Davis Creek Rainbow Obsidian
One of the best places to hunt for obsidian is at Davis Creek in the most north-east portion of California, just off Highway 395. There are several obsidian mines that are owned by the Modoc National Forest, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture.
In these mines, you can find the famous Davis Creek rainbow obsidian, beautiful black obsidian, as well as mahogany, electric blue, electric green, royal purple, gold sheen, silver sheen, translucent, variegated, banded, lavender, and pink. At one mine you can also find obsidian needles. But more on the types of obsidian and where they can be found later.
Below, is the Davis Creek Mercantile where you can obtain the free permit to search for obsidian.
Below you will find a map that shows where each mine is. Now don’t be scared off by thinking that you are going to have to go deep into a mine. The “mines” are typically flat spaces that are situated among tall pines. They are really just diggings of no more than three or four feet deep.
How much does it cost to collect obsidian here? It’s free, but you have to obtain a permit at the Davis Creek Mercantile, 41942 US 395, Davis Creek, California 96108. They usually open at about 9:00am and the people who run the place are about as friendly as you will ever find. Make sure to get a permit for everyone in your party because you can only take 100 pounds of material per person during the 14 days that your permit is good for. One 5-gallon bucket is about 50 pounds, two full buckets are equal to about 100 pounds.
Before you even start on this trip, here are a few things that you should know and what you should bring with you. 1.) A vehicle with sufficient clearance. You don’t need a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but a high clearance vehicle like a pick-up or an SUV is recommended. 2.) Bring a well-stocked first aid kit and have some understanding of first aid. You are in a fairly remote area and you may be depended on to save a life. 3.) Obsidian is nature’s glass and it is very, very sharp! Bring good gloves and ALWAYS wear safety glasses. 4.) Read numbers 2 and 3 again! 5.) Bring shovels, picks, and a good rock hammer. Most of the obsidian is covered with a matrix of million-year-old dried ash and dirt. It’s hard to scrub off so wait until you get home. Instead, if you want to determine what type of obsidian you have in your hand, find an inconspicuous place on the obsidian and break off a small piece with your rock hammer. But before you go breaking off shards of obsidian, reread number 3 above!
If you haven’t brought enough supplies with you, make sure you buy drinking water, snacks, food, and gasoline at the Davis Creek Mercantile before you start out. There is very limited if any, phone service in the area of the mines, so make sure you plan for this.
Above and below, some of the many kinds of obsidian that you can find at the Modoc National Forest Obsidian Mines. Above, is a pile of mahogany obsidian located at the Obsidian Needle Mine.
Above, called Aurora Obsidian, beautiful translucent green and black piece is mixed with mahogany obsidian. This was found at the surface of the Obsidian Needle Mine.
Above and below, two of the many varieties of mahogany obsidian found at the Obsidian Needle Mine. The one above is about the size of a softball, the one below about the size of a large New York steak.
Above, at the Rainbow Mine, you will find some of the most beautiful black obsidian. Thin pieces are translucent while larger pieces are so uniform in color that they will reflect the blue sky like the one above.
Above, the colors of the rainbow obsidian vary from subtle hues to vibrant shades that saturate the spectrum. The trick is to look through the obsidian under direct sunlight.
Looking at the piece above while in the shade will make it appear as plain, almost grey obsidian. Yet in the sunlight, it is filled with depth and color. It had actually been discarded by a previous rock collector. This was found at the Middle Fork Davis Creek Mine.
Above, the banded silver sheen obsidian is abundant at the Middle Fork Davis Creek Mine. Cutting this material diagonally to the bands will sometimes reveal wonderful colors.
Above, electric green and purple obsidian from a surface find at the Obsidian Needle Mine. It helps to bring a squirt bottle filled with water to examine your finds.
Above, at the Obsidian Needle Mine, you can find these rare volcanic obsidian deposits of which there are perhaps 2-3 locations in the world. The needles vary in diameter from a few tenths of an inch to more than an inch. Their length can be anywhere from an inch to more than a foot. At this mine, there are also large pieces of obsidian in a wide variety of colors and variegations.
