Obsidian is found in many locations in the United States where there has been a history of past volcanic activity. Collectors covet the glass-like “mineraloid,” formed by the rapid cooling of molten rock
There are several types and colors of obsidian, though the most familiar is the common jet-black variety. The influence of bubbles or fissures in the stone or the introduction of various crystals or minerals during the cooling process can produce uniquely colored patterns, from brown to silver to rainbow hues.
In the United States, obsidian is most common in the West, although there have been some claims that deposits may be located in Virginia or Pennsylvania. I was not able to find any hardcore data verifying the eastern sources, so I decided to just steer clear of them for the time being.
Rockhounds hunting for natural deposits of obsidian in the U.S. would be advised to set their sights westward, where there’s been an ample supply for many useful items, from arrowheads in the glory days of the Native Americans to surgical-edged knives still produced today. Obsidian is beautiful and valuable to many kinds of collectors.
1. Big Obsidian Flow, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon
Truly, there are so many deposits of obsidian in Oregon that it would not be possible to cover them all here. One of the biggest and most well known is the Big Obsidian Flow, found right in the middle of the Newberry Volcanic National Monument. The flow covers about one square mile, and a popular trail begins at the Newberry Volcano and continues around the perimeter of the flow.
The obsidian deposit at Newberry is spectacular and worth seeing, but no obsidian can be taken from the National Park. Collectors have other options in Oregon, however, including:
- Glass Butte, about 100 miles southeast from Newberry Volcano, in central Oregon
- Bear Valley, south central Oregon
- Big Stick, 60 miles southeast of Glass Buttes
- Other Oregon obisidian deposits website
2. San Francisco Volcanic Field, Arizona
The San Francisco Volcanic Fields cover over 3,000 square miles, where around 600 volcanic vents form one of North America’s most distinguishing geological features.
Rockhounds who are looking for specimens to add to their collection will need to research national parks and privately-owned land before deciding where in this vast area to hunt. The Bureau of Land Management allows rock hunters access to much of their land. Arizona is a mecca for rockhounds, where Tucson hosts the largest rock show in the world. And Coconino County features many obsidian deposits in the north-central part of the state.
3. Obsidian Cliff, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
It should come as no surprise that Yellowstone National Park contains some of the largest obsidian deposits in the U.S. The area’s volcanic history is well documented and continues to be a literal hot spot for volcanologists around the world. Visitors to the park may drive to Obsidian Cliff and observe the formations, but not remove any pieces from the park.
Wyoming’s mountainous regions contain other obsidian deposits, such as around Jackson Hole along the Teton Pass or the Green River area further south. Online resources will help you determine the most favorable locations.
4. Warner Mountains, Northern California
Warner Mountains are especially popular for their deposits of rainbow and pink obsidian. There are four mines in the area, as well as Modoc National Forest in the northeastern corner of the state, where limited collecting is permitted.
Some areas do require permits. You’ll want to check with the individual mines regarding hours of operation.
There are also obsidian deposits north of San Fransisco and in the southeastern mountain areas of the state.
5. Big Southern Butte, Idaho
Big Southern Butte is located a little over 52 miles east of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho. The area was used by Native Americans for centuries as a source of obsidian for arrowheads and other tools. There are numerous federal lands in the area, making collecting limited.
There are many obsidian deposits across the southern part of Idaho, such as Jordan Creek, Kelly Canyon, and American Falls. Always verify BLM restrictions before collecting on public lands.
6. Cochetopa Dome, Colorado
The Cochetopa Dome is the only definitive location of obsidian in the state of Colorado, although Nathrop, Silver Cliff, and Beaver Creek have also been cited by some.
Cochetopa Dome is located about 20 miles south of Gunnison. The area is also called Chochetopa Hill. Chochetopa is a Ute word meaning “pass of the buffalo,” and Native American tribes often used the obsidian found there to make arrow and spear points while on their annual hunts.
At present, much of the area is inaccessible to the public, being recently sold to private owners. However, there are a number of lakes and a creek in the area that are popular for their trout, and fishermen have commented that storms frequently wash small nuggets of obsidian, known as “Apache Tears” onto the banks for willing collectors.
These rounded black “obsidianite” pieces range from 1/4-2 inches in size and have become popular with collectors in the area partly because of the traditional story behind them. The story claims the military launched a surprise attack against the Apache tribe in the area in the 1870s, and the tears of the victims’ wives became pieces of obsidian. Tradition claims that the possessor of an Apache tear will never have to cry again, as these women’s tears take the place of those of the stone’s owner.
7. Massacre Lakes, Nevada
The Massacre Lakes area is located in the northwestern corner of Nevada. As with several other western states, the sources of obsidian listed for Nevada seem endless, with verification of the sites sometimes difficult to obtain. I found a few articles about this site which mention obsidian as being plentiful in the area’s dunes.
There are a number of campsites in this area, at least some of which are under the control of the BLM. The BLM allows rock collecting on their lands. Just make sure you know the rules and limits about rock collecting on public lands.
8. Obsidian Ridge, New Mexico
Here is a great place for a family outing. Obsidian Ridge lies along the Jemez Volcanic field in the Jemez Mountains, and is about 50 miles northwest of Sante Fe. The area boasts a literal sea of obsidian for collectors of all ages to pick up and pocket to take home.
There are a few federally controlled parks in the area, so it’s a good idea to consult a map before you set out. No collecting is allowed in national parks. There are also a number of other obsidian sites in the Jemez area and across New Mexico.
9. Black Rock Desert,
Roughly 2/3 of
When we think of Hawaii, one of the first things that may come to mind is volcanic activity. So it may seem like the entire archipelago would be inundated with glassy obsidian rock. However, that is not the case.
In fact, the only defined source of obsidian in Hawaii is found on the western side of the Big Island, on one side of Pu`u Wa`awa`a, a grey cinder volcanic cone on the northern rift zone of Hualalai. (Yeah, I can’t pronounce it either.)
Pu’u Wa’awa’a has a great deal of obsidian mixed with pumice. However, at this point most of the obsidian is underground. The area is part of a state park, so collecting would be off-limits anyway. I found one eBay ad and one Amazon ad for Hawaiian obsidian, but I couldn’t verify the source. So, in short, volcanic islands do not mean abundant obsidian. Much of the volcanic activity in the islands is simply too young to produce obsidian. Just thought you rockhounds might want to know.