Was playing around with some settings on the new Sony A7R mk2 camera, and experimenting with the wonderful ice we’ve accumulated due to the great February snowstorm. I so far am really enjoying this camera!
I often get asked “How do you find crystals you have posted?”. Which techniques to use is a very subjective question, but certainly there are standard ways of prospecting for pegmatite crystals here in Colorado. I will try to cover some of the techniques I use in this article.
UPDATE: I have posted another article showing examples of these techniques here.
UPDATE: I have posted another article explaining how to create your own prospecting map here.
UPDATE: I have added videos of me picking crystals at the bottom of this article.
It has taken me years of prospecting, tons of reading, and networking with other prospectors and rock clubs to figure out what I’ve learned to find crystals so far, so I’m hoping that if you are new to this hobby this article can help expedite the learning curve and take away some frustration…i.e. not coming home empty handed as often! Note that I sometimes STILL come home with nothing to show (and I keep even the littlest crystals)…I think of it like fishing, sometimes the fish simply aren’t biting. My other hope is that folks having successful techniques can share their wisdom so I and others can continue to learn (the comments on this article is a great place, hint hint !!!).
Note I am self-taught and have no formal geology schooling or experience, so my descriptions in this article may be scientifically inaccurate; the goal of this article is not to explain the science as much as for tips to helping you learn to find crystals! Of course the science is helpful and very interesting, if you have anything to share or correct (or have further questions), please leave comments, I would love to hear your techniques, opinions and knowledge on the subject!
How to Find Crystals
There are three standard ways I prospect when searching for crystals; I may use only one way on any given day, or may use all three:
- Searching the tailing piles of other digs
- Finding float and following it
- Digging in the source pegmatite
Prospecting Tailing Piles
When I’m prospecting I always check out old and new digs. There are several reasons for this–to learn what the other prospector was into when (presumably) they find crystals themselves, to perhaps continue where the previous prospector didn’t go, and to search through their tailings to ensure the weather didn’t reveal something that was missed or discarded!
If the prospector was into a pocket or seam of crystals, they may have had mud or iron coatings on the crystals so the prospector tossed aside because they couldn’t see the sides or simply missed it…it happens, I’ve gone back to my digs before and found incredible crystals that I somehow missed! After a good rain or season of snow Mother Nature may help to reveal crystals that were left behind! This is the easiest form of prospecting. I also find that some prospectors are not interested in “boring” or imperfect crystals; another person’s trash may be my treasure! I have found many great crystals by searching the tailings of previous digs!
- to find crystals it helps moving around the pile to get a reflection of sunlight from a flat shiny surface of a crystal…you should train your eyes to focus on any flat sided rock
- getting down closer to the ground for a different perspective; I find many crystals this way that I missed standing up
- look for color, some crystals are coated with iron-based minerals and may look rusty
- poking around the sides of the hole to see if the prior prospector left part of the pocket
- looking for float from the pocket (talked about further below)
- dig through the tailings to see if other crystals are slightly buried
Finally there is a lot to learn from studying what others were into. This is how I’ve done much of my learning. What did the rocks they were pulling out look like (note to self, keep an eye out for these signs in my holes)? Are there other digs along the hillside along the same “zone” that I should also check out? What did the other person see that kept them digging? The bigger the prospector’s hole the more likely they found something good (otherwise that is a lot of effort for nothing), so explore those big holes/trenches for sure!
First of all, what is float? It took me a while to get my head around this concept. My definition of float is simply any rocks or crystals that have weathered out of their original location — in other words Mother Nature has moved them via some process over time.
What could have moved the crystals? Glaciers, wind, rain, etc. Glacial movement is pretty easy to spot on the crystals, because they are broken, cleaved and/or have rounded corners like they’ve been in a rock tumbler. These crystals have been potentially moved long distances and there may be no correlation in where the crystals are located to where they originated from–in other words they may be randomly displaced and you may not find other related crystals around them. However I have found several times that pockets were moved (relatively) together by glaciers and there are concentrations of crystals that are completely worn in a somewhat small of an area.
