Opal Hunting in Virgin Valley, Nevada

by Sally Taylor
Rattlesnakes are a common site in the Northern Nevada Deserts

Rattlesnakes are a common site in the Northern Nevada Deserts

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The high desert of northern Nevada may not be everyone's idea of the perfect vacation getaway. If you have ever seen the fiery black opals from this region, however, it may be on the top of your list of places to visit. These rare opals are found in only in two places on earth: Australia and Virgin Valley, Nevada. Finding these magnificent gemstones makes the journey an unforgettable experience.

The Opal

Clear, milky, blue and yellow opal can all be found at Virgin Valley, but the opal that brought fame to the region is jet black with an intense play of multiple colors. The opal developed as the result of silicification of wood from a forested lake area that was buried in a series of volcanic eruptions. Some of the opal retains the original wood patina. The high water content makes much of the opal unstable. Soaking the opal in water prevents cracking and keeps the color vivid. Severely unstable pieces may need to be kept in water for display, but not all of the stones need such intensive care.

Terrain and Climate

Virgin Valley is high desert region. Summers are hot and windy during the day and cold at night. There are few trees, most of which exist only near water, so there's little shade. A paved highway leads into the area but the roads directly to hunting areas are dirt and sometimes require high-clearance vehicles. Rain can make unpaved roads treacherous or impassible. There are hot springs in the region and a wildlife preserve where you can see wild burros and horses. Watch for rattlesnakes when you're looking for opals. If you are camping in the area, the night sky is phenomenal.


For hunting opal, bring a hand shovel, pick, classifier and a small rake. It is also a good idea to have a bucket you can fill with water to clean and soak your finds to prevent breakage. You will be in the hot sun, so take a canopy to create shade for yourself. It is vital you do not underestimate how much water you will need to drink. Take several gallons for each day you will be out. You'll also need insect repellent to keep biting flies and mosquitoes at bay.

Mines and Facilities

There is a free campground near the mines that has water if you run out, but it is warm and mineralized. The campground also has hot springs pools, restrooms and fire pits, but you need to bring your own wood. Mines sometimes have accommodations available for a fee. Mines usually give you a choice of digging from the valley walls or sifting through the tailings. Fees average about $75 for working tailings and can run several hundred dollars for in situ digging. Contact mines in advance to make sure they are operational as some close and new ones open periodically.

About the Author

An honor graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and linguistics, Sally Taylor has contracted research and writing services since 1986. She has worked with organizations such as US West AT, and SW Bell Silver Pages.

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