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When you live in the evening shadow of the North Cascades, two eventualities will occur: 1. you will find yourself in an ardent debate on the various techniques of snow removal 2. you will become a rockhound.
Here, in the sunny, eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, winters are recollected in thrusts of snow, and springs are remembered by the treasures that snowmelt brings.
It might begin with a rough hunk of quartz picked up on a rainy day playdate. Soon, all manner of chalcedony starts to call out from the hiking paths. Friendly little stones routinely rattle around in the washing machine – mementos of the most recent quick wade in the river between errands.
Porches become littered with interesting landscaping finds. Level out a patch of ground hard enough to make Hercules weep and discover a treasure of sedimentary rocks that glint with little secrets in the sun.
Spring brings a terrifying amount of water down from snow-stuffed mountains. It swells the riverbanks and froths against midstream boulders. Along the way, once unreachable finds are unearthed and freed and a new treasure trove is distributed to riverbanks and creek spits.
Pretty much every stream or river in the North Cascades will offer a delightful find – be it Nephrite jade or red jasper. Waterways are everywhere and everyday rockhounding becomes an intrinsic part of life.
But then a surprise find of amethyst or opal changes the game. Passive rockhounding turns into its own endeavor. Friendly meet-ups and outings include a destination and a trunk of buckets, shovels, sifters, and picks.
Clashing Terranes Carved By Ice
The dramatic 400 million-year geologic history of the North Cascade range has made for a complicated, mineral-rich chain of peaks. Here, exotic terranes – blocks of land of various origins – have been smooshed, folded, broken, buried, and pushed into a range of mountains garnished with lava and ash.
Geologists have divided the North Cascades into three general domains: Northwest Cascades Thrust System, Cascade Crystalline Core, and Methow Basin. Large-scale faults mark where these domains meet and in these faults lie shallow intrusions that contain quartz and pyrite crystals.
The Cascade Crystalline Core Domain rocks are made up of a veritable grab bag of accreted terranes pushed up from the Insular and Intermontane belts. The range of material found is astounding to geologists: oceanic rocks, continent-derived rocks, and those formed in the ancient volcanic arc are visible from the mountain passes.
A cool, tiny sample of the North Cascades is the area between State Route 2 and Interstate 5 / Highway 97 – two of the highways that run east and west over the Cascade Range. Its complex geology has a lot to offer in the way of the nephrite jade, jasper, chalcedony, geodes, garnets, and obsidian locals find on the regular.
On summer days on the shores of little Alpine lakes around Lake Wenatchee – flush set garnets glisten in boulders that lay just out of reach. The crystalline water is never so clear as to when a cluster of gems catch the sun and sparkle with an icy taunt. The memory of their untouchable proximity is haunting.
No worries, they’ll all be inched downstream in time.
Wait until just after winter to head toward Lake Wenatchee from Highway 2. On State Route 207 – the highway below Lake Wenatchee – snowmelt carries the once out-of-reach garnets to roadside washes.
The area sits on a terrane that consists of highly-folated Cretaceous-aged biotite schist that contains an abundance of garnets and erodes easily. Stop at any given obvious runoff spot on the side of the road and kick the dirt around for pea-sized garnets.
Tips for visiting Lake Wenatchee and its surrounding streams and rivers
Pack insect repellent.
Discover Pass is required to park at Lake Wenatchee
Tips for Rockhounding on the surrounding National Forest Land
- Pick up National Forest Service recreation permit https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/r6/passes-permits/recreation
- Only collect specimens if all or part of it is exposed on the surface of the ground.
- National Forest Land doesn’t require special permission or permits to take a handful of rock, mineral, or petrified wood specimens
- Finds can only be used for personal use. Collect specimens for personal use and non-commercial gain.
- Remove only 6 inches of soil immediately around the specimen.
- Digging is not permitted.
- You may collect up to 10 pounds of material.
Geodes and a Chance at Ellensburg Blue Agates
If you want to work for glory, head south to the Teanaway Ridge off of Highway 97. This is the only area in the world where you can find Ellensburg Blue agates – the third rarest gem in the world.
