When rockhounds go looking for garnets in the low-slung hills of eastern Nevada, they rarely come back empty-handed—provided they know how and where to look. Like some kind of crystalized wildflowers, the raw gemstones, or “buds,” seem to spring from the volcanic rock around the perimeter of Garnet Hill.
Hunting for the semi-precious stones is a time-honored tradition in these parts, a dreamy landscape that has offered up countless raw materials over the course of U.S. western expansion. From copper to oil and stone quarries to gold, prospecting of all kinds has kept geologists and rockhounds alike on the trail of Nevada’s natural resources. The area around Garnet Hill, overlooking the enormous Ruth copper mine, might be a bit off the beaten path, but it’s worth the journey.
The hill rises about 7,000 feet above sea level, and the dirt road to get there, right off Highway 50, is twisty and fairly steep in some parts (don’t expect an RV to make up). Tens of millions of years ago it was an active volcano, spewing out massive amounts of rhyolite that spread a mile in diameter and laid the groundwork for future gem hunters. As the molten rock cooled to the drab gray that gives the hillside much of its muted palette, inside are the buds of almandine garnets of a deep russet red. They can sometimes been found poking right out of the sharp stone, or even rolling around on their own after a good rain or snow melt, having been washed free from their rhyolite prison.
To get to the buds lurking inside, all that is needed is a small hammer, some good gloves, and a little bit of patience. You probably won’t find too many that are jewel quality, but like wildflowers, the subtle beauties that surprise are sometimes the most worthwhile to hunt down.
Since garnets have traditionally been seen as restorative and protective crystals, whether you believe in their magical qualities or not, you’ll be following in some ancient footsteps: the red stones were a favorite of medieval knights, often found embedded in their shields and swords to guard against night demons, and even plain old insomnia.
Know Before You Go
Garnet Hill is about 7 miles northwest of Ely in east-central Nevada. Take Route 50 west out of town for about 7 miles and you'll come to an intersection with a left turn to Ruth, and a dirt road to the right. Keep going another quarter mile and you'll see the turn-off for Garnet Hill. The road is narrow, windy and steep in some places, so check ahead for conditions, and check out the website at right for more information. There are some picnic and camping spots nearby, and bring along a small hammer, a shovel and some gloves for busting up the larger stones to let loose the garnet crystals hiding inside.