Collecting Tube Agate at Clapp Spring

Palo Verde Mountains, CA

by Delmer G. Ross

Clapp Spring is a permanent source of water set in a small oasis of fan palms and mesquite located in some low hills on the northeast flank of the Palo Verde Mountains. It lies approximately nine miles from the community of Palo Verde, California, and perhaps 10 miles west of the Colorado River, the eastern edge of the Colorado Desert. Overlooked on the south by some caves once used by Indians and set at the center of a web of converging animal trails, it is a captivating place.

Clapp Spring oasis

The Clapp Spring oasis as it appeared in March 2001. The main pool is just beyond the thicket of young fan palms. Photo courtesy Joy Smith.

Reflecting the amount of rainfall during the preceding several years, the main pool at the spring varies from a few inches to five feet in diameter and from three to nine inches deep. It is located in the heart of the oasis, at the base of a palm. Except during and a few years after a serious drought, there may be several additional seeps and smaller pools of water in shallow holes dug by wild burros.

If rain in the surrounding desert has been average or above average during the last several years, it is not uncommon for the main pool to overflow during the cool of the night. It thus creates a narrow rivulet of water that may extend one hundred yards or more downstream before disappearing into the sand, leaving a telltale pattern of white alkali during the heat of the day. The water then continues to flow under the dry surface.

Clapp Spring has not always been surrounded by California fan palms. The first one did not materialize until sometime after 1933, exactly when appears to be unknown. No doubt a bird, coyote, or perhaps some other animal stopped at the spring for a drink of water and deposited a seed that, assisted by the moist soil, germinated, grew, and eventually reproduced.

As might be expected, considering the game trails converging on the spring, one usually can find animal tracks in the moist sand around the pools of water. Coyote, mule deer and wild burro tracks are common, as are those of dove and quail. Mixed among them one can sometimes spot mountain lion tracks as well. Generally speaking, except for the gentle rustling of palm fronds in the breeze, all is quiet at the spring during daylight hours. Sometimes, though, wild animals can be seen approaching in the dusk between sundown and night. Wild horses used to water at Clapp Spring, too, but the last verified sighting of one was in the 1980s.

Tube Agate

A beautiful 8-inch plate of tube agate collected by Leo and Joy Smith.

It was wild horses that attracted two Blythe teenagers, Walter Scott and Everett McBride, to the spring in 1933. An elderly gentleman named McFee, who ran cattle in the area, had told young Walter about the spring and a herd of wild horses that watered there. The youngsters wanted to see for themselves, so they rode in on horseback. It was a very warm day, but when they reached for their canteens they discovered they had left them behind. To make matters worse, they had a hard time locating the spring. Thus, when they finally arrived, the first thing they did was to slide off their horses, kneel at the near edge of the pool, push the floating horse and burro manure out of the way, and take a long drink of the tepid water. When they paused to take a breath, they discovered they were not alone. Two large diamondback rattlesnakes, coiled and ready to strike, were watching them from only a yard or so away at the opposite edge of the water hole. After shooting the snakes, the boys drank some more water. It was only after they had refreshed themselves thoroughly that they started looking for the horse herd. They found plenty of horse tracks, but no horses.

It was not until they were on their way back and had to heed the call of nature that Walter was reminded of what McFee had told him about how Clapp Spring had acquired its name. The old cattleman had told him that if anyone drank too much of the water, his urine would burn and foam just as if he had gonorrhea. The result was uncomfortable for both boys, at least for a time.

Leo Smith at the tube agate dig

Leo Smith at the tube agate dig in early 2001. Courtesy Joy Smith.

Scott returned several times, hoping to catch the horses that obviously watered at the spring. He eventually got to see them. It happened at night, after he had gone to sleep on a little flat a few yards from the main pool of water. He woke up hearing and even feeling thunder. His first thought was that it was all very strange, almost dreamlike, because it was the wrong time of the year for rain. Then he realized that what he was hearing was the herd of wild horses approaching. Soon there were fifteen or more of them at the pool and lined up along the little stream that trickled out of it. They drank for quite some time, then, suddenly, in unison, they raised their heads as if they had heard something that alarmed them, and raced away as quickly as they had arrived. He prepared a trap for them, but they seemed to sense danger and were smart enough to avoid it. A few years afterward, though, someone else who had the same idea managed to catch several of them.

A decade or so later, when he was running livestock on the desert, Scott decided to try again. He built a corral of ironwood posts and barbed wire at the spring. With it he was able to catch many of the wild horses and burros that came for water there. The old rusty wire and rickety posts that can still be seen alongside, and in a little thicket of mesquites just east of the spring is all that remains of Scott’s corral today.

Opalite dig north of Clapp Srping

The opalite dig north of Clapp Spring. The road on the left is no longer open to motorized travel. Courtesy Joy Smith.

