Rivers of black glass, gleaming in the sun. Chunks of obsidian, shining like beacons saying, “I’m right here, come and get me!”
Glass Butte in Central Oregon is one of the best rockhounding areas in the northwest. It’s on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, set aside for rockhounds to access for free. Obsidian is formed from lava that cools very quickly. This area had a huge lava flow millions of years ago so there is a LOT of obsidian. Obsidian has also been called “volcanic glass” and has been used over the years for arrowheads and knives. Today it is mostly used for jewelry, garden features, and other decorations. That’s part of the fun of obsidian, that it has such a variety of uses.
Glass Butte – the middle of nowhere!
Located 77 miles east of Bend on Highway 20, you’ll see a plain brown sign on the south side of the road showing you where to turn. You’ll really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing to see for miles and only a couple of small trees. But this is where there truly are hidden gems.
Slow down before mile post 77 because it’s easy to zoom right past. There will be a dirt road. Go slowly and carefully. It can have deep ruts from heavy rainfall and chunks of obsidian may have washed down onto the roadway or exposed by the rain. Obsidian can be very sharp. While we have never had our tire punctured by it, we did hit a piece hard enough to poke a hole in our oil plan. So just be cautious.
Then head on into the property. There are several roads to follow. Don’t worry, you shouldn’t be able to get off BLM land and onto private land because it is all fenced. Also, don’t be surprised if you see tents because people are allowed to camp there.
There are two books that are really helpful in this particular rockhounding area: Gems Trails of Oregon by James R. Mitchell, and The GPS Guide to Western Gem Trails by David A. Kelty. This is where the treasure hunt begins. There are many different colors of obsidian – black, snowflake, mahogany, gold sheen, silver sheen, rainbow, and fire. And most of these colors are here in one place! You can stop in one spot and only find black or stop in another and find mostly mahogany. They can also be mixed. Rocks come in different sizes and shapes, small shards to HUGE pieces! Again, be careful – it is sharp and can cut you. It also gets very hot sitting in that Central Oregon sun.
Black and Mahogany Mix
Silver Sheen (see the silver streaks?)
The rainbow and fire, in my opinion, are the most elusive. You have to hold the pieces up to the sun to see the fire or rainbow properties. The color glistens like a rainbow dancing on the edges of the rock. The fire obsidian shows like a flame in the center when the sunlight hits it just right.
HUGE Piece of Obsidian
Sometimes you have to break open a rock to see the lace/snowflake which are white lacy or snowflake looking shapes inside. Again, it’s sharp so use eye protection when breaking obsidian. You will also want to take gloves in case the rocks are really hot.
Remember, this is the desert. Take plenty of water (and a picnic. We believe in picnicking every chance we get.) Then make sure you stop picking up rocks before you are too hot or too tired. That 77 miles is a long way back when you’ve worn yourself out. And it’s easy to do. The first time we were there we were so excited but what we were seeing and how easy it was to find, we just simply didn’t want to leave. But by 3:00 it was dangerously hot.
Please remember that collecting rocks on BLM land is for personal use only. You can collect up to 25 pounds per day or 250 pounds per year. So please be respectful and don’t take more than your share.
Other than that just be careful of the heat and the sharpness of the obsidian, and have fun in one of the best rockhounding places in the country!