Ask an expert: Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest
Those looking to try their hand at collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest will find a wealth of opportunities. From the North Cascades to the Columbia Basin, collectors can find everything from amethyst to agates.
Toby Seim, president of the Friends of Minerology – Pacific Northwest Chapter, has been an avid mineral collector for the past five years. Here, he shares photos, personal stories, and tips for those just starting out.
How he got started
Seim’s path to collecting minerals arose out of a desire to get into the outdoors. “I was spending too much time on social media, watching too much TV,” he says.
He started hiking, but it wasn’t exactly the right fit. “I’d get to a destination and look at the view, but it didn’t capture me,” he recalls. So, he turned to a childhood hobby: collecting rocks.
After some research, he bought tools and set out on his own. While he originally did most of his collecting solo, he found like-minded friends through the Facebook group NW Rockhounds and later became involved with Friends of Mineralogy. Now, he often collects with four friends.
Seim says the goal of Friends of Mineralogy is to spread interest in minerals and related activities.
RELATED: What Lies Beneath: Minerals of the Pacific Northwest
Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest
Those looking to start collecting minerals will need to gear up, research locations, and learn how to properly pack and clean what they find. Here are some tips.
Tools of the trade
First, you’ll need the tools of the trade. While some locations are fine for surface collecting, or simply picking through loose dirt and rock debris by hand, others will require some elbow grease.
Basic tools for collecting minerals include a hammer, chisel, shovel, gloves, and protective glasses. A sifter or pry bar can also come in handy at some locations.
Locations in Washington
Collecting minerals in the Pacific Northwest can seem overwhelming. Where should you begin? In Washington, Seim recommends two locations for those starting out: Walker Valley in Skagit County and Hansen Creek near Snoqualmie Pass.
Hansen Creek is an easy hike on a well-maintained trail. It’s great for those who want to surface collect and find quartz, including amethyst.
Quartz is also found in Walker Valley, along with agates and calcite. Seim says this location may require hammers and chisels. “If you want the really, really good stuff, you’ll have to move rocks,” he says.
When looking for minerals, Seim says to look for signs such as iron staining (orange) on rocks or rock folds that could indicate mineral deposits.
“Often, you’ll leave empty-handed,” Seim says. “But you’ll still get something out of it because you now know where not to go.”
Some lands are off limits. Collecting rocks, minerals, and fossils is generally prohibited in national parks.
Packing and cleaning minerals
After finding a specimen, it’s time to transport it. To protect it, Seim suggests wrapping it in bubble wrap, newspaper, clothing or even clean diapers.
Also, resist the urge to clean all the dirt off the specimen right then and there. A bit of dusting is fine, but you should wait to clean it thoroughly. The dirt acts as a protective buffer that can prevent damage during transport.
When you’re ready to clean it, you can soak it in muriatic acid, a strongly acidic chemical compound. Iron Out is good for removing stains.
Muriatic acid is best used for minerals other than calcite or to remove calcite from a specimen. It can be found at Home Depot.
“I’ve soaked something in the wrong acid before and it just dissolved the crystal,” Seim recalls.
Seim says some minerals may need to be protected from light or they will lose their color or luster. An example is realgar, a red mineral that can be found in King County. Realgar also contains arsenic and is somewhat toxic. Seim says those who handle this specimen should thoroughly wash their hands afterward.
Collectors should also catalogue their specimens. A list will help prevent information from being lost.
Stories from the field
While Seim’s favorite specimen he collected from the field is a football-sized smoky amethyst from Petersen Mountain near Reno, Nevada, he spends much of his time exploring Washington.
Many collectors go to great lengths (and heights) to collect minerals, and Seim and his friends are no exception. On a trip to Mason County, he and his fellow collectors noticed a pocket of natrolite — a mineral that forms in clusters and resembles white, puffy balls — high up in a rock face.
“We could see this big, open hole, and we knew there was something in there,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a rope or ladder, so we improvised. My collecting partner stood on my shoulders.”
Their effort was a success, but not all outings go as planned.
Seim said rock collectors are no strangers to injury. On a trip to Devil’s Canyon in King County, his friend was injured by a flying shard of quartz that was dislodged during the collection process. The shard hit his friend in the eye, resulting in a trip to the hospital.
Moral of the story? Always wear proper safety gear.
Moving forward, Seim said his goal is to one day find his own locality in Washington. “I just want to find a really nice, undiscovered area,” he says.
A selection of specimens, including some collected by Seim, can be seen in the exhibit “What Lies Beneath: Minerals of the Pacific Northwest.” The exhibit runs through Feb. 2, 2020, in Old City Hall.