Scarce Gems at the Royal Peacock Opal Mine in Nevada
It’s possible you’ve had the pleasure of gazing at an opal or two. But were they black fire opals? Less likely. Very few places in the world produce this extremely rare and mysterious semi-precious gemstone, and the Royal Peacock Opal Mine in Nevada is one of them. Even rarer is the kaleidoscopic kind found only in Virgin Valley, Nevada (the Virgin Valley black fire opal), which is why it’s Nevada’s official gemstone.
Other varieties of opal can be found in Virgin Valley, including pink, white, moss, and lemon, but the star of the show here is of course the black fire opal. These unique and magnificent gems were produced nearly 14 million years ago, when volcanic activity was high in the region. An ancient lake covered most of the area, which was filled by a tremendous amount of volcanic ash, which covered an abundance of limbs, twigs, and other rotting woods. Heat and pressure then formed a silica gel that percolated through the ash and filled various cavities, which over time, eventually hardened into a spectacular variety of opals.
The amount of opals mined in the Virgin Valley is enough to impress, but the size of these opals uncovered in the region is what’s truly extraordinary. More than a quarter million carats of precious fire opals have been extracted from the Royal Peacock mines over the last 25 years, and 130-pound opals—the size of actual logs—have been extracted from the mine. Among the whoppers that have been extracted at Royal Peacock were a 52-carat black fire opal in 1992, and a 169-carat monster in 1979. In total, millions of dollars of opals have been taken from the Virgin Valley, which comprises several commercial operations and more than 200 private claims.
Nevada Opals, All in the Family
The Royal Peacock Opal mine has been a family affair since officially opening for business in 1981. Since then, the mine has been open to the public as a pay-to-dig mine, and has produced extremely rare and beautiful Nevada opals for countless visitors. Originally a buckaroo in southeastern Idaho and northwestern Nevada, Royal Peacock owner Harry Wilson spent the majority of his time in the field, eventually turning into somewhat of a rockhounding hobbyist. The reason? Harry and other ranchers would uncover mysterious glimmering stones and trade them for a shot of whiskey here or there.
Eventually, Harry purchased a homestead, working massive cattle operations in Oregon and California, but spent a lot of time in Virgin Valley, Nevada. By 1944, he realized that these sparkling specimens they had found were opals, and there in fact was an opal mine in the area. Along with his wife Joy, Harry purchased the Royal Peacock Opal Mine. The Wilsons continued to operate their cattle ranch out of the region, and it has since been surrounded by the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the ranch is operated by Harry and Joy’s children, Walt, Angie, and Julie.
Dig for Peacock Opals in Virgin Valley, Nevada
Doubling as Nevada’s state gemstone, rock hounding enthusiasts flock to this rugged and extremely remote area of Nevada to try their luck at mining their own black fire opals. While the mine formerly operated on a commercial scale, the Royal Peacock Opal Mine is open to hobbyist rockhounders today. Visitors must check in at the gift shop prior to digging, and will be presented with a few different types of mining to choose from.
- Bank Digging: This is the more difficult mining style of the two offered, but often produces more sizable and valuable opals. What’s involved? Knocking fresh material from the bank, typically with a pick or rock hammer. The experts at Royal Peacock Opal Mine will tell you if you sound like you’re hitting glass, you’ve probably struck an opal. Next, work on using small hand tools to gingerly dig the fragile specimen out.
- Raking the Tailings: The second mining style is less expensive and less strenuous, and visitors will often end up with a few opals to head home with. Often, bank diggers will knock sizable opals loose without realizing it, leaving the tailing miners uncovered bounty.
Get to Know the Virgin Valley
Virgin Valley, Nevada is ruggedly remote, meaning a trip out here is probably going to be an overnight affair. Self-contained campers find true bliss at Virgin Valley Campground, a free, semi-primitive facility with drinking water and both a warm spring-fed pool and warm spring-fed, Civilian Conservation Corps-built bathhouse with showers. But to be right there at the center of the action, the Royal Peacock RV Park is your jam. Visitors can take their pick from a furnished cabin with nearby restrooms, or a more modern accommodation called “The Trailer With Running Water.” Both options are completely furnished with A/C and heat, and have small kitchens and living areas. Otherwise, take your pick at one of the many tent camping sites or RV spots, which have full hookups, laundry, and a shower.
The Royal Peacock Opal Mine is open seasonally from May 15 thru October 15, weather permitting. Reservations are not required, but please check in at the on-site gift shop prior to digging.
Bank digging typically runs $190 per person for day, where raking the tailings is $75 per person, per day. Rockhounding tools are also available for rent, including picks, shovels, rakes, screens, hard hats, gloves, and more. For the most current information on pricing (subject to change), get in touch with Royal Peacock Opal Mines directly at (775) 941-0374.