Above, a map that will be given out when you sign up for the permit at the Davis Creek Mercantile. Each square is one-mile. Please take note that the map is a US Forest Service map and has two issues: 1.) As you take Benton Meadows County Road 11 to the Middle Fork Davis Creek, Obsidian Needles and Pink Lady mines, the road on the map is identified as 46N06. It is actually 46N04 on the signs. 2.) If you plan to go to the Rainbow Mine, the map shows a long stretch of road, County Road 133C, that parallels US 395. What is not shown is a much easier and faster way. I have added it to the map above and it is shown as County Road 47E at the top left of the map.
Above, an old map from the early 1970s. Apparently, the Pink Lady mine was not open at that time and the Iris obsidian mine is no longer shown on current maps but may be worth checking out.
More on the Obsidian Collection Areas
Middle Fork Davis Creek Mine
Above, my wife is standing next to the vehicle that we used to get to the obsidian mines. Below, I would bet that this car would make it because the guy kept it maintained and it ran like a charm! He was in Alturas for a car show. This was our hotel, the Super 8, in Alturas, about 20 miles from Davis Creek Mercantile.
Below, our first stop, the Middle Fork Davis Creek Mine where you can find the famous rainbow obsidian. The drive to this site is about four miles on a gravel/dirt road. Watch the map as you drive, or better yet, have your partner be the navigator. There are a few cows that meander in front of you along the way so keep a watchful out for them and other wildlife. As you get near the site, you will start to see pieces of obsidian sparkling along the road. There is a lot so make sure your tires are good as this broken “glass” can puncture bad tires!
Above, when you see this locked gate you have arrived. Apparently, they keep it locked because “poachers” have pilfered more than their allotted 100 pounds and this makes it a bit harder for them. You can park anywhere along the sides of the road and in front of the gate. If you are smart, you will have brought a wheelbarrow or hand truck to haul out your goodies. Load it with your first aid kit, shovel, pick, rock hammer, gloves, safety glasses, water, snacks, 5-gallon buckets and whatever other provisions you need. Walk around the gate and head up the road seen past the gate in the photo above.
After walking about a quarter of a mile, you will know when you have arrived when you see the cut shown above. The material in the foreground of the photo is mostly obsidian. Resist the temptation to pick any of it up. It is mostly scrap from previous diggers. OK, so I picked up a few pieces, but they were so good looking! You can dig right behind the dark mound in the foreground or along any of the terraces in the lighter material in the background. The forest ranger told us the best spot to dig is in the green volcanic ash. We never did see any green-colored ash but brown, tan, yellow, orange and red, which yielded rainbow material (below) and some very pretty silver banded sheen material.
Obsidian Needles Mine
Frankly, I wasn’t that interested in collecting obsidian needles. I like the bigger rocks as I am not too gentle when it comes to handling stuff. But I was pleasantly surprised at how cool this place was. There are needles everywhere but if you want the really long, skinny kind, you have to gently dig into the mountain and use a trowel to get them out. Another collector was there who makes wind chimes from them because of their pleasing, gentle sound.
The decision to come to the needles mine turned out to be a good one as we found some very beautiful mahogany obsidian at this site. The colors ranged from translucent black to mahogany to root beer and all sorts of variegated coloring. Most all of the black pieces have beautiful green coloring inside and look like the Aurora Borealis when the piece is rotated. If you find a black piece, strike off a small portion with your rock hammer, spray a little water on it and look for the “Aurora.” Below, Aurora Obsidian found at the Obsidian Needles Mine.
The road to this mine is pretty well maintained and all standard passenger cars can make it here. The site is under a canopy of tall pine trees which makes it very comfortable and not too hot. When you travel to the Davis Creek area you may want to think about camping at the Lassen Creek Camp Ground, it is just about a half-mile or so from the Rainbow Mine. In fact, if you are looking for the Rainbow Mine and you took US 395 to get there, you will know that you went past it if you reach the campground.
Above, on the way from the Davis Creek Mercantile to the Rainbow Mine, we stopped to eat our lunch at an overlook at Goose Lake. I was amazed at how vast the valley was in front of us. Overall I think that you will be overwhelmed by the vastness of this volcanic region.
