The Opal Hill Mine, located about 15 miles west of the Arizona border and just south of the 10 freeway, is quite the hidden gem. Owned and operated by Howard and Nancy Hill is one of the only places that the public can dig for the rare and beautiful gemstones called “Fire Agate.”
About a 4 hour drive from our home in Santa Monica, the mine was easy to find, but a bit tough to get to. After exiting the freeway onto the dirt road leading out into the rolling hills of the desert, we soon began to question our navigation skills as everything around us looked the same. “Were we lost?” After passing by the entrance to the palm tree lined, state prison, the road became bumpier and with all of the forks and trails…we eagerly anticipated seeing the sign for the mine. After about 20 minutes of dirt road we finally saw the small, yet distinctive sign for the Opal Hill Mine. Off to the left we went. Excited to get to the mine and set up our camp, we did not mind the rough road we had turned onto. After about 10 minutes we realized how rough the road really was. Rocks, bumps, hills, dips, all sand and loose rock. It was a good thing we had 4 wheel drive…otherwise we may have had to do all of our digging right there in the road. The last ¼ mile reminded me of the story of The Little Engine That Could. I think I heard the car whispering, “I think I can, I think I can.”
We passed a few more small signs for the mine, letting us know that we were in fact going the right way and then, after scaling another steep hill, we were at the entrance to the mining area. The sign, out house and old trailer were all of the indicators that we needed. We proceeded up the winding driveway to the parking area and turned off the engine.
We got out of the car, stretched out legs and walked over to where we saw two people huddled over a small hole in the ground near the entrance to the digging area. As we approached, I asked if they were Nancy and Howard, then we introduced ourselves.
We spent the next 20 minutes or so watching and admiring the new find that Nancy and Howard had uncovered. After Nancy and Howard showed us the crystal formations they were uncovering and how they were extracting them, they indicated to us that we could set up our campsite about 30 yards away on a flat landing on the hillside.
The view from our camping location was great. We had a nice view of the mining area, the surrounding hillsides and the desert floor all the way to the town of Blythe (9 miles away.) After getting our site set up, we walked back down to where Nancy and Howard were digging. They continued to show us what to look for, how to dig and most of all…how to find the Fire Agate that we came to find.
As the sun was setting over the hills, we were both shown to a few spots in the mine that were speckled with the fiery gem. The Hills equipped us with hammers, chisels, buckets and brushes and sat by our sides, offering helpful guidance, while we got a start to the digging process. After spending an hour or so chipping rock away from our finds and getting to know these incredibly friendly mine owners, we headed back up the hillside to our site and the warmth of the fire that we had started.
Our first night camping at the mine was great for the most part. The weather was nice, a bit windy, but comfortable. The one downside was the terrain. If you plan on tent camping at the Opal Hill Mine…Bring a cot, an air mattress or egg crate…the ground is hard and is all sharp rocks. I have to say that I tossed and turned most of the night and waking up with Swiss Cheese-like holes in my legs, hips and ribs did not make for a good morning. Camping at the mine is free, which is nice for those of us that are early birds. You can wake up, have a cup of coffee and start digging. There is also a port-a-potty on site that remains remarkably clean.
We dug for Fire agates and Quartz crystal formations from about 8AM until after sunset that day and I can tell you that if I thought that the sleeping situation made me sore, I was dreading how I was going to feel the next morning. The digging was hard work. Hunching over and swinging the 3 to 4 pound sledge all day in the hot desert sun was exhausting. See Mariah’s in-depth article about the gems and digging.
That night we laid out all of our finds to examine what we had found and spent the next hour or so sifting through our pile for the handful of jewelry quality pieces that we had collected. According to Nancy Hill and several other mine patrons, we had, indeed, found some very nice specimens. Additionally, Petrified Wood , Apatite, Barite, Calcite, Clinoptilolite, Flourite, and Gypsum are also found at Opal Hill Mine.
The next morning, we decided to pack it up and head out. After getting our site packed up, we went back down to the digging area for one last look around and picked up a few little pieces from the tailings area. We said good bye to the others who had started the digging for the day and proceeded to navigate the windy road out of the mine.
Digging at the Opal hill mine costs $25 per day for anyone 16 and older. Children can dig for free with a paying adult. There is NO water, ice, food or drinks available onsite and all trash must be packed out with you when you leave. Bring plenty of food and lots of water. As far as supplies go, you will at least need to bring a 3 pound sledge hammer, a large rock chisel, a smaller chisel, a brush, a water spray bottle and a 5 gallon bucket. There are supplies there that you can borrow, but depending on how many other people are there, you might want to have your own.
There is no limit on how much you can take from the mine for your $25 per day. All in all we had a great time. We loved Nancy and Howard and the rest of the folks digging were a fun and interesting bunch to dig with. If you ever have the opportunity to get out there, make sure to give Nancy a call (760) 854-3000 and stop by the mine for your chance to uncover your own fiery gemstones. It is well worth the trip.
Directions to the mine:
From Interstate 10, take Wiley Well Exit and head south on the graded dirt road for 17 miles. You will see a sign for Opal Hill Mine on the left side of the road. Go left here and travel east for a few miles on a rough dirt road. A high clearance vehicle is needed to navigate on the last dirt road to the mine.