Tracking gemstones in the Pacific Northwest
If someone mentions Oregon, you are likely to think of the foggy coast or weird, cool Portland, not fiery gemstones created after volcanic fire centuries ago. But it's okay to use Oregon and opals in the same sentence. These gorgeous gems have been found in the Beaver State.
To see a change of color
Opals are magically beautiful, with intense, dramatic color. The word "opal" comes from the Roman word opalus meaning "to see a change of color." In gem-quality opal, one single stone can flash every color of the spectrum, offering an unrivaled intensity and quality of color. Precious opal flashes iridescent colors when viewed from different angles, described as play-of-color. Common opals don't have play-of-color characteristics.
One way opals are formed is from water carrying a mineral called silica that seeps into volcanic lava. Lava has air bubbles that, as they cool, become receptacles for the liquid deposits. This is why Oregon is opal territory. From its position at the edge of the North American crustal plate, Oregon has played host to many volcanoes. If the conditions are right, the seeping silica forms opals within the volcanic air bubbles.
Oregon's Morrow County is the site of a large opal mining operation in an area called Opal Butte. Although these deposits were identified in the 1800s, they were not mined until 1988 when West Coast Gemstones, Inc. began work there. They have located and sold exquisite gems as large as 315 carats.
The Opal Butte opals are found in rhyolite geodes, also called thundereggs. Thundereggs can look like regular rocks on the outside but, broken open, can reveal agates or opals on the inside. Only about 10 percent of the total geodes mined at Opal Butte contain gem-quality opal, and only about 1 percent contain gem-quality opal with play of color. The remaining geodes contain agate, quartz crystals or common opal.
Opal Butte is not the only opal mining area in Oregon. The Last Chance Mine operates near La Pine in the Bend/Fort Rock District of the Deschutes National Forest, and a few others have mining claims in the area.
Miners at Juniper Ridge Opal Mine in southeastern Oregon have found red, orange and golden yellow fire opals there. While for a time Juniper Ridge allowed "fee dig" mining, in which the public could come in and, for a fee, dig for opals, they no longer offer this possibility.
It appears that there are no other fee-dig opal mines in Oregon. Those looking for a fee dig mine near Oregon can try the Royal Peacock Opal Mine in Denio, Nev. It's about 100 miles from Lakeview Oregon and offers fee digging to the public between May 15 and October 15 each year. You can do bank digging for $190 per person per day. Expect to bring your pwn tools (like ice-picks and rock chisels) and work hard. Alternatively, you can "mine the tailings," sifting through loose rock in already mined areas searching for the opal the original miners missed. That costs $75 per day.