Black Hills Rockhound Area is one of two Fire Agate collecting areas in southeastern Arizona (Black Hills Rockhound Area and Round Mountain Rockhound Area) on land under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I’d had these areas on my to-do list for quite some time and was so excited to finally visit!
Black Hills Rockhound Area is the easiest to access and (in my opinion) the more scenically attractive of the two. We visited in early November with the Ocotillos glowing in autumnal shades of ruby, copper, and gold before the dark rocky outcroppings of the aptly named Black Hills. Oh, how I love being in these places, whether I find a pretty rock or not.
I’ll provide detailed information on visiting this site below but let me just say – there is a heck of a lot of material out here!
As stated on the BLM website, Black Hills rockhound area is located on the north side of Arizona route 191, between Safford and Clifton, about eighteen (18) miles north of Safford, Arizona.
BEWARE! The coordinates on the BLM website (currently) leady ou to an intersection with the Black Hills Country Byway and NOT the rockhounding location. By navigating to these coordinates and turning off the highway at the Byway you add several unnecessary and rough (although scenic) miles to your trip.
Instead, follow their directions to the signed turnoff for N Cueto Ranch Rd (on your left driving NE on highway 191) at 32.84740, -109.38340. Then it’s less than a two-mile drive (~1.5 mi) on a slightly rough road to the signed parking area at 32.96438, -109.39570.
The satellite views of the BLM parking area show a looped area with a dozen camping sites.
However, we felt the drive in was too rough for our 39 ft toy hauler though it is passable by most standard two-wheel drive vehicles. On future trips, we would probably choose to utilize one of the camping spots nearer the turnoff from the highway at 360 ft and 675 ft in on right hand side coming from the highway.
Haekel Road Dispersed Camping Area
Not knowing exactly what to expect at the rockhounding site, we camped at a BLM dispersal site southeast of Safford, Haekel Road Dispersed Camping, 32.785430, -109.600769. It is a 15-mile drive to Black Hills Rockhound Area from camp. This was very convenient, being close to town with a lot of space and expansive views. See my summary for additional camping options nearby.
Oh wait – What is Fire Agate, anyway?
Fire Agate, considered a semi-precious natural gemstone, is an iridescent variety of Chalcedony (a form of quartz). Fire agate is a phenomenal gem – one that reacts with light to produce an optical effect. The iridescent quality, or “fire”, is created by inclusions of goethite and/or limonite. Found in portions of Mexico and the southwestern United States (Arizona, California, and New Mexico), it is typically brown in color with flashes of yellow, red, green, and orange. Unlike the banded habit of traditional agates, fire agates usually have a botryoidal or bubble-like structure resembling a cluster of grapes. In their raw form they are commonly encased in white, red, or clear globs of chalcedony.
What to look for…
Look for botryoidal or bubbly reddish brown pieces of chalcedony. As stated above, many pieces will be encased in white chalcedony which can be removed later to expose the underlying “fire”. True Fire Agate will have sparkles of yellow, green, red, and even purple when tilted in the sunlight. In most cases this will be difficult to see before removing the brown crust.
I’m here, now where is it?
Most material is across the road from the parking area scattered all over the ground. Believing that the material closest to the parking area must have been well picked over, we headed outward and upward. The agate thinned out but got larger as we headed toward the east – northeast, up the foothills across the road from the parking area.
Playing with Fire Agate or Now what?
Working with Fire Agate to expose its true beauty is a delicate business. I have included some links here explaining the process for removing the chalcedony and brown crust, then sanding and polishing the botryoidal bubbles and crevices to bring out and accentuate the “fire”. Many of those that work with Fire Agate prefer the use of a hand tool such as a Dremel or Flex Shaft with Diamond tips.
I haven’t worked with Fire Agate yet, mostly out of fear, but hope to do so soon on some of the specimens collected at Black Hills and Round Mountain. I’ll be sure to update this post when I do.
Meanwhile, here are some helpful links I have found surfing the web:
- Ryszard Krukowski: Real Time Fire Agate Carving Tutorial
- Fire Agate Mark: Mark has so many tutorials, this link takes you to his YouTube page.
