Rockhounding In New Mexico: A Complete Guide Of The Rocks, Gems and Minerals of New Mexico And Where To Find Them!
New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment” is an archetype example of the endemic culture, vibe, and heritage of the American desert Southwest. This state, full of biological and geological diversity, is host to millions of acres of public lands that are plentiful with a variety of recreational opportunities for all. One of which, you might guess, is a smorgasbord of rockhounding opportunity.
Many visiting rockhounds are amazed at the staggering array of gems and minerals which are easily accessible to collectors across the state. Rock guides to New Mexico are plentiful and offer insight into nearly every corner of the state.
While New Mexico is so well known for its Turquoise mines, some of which date back to pre-colonization era, are some of the oldest known mines in the United States. Even after all those years, New Mexico continues to produce lots of high quality turquoise along with a variety of other minerals on both commercial and collector scales.
Let’s take a deeper look into a tiny snapshot of the rich rockhounding diversity you can find in the “Land of Enchantment”. There is certainly rock collecting opportunity for everyone of all skill and interest levels.
New Mexico Rocks, Minerals and Gemstones
-Fossils Of New Mexico-
First off, before you get too excited, just know that it is against the law to collect any “vertebrate-life” fossils in the state. This means no collecting of any dinosaur bones or fossils of animals with bony skeletons. However, the most numerous fossils, the invertebrate life, are far more plentiful and for the most part are open to collection in New Mexico.
Fossils can be found all over the state, with certain areas being much more worth your effort compared to others. In general, fossils are best found in sedimentary rock layers such as sandstone and limestone. Both of which are plentiful in the state.
Note: Area specific regulations may be different and may restrict collection of fossils in those specific areas. Stay in the know before you go! The New Mexico Bureau Of Geology And Mineral Resources is a great resource you can use as a "jumping-off" point if planning a trip to collect fossils in New Mexico.
Peridot, the gem quality designation of the mineral “Olivine”, can form beautiful translucent green/olive gems that lend themselves well to faceting and jewelry. Worldwide distribution of peridot is fairly limited. Nearly all of the commercial mining of peridot occurs on one small Reservation in neighboring Arizona, along with some mines in the Middle East. New Mexico, in its plentiful opportunity, offers one of the few locations for collection of gem quality peridot by the general public.
Peridot is brought to the earth's surface by getting caught up in some lava flows from deep below the earth’s surface. These gems can get wrapped up in the flows and then cool as veins or cavities in now basaltic rock ancient lava flows. Not all flows have peridot but those that do contain this beautiful gemstone are often well-known.
Petrified wood, counter intuitive to its name, is actually a fossil of sorts. Petrified wood is made by the displacement of a decaying piece of wood buried beneath sediment, by percolating groundwater that replaces the organic wood with an array of minerals minerals.
The end result is a mineralized fossil that is representative of the original woody material, often preserving the finest details of the bark, growth rings, and cellular structure. Some looks so much like dead trees on the ground that people would be fooled into thinking it is actually a piece of wood, until lifting the piece upon discovering it’s abnormally dense mass.
Petrified wood can be found in many scattered locations across the western U.S., with some of the best specimens remaining protected within Petrified Forest National Park in the neighboring state of Arizona. In New Mexico, its distribution can be isolated and patchy, though found in most corners of the state.
For a list of some of the best places in the country to find petrified wood, take a look at my post: Where To Find Petrified Wood: Top Places To Discover Fossilized Wood
Azurite is best known for its namesake deep blue “azure” color, that seems to reflect the deep blue dusk hour skies of the desert southwest. Azurite is a secondary formation when mineral laden waters seep into copper ore deposits, reacting into beautiful and variable shapes and colors of azurite. As such, you will often find azurite near copper deposits and mines. Azurite is neither common, nor abundant. Even where you can find azurite, it is often not found in dense concentrations.
The reactive and unstable nature of azurite poses problems for collectors. When exposed to extremes in heat or humidity, the surfaces can weather away to malachite. This results in a dull faded green appearance in some situations. Highly valuable specimens are stored away in humidity and light controlled areas free of fluctuations, and not on the mantle shelf.
These fun formations are simply a slang term for a specific formation of quartz crystal. While quartz crystals are generally common, these “Pecos Diamond” formations are unique to some areas in the Southwest. The characteristic traits of these quartz crystals are their normal double termination on each end. They are most often fairly short and stubby and can even resemble more of a cube formation. The coloration is variable and can range from milky white, to rusty red, to dark colors leaning towards amethyst purple.
These formations are unique to the Pecos Valley Region in southwest New Mexico. These formed in old gypsum deposits that have since eroded away; leaving scattered outcrops of “Pecos Diamonds” throughout the Pecos River Valley.
Fluorite, now known as a beautiful gemstone, was actually mined early on due to its ore compound, Fluorspar, being a highly used industrial manufacturing component. New Mexico used to be home to industrial scale mines for the compound. Now, many abandoned mines in western New Mexico are located on public lands and open to collectors.
Flourite is quite easy to identify due to its unique geometric structure. It is the only common mineral which forms four directions of perfect cleavage, forming the shape of an octahedron (8-sided shape with triangular faces). Color, on the other hand, is not an identifying trait, as this gem can be found in a variety of beautiful renditions. Most commonly, the characteristic colors are purples, greens, aquamarines, and yellow.
Interestingly enough, the term “fluorescence”, was derived from this gemstone. It was discovered early on, that fluorite, when exposed to UV (blacklight) or similar light waves, glows a blue-violet color.
Read more about how black lights can be used to make minerals glow here: How Minerals Glow Under UV light (And Which Lights Are The Best).
