Rockhounds Find Treasures In Rim Country

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Are you one of those people who love snatching up rocks you see along a hiking trail? Do you see rocks on the ground and wonder what's inside them? There's a name for folks like you -- it's "rockhound."

There are several places to look for unusual rocks around Payson. One easy and favorite place is about 15 miles north of town, off Houston Mesa Road at the Control Road, near Whispering Pines.

Lynne Wheeler, a member of the Payson Rimstones Rock Club, took us on a rock and fossil hunt in this area.

Nearly anyone can join in the fun.

"You don't need to be in good shape or a hiker. Many times you don't have to drive or walk that far to find good specimens," she said.

"Fossils are our timetable to our history. Most of the fossils around here are 200 to 300 million years old. The idea that you find something intact, a good specimen to share with other people, is amazing," she said.

Don't try to tell Wheeler that all rocks look the same, because she'll disagree with you. "I enjoy finding different rocks and fossils. The Mogollon Rim has so much to offer and so many different kinds of rocks to see. There is so much geological history here," she said.

Local archaeologist Penny Minturn agrees, and says the Mogollon Rim is a gorgeous part of the state. "The Rim was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. This entire area used to be under seawater. A plateau lifted up and that's how we got the Mogollon Rim," she said.

The shifting of land and water over millions of years left behind wonderful rock, mineral and fossil specimens.

Take Houston Mesa Road to the Control Road and follow it to the left, about 7/10 of a mile. All along that road, and the trails running off it, rocks and fossils are just lying on the ground.

During our informal excursion, we picked up dozens of brain rocks, which are also called Arizona geodes. They do look like little brains, but unlike a human brain, these are perfectly round.

Finding rocks and breaking them open is like splitting a piece of See's Candy. You don't really know what's inside until you break it open and see. And like that piece of chocolate, sometimes the stuff inside the rocks is attractive to the eye, and sometimes it's not. Inside you may find all kinds of quartz crystals of various colors and sizes. We're told you have a one-in-a-hundred chance of finding purple amethyst crystals inside some of those round rocks.

Wheeler often takes Scout troops to this site along the Control Road. "The idea of cracking a rock open and being the first person to see the inside is exciting for everyone, especially kids," she said.

Protect your eyes

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Arizona geodes are beautiful and frequently found along the Mogollon Rim.

Wheeler stresses that you should always wear safety glasses when you're breaking open rocks, or put the rocks in a pillowcase or a bag you can close, and then hit the rocks with a hammer. You don't want the rock chips flying into your eyes.

Wheeler has been active in the Payson Rimstones Rock Club for about six years. Prior to living in Payson, she was a teacher in the Valley. Even then, she brought geology into the classroom because she says it was something fun that all students could get involved in.

We found dozens of fossils on our excursion, too. We found brachiopods, which were sea animals from about 570 million years ago. They look like fans and were imbedded in rock. They used to be the most common shellfish millions of years ago, but only a few live in the oceans today.

We also found crinoids. They were sea animals that looked like little tubes, and long ago they had feather-like stems extending from the top.

Ancient clams can also be found in our area. They lived in warm, shallow seas and, like today, enjoyed burying themselves in the sand and mud. Other fossils you can find include horn coral, coral clusters and hexagonal coral.

Allow yourself a couple of hours to scour the forest floor for these goodies. We barely got out of our Jeep before finding dozens of samples to take home.

Archeologist Minturn not only loves this area for its diversity in geological formations and finds, but for its archeological sites. "There have been people here for thousands of years. While walking along Rim area trails, we have found pieces of pottery and other artifacts that tell us this has always been a good place to live. There were lots of villages here dating back to 500 A.D.," she added.

If you dig crystals, you can do just that -- close to Payson. Here's how you get to a commonly visited spot:

Take Highway 260 toward Christopher Creek. At the turnoff on your left (about 10 miles from Payson), take Forest Road 64 and, after five miles, turn onto Forest Road 65 and head toward the Diamond Point fire tower.

For years, the Forest Service has allowed people to do shallow digs for crystals there. As of the last day of February 2006, you will be allowed only to pick up crystals lying on the ground, to prevent overdigging in the area.

So, whether you're interested in geodes, fossils or crystals, you'll find treasures all around our Rim Country.

Web sites for rockhounds and educators

  • www.rmfms.org -- Rocky Mountain Federation of Mineralogical Societies
  • www.amfed.org -- American Federation of Mineralogical Societies
  • www2.nature.nps.gov/grd -- National Parks Service -- Park Geology
  • members.home.net/kostek/kostek/Home.html -- Rock and mineral studies for elementary teachers.
  • www.uky.edu/KGS/education/education.html -- Earth Science Education Network
  • goldmaps.com -- maps showing gold deposits from official state and federal records on gold panning and prospecting

Other area sites for rocks and fossils

  • Top of Rim -- take Highway 87 through Strawberry. Turn right onto Forest Road 608, which is just after milepost 277. Take the left fork to a pit. It was dug by the highway department and is loaded with fossils. This is also a great hiking spot to overlook Pine.
  • Near Tonto Village -- From Payson, take Highway 260 about 16 miles to the Control Road. (It's also the road to Tonto Village.) Turn left and drive about four miles to Forest Road 29, then turn right onto Forest Road 29A. You'll need a high clearance and probably a 4x4 vehicle to get into this area. Here you can find red horn coral, brachiopods, coral heads, crinoids' stems and some red, yellow and white colored agate.

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