While thundereggs, chalcedony roses, various kinds of jasper and agate, and quartz crystals can be found throughout the area, the main attraction for rockhounds at Clapp Spring is likely to be tube agate. Small pieces, often mistaken for limb casts, may be found scattered about the surrounding area. The way to reach the best tube agate, though, is to follow the old road leading in a westerly direction from the spring. It will go around the north end of a hill, then begin to climb steeply as it turns southward. At a point about midway between the bottom of the curve and the top of the hill, or maybe just a little higher, one can look westward and see two or three little ridges. There will be some old diggings visible on the second ridge west of the old road. On the far side of that ridge – that is, on the side you cannot see from the road – are some holes from which several museum-quality specimens of tube agate were dug in 1998 and 1999. They are often found in plates up to eight inches across, with an assortment of tubes hanging on. In color the tubes range from a light tan to a fairly dark gray. Some look very much like miniature stalactites and stalagmites.

The tubes measure up to about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. Most are from one to three inches long, but a few have reached an amazing five inches or more. Most are arrow straight, but some are curved. As one might imagine, such tubes are quite fragile, so successfully unearthing large, high quality specimens can be quite time consuming.

The first hole, at 33°24.513' N by 114°51.614' W, offers black agate as well as tube agate. The farther one, at 33°24.574' N and 114°51.623' W, offers tube agate and geodes.

Although a well traveled road from Palo Verde, leading from northeast to southwest, used to pass as little as fifteen or twenty feet from the main pool of water at the spring, it is not possible to visit the site by automobile today. In 1994 Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act closing millions of acres of public land to all forms of mechanized travel.

Fortunately for those who have two good legs, though, Clapp Spring is located slightly less than a mile south of the north border of the wilderness area. From the wilderness boundary, it takes no more than half an hour of fairly easy hiking to reach the oasis. If time and stamina allow, a visit to Clapp Spring is well worth the effort. If you follow the trace of the old road only a short distance beyond the oasis, and if you are fortunate, you may unearth some spectacular tube agate.

To reach Clapp Spring, from Blythe, California, drive 15 miles west on Interstate Highway 10 to the Wiley’s Well Exit, then south another 11.8 miles to the beginning of a curve where the Opal Hill Mine Road forks off to the east at 33°26.998' N and 114°53.616' W. Turn eastward onto it and drive, past the entrance to the Opal Hill Mine at 33°27.193' N and 114°51.899' W, an additional 4.1 miles to the old Palo Verde-Niland wagon road at 33°26.567' N and 114°50.068' W—a total of 15.9 miles from Interstate 10. If you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle, continue by turning right onto the old Palo Verde-Niland Road. In a half mile, at 33°26.524' N and 114°50.508' W, you should reach a cairn marking a road going off to the right. About 1.2 miles after your turn onto the old road to Niland, at 33°26.015' N by 114°50.886' W, the road forks. The right fork, which usually appears to be almost unused, is the continuation of the old Palo Verde-Niland Road. Take the left fork, which is the most used. In 0.3 mile, at 33°25.736' N and 114°50.949' W, cross a broad wash. Continue another 0.6 mile to the sign marking the boundary of the wilderness area at 33°25.333' N by 114°51.242' W. If the sign is no longer there, you should be able to see the signposts. Park there, approximately 18 miles from the interstate highway, and using the continuation of the road as a trail, hike another nine-tenths of a mile to the spring at 33°24.648' N and 114°51.389' W.

As you hike southward, about one-quarter mile from the wilderness boundary, you may notice tracks going off to the left to some excavations located on the top of a knoll at approximately 33°25.022' N and 114°51.247' W, where people have dug for common opal, or opalite. Because most of it is decomposing and very fractured, it is mainly of low, yard-rock quality. Some of it, though, has proved to be quite nice, with pink and greenish tones mixed with cream, and makes very pretty cabs.

When you visit the area, be sure to take enough drinking water because the water at Clapp Spring is not fit for human consumption. If you plan to try for some of that tube agate, in addition to digging tools take a good pair of work gloves. You should be aware that while the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 specifically allows rockhounding within the wilderness areas it created, some BLM rangers do not see it that way. It might be wise to check with the BLM or a local ranger to determine how the law is being interpreted and enforced at the present. That can vary.

Services and supplies are available in Blythe, about 35 miles northeast. Limited supplies may also be obtained in Palo Verde, about nine miles east on the old Palo Verde-Niland Road.

Books by by Delmer G. Ross

The Gold Road to La Paz - The Bradshaw Trail - Lots of side trips to rockhounding areas.

More Articles on the Area

Black Agate Hills and Thundereggs
Opal Hill Mine
Hauser Geode Beds
Rocks, Gems and Minerals
Rock and Treasure Hunting In The Desert



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