You will know you are in the right area when you see the dark dijon mustard-colored roadside outcroppings of Teanaway Basalt that mark the ridges north and west of the forest. The alluvial fan of ancient Teanaway basalt is spread along Reecer Creek Rd and Upper Green Canyon Rd. It was formed as continental plates moved and stretched. In the process, the movement created cracks and fissures that were filled from below with basalt lava. Small cavities formed in the basalt and they were later filled with the silica-rich fluid that eventually crystallized to become Ellensburg Blue agates.
While much of the area is privately owned and only accessible by permission, there are some rockhounding spots available to the public. Once you spot the Teanaway basalt though, keep an eye out for roadside opportunities. One local rock hounder found the Ellensburg Blue agates in a pile of Teanaway Basalt broken apart by roadwork.
Red Top Lookout off of Highway 97 near Mineral springs is a popular spot to take in beautiful views and rockhound. You can drive right to the summit and head up the trail. The dig site will be obvious, copious holes and pilings mark the spot.
While a find of Ellensburg Blue at such a well-loved site may be slim, the pilings contain consolation prizes of Carnelian, Jasper, Geodes, and Teanaway Gray Banded agates. Teanaway Gray Banded agates can look like Ellensburg Blue agates. Ellensburg Blue agates will have a definite sky-blue hue when held up to the sun. The more common (but still pretty) pale, blueish agates that most people find cast a pink color when held up to the sun.
An easy option for rockhounding in the area is to call Rock N Tomahawk Ranch and make an appointment to meander the property for a small fee of about $5.00. Located at 2590 Upper Green Canyon Rd, it is an easily accessible, stress-free way to rockhound in what can be a challenging and inaccessible part of the state.
One of the most beautiful public sites where limited rockhounding is permitted is the Teanaway Community Forest. This novel partnership between a local advisory committee and the Washington Department of Natural Resources covers nearly 500-acres of waterways and land conserved for its beauty and importance to the environmental health of the state. There are free seasonal campgrounds that offer a great base camp for wildlife-filled day hikes.
Rocks in the Teanaway are from the Eocene epoch and are carry-overs from before the Cascade Range existed. The geologic history of the area is wondrous. Plenty of stunning rock formations are prepared to drop a jaw or two. Impressive constructions of Roslyn Formation sandstone stand in memory of 40 million-year-old swamps and rivers.
Rock N Tomahawk Ranch
- From Seattle: Take I-90 East for 104 miles. Take exit 106 toward HYW 97 North.
- From exit 106, go about .80 mile. Stay straight on the roundabout.
- From the roundabout go another .60 of a mile and take a left on Reecer Creek Rd.
- Remain on Reecer Creek Rd for 9.15 miles. Reecer Creek makes a sharp right.
- From the sharp right on Reecer Creek Rd travel 2 miles to meet Upper Green Canyon Rd on the left.
- This will take you to the Rock N Tomahawk Ranch.
Teanaway Community Forest
- 29 Pines Campground 20831 North Fork Teanaway Road, Cle Elum, WA 98922.
- Located along the north fork of the Teanaway River, the camp offers 59 campsites with fire rings and toilets.
- Directions: 22 miles north of Cle Elum at the end of the N. Fork Teanaway Road just past the fish hatchery on your left at the 29 Pines summer campground location.
- Teanaway Camping Area 1160 West Fork Teanaway Road, Cle Elum, WA 98922.
- Located along the west fork of the Teanaway River, the camp offers 55 campsites with fire rings and two ADA-accessible toilets.
- Start at I-90 exit 85 (Cle Elum). Go east on SR-970 for 6.9 miles. Turn left on Teanaway Road. Turn left on West Fork Teanaway Road and turn left into Teanaway Campground. Access is provided on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations).
- Indian Camp 4394 Middle Fork Teanaway Road, Cle Elum, WA 98922.
- Located along the middle fork of the Teanaway River, the camp offers eleven campsites with fire rings, two group campsites with fire rings, and a toilet.
- Start at I-90 exit 85 (Cle Elum). Go east on SR-970. Turn left on Teanaway Road. Turn left on West Fork Teanaway Road. Turn right on Middle Fork Teanaway Road. Turn left into Indian Camp campground. Get directions using the following address:
- Tips on visiting the Teanaway Community Forest:
- Visitors are required to have a Discover Pass
- Rock hounds must get permission for the DNR to rockhound on DNR-managed land. Write or call DNR’s SOUTHEAST REGION email@example.com 509-925-8510, Fax: 509-925-8522 713 Bowers Road, Ellensburg, WA 98926-9301
Red Top Lookout
- Head east on I-90, take exit 85. At the stop sign, turn left to continue over the overpass. In less than a half-mile, turn right onto 970 East towards Wenatchee. Continue as 970 East turns into 97 North.
