Friday, March 28, 2014


Moab, Utah, is one of my favorite towns and I try to make a visit yearly, usually in the fall (nice weather).  I first saw Moab in 1967 when it was a sleepy little town without all of the hype associated with rock climbing, boating, ATVing, and biking.  In fact, it was a town in trouble with the uranium in a “bust cycle” and potash production only partially taking up the slack.

Moab is a Colorado Plateau town located on the east bank of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley and is the County Seat of Grand County.  It was first populated by permanent (Caucasian) settlers around 1880, mostly Latter Day Saints doing farming and missionary work.  The first “mineral boom cycle” in the region was triggered by the need for radium and vanadium during the years prior to World War II.   A few oil wells were producing in the 1950’s but the need for uranium to fund the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) projects created a much larger boom in the late 1940’s and 1950’s and brought thousands of prospectors, miners and merchants to town, including a ‘rags-to-riches” Texan by the name of Charlie Steen.  His discovery, in 1952, of the Mi Vida (My Life) mine triggered a “uranium rush” to the Colorado Plateau that rivaled the fabled gold rushes of the 1800’s.  School teachers, insurance brokers, used car salesmen, and shoe clerks around the nation converged on the Colorado Plateau to seek their fortune.  Even a group of high school students staked forty claims and later sold them for $15,000.  By the mid-1950s, almost six hundred producers on the Colorado Plateau were shipping uranium ore.  Employment in the industry topped 8,000 workers in the mines and mills.  Another bonanza in penny uranium stock established Salt Lake City as The Wall Street of Uranium.  The AEC had turned the tap and caused a flood (Ringholz, 2009).

By 1960 Utah was producing in excess of 6.5 million pounds of uranium; however, in 1964 the AEC decided to stop purchasing uranium and the bust cycle was on (Ringholz, 2009).  When I first explored the region in 1967 one could locate literally hundreds of abandoned, but staked, prospects.  Much of the mined uranium came from the Jurassic Morrison Formation (~146--~156 Ma; the famed dinosaur unit).  The Morrison “looks like” the Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation (~97--~125 Ma) and many uranium claims were established on this non-producing unit!  It appears that not all of the prospectors had access to Geiger Counters.  In fact, during my most recent trip I was still able to observe some of the old Cedar Mountain claims.

At any rate, since the 1960’s uranium production in the Colorado Plateau has waxed and waned several times.  With the renewed interest in uranium-nourished power plants the area has seen a resurgence of new claims.
Today, the economy of Moab is mostly fueled by tourists.  It is the closest city to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and the La Sal Mountains.  It is a mecca for bicycle riding and racing, kayaking and rafting the Green River, rock climbing, and riding off-road vehicles.  It is a wonderful place to observe some really fantastic geology and to do some great rockhounding.

Collecting locality for cryptocrystalline quartz along the “potash road” near Moab, UT.  The specimens are common in the near foreground.  
James Mitchell in his Gem Trails of Utah  (2006) recorded a number of collecting localities near Moab but I usually find guidebook listings as a hit or miss proposition and prefer to just explore the countryside.  One of the “major” side roads” leading out of Moab is UT 279, the potash road, heading southwest to the mine and processing plant but little else except open land.  The road follows along the north side of Colorado River and is a beautiful drive.  After about 10 miles there are a number of pull offs with great views of the river.  These areas have a thin veneer of gravel and rockhounders should be able to gather a nice supply of chalcedony and flint/chert.  Most of the specimens are of a gray color but they do make great tumbling material.  I found a couple of poorly banded agates but nothing spectacular or colorful.

Collecting locality, and there are many similar localities, along Kane Creek Road.  Examine the open areas in near foreground for specimens. 
South of the River is a road known as the Kane Creek Road leading out from the town to Kane Springs and the Lockhart Basin.  I suggest a high clearance vehicle for the road passes over Hurrah Pass.  After about 12 miles the countryside opens up and prospectors may search the areas along the road for nice, translucent pieces of chalcedony and some banded material called agate; however, the latter material is more of an opaque flint/chert with inclusions.  I also found concentrations of chalcedony chips that obviously represented an area of flint knapping by Early Americans.  These were left undisturbed as Federal Regulations protect such assemblages.

Klondike Bluffs is an area well known to rockhounders since the ground is littered with white, red, and orange chalcedony along with petrified wood fragments.  The Bluffs are located north of Moab about 15 miles on UT 191 to Ten Mile Road just south of the Canyonlands Airport.   Turn west for about 2.75 miles then take the right fork (at the jct. with Old Dead Horse Point Road) for about 1.75 miles.  If you continue on this road for another couple of miles to the intersection with Ruby Ranch Road petrified wood is available.  Another four miles will bring you to Floy Jct. at I-70.  If you return along Ten Mile Road turning south at Old Dead Horse Point Road (the first jct.) will lead you to Dubinky Well and the massive agate, flint, quartz, and jasper fields.  Prospectors could easily pick up a bucket of specimens in 15 minutes; however, one needs to look a little harder for the reddish agates prized by collectors. 

Slope forming Chinle Formation. 

Petrified wood and cryptocrystalline quartz, Chinle Formation. 

Finally, virtually everywhere the Chinle Formation (Late Triassic) crops out near Moab (and all over the Colorado Plateau) collectors have a good chance of finding petrified wood.  Most of the wood near Moab is not a really “good wood” for polishing large slabs.  Some seems OK for tumbling while other pieces show great structure and make nice shelf specimens.
I have collected at a dozen other places near Moab and have always found decent specimens of the microcrystalline quartz minerals.  The rocks are well exposed and a great number of the formations, especially Jurassic and Triassic, contain collectable minerals and petrified wood.  And, the scenery is spectacular.  Before you venture out consider purchasing a state geology map from the Utah Geological Survey ( and topographic maps from the U. S. Geological Survey, or at least a DeLorme Utah Atlas from the local bookstore.  Do not travel in the rain, or when rain is expected, and pay attention to road markers and intersections.

I would have liked to visit with Charlie Steen:  It was $100 million before it was over with, and that was a lot of money in those days. We enjoyed spendin' it, because that's what money is made for. in talking about his uranium strike in 1952.

Mitchell, J. R., 2006, Gem Trails of Utah: Baldwin Park, CA. Gem Guides Book Company.

Ringholz, R. C., 2009, Utah’s Uranium Boom in Beehive 16, Utah History to Go:

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