Wind and water (and ancient glaciers too) are common forces that move crystals from their original location in the seams/pockets they were grown in. Over the hundreds of millions of years (or perhaps just thousands, or even last month’s torrential rains?) the land has been eroded and the original locations of the crystals may have been partially or completely eroded away. If on a hill, the crystals are likely displaced downhill as they are eroded out of their original pocket. If on a flat area, crystals can disperse radially away from the pocket (which may at one time long ago been above you).
One misconception that I originally had about float was that the crystals would be laying atop the ground easy for the prospector to see. It took me a while to realize that float can be (and often is) buried. The layer of topsoil / organic matter is a recent addition to the ground (decomposed plants, trees, etc) in the perspective of geologic time. Most often I’ve discovered float that is buried in the boundary between the top soil and the granite gravel layers which can be visible or buried many feet deep. Note that with the hundred plus years of prospecting occurring in popular areas, it is very unlikely you’ll find crystals on the surface; but there is still plenty of float to be discovered!
Now that we’ve reviewed what float is in theory, how does one utilize this float concept to actually find crystals? When I find good signs on the ground I dig test holes (more about what are good signs in a minute). I try to dig deep enough so I’m at (or below) the boundary layer between the topsoil/organic matter and the gravel–the steeper the hills the likely this layer will be more shallow. I will also dig about a foot or sometimes two deeper to see if what I’m seeing at the surface continues in situ underground–signs of a pegmatite outcropping.
As I continue to explore the source of the float, I will dig an area of several feet in diameter, left and right, up and downhill. If I continue to find signs, then I will follow those signs in whatever direction they lead me, which typically trends uphill. The hope is that this investigation leads you to the originating crystal pocket or seam still in the pegmatite rock!
If there are no signs on the surface but the area in general looks or “feels” good, or if I’m feeling lucky, I dig test holes in best-guess locations and if I find nothing interesting within a 2-3 foot diameter, I move on to another spot.
I have also seen videos of folks using dowsing rods–the concept is they loosely hold L shaped rods in each hand and as they walk over an area with a crystal the rods will move. I keep thinking I should try this but I have no experience nor have done any research on this technique yet. Chime up in the comments if you’ve had success with this method!
What are good signs to follow? What do you look for on the surface to start digging there? How long do you follow the trail of good signs when they are not panning out? Well, that IS the trick, these are all the million dollar questions of prospecting! I’m still perfecting this myself and likely will be forever, but for now my answer is many things. Here is where joining up with a Crystal Club or digging with other prospectors is very helpful. I have found that even though I’ve read a ton on the topic and talked to many experienced prospectors, I didn’t really “get it” until I’ve gone and and moved some rock and dirt–experienced it; sometimes it even takes many times before what I’ve read or been told clicks. That said, however, I’ll try to give you some tips and rules of thumb based on what I look for.
You are looking for the following, above and/or below the surface as float or in situ:
- Anything with flat sides. Train your eyes to see flat surfaces; having flat surfaces means there was enough room for the rocks to start to crystalize which is evidence of a crack, seam or pocket in the host rock. Finding flat sided rocks is integral in the hunt for crystals.
- Quartz. Pegmatites are partially composed of quartz, so you are looking for chunks of quartz either by themselves or mixed with Microcline / Feldspar.
- Microcline. Like quartz above, microcline or amazonite is a good sign.
- Graphic Granite. Granite by definition is composed of small crystals of quartz and feldspar. Pegmatite is when the crystal sizes get to a certain size. Graphic granite / pegmatite is where these crystals get bigger TOGETHER. Often in just one rock sample you’ll see the crystal size increase from one side to the other! (see image below). This sometimes means you are getting closer to where the crystals can grow better (i.e. a pocket).