Where To Go Rockhounding In New Mexico
1. Rockhound State Park - Deming, NM
A guide to New Mexico rockhounding is hardly complete without mention of the state park so indicative of the hobby. Rockhound State Park in southwestern New Mexico near the town of Deming, is one of only two state parks in the U.S. that allows and even encourages visitors to keep something from the park. The primary specimens remaining here are general jasper and small “thundereggs”.
Most of the obvious mineral veins have been picked clean along with much of the surface specimens. While seemingly friendly to the beginner rockhound, there are more remote sites that offer more plentiful collection opportunities. Agates, quartz crystals, and opals have even been collected from here in the past. The state park amenities for campers and travelers make it a great camping spot or road tripping stopover point with added recreation.
2. Kilbourne Hole - Peridot - Southeast NM
In one of the more “rock-collecting-limited” areas of the state, the vast deserts of southeast New Mexico, you can actually find gem quality specimens of peridot crystals. Located not far from El Paso, Texas and Las Cruces, NM; this is a highly unique opportunity only found in this area of the state due to the right geologic conditions.
Consider this a trip best reserved for an AWD vehicle with decent clearance at a minimum, or better yet, a 4x4. Sandy desert roads can easily get a 2-wheel-drive vehicle stuck in dry or extremely wet conditions. The wide, somewhat indistinct, volcanic crater is primarily composed of basalt rock (cooled lava). Rock collectors can crack open loose pieces of basalt or dig into cracks and cavities in some of the still anchored basalt to look for Peridot. A good hammer and pick are definitely recommended.
The Kilbourne Hole is easily found on maps or Google Earth. From Google Earth, the crater is even highly visible from high in the sky. There are dirt roads which run along the edge of the crater, allowing you to easily access many areas within. The site is located approximately 40 air miles from both Las Cruces, NM and El Paso, TX.
3. Gila Flourspar Mine District - Flourite
Near the town of Gila, NM; just a short drive northwest of Silver City are many old abandoned flourspar mines located on Gila National Forest Public lands. Many of these old mine sites offer the chance for rockhounders to collect specimens of fluorite. To access these old mines and prospects, travel north out of the town of Gila on Turkey Creek Road. This road leaves the valley bottom and begins to climb up in the hills past a number of old mines and prospects overlooking the town, most of which are visible from the road.
These are located on Gila National Forest and open to collecting. However, be aware of old mine shafts and to be safe, do not explore past gated off mines. Consider digging and scouring in old mine tailings or into exposed cuts in the hillside. A US Forest Service map or USGS map will show many locations of these old mines and can be a vital tool if you are going to look for fluorite.
4. Shakespeare Ghost Town - Azurite
South of Lordsburg, NM; exists an old abandoned ghost town by the name of Shakspeare. In its day, it was a rich mining town and old mines exist all over the hills just west of Shakespeare. While little information exists on the specifics of the mines, word has it that you can easily find gems and mineral such as Azurite, Malachite, and Chrysocolla. Once again, a USGS map will identify the locations of all the old mines, which will be daunting! Try to find areas that have had recent digging activity if you are not quite sure where to start.
Note that active private property mining operations are still occurring in the area. Having a GPS or map to ensure you are on public lands is a must. For reference, check out the map below. The orange represents BLM land open to the public and collecting. The “x”s on the maps are old mine sites. Most are abandoned, but a few aren’t, so be certain not to collect on private property.
5. Desert Rose Mine - Bingham, NM
Located near the town of Bingham new Mexico, the Desert Rose Mine is located on private property and requires a very minimal fee to dig on site. Your reward? Fluorite, calcite, galena, smoky quartz, and barite are your most likely finds in this plentiful mine suited for rockhounders of all experience levels.
To access this mine, you must visit the Blanchard Rock Shop in Bingham, NM. Located about 1 hour and 45 minutes south of Albuquerque in Socorro County on highway 380 at milemarker 30. Here you can pay to visit the mine site located not far behind the rock shop. They allow people to collect at the surface (including hardrock mining) and digging among tailing piles.
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While a whole plethora of rockhounding guides exist for the state of Nevada, if you are looking for a good comprehensive guide for the hottest spots, check out Rockhounding New Mexico: A Guide To 140 Of The State's Best Rockhounding Sites.
This guidebook highlights a large number of the even larger number of potential rockhounding sites across the state. With this guidebook, just about anyone can learn where to find unique minerals, fossils, and other geologic treasures mentioned above. An exceptional reference for experts and novices alike, you can read about 140 of New Mexico’s top sites to visit as a rockhounder. Expect detailed site information including the following
Detailed maps and directions to sites including GPS points
Rules and regulations regarding land use
Contact information for local land management agencies
Suggest tools and techniques by site
Fun information, history, and pertinent information for the area.
Whether you have a guidebook for rockhounding New Mexico or not, consider adding this to your library. Having this book on hand for a road trip or rockhounding adventure to the state could be an invaluable asset. This book has information compiled by top local rockhounding experts that can be find to hard anywhere but local insight.
You may have been surprised by the deep diversity of rockhounding opportunity New Mexico has. This guide has only skimmed the surface. Upon deeper research, you will find a plethora of potential opportunity across New Mexico. And that is only what is on the internet and in books! Local knowledge from experienced rockhounders can lead you on some fantastic adventures across the state.
Expect to find a wide variety of rocks, fossils, and minerals across New Mexico. Whether you are near or far, it is certainly a state worth checking out for the rockhounding enthusiast. Stay safe, stay in the know, and happy rockhounding!