Above and below, although the roads leading to the Rainbow Mine are good, finding material may just be the hardest work you have ever done! The obsidian boulder my wife is holding weighs 35 pounds and it took me over an hour to dig it out of the surrounding hard-pack matrix. The ranger stopped by just as we got there (glad we got our permit!), and she told us where to dig. The site where we dug had been worked as part of a previous commercial dig so we worked our way in the same direction of that dig. We found plenty of fist-size pieces of black material but no Rainbow.
After eating plenty of dirt and working my back like never before we finally wiggled out the large chunk of obsidian. It turned out to be black obsidian, but the prettiest black obsidian I have ever seen. Buried right behind it was another large obsidian boulder. I worked to free that boulder for over two hours and had not even freed half of it. In frustration, I took out my sledgehammer and gave it a good wack. If that wasn’t the dumbest thing I had ever done, I don’t know what was! Hitting that large chunk of glass with a large hammer sent sharp glass flying everywhere. A small piece of glass that was shaped like a Frisbie with razor edges glanced off my left forearm making a one-inch long gash before it skipped to my bicep where it made another, even larger gash. Oddly I didn’t feel anything and kept whacking at the hunk of obsidian until I felt blood running down my arm! Now you know why I stressed safety glasses and first aid kits. Luckily my stupidity didn’t cause a more serious cut to a vein. My wife patched me up and we decided that our obsidian hunt should end for the day.
Above, the hand-out from the forestry department detailing the obsidian mines and relevant information.
The Davis Creek and Alturas area
In general, the Modoc National Forest is a true wilderness. In particular, the areas designated for obsidian collection is remote and cell phone coverage is not good. The ranger station is in Cedarville which is about as far away as the town of Alturas. We never did see a hospital and I was lucky that my wounds were not too deep.
Above, a modern arrowhead made by the Native Americans in the area. The Hewisedawi (Hay-wee-see-daw-wee) band of the Pit River (Achomawi) tribe has made Goose Lake and the surrounding country their ancestral territory and home. The name means “on top,” which refers to the top of the mesa, which abounds all around the valley.
In an early 1900s article by a Col. William Thompson, he tells of Native Americans digging pits to trap game and enemies and that this was how the Pit River received its name.
After getting patched up and enjoying a super meal at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Alturas, we headed out to the nearby wildlife refuge and we were not disappointed.
Above, Sandhill Cranes take flight as we watched several more that were searching for food in a freshly plowed field.
Above, the Common Mullein or Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) typically called Cowboy Toilet Paper overlooks the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge is located next to the South Fork of the Pit River in Modoc County, southeast of Alturas.
Above and below, a very elegant Pronghorn Antelope buck struts bravely through a farmers field. He was more intent on keeping his hareem close and was not too concerned about me taking his photo.
Fleet-footed pronghorns are among the speediest animals in North America. They can run at almost 60 miles an hour, leaving pursuing coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats in the dust. Pronghorns are also great distance runners that can travel for miles at half that speed.
Pronghorn are not very good jumpers. If there is a fence, they will climb under instead of jumping over. They are herbivores and Lewis and Clark were the first to scientifically document the Pronghorn Antelope.
Above, the Blue Chicory (Chichorium intybus) a beautiful member of the Aster family grows all along Modoc County and throughout California. It seems to thrive in areas of little rain.
Our trip to Davis Creek was way too short but we enjoyed every minute of it. Well except for when Mr. Careless decided to perform surgery on himself with obsidian! We have already made plans and are looking forward to returning in the very near future.
On our last night, as the golden hour approached, we spied this magnificent Red-Tailed Hawk as it watched patiently for a meal to make its presence known.
Even if you are not into rock collecting, the Modoc area should be on your bucket list of places to visit. The spectacular valleys that are rimmed with sculpted volcanic lava formations, almost goblin-like, to sheer cliffs with flat mesas created eons ago as the flowing lava cooled. It’s all here and it won’t disappoint and will make a dramatic drop in the bucket.
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.