Virgin Valley Opals-Black Rock Desert, NV

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Trip Tips

Click for Denio, Nevada Forecast When planning a trip to Virgin Valley, prepare for isolation. Bring everything you will need for your stay. Plan to pack it out too. 

The elevation is high, 5000 to 6000 feet. The air is clean and the sky goes on forever. The stars at night are absolutely spectacular. The elevation insures the nights will be very cold, even in the summer. Pack plenty of warm clothes. 

Daytime temperatures are usually moderate, but can reach over 100o. Light clothes for day are essential, but you will want to wear long sleeves, long pants and a hat. The wind blows constantly in this arid valley so you will need to bring chap stick and body lotion to keep your skin moist. 

The natural pool at the free campgroundVirgin Valley is a long way from any kind of services, so you will need to bring everything you will need for your stay. You will drink more liquid than you expect to and will probably eat less food than you expect.  Potable water was available at the free campground but it is highly mineralized and warm from the ground. It is drinkable, but you may prefer to bring your own.  

If you plan to stay at the free campground, plan for a swim in the hot spring/pool.  Bring a bathing suit, towel and Bug Repellant for the biting files. The campground is equipped with showers so you can bring soap, shampoo etc. A swim and shower feels so good after a long day of opal digging. 

There are several ways in and out of Virgin Valley if you don't mind dirt roads. However, be aware that many of these dirt roads are unmarked, untraveled and you are pretty much 'on your own' most of the way. Also, many roads in this area are covered with obsidian (volcanic glass) which can shred a tire. If you take one of these routes, don't forget to bring a spare tire, just in case. Despite the rough roads, one route takes you through Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. This is a beautiful drive. The area is dotted with hot springs and herds of antelope and wild mustangs and the occasional wild burro are visible from the road as you travel.  This is a route worth taking.

Virgin Valley Camping Suggestions:
A Survival Guide and Checklist:

Be forewarned: Trips to Virgin Valley tend to lead to more trips to Virgin Valley. Sometimes in ever-expanding groups.

Take a well charged cell phone. You will be many miles from any other form of communication. Although you won't get reception in the valley, there is one spot on Hwy 140 between Denio Junction and the mines where you can usually get a signal. As you go over the 'pass' you will cross a bridge. Pull over at the clearing by the bridge and check your signal.

Make sure that you consult a current map, more than one preferably; the more detailed, the better.

Carefully determine how much fresh water you will need to take, then take twice that amount. This is not a joke. If you don't need the water out there, you will probably meet someone who will.

Remember, you can survive a lot longer without food than you can without water.

Freeze plastic 20 oz to 2 liter bottles, even gallon jugs (which have been carefully washed, bleached and rinsed) nearly full (leave at least 2" room for expansion) of water. These make it easy to pack an ice chest with self-contained ice bottles, which are excellent for drinking when they are partially melted. They will also not leave the contents of an ice chest soggy

Contact individual mines concerning fees, open hours and days, necessary tools, and any recommendations. Do not assume that they are all alike. Most are quite individual, and circumstances can change at the same mine from one year to the next. Always confirm updated data before planning your trip. Click here for links to local mines.)

Do not assume that you can go and find opal in an area that is not under claim. Although new discoveries are feasible, and old claims do expire, most of the pay dirt in the area is claimed. Not seeing a claim marker does not mean that the land is open for exploration. If you are interested, check with the county or state clerk's recording office or a local library.

Nevada desertBe certain that someone knows of your plans, including details of where you are staying, the dates you plan to arrive and leave, your route and the mine(s) you plan to visit.

Many of the side roads are not paved, and have lots of sharp obsidian. Bring a spare tire. Or two, and a jack. It would be a good idea to bring along an air compressor to air up flat tires.

Bring a well stocked first aid kit as well as ample supplies of prescription meds. Asthma can be aggravated by the arid conditions of the desert.

Bring a snakebite kit and know how to use it.

If you know how to use one, a compass would be helpful

Always carry a vehicle emergency kit (flares, fuses, jumper cables, etc) and extra water. Make sure the vehicle that you are riding in is mechanically sound before you head out. A spare tire is not optional.

Carry survival food, i.e.. beef jerky, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, granola bars or energy bars.

free, public campgroundA flash light and extra batteries are essential.

Take at least one camera and more film than you plan to use. On our trips, we have seen wild burros, rabbits, antelope, mustang, and other wildlife well within camera range.

Binoculars would be a welcome addition.

The campground is free. There are about 20-30 sites. Outhouses are available. No hook-ups, no electricity at the campground. Fire pits and/or bbq pits are available. Sites with any type of shade are the first to be taken.

Take toilet paper. There is usually some available in the outhouse, but just in case...

When you use the outhouse, be careful of the contents of your pockets. I lost some important prescriptions medications to the "pit".

The ranger lives on adjoining property.

Remember, there are no garbage facilities at the campground. You must pack out what you pack in. There was, last time we were there, a dumpster at the rest area about half a mile west of the campground, however.

The campground is in the middle of an oasis and a wilderness/game preserve. There is no firewood available locally to collect. If you want campfires, bring your own supply of kindling and firewood.

The opal mines are only accessible and open from May thru October. During other months, the roads to and from the mines are inaccessible.

Temperatures and weather during the open season (May-Oct.) range from one extreme to another. Nights are always cold. Days are often hot. Dress in layers. Bring a warm jacket and blankets. Be prepared for rain, thunderstorms, and/or windy conditions, as well as lots of sunshine.

The nearest gas station/market/bar (when it is open) is at least 30 miles from the campground. Plan accordingly.