- Just past Mineral Creek Campground, turn left onto Forest Service Road 9738 continue on FSR 9738. Turn left onto FSR 9702. Follow the sign for Red Top Mountain.
- Continue following FSR 9702 for about nearly close to five miles to reach the parking area.
- Tips on visiting Red Top Lookout
- Bring layers of clothing – the winds pick up as the sun goes down
- Pack lots of water
- The daily limit for agates or geodes is no more than a gallon of material per person
Hansen Creek – Mineral Rich and Near Seattle.
While it is not recommended, those that have night-hiked the steep Hansen Creek trail have looked up and seen three-story rock faces glittering with quartz crystals. They also heard large cats chatting it up around them. Hansen Creek is hard to beat in both accessibility and heart-pounding joy.
It's pretty intense hiking and there are very few areas to set up camp. Diehards have been known to hike up the trail with a few cans of soup and a sleeping bag. One rockhound Kortney recommends, “Just cuddle up on the little flat spot next to your little fire and wake up at dawn to hike up and dig more… [We] Found some of the coolest quartz, amethyst, and pyrite I've ever seen up at Hansen... I had a buddy dig out an ounce gold nugget from Hansen as well.”
Most people say that the first couple of visits can be overwhelming – every find elicits an exclamation. Some of the finest quartz and sulfide mineral specimens in the world come from this concentrated 20-acre spill under Humpback Mountain.
Formed in the faults and cracks of intrusive breccia – cylindrical structures formed by violent burps of volatiles near the earth’s surface – the area has produced some of the finest quartz and sulfide mineral specimens in the world. Hansen Creek is located in a mineral-rich area. There are many active, privately held claims here and they are routinely patrolled by their owners.
Despite its popularity with rockhounds and wildlife alike, Hansen Creek is still one – some say the best – place to find amethyst scepter crystals in the state. Most amethyst is light in color.
While finds are abundant, they need to be cleaned. Many rocks arrive home with a bag of dirty rocks only to discover them to be light-colored amethyst. A tip from Kortney is to set up a base camp where you can clean and inspect your finds before returning to the trail to uncover even more little bursts of glee.
Getting to Hansen Creek:
- To get to the Rockhounding area from Seattle, take I-90 East and take exit 47.
- Take the first right and the following right-hand turn.
- Take the first left
- Follow the road as it curves sharply to the left.
- You will come to another curve and arrive at the parking area and the beginning of the trail.
Tips for Visiting Hansen Creek
- Keep dust and ticks out: Tuck in all of your clothes.
- There are large, wild animals everywhere.
- Do not go alone
- Dig sites often collapse. Don’t go further than a body length into a hole. Backfill your holes and do not dig around tree roots. Some ideal hounding areas are privately claimed. The claim owners do not allow collecting.
General tips for visiting Washington State Wilderness
- Be over-prepared with water, extra clothing, and an emergency kit, including a mirror.
- Make sure you’re prepared for random acts of weather, fire hazards, and emergencies.
- Don't leave the trail. Stay on established trails and only use established campsites.
- Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring it into the forest, be sure you’re bringing it out too. Leave no trace.
- Don't take opportunity from the forest. Don’t build structures, disturb or shade the flora and fauna.
- Be careful with campfires. Check fire restrictions in the area – there are often bans on open flame.
- Do not scavenge for firewood or bring firewood from outside the area you are visiting. There are many roadside kiosks where you can buy firewood.
- Be safe around wildlife. Observe wildlife from a squintable distance. Never try to touch or feed a wild animal.
- Respect others on the trail. Keep dogs on a leash or under strict voice command. Learn how to yield to other trail users.
- Make sure to pick up the appropriate parking passes.
- A Discover Pass is required for vehicle access to state parks and recreation lands managed by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). https://www.discoverpass.wa.gov
- Pick up a Northwest Forest Pass to visit State Forest land https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r6/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=fsbdev2_027010