- Combinations of above. This means that all the right ingredients of a pegmatite seam are floating out of somewhere.
- Crystals. If you’re finding whole crystals or multiple sides, well, you’re there! Congratulations!
One other technique I use digging float uphill is when pulling out quartz or microcline chunks I leave them on top of my tailings pile close to the spot I found them. If I’m not finding the source of the float or lose track of the good signs (or when I take a water break), then I’ll often step back, take a break and review what I’m finding from a distance (which is possible because I left my findings consistently in sight on top of the tailings). This technique will let me analyze my current prospecting situation from a different perspective. While analyzing the rocks as I have dug up the hill, I will also analyze the surrounding hillside for clues like other digs, surface rock, contour, etc. Sometimes I get overzealous in my digging and forget this simple step-back-and-analyze step which can be really helpful in minimizing the search for the source of the float!
Another way to find crystals using the “float technique” is to start at someone else’s dig and start to explore around (if a flat area) and downhill of that prospect/hole. It’s likely that there is float around or below that pocket that someone else has done all the hard work and located for you! Many times the crystals are really nice and have just rolled down the hill a little bit!!! The original prospector was only interested in the pocket material and left all the easy float finding to someone else! I’ve found some really nice crystals using this technique!
Of course, the best place to dig is in crystal pockets. This is where the crystals will likely be the best quality and most plentiful (but not always, ask any experienced prospector and they will tell you stories of hours/days of work in fabulous looking pockets with junk, crushed or no crystals). Whether you happen upon a seam or pocket in the pegmatite using float prospecting techniques, or you find the peg right away and dive in, this is the goal of prospecting–to hit the mother lode!
First, a little bit of theory from what I have discovered in the field and also from reading and talking to other prospectors. I think of pegmatites as basically a lava flow of harder rock that when forming had the right (and larger) concentrations of minerals we are searching for. Because it is a flow, it often will be long and extend across or into the hillside and will often be somewhat straight. This is helpful to know as you often can follow the pegmatite as it trends in a somewhat straight direction across the hillside.
If the conditions were right at that instant of time millions and millions of years ago, you have highly mineralized fluid that was flowing through the cracks in the rocks. If there was room in the host rock’s cracks then it would give the fluid a chance to crystalize in that “open space” in the rocks. Because we’re talking about an extended “flow”, the pegmatite can open up (i.e. crystals!), then pinch out, and follow that pattern again and again along faults or cracks over its length. You sometimes see this play out when following the pegmatite getting pocket after pocket along the length of the peg! This is something to remember as a previous prospector may have found a great pocket but didn’t finish it or follow it as it opened up into even a larger pocket along the length of the original flow!
The great Blue Cap Productions video on Rhodochrosite at the Sweet Home Mine in Alma Colorado details that pockets were often found at the intersection of faults. I have found this to be true in some cases with pegmatites pockets I’ve found, as two pegmatites intersected there was a pocket. Additionally, Joe Dorris of Glacial Peak Mining has documented that when the pegs bend they often form pockets (which were eddies during the liquid phase?). This is also something I’ve experienced and definitely keep an eye out for.
Pegmatite is currently often surrounded by gravel or dirt. Over geologic time, the surrounding rock may have decomposed into gravel while the harder, more mineralized material is still in place. So once you are upon the pegmatite you’ll likely know its boundaries by gravel. Knowing this, I don’t spend much time when digging test holes if there is just gravel, but if there are chunks of peg, quartz or microcline then I continue as I may be digging into a pegmatite; and if I was into the peg and then enter into just gravel, I change my direction as I likely have found a border of the peg. When finding bigger chunks of rock, ensure they are pegmatite and not just solid granite. You won’t find many crystals if you are not in the pegmatite!
Note that have seen instances where all the surrounding rock is completely gone leaving just a trail of crystals in the gravel or dirt! So again none of these techniques is absolute each and every time!
