Tucked away in nooks and crannies of the hills of Chaffee County is a variety of gems and minerals nearly unrivaled in the United States.

There’s gold, of course, and aquamarine, garnet, topaz, Apache tears, smoky quartz … more than 120 different kinds. It’s that variety, and their relatively close proximity to one another, that’s remarkable. And alluring.

“People come from all over the United States,” said geologist Cindy Peratt, who owns The Rock Doc shop with husband Dirk. The Rock Doc is almost exactly halfway between Salida and Buena Vista on U.S. 285.

But these gems take a fair amount of work to uncover. Often, Peratt said, a successful hunt is the result of a great deal of time and research.

The best way to get started – or even just to enjoy a family day trip – is to talk with staff at The Rock Doc, which this year is celebrating its 50th year in business.

The shop serves as a regional information hub and supplier for rock hounds. While Chaffee County boasts a sizable amount of public land, many rock-hounding sites are on private land or have private claims attached. Knowing where to go – and where not to go – is a critical first step.

Another first step: knowing what you’re looking for. Ruby Mountain near Nathrop is a favorite spot to scout for garnets, Apache tears (obsidian) and topaz. Seeing authentic finds before heading out is priceless. The garnets, for example, are tiny, very dark red – nearly black – and embedded in rock. Peratt said Ruby Mountain is a perfect site for beginners and families. Unlike many other sites, it’s easy to drive to, easy to hike and open (snow-free) most of the year.

Down the road and up, up, up high is the county’s most famous gem site: Mount Antero, which holds deposits of aquamarine, the state gem. Finding aquamarine, though, is not for the novice. The sites – most are private or privately held – are above timberline on the 14,276-foot mountain. Peratt suggests the highly motivated go with an outfitter who can safely guide visitors to the right spots.

One way to get help and advice from experts is to join the local Columbine Gem and Mineral Society; they’ve been around since 1947. Members get access to their calendar of field trips. Peratt said many out-of-state rock hounds plan their trips around the society’s outings. For more information, visit rockaholics.org or call 719-221-1245.

Got gold fever? Cache Creek near Granite is a popular site for panning. A Colorado Springs club, Gold Prospectors of Colorado, has several claims on the creek and is a great resource for anyone getting started, Peratt said.

To study up, Peratt suggests two must-reads, both of which are available at her shop: “Colorado Rock Hounding” by Lake County author Stephen Voynick and “Rockhounding Colorado” by William Kappele, which has elevation, directions, materials found and more information on 100 specific sites.

Any outing, however, must pay careful attention to property rights. The Rock Doc has a handout that spells out the prospectors’ code of ethics. No. 1: Respect private and public property and do no collecting on private land without permission. No. 2: Keep informed on all laws, regulations or rules governing collecting on private lands.

For information about what you can and can’t collect, how much and what you can do with your treasures, visit blm.gov/basic/rockhounding.

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