finds. These are the places that mining companies deposit all of the extra rock and debris from their operations and can usually be found near old mines and quarries.

Tailings make for great rockhounding spots for several reasons. First, they come from mines and quarries, which means that there is something worthwhile in the area to begin with. Nobody spends all the time and money mining an area if there’s nothing there to be found. What exactly that is will vary from site to site, but it’s common to find a variety of worthwhile rocks and minerals in one location.

Another huge benefit of searching mine tailings is that the rock is already busted up and easily searchable. One of the hardest and most frustrating aspects of rockhounding is being able to access rocks with nice mineralization that are bound up in an outcrop. With mine tailings, all that rock has been broken up with heavy machinery already, so it’s just waiting for you to pick through the pile and find the best specimens.

Of course, gaining permission to search mine tailings can be a challenge. Some of these locations are publicly owned because the mines are now defunct and you may or may not be able to get permission from the government entity that owns it. Some are still privately owned by the mining company, and they are likely to deny you permission for liability reasons. You’ll have a greater chance of success if you join up with a local rockhounding club and do a group field trip.

Beaches

Who doesn’t like a nice long walk on the beach? Strolling along a beach is even more enjoyable for rockhounds because there are often some really great rocks and shells to collect. Beaches are another example of the powerful effect of vast amounts of water continually transporting and exposing new rocks for us to find.

I find that it’s best to visit beaches right after a storm, where the increased wave action has really churned up a lot of new material and left it on the beach. Even better, go at low tide so that more of the beach is exposed. If you manage to go right after a rain it can make good rocks really easy to spot because the rain preferentially compacts the sand around them and the rocks get the loose sand washed off of them.

Especially on the west coast of the U.S., beaches are extremely popular rock collecting locations because of the prevalence of agates. They get left on the beaches after storms and stick out due to their reddish color and nice luster. The Great Lakes are also really well known for their agates. These kinds of rocks make for great tumbling rough if you’re into rock tumbling.

If you’re into seashell or coral collecting then of course beaches should be at the top of your list of places to go searching. You also don’t have to limit yourself to ocean beaches. I live in Oklahoma (about as far from the ocean as you can get) and I have made a lot of great finds at some local lakes. For example, there are a few lakes around me that a well known for producing rose rocks, a very pretty form of barite.

Overturned Soil

While I’d normally not recommend searching in open fields or anywhere without nicely exposed rock, one exception is any place with freshly overturned dirt. You never know what sort of rocks might have been lurking underneath the topsoil, so if you ever notice an area where work is being done it might be worth taking a look.

Some areas I’d suggest checking out (with permission, of course) are new construction sites and farm fields. When my parents were building a new house here in Oklahoma they found buckets full of very nice rose rocks because their land happened to be in a really nice seam. You may not find anything worthwhile, but it’s certainly worth looking.

Farmers will probably be willing to let you look through their fields before they plant because the fewer rocks in their fields the better. If you notice a field near you has recently been tilled, contact them and ask if you can go ‘rock picking’. There are many areas where you can find some pretty cool rocks (including agates!) doing this.

Not every freshly dug up location will have rocks worth collecting but given the ease of access and the probability that you’ll be allowed to look there makes them worth checking out. You might have even more success gaining permission if you offer to let the landowner have a cut of your haul.