I categorize the peg in a couple of ways, as described above (chunks) and also as solid masses (this digging takes the most effort). Sometimes I get into a peg that is still holding together as more massive rock and there is a seam sandwiched between top and bottom plates of granite. In that seam, especially when it has the opportunity to widen, I sometimes find small pockets of crystals. Following these openings the trail of crystals sometimes dives deeper; and that is where things can get interesting as you may be into a pocket. Note that these chunks of pegmatite can be quite large and heavy, requiring pry bars and even chisels and hand sledge hammers to extract, so ensure you are employing safe leverage and lifting techniques (a hurt back doesn’t allow one to dig for many crystals) and always wear eye protection! In these cases I follow the peg in all directions as the crack/seam may be rather long and wide but not very thick, but eventually it could widen and form a pocket. Here is a video example of this (these are HD video, so change the resolution if you have the bandwidth!).
So these are the techniques that I am currently using to find crystals. I am fairly successful in finding some crystals, but finding the great crystals or pockets is still somewhat elusive to me! My thought is it’s all about moving dirt and rock to maximize the chance of getting lucky. Comparing it to the lottery, you have to play to win! Regardless, employing these techniques has brought me success and hopefully will aid in your success too! As stated before, I would love to hear your techniques and ideas in the comments or by emailing me; I’m looking for any ways to improve!
Here are some videos showing me finding crystals out of a pegmatite pockets or seams. Pay attention to what is surrounding the areas with crystals as that is what you will be targeting when you dig! Additionally, I have accumulated a playlist of people extracting crystals from around the world, you’ll want to check it out!
For more articles on my prospecting adventures click here.
You should also check out the other blogs I follow with great information about prospecting in Colorado:
- Rockhounding the Rockies
- Conifer Environmental’s Blog
- Peak to Peak
- Mike Nelson’s CSMS Geology Blog
- Steve Veatch’s Colorado Earth Science
Wish you good fortune as you find crystals!
I love the monsoon season, because 30% chance of thunderstorms means there will be one within 30 minutes of where I live; it is the way living atop the Palmer Divide usually works! I drove about 10 minutes south of home and was able to capture these tonight. Not as close as yesterday’s lightning by any means, but still pretty cool. Again, cell phone and daytime pictures so quality is appropriate, daytime lightning is much harder to photograph, especially getting the stepped leaders! What will tomorrow bring?
The monsoon is in effect here in Colorado, like it always is in late-July and/or early-August (which I love) as I can capture some great lightning photos. Nice thundershowers each afternoon cool it down and make just fantastic evening/night conditions (and also keep the landscape green, which is a challenge here this time of year)! I was driving home from work which is normally 45 minutes but yesterday ended up being over 2 hours. As I was in the stop-go routine, an oncoming storm with very frequent cloud-to-ground lightning was encroaching. Luckily, the traffic ended up thinning out just in time to miss the core of the precipitation which would have made the drive even longer, ugh!
I travelled to the next exit and got off to take some pretty close, daytime lightning photos. This is with my cell phone, but surprising got some really nice shots! All of these bolts were between a mile and two away.
For some reason early this morning I felt I had to take my camera to work. I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, but I didn’t deny my intuition and I put it in the car with me. I figured I’d see a wild animal or something on the way in.
So, I’m working and end up having meetings solid all afternoon. Ending time has come and gone and I’m officially working late again. Then all of a sudden every phone in cube-land went off at the same time. Tornado warning. Managers yelling at folks to get in the stairwell and inner conference rooms. Of course, I’m looking out the window and checking my resources on the phone trying to determine where the threat is. No velocity couplet on radar, probably a landspout as this area of Colorado is notorious for non-supercell tornadoes. Some random manager (not sure whom) grabs me and tells me I’m in danger and I have to get into the shelter. So I dart away, down the stairs past a ton of folks, and onto the top of the parking garage, on my way grabbing the camera from the car.
