Just south of the Oregon border in a ruggedly remote corner of Nevada sits the Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine, home to rare, semi-precious gems sought by rockhounds everywhere.
Produced nearly 14 million years ago when volcanic activity occurred in the region, these opals come in a variety of colors, including pink, white, moss, lemon, and the all-in-one kaleidoscopic color scheme that helped earn the Virgin Valley black fire opal its status as Nevada’s official state gemstone.
Visitors can choose to sift through existing tailings, or up the ante and sign up for the Virgin Ground Loads, which allows you to dig through a specialized reserved load of fresh dirt taken right from the bank wall. If you don’t have time for a full- or half-day rockhounding adventure, you can still swing by the Rainbow Ridge Rock Shop, offering all kinds of gems and other Nevada souvenirs to bring home with you.
Mining in Virgin Valley
While miners flocked to western Nevada to grab their share of the silver-rich Comstock Lode, others quietly headed north to places like Denio seeking a different kind of treasure: the Virgin Valley black fire opal. In particular, Rainbow Ridge proved to be one of the world’s top spots for finding this rare gemstone that has been coveted as far back as ancient Greek times. It’s also a fantastic location for digging up rainbow opals.
Opals are formed from ordinary silica, which looks much like unprocessed table salt. Over millions of years, silica is pulled from sandstone by running water, creating fossils that leave behind the end result that’s the dream of many collectors. Named for obvious reasons, rainbow opals display a multitude of colors, putting them in the precious category (as opposed to common opals which aren’t quite as flashy). When light hits the layers inside of these stones, it bends, projecting a full rainbow of colors.
The rarest opal around is the precious black opal and it is found in Rainbow Ridge. Managing to be somehow transparent, yet also dark-brown to black and filled with fiery colors, this is the sort of gemstone that is uber cool to hold in one’s hand. Move it one way and you’ve got reds and yellows. Shift it another way and it’s like watching a Pink Floyd laser light show. By the way, looking at such gemstones in multiple directions is called “contra luz,” or “going against the light,” if you want to sound like a pro on your next trip.
Learn more about rainbow opals, black opals, and the rest of Nevada mining history here.
Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine is open seasonally from May through September each year, weather permitting. Reservations are required to visit, so please be sure you get in contact with Rainbow Ridge ahead of your visit by dialing (775) 941-0270. The on-site Rock Shop is open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily.
For more information on different rockhounding experiences, directions, tools to bring with you, and amenities in the Virgin Valley area, get in touch with Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine directly at (775) 941-0270.