Nevada Commission on Tourism
John and Lorrie Peterson took their first trip to the Virgin Valley — a remote area in northern Nevada near the Oregon border — years ago with the Reno Gem & Mineral Society.
The group braved the region’s high temperatures and relative solitude just to dig in the dirt.
They were hunting for opals, stones prized for their iridescent play of color, or “fire.”
“It was especially exciting to see that flash of color in the opal you just found,” John Peterson said.
The chance of finding an opal, especially the rare black opal, is what drives many to the Virgin Valley, about 35 miles outside of the community of Denio, which straddles the Nevada-Oregon border. The Virgin Valley’s three opal mines — Bonanza, Rainbow Ridge and Royal Peacock — are open from spring to fall and allow for-fee digging, with tourist-prospectors keeping any opals they find. Costs vary, beginning at around $60 per day to sort through tailings (loose material that can be sifted). Bank digging, which involves using a pick on ground that hasn’t yet been mined, is a little more expensive and strenuous.
Call it a working vacation — one in which the potential payoff is personal rather than profitable.
“When you see a beautiful piece of opal, it’s hard to describe,” said Glen Hodson, owner of the Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine. “A photograph doesn’t even do it justice.”
The stones, which come in many colors, all show internal, iridescent color. But one type is clearly the favorite.
“Everybody seems to want a black opal,” said Julie Wilson of the family-run Royal Peacock Opal Mine.
Black opals, which most dramatically display iridescent colors, were designated Nevada’s precious gemstone in the 1980s, Wilson said, after her parents, Harry and Joy Wilson, championed the cause before the state Legislature. Black opals are found only in northern Nevada’s Virgin Valley and in Australia, according to the mine owners. The Roebling Opal, a 2,585-carat black opal on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., came from the Virgin Valley. So did the Black Peacock opal from the Royal Peacock Opal Mine, listed as one of the largest flawless gems in the book “The World of Opals,” by Allan Eckert.
A review of the area’s geologic history explains why so many opals are found there. The Virgin Valley actually is an ancient lakebed, according to the mine owners. Eons ago, volcanic activity destroyed trees, fragments of which gathered in the ancient lake and sank to the bottom. There, mired in the lakebed, those wood fragments disintegrated over time. Meanwhile, water and silica — a chemical compound found in nature — traveled through the lakebed sediment and filled in the space once occupied by the wood fragments.
That’s how the opals were created.
Finding them is another story.
“Digging for opals is a gamble,” said Glen Miller, one of the shareholders of the Bonanza Opal Mines.
About 280 people visited the Bonanza in 2010 — the most recent year for which Miller had data — and not all of them walked away with opals or with opals of great value. Still, many of those rockhounds are repeat customers, drawn to the mines for the rock-hunting activity and to enjoy the surrounding desert.
“The experience is what I encourage people look for,” Miller said.
The Virgin Valley is about 35 miles from Denio, a small community of less than 100 residents. Although there are some services in there, the opal mine owners advise stocking up on supplies — including water, gasoline and food — at the nearest Nevada city: Winnemucca, about 135 miles southeast of the Virgin Valley.
Places to stay in the area include the Denio Junction Motel and the Virgin Valley Campground inside the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where first-come, first-serve camping is available. The Royal Peacock Opal Mine has furnished cabins and trailers, as well as an RV park with water, electricity, a sewer system, Wi-Fi and a public telephone.
Mine owners also advise travelers to bring sunscreen and water when digging for opals — as well as digging tools such as a rake or pick. Some of the mines rent tools, others offer them on a first-come, first serve basis.
Once the digging begins, look for a flash of light and color. Hodson, the owner at Rainbow Ridge, added that opal hunters should “keep in mind wood shapes.” Because the opals are wood replacement, he said, “it might be in the shape of a twig or even a pinecone.”
Opals found in this area have high water content, the mine owners explained; once they are extricated from the ground, they often will dry and crack. Many collectors will keep their specimens in water to prevent fracturing. Smaller pieces sometimes are made into jewelry, provided they come from pieces of opal that have dried without cracking badly.
John Peterson, the rockhound who first visited the area with the Reno Gem & Mineral Society, has visited all three Virgin Valley mines, and found opals at all of them. Some of them he keeps on display or has given away as gifts.
But he and his wife are still hunting.
“Since that first trip we continue to go back to try our luck again,” Peterson said. “We always find opals, but we're still trying to find that really nice one!”
Breakout box 1: If you go:
Three opal mines offer for-fee digging in the Virgin Valley, an area in northern Nevada near the Oregon border. Each has a website with details on the opal hunting season, prices, equipment needed and more.
Places to stay in the area include:
There also are places to stay in Winnemucca, about 135 miles from the Virgin Valley. For details, see the Winnemucca Convention & Visitors Authority website, www.winnemucca.nv.us.
Breakout box 2: Black opal becomes Nevada’s state gemstone
As told by Julie Wilson of the family-run Royal Peacock Opal Mine: In the early 1980s, the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology contacted Harry and Joy Wilson of the Royal Peacock Opal Mine to set up a display of opals at the Capitol Building in Carson City. The exhibit, scheduled to be shown for 30 days, was so popular that it was displayed for six months. The Wilsons also presented the Legislature with information on the how to cut and polish opals so they can be made into jewelry. The Virgin Valley black fire opal was designated Nevada’s official precious gemstone in 1987.