- Caleko & Mining America: How I Damaged Millions Worth of Fire Agate!
Summary & Additional information
I am not an expert! I’ll do the research and reconnaissance and share with you what I discover, but it’s always a good idea to do your own research before heading out into the field.
- Site: Black Hills Rockhound Area
- GPS: 32.96438, -109.39570 to the general area
- Gem, Minerals, and/or Fossils possible: Quartz, agate, chalcedony & fire agate.
- Gem Minerals and/or Fossils found: Quartz, agate, chalcedony & fire agate.
- Mindat Reference: Black Hills Rockhound Area, Black Hills, Graham County, Arizona, USA (mindat.org)
- Rules, Surface, dig, other: I choose to utilize “Leave no trace” principles and am a surface collector, for the most part. The material at this site is on the surface although digging is allowed, with “no undue or unnecessary degradation of the public lands…”. Please – fill in your holes if you choose to dig! There is a daily collection limit of 25 pounds per day, with a total of 250 pounds per year for personal use only. For more information on the rules and regulations for collecting here and on other public lands in Arizona, please click here.
- Public land authority or private ownership:
- US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management
- PHONE: (928) 348-4400
- EMAIL: email@example.com
- ADDRESS: Safford Field Office, 711 14th Avenue, Safford, AZ 85546
- Fee to Dig or Collect: No fee
- Drive in classifications 2x, 4x, UTV, or Foot: Not too bad… a bit washboarded and rutted but passable by a standard two-wheel vehicle.
- Hike Classification (Difficult, Moderate, a stroll in the park): A “moderate” stroll in the park. The terrain is somewhat hilly with some steep sided dry washes you may choose to negotiate. The obstacles encountered here are prickly pear cactus, ocotillo, and red ant hills. The ants were less aggressive here than at Round Mountain.
- Hike Distance: Entirely up to you – there are interesting pieces of chalcedony scattered alongside the road, stretching out into the desert and up the foothills.
- Environment (Desert, Forest, etc.): Desert, Wash, Canyon, and Foothills
- Safety concerns: Typical of a desert environment; watch out for poisonous creatures & predators, carry a safety tracking tool and paper map, always tell someone where you are going and if possible, do not go alone, take plenty of water, be sure your vehicle has plenty of fuel and check your tires before heading out.
- Where we stayed: We stayed at Haekel Road Dispersed Camping site near Safford, 32.79358, -109.59254, 14.8 miles SW of Black Hills Rockhound Area
- Camping nearby: Dispersed camping for up to 2 weeks is allowed at the rockhounding site, however, I would not recommend it for your average RV’r. The road is just too rough. But if you have a 4×4 outfitted RV, or are car or tent camping, you should be just fine. In fact, I’m sure the stars and the quiet are quite glorious out there!
- Otherwise, there are several options in Safford, Clifton, Duncan and as far away as Willcox . I recommend utilizing the Campendium app to research your options. Here is a list of the options I considered:
- Interesting things to do and see nearby:
- Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area: 2,000 acres of sand dunes to ride in, camping and hot tubs to soak in! Thirty-two miles SE of Safford on Haekel Rd.
- Safford Hot Springs: Hot Well Dunes (mentioned above), Kachina Mineral Springs, Essence of Tranquility, and Roper Lake State Park
- Clifton and Morenci Mining Towns; Explore the copper towns of yesterday and today located in rural Greenlee County.
- Willcox Wine Tasting and Bird Watching; located about forty-seven miles to the southwest of Black Hills Rockhound Area
- Willcox produces 74% of the wine grapes grown in Arizona. According to Wines of Willcox, there are 21 wine tasting rooms in the Wilcox area. Access a handy map here.
- The Willcox Playa, Cochise Lake and nearby Chiricahua National Monument are popular birdwatching sites, with over 20,000 sandhill cranes visiting the playa every winter. Click here for more information.
- Wilcox hosts a festival every January in their honor, “Wings over Willcox”.