The campground boasts an incredible hot spring, and warm running showers. Bring your swimsuit and towels .

Bring a flyswatter. The biting flies are persistent and obnoxious. Insect repellent will help repel some of the smaller biting insects.

Bring plenty of drinking water. It is usually available at the campground, but it is highly mineralized and warm from the ground.

Bring quart size Ziploc bags for storing and sorting specimens.

Apache tears, (small obsidian nodules) are available near the campground. Some are transparent, most take on a nice polish.

Digging for opalsSome of the rocks in the area show signs of having been worked by the aboriginal peoples, who were also attracted to the oasis with a hot spring, which has been there for thousands of years.

The sun and wind are two constants in this region. Be sure to bring sunscreen (with a high SPF #), chap stick (the soft kind, not just the stuff that feels like wax, and be prepared for it to melt), sunglasses, and moisturizing lotion. A hat to shade you from the sun works well, too.

Allow some time for stargazing. Bring a telescope if you have access to one. Shooting stars are incredible in this region.

Expect to see lots of wildlife. Respect what you see.

Leave nothing but good feelings behind you. This campground is a jewel in the rough. We all want it to be there tomorrow.

Opal Collecting tips:

Don't let anyone try to convince you that the best opal in the world comes exclusively from Australia. The nicest opal I've ever seen, I personally saw collected at Virgin Valley, Nevada, from tailings.

A small percentage of the opal found in Virgin Valley is valued at more per carat than diamonds.

Some opal lapidaries are reluctant to work opal from Nevada, since it has a high water content and a reputation for crazing. This has not been a problem among the Virgin Valley opal gatherers I know. I have seen black opal with incredible red and green fire collected from a field in Virgin Valley and lapped into a beautiful gem without any special treatment, and it has not deteriorated. It is not a doublet or a triplet, either. It is solid opal, and cut by a friend with (at that time) limited lapidary experience.

Before heading out, research the open mines in the area. Find out what the fees are at the mine you plan to collect, and what those fees include. Expect to pay anywhere from $25 a day, up to $100 or more per day. At some sites, the fee includes the use of hand tools available at the mine.

Some mines have facilities for camping, most don't.

Many of the mines are closed for one or two days per week. Check ahead.

Extraordinary weather could make roads impassible. Use good judgment. Don't take unnecessary risks, especially far from home.

Different techniques are appropriate at different mine sites. Some are hard rock, requiring picks, hammers, shovels, hand trowels, etc. while some mines allow access to tailing piles which have been bulldozed and spread over a large area to be picked through.

Look for mineral specimens that are glassy looking. The background color doesn't matter. Some of the most beautiful opal doesn't show flashes of color immediately. Collect everything glassy looking. Black glassy, clear glassy, milky glassy, porcelain glassy, brown glassy, jelly glassy, etc. Unless you are collecting by the pound, take anything you are interested in.

Many of the opal mines charge a flat fee to collect per day. If this is the case, don't spend too much time in the field looking at individual specimens. Bag them and go on. Special specimens can go into a special bag or vial.

Don't be afraid to collect specimens which do not show obvious opal, but are otherwise glassy. Sometimes the fire appears later, after a good soaking. Otherwise, the petrified wood is often worth collecting, in its own right.

Take at least one or two 5-gallon buckets along to bring back untouched "opal dirt" from the fields, if permitted. It is fun to look for opals months after the trip, in dirt that holds the same potential as the virgin tailings from the mine.

Take a spray bottle full of water with you. A squirt from the spray bottle may occasionally reveal incredible opals.

Sometimes, good pieces of opal are covered with a white, chalky coating on the outside, especially opalized limb casts.

Don't search for opal in the shade.

Keep your eyes open for other fossils and artifacts.

Take advantage of any advice, displays, and or tools available at individual mines. The information given freely by those who work the mine professionally is valuable. Listen. Take any pamphlets or literature offered.

Take the time to look at samples of opal available at that particular mine. Look at the specimens available for sale, the size, and the going price. Pay attention to how they are displayed, also, in case you decide to show off your Virgin Valley treasures.

Keep in mind that opal from this region forms in two different geologic ways. Most of the opal found in Virgin Valley is in the form of petrified wood. Nearby, some of the opal is formed in small pockets in hard volcanic rock.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Frequently there are veteran opal hunters in your midst. Many are happy to share advice.

Return visitors are a good indicator of a good opal field.

Talk to others you meet, especially ones with some opal hunting experience. Find out where they go to collect and why they choose that spot ( if they are willing to share that information).

If you get an opportunity while in Virgin Valley, look at jewelry made from locally collected opal. It is great for ideas for ways to put your own opals to their best use. Even pieces the size of a match-head have been made use of in some stunning ways.

Plan to take a sack lunch and plenty of liquid refreshment while out in the collecting fields. Water is more refreshing than most other drink choices.

Rattlesnakes and venomous insects are common in this area. Never reach into a hole or under a rock without looking first. Keep a snakebite kit handy just in case, and familiarize yourself on how to use it.

Anything that resembles petrified wood should be carefully examined, and potentially kept. Even if the opal is not precious, the petrified wood may have value in its own right. The petrified wood specimen may also contain precious opal which is not obvious at first.

Glass jars with tight fitting lids are handy to put your freshly collected opals into, once the opals have been thoroughly rinsed till the water runs clean and clear. The jars are filled with water and opal, where the water serves to make the colors inside the opals more visible, especially in sunlight.

Once you have spent a day with your nose to the sand, searching for one more piece of that incredible opal, you will understand the lure and satisfaction of an opal hunter.

Hope we see you there!

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