Enjoying our adventures in and around Paisley earlier this year, we headed back to South Central Oregon to experience more of what the high desert region has to offer. Having previously explored Crack in the Ground and Fort Rock State Natural Area, this trip took us due east from Summer Lake Hot Springs in search of the Sunstone Gem Collection Area.
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Sunstone Gem Collection Area is one of the few places in the world where visitors can find sunstones, or feldspar crystals that formed in lava.
What are Sunstones
Oregon’s state gemstone, sunstones found in the remote Rabbit Basin of the Steens Mountains formed in lava from a volcanic explosion approximately thirteen to fourteen million years ago. The lava flow was covered by a vast lake and remained underwater for thousands of years and as the lake gradually dried up, the lava decomposed and revealed loose sunstones now available for collecting and mining.
Before visiting, we watched this Oregon Public Broadcasting Oregon Field Guide to learn more about what makes Oregon’s sunstones unique, and what to expect when visiting the Sunstone Gem Collection Area.
Before You Go
Before you make your way to the Sunstone Gem Collection Area, heed this information posted on the BLM website: “Due to the isolated location, rock hounds visiting the collection area should be well prepared. The only facilities available at the site are a pit toilet, picnic tables, and a shade structure. You are welcome to camp anywhere within the Oregon Sunstone Gem Collection Area.”
We packed plenty of water and food, layers of clothing, and garden tools for scraping the top layer of soil. We also packed a colander, which came in handy both for collecting the stones and sifting out extra dirt and small pebbles. Once leaving the main road, be prepared to potentially journey through several miles through mud, ruts, and washboard roads. We would not make this adventure again without a few gallons of emergency fuel and potentially an emergency radio.
Follow the signs leading to the Sunstone Gem Collection Area. Before you go, you may want to be sure the GPS instructions are loaded to your phone and/or you have a detailed map leading to the main entrance. We noticed two different options in and out, finding the route that takes you longer on Hogback Road to be the faster and easier route.
Arriving at the main entrance, you’ll see a collection of covered picnic shelters, designated fire pits, and a pit toilet. We visited in November and noticed a few hearty souls camping in their motorhomes. Despite the sun, temps were cold and we were glad to have extra layers and warm gloves (Coincidentally, we packed safety yellow colored jackets, and that helped us spot each other from a distance as we wandered through the sagebrush.). Summer visitors should absolutely bring hats, sunscreen, and more water than you think you need.
Read the interpretive sign, and you’ll learn this information:
- As you walk within the Sunstone Gem Collection Area, keep your eyes to the ground and look for the shiny stones, picking them out of the soil and rocks. Only hand tools may be used for digging. Please fill in any holes you create.
- The secret to finding larger sunstones is to venture into the far reaches of the collection area. The main road runs diagonally through the area; follow any of the spur roads and well-traveled trails leading to the northwest corner of the collection area.
Not venturing too far from the main road, the sunstones we collected were mostly small and unremarkable. When the sun is shining, it’s easy to see the shimmering gems resting on the top of the soil. We found the best way to locate the stones was to gently pick through the top 1/4 inch of dirt.
In about an hour, we collected a handful of sunstones in our handy colander. Check the BLM website for instructions on limits for the amount of sunstones you can collect from the Sunstone Gem Collection Area during your visit.
As you explore, keep an eye out for pronghorn antelope, rabbits, kangaroo rats, mice, snakes, lizards, prairie falcons, and golden eagles. Take a moment to appreciate the vast expanse of desert ending in a spectacular mountainous backdrop.
Book your Stay
While we camped at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, use this map to find lodging in Paisley or one of the nearby communities.