Rockhounding in New Mexico
Text by Larry Lightner
I had been hearing about Rockhound State Park, about nine miles southeast of Deming, New Mexico, for nearly nine years, but I never seemed to get the opportunity to go down and see it in person.
My wife, Jeri, and I both love to look for unusual rocks and stones. We have specimens all over the place at our home, inside and out.
On a warm, sunny day a short while ago, we decided to take a trip down to the park, which is situated on the western flank of the Little Florida Mountains, and explore the area and its surroundings.
As soon as we arrived, we checked out the park exhibit room to see just what the heck we were supposed to be looking for. The raw product always looks very different from the finished one, and it helps to see the rocks on display.
We inspected a plaque outside which had specimens of semi-precious gem stones. That really got us going. We discovered this area has opals, jasper, geodes and a glittery black gemstone.
We don’t have any real rock gathering equipment, so I make do with what I have. A twenty-ounce claw hammer will crack rocks and suffices as a pick. We also carried a plastic jug for rocks. I cut a four-inch hole on top, opposite the handle, to make it into a container for specimens. We wore fanny packs, and I carried a camera and binoculars, the former to take photos of my attractive wife, and the latter to view the surrounding tall peaks in hopes of seeing an Ibex, that illusive goat that has been transplanted to the park region.
Off we trudged, taking the first small trail to our right. It led us up and over a saddle, out of sight of the park proper. We slowly explored around a myriad of prickly pear cactus searching for something unusual. We immediately found the glittery black gemstones. Onward and upward we traveled, our destination an outcropping of dark boulders. It was here that we discovered large amounts of jasper, most of which appeared to be orange and orange-brown. We also gathered some pink jasper and some of a gold coloration.
There were copious amounts of the black gemstone, which I was especially drawn to, much to Jeri’s puzzlement since she did not find them to be particularly appealing.
We soon found out that our hammer was inadequate for the task at hand. When we tried to break particularly large rocks, the head would bounce off, sending splinters of steel and rock flying dangerously, like missiles, in every direction. We quickly discovered that the steel hammer head was taking quite a beating. It was tempered for hitting steel nail heads, not striking rocks. Evidently, the rocks are harder than steel. My glasses fell victim to the rock fragments and became chipped. We decided to turn our heads and swing blindly so as not to incur any more personal damage or expose our eyes to flying chips of stone and steel.
We really did not know what in the heck we were doing, but the object was to have fun, and we had lots of that. So we mostly settled on collecting the odd or the pretty.
Within ninety minutes or so we had a handful of rock specimens, so we opted to go back down and have a picnic. Instead of utilizing one of the many clean picnic tables, we decided to sit on the tailgate where we could eat, look about and chat casually. We dined on Jeri’s homemade potato salad, raw vegetables and thick corned beef sandwiches while we planned our next trek.
About five hundred feet above us on a steep slope, we spied two outcroppings of whitish-brown veins that were quite conspicuous since nothing else was that color. They drew me like a magnet.
We had to do some scrambling to reach the veins. It was steep and loose to boot, but accessible as long as we used caution. There were many places where others before us had dug at the bases of boulders and outcroppings. It was in one of these places that we took some greenish-tan specimens using the claws of the hammer as a pick. I had no idea what this stuff was, but it was unique to the countryside, so we collected it.
We climbed higher, my wife in the lead. She seemed to really be having fun crawling up and down the slopes, using the hammer claws to secure hand holds and for breaking up the small stones that caught her eye.
At one place we found a small cropping of geodes. We did not find any with crystalline hollows to keep, but we did find a bunch of small, marble-like nodules. Some were striped, but most were all solid slate gray. They seemed unusual to us, so we gathered a few of the prettier ones and put them in our jug.
Next, we moved into a steep draw which had a vein of tan limestone. Right in the middle of it, on a wall about twelve feet up, was an unusual vein of bright pink limestone, at least that is what my tongue told me it was after I tasted it. Jeri insisted on getting some, so she literally crawled and pulled herself up the nearly vertical slope. I followed after her, figuring that I would do the husbandly thing and break her fall if she slipped and needed a soft place to land. But she got up there, as did I, without mishap. She proceeded to use the hammer claws to break away small chunks of her “treasure.” It was a good spot to sit and admire the great view of the park grounds far below us.
Near this spot I found some more black rocks that were grainy in structure and did not have the glitter of my others. They reminded me of anthracite coal. I gathered a couple small pieces.
In our explorations, we did not find any opals. I guess that is because we would not have known a raw opal if it had broken loose and hit us on the head. It was our only minor disappointment since this gem is Jeri’s favorite.
On the way down, I stepped on a loose rock about the size of my fist. It let loose, causing me to take a nosedive down hill. Nothing got hurt except my dignity. I imagined that all the visitors in the park were at that very instant looking upward, viewing my fall.
We left the park with a few specimens and souvenirs, which is the limit that one is allowed to take, and drove east. I had heard that there was a little known road over the saddle which would take us out to the roads east of the mountains. The bladed road soon turned into an ungraded two track which then in turn, turned into a wash with a few vehicle tracks in it. Then it turned into a bare whisper of a trail, then finally back into a rocky wash. I quit here as a tall cut bank lay before my front wheels. No one had been this way in a long time, and we were four or five miles from the graded road. Not a good place to get stuck. I reluctantly turned back, to the relief of my spouse. (She does not like four wheeling!!)
All in all, it was a good trip and a great adventure. We plan to do it again. Who knows, maybe we will even be able to find an opal or two.
Before you go … visit the Rockhound State Park website. The park allows rockhounding. They limit the amount of rocks and specimens to a handful per individual. It is not noted on their website, but if you check in at the Visitor’s Center or call, you can get more details about rockhounding in the park.