“Not all who wander are lost. Some are just looking for cool rocks.”
Rockhounding is having a moment. According to Google Trends, it is more popular now than ever before. Don’t own a pick hammer?
This might take some explaining.
Rockhounding is the act of finding and collecting rocks, minerals, and fossils. But why? Who are these people sifting through stones and chipping away at mountainsides? What’s the point?
You might be surprised.
Rockhounders are as diverse as the many specimens they collect. Some are outdoorsy types who incorporate hunting for tiny treasures into their hiking, climbing and spelunking. Others seek magic-crystal energy, drawing placebo power from gems. On the opposite end of the spectrum are amateur geologists digging into the science behind regional rock formations that date back eons. You’ll also find retailers and serious collectors seeking fortune with pickaxes and rock drills, in search of large deposits that can fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Growing up in the area, my childhood was full of finding fossils on the shores of local creeks and collecting smooth quartz and beach glass by the Ashokan Reservoir. Now that I have a nine-year-old daughter, I get to pass along these geological pastimes, rediscovering the adventure of the hunt and joy of the find. Rockhounding is one of the few hobbies that can bring young and old alike together in the glorious natural surroundings of the Hudson Valley.
While New York has a fascinating geological history, it is not known as a top rockhounding state. Nonetheless, many treasures are to be found. Garnet, the official gem of our state, is found mainly in the Adirondacks but also as far south as New York City. Its hardness makes it a great industrial polishing material, while collectors prize the rare gem-quality garnet for its rich, dark, ruby-red hue.
You may have heard of Herkimer diamonds, which are actually super-clear quartz. A whole tourist scene has popped up around the Herkimer region, where you can pay to search through the tailings of local mines for a chance at finding some truly spectacular quartz points that are as clear as glass.
Knowing how to look
But what about Ulster County? How does one go about finding anything around here?
First, you don’t just have to know where to look. You have to know how to look.
Google is a great place to start learning, and there are some great region-specific books like Rockhounding New York: A Guide to the State’s Best Rockhouding Sites. But you might already see the problem with hunting treasure in locations widely known as rockhounding hotspots. The secret has been out for a while, and these locations are more than likely to have been picked over.
This was our experience in Ellenville, where a well-known abandoned quartz and pyrite mine is hidden just a couple of minutes into the woods south of Berme Road Park. Use the parking lot closest to the woods, and you will see a path next to a small pavilion. Follow that path a short distance until it splits, and make a right. In moments you will be facing a massive sheer rock face smack in the middle of the forest.
We saw glittering pyrite clusters embedded in the rock, and collected small shards of milky-to-clear quartz scattered on the ground all over. A pick hammer was little match for the super-hard surfaces, but we did find some recently discovered quartz veins that looked promising for a person with more heavy-duty equipment.
Suddenly, we were startled by a deer tumbling down the sheer rock face from some unseen origin point. It flailed as it tried to climb back up the cliff, sliding back down before hobbling off into the woods.
You need good gear
Our harrowing encounter with nature was just another aspect of proof that the excitement of rockhounding is more often about the journey and experience. Sometimes you get to take home a prize. Tiny shards of quartz and broken rocks with miniscule pyrite clusters may not be noteworthy to serious rockhounders, but to the amateur they still feel like precious souvenirs of a fun adventure in nature. Whether we go home empty-handed or not, we always leave with a story to tell.
Even casual rockhounders need some gear. A pick hammer and chisel or pry bar are necessary to get at anything embedded in rock. The area is notorious for having very hard, difficult rock to penetrate.
It goes without saying you need something to carry your specimens in. You’ll need to experiment to find something that isn’t too cumbersome and can be easily cleaned. You also don’t want a bunch of cool rocks and crystals banging against each other, turning into dust.
And speaking of dust, get protective glasses. Seriously. You will have concrete for eyes if you don’t. A good pair of gloves is also highly recommended, as is a magnifying loupe for ogling your collected beauties.
You don’t have to hack away at granite to rockhound. We have found some amazing marine fossils lying along the Esopus Creek and at the Comeau property in Woodstock. Look near banks and bends in creeks long enough and you will start to see sedimentary rock featuring these prehistoric impressions.
Be warned: If you are operating in the water in Ulster County, you’ll want a fishing permit. One day, as we returned from plucking a few rosy quartz pebbles and a handful of driftwood along the Ashokan Reservoir, we were stopped by an officer from the Department of Environmental Protection. Unaware the area had been posted as requiring a permit to enter, we were briefly detained before being told to get a fishing permit and pretend to be fishing next time. The permit is cheap, a used fishing pole costs $20, and a tackle box makes a great vessel for collecting specimens, with no one the wiser.
While few would mind a person taking a pocketful of worthless quartz from a state park, it’s easy to see how this could escalate to larger-scale excavations of questionable legality. The prospector rerturning from a site with a wheelbarrow of material is likely, if caught, to be subject to returning the material at least, and criminal liability at worst.
Secrets of respectful collecting
Staying off private land is a must. Our state government has comparably strict laws against collecting and keeping pieces of nature, particularly if such activity disturbs or alters the landscape in any way. Tact is key.
Clearly the rockhounders who ravaged what I like to call “the secret Kingston diamond spot” didn’t get the memo on leaving nature as is.
About three years ago, a friend took me to a spot in Kingston along the Hudson, directly adjacent to a city park. There, having been tipped off by another rockhounding friend. she had been prospecting for super-clear, Herkimer-like quartz. Accessible only during low tide (unless you use a rope to climb down, which we did) were small, glittering, ice-clear quartz shards everywhere. The riverbank, which climbed steeply, had a few large gouges where excavation of larger chunks of quartz was clearly taking place. Though the quartz clusters and shards were small, they were of exceptional clarity and beauty.
Having returned to this spot a few times this year, we found it had been picked clean. It looked as though the steep riverbank was about to cave in on itself. Someone had come through here with pickaxes and/or rock drills and taken a massive chunk out of the landscape.
Rockhounding secrets don’t stay secrets for long. Today, you’re lucky to find more than a handful of tiny quartz pieces … but I’m still not telling you where it is. Rockhounding requires a balance of insider knowledge and a good sense of judgment when it comes to respectful collecting.
If the prospect of prospecting in Ulster County piques your interest, the Mid-Hudson Valley Gem & Mineral Society is the hub for amateur and serious rockhounders alike. To find the best spots, you need to be networked with experts in the field. Group trips and meetings are your best bet, as you won’t get too far visiting well-known locations. Serious hobbyists and professionals often team up to share the latest and best spots to look (while keeping a few secrets to themselves).
Our collection and our list of hunting grounds is small but growing. We’re looking forward to networking with other rock buffs and finding new spots. As fun as it is, collecting is not the most rewarding part of rockhounding. As with many things in life, the adventure is even more precious than the treasures we temporarily acquire on our passage through time. We unearth rocks to unearth ourselves.