Tornado warning states that it was a “Public spotted tornado” which typically means pretty much anything; I understand the concern because clouds can look really angry! (many “public” reports are incorrect). But social media shows some nice funnel cloud pictures. Cool! The subsequent warning states that Weather Spotters see a funnel cloud.
The rain stops falling (mostly) and the lightning moves away, so I venture out on the top floor of the parking garage and then I see the funnel, just northeast of work. My co-worker texts me asking me where the heck I was at, I told him on the top of the parking garage and to come join me. He ended up being just in time to see his first funnel cloud of his life! I vividly still remember that day for me, I was 6, changed my life.
For the forth day in row the atmosphere was primed for severe storms over eastern Colorado. I got an early start and did the standard thing it seems…catch the first storm that popped up on the Palmer Divide. That was a storm that went just north of Elizabeth following the same patterns as many previous days. This storm would prove to be the storm of the day, tornado warned, and surrounded by chasers all the way into Kansas.
The temps were in the low 60s and the clouds were pretty high based. Looking at the surface map further out on the plains was 75/55 and in some places 80/55, so I opted to split the difference between Last Chance and Brush to hit whatever storms seems to be using the more unstable air.
The southern storm just didn’t look good to me, and it was forming in the cooler air, so I opted to head to the cell popping up SW of Fort Morgan. As I arrived it was tornado warned, of course about 10 minutes after the southern storm was also TVS warned. The Fort Morgan storm was very high based and appeared to line out rather quickly. I left it and tried to catch up with the southern storm that was along I-70 approaching Seibert.
The southern cell appeared to be hitting the cap and was dissipating quickly, and the convection looked like mush which I’ve never had much luck with approaching Kansas (I like to see rock-hard popcorn type convection in the towers). I still had a ways to catch up to it so I opted to head for the new storm that was forming SE of Limon.
I headed south out of Cope and nearing Seibert I pulled over to check out some of the structure of the approaching storm. The radar showed this complex as a line of storms so I knew it probably wasn’t going to do anything severe (perhaps hail or wind), so I just decided to absorb the structure as it approached.
Just north of Seibert I stopped to check out this arcus roll cloud which was really neat. These clouds are similar to shelf clouds but are detached from the cloud base.
Heading back home I got to see some neat rainbows and dying cell structure while passing the Limon wind farm, which I always love to drive past/through. All-in-all a fun chase day!
Today was the third day in a row that the Colorado Front Range had a tornado watch issued. I left a little late due to a work meeting (who schedules meetings in the afternoons during storm season, how rude! 🙂 ) and headed up to follow the second cell that was tornado warned near Parker. Caught some great storm structure and had a fun time with this storm as it went in and out of tornado warned status. Once again, more Palmer Divide magic!
On the way home I caught the cells that were forming off of the Rampart Range west of Castle Rock to get some lightning shots. Unfortunately it was raining anywhere near the storm, so I shot some distant photos near Castlewood Canyon, still caught some great lightning. It produces much better photos closer to the strikes, however; but there are still months of storms to catch great lightning shots.
Been a fun June chasing so far! Look forward to more days this spring!
Today had another round of severe weather for the Colorado Front Range including Tornadic Supercells. I left work a bit late today due to a pending deadline so I was behind the 8-ball all day, but still was able to see some really neat storm structure.
Storms had already gone severe warned by the time I left work so I had a good idea which one to jump on. I was targeting the storm just west of Limon as I was heading east on I-70 and then the cell near Leader was just too impressive and I had to check it out. This is common with me when chasing as my favorite part is the storm structure and not strictly tornadoes which is the focus for many chasers.
As I approached this storm is was obvious it was getting smaller, both on radar and visibly to my eye. It didn’t matter though, the inflow band and what I could see of the updraft were spectacular! Within 30 minutes this storm went from Tornado warned to non-existent!
So back onto my originally targeted strom. I made a few tactical mistakes that cost some time today–miss my chase partner Adam who was excellent at it–and ended up taking a few roads I have not done before. Due to the amount of rain the dirt roads were mud and somewhat slick so it was slow going. Sometime the shortest route is not the best route! 🙂 Meanwhile this supercell was putting down beautiful tornadoes with amazing structure. Here is what it looked like from the back (north) side (it was moving south) which is a typical view as you are approaching a storm from this perspective!
But perseverance pays off! I finally got on this storm a little before sunset. It had already stopped producing tornadoes although I thought there was one more left in it…but it didn’t have quite enough energy even though the mesocyclone was spinning like a top! The structure was jaw dropping, with a visibly rotating barberpole updraft. And there were no other chasers in this location when I arrived (a treat from days like yesterday where there were 100’s of chasers converged in the same area). Ended up being 4 chaser teams in my area, and we all got an amazing display from mother nature!!!
On the way home Denver had a large severe warned cell stalled over it. On the radio they were talking about the mass amounts of hail and continuous lightning. The storm stretched the entire metro area so I jumped up to a spot I’ve been wanting to photograph lightning from near Parker and took a few shots. The lightning was incredible but it was 98% cloud-cloud and only small spikes were coming out of the cloud in this one location. Great to watch for about 20 minutes before I ended up heading home.
All-in-all, an amazing chase day, the structure of the Kutch supercell is one I will never forget!
Today the National Weather Service issued an enhanced risk of severe storms for Central and Northern Colorado, likely having Colorado Supercells on the menu! My original thought was to wait near Prospect Valley and either hit the storms coming off of the Palmer Divide, or head into Northeast Colorado if the cells fired there. A tried and tested strategy, and it worked once again today.
I was in Bennett at about 2:30pm when the first cell fired up. Because I was nowhere near home, the cell was over Larkspur put down quarter sized hail. But this storm was the only play thus far in a good atmospheric environment and given the cap was strong I decided to head south towards Elizabeth and cut off this slow moving storm. I ended up finding a nice location a couple miles south of Elizabeth and set up the camera for a time lapse. The Larkspur storm slowly moved NE but it wasn’t tightening up and was obvious that it probably would only produce hail. It ended up completely vanishing within about 30 minutes near Kiowa.
Meanwhile, the cells behind this supercell merged and took a right turn. This was an amazing looking cell and I watched it from Elizabeth, then Kiowa. But like its earlier friend it couldn’t withstand the cap and environment east of Kiowa and quickly died. The good news is that for my second chase of the season I was home by 9pm, a rare occasion on chase day!
Was sitting down at the computer after the kids were tucked in expecting to do some armchair chasing action with the upper air trough and severe weather digging into the plains states tonight, and started hearing some pellets hit the windows of the house–it was graupel coming down. Graupel is pellets of snow/ice that is much smaller than hail which is not unusual for this time of year. About ten minutes later the first bolt of lightning lit up the house!
I wasn’t prepared for this like I usually am during the monsoonal flow in late July/early August, so I jumped into high gear and grabbed the tripod and camera and got everything ready. Focus is always a problem with the DSLR but I pointed it at a neighbor’s houselight (I usually curse this light because it is on all night, every night of the year, and makes watching meteorite showers frustrating) but tonight it seemed to have a purpose to get me a good focus as I changed the lens to manual focus mode. As you may know focusing lightning can be very difficult!
I then jumped out on the porch hoping for some visible bolts not obstructed by the clouds and immediately the bolts were flying over head. Being on a porch with lightning this close is extremely dangerous (by definition overhead is very close) so I quickly put the camera on autopilot and headed back to the safety inside.
Mother Nature’s show lasted no more than 15 minutes and was very localized; as luck would have it many of the bolts were in the least obstructed view from my porch! Nice! Captured several good shots making me even more excited for this upcoming chase season!