Your first stop for rock hounding in Central Oregon

By Patrick Johnson
For Oregon.com
 
Consider Elkins Gem Store the unofficial center for all things rock hounding in Central Oregon.
 
The store is located on the edge of Prineville and is crammed full of ear rings, book ends, and thousands of examples of what can be found by a little poking and prodding the high desert soil. But the true treasure in the store, is knowledge.
 
Judy Elkins is the second generation of her family who has owned the store, and since 1958 it has been the hub of rock hounds looking for petrified wood or other finds.
 
“This area has a wide variety of things in a relatively short distance,” Elkins says standing behind a display case filled with some of the jewelry she makes. “This area, along with the areas around Madras and Paulina, is the premier rock hounding area, period. There is more variety here in Central Oregon as there is east of the Mississippi as far as agates and jasper. It’s the hot spot.”
 
From the Oregon state rock, the thunderegg, to agates to jasper to petrified wood, there are several areas where people can go and with some basic digging tools can start to hunt for local treasures.
 
Elkins isn’t afraid to take people out to the rock pile behind the shop and give lessons on what to look for and even send people away with examples so they can compare what they find.
 
“It’s funny, it never fails I will send a beginner out, and they will come back with a find that I haven’t been able to discover in 25 years,” Elkins says with a laugh. “It’s luck.”
 
She wants people to enjoy their first experience with the hobby and her livelihood. In the shop she has examples of what you can find in its raw state, free maps and will even venture to the parking lot to make sure your vehicle is up to the task.
 
While there are state maps that can be bought, the real treasure-trove at Elkins Gem Stones are the free maps which have been created over the years by her family.
 
“I will tell people where the hot places are, or areas that might be right for their skill level,” she says.
Elkins said there are commercial rockhounding areas to visit and there are a number of public areas, and she can point you in the right direction. The hand-drawn maps are easy to follow and free. For a wide-scale view, Elkins also has a larger map, with written directions on the back that is very easy to follow and gives helpful advice. For example, the directions to Glass Butte not only outlines driving directions, but points out that you can find obsidian in the area and advises people to “keep to the roads – obsidian can cut tires!”
 
“You will find the rock hounding community tries to help each other,” Elkins says. “Especially for beginners.”
 
There are also other maps, produced by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce that are $4 and outline a number of sites both private and public in the area, as well.
 
The closest rock hounding locations are about seven miles away from her shop, however each location is different in what you can find, and how hard you want to work.
 
“The close one has a bit of a hike,” she says. “But there are quite a few where you can drive right up, get out and start looking. A lot of these you can drive to within feet, sometimes with 50 yards. It’s not like you have to go out and hike 50 miles and hope you find something. Most of these places you can drive right to.”
 
About the Elkins: Ask anyone who visits Central Oregon to hunt for agates, stones, or other minerals or treasures and they will point you toward Elkins Gem Stones in Prineville. The store, which has been there since 1958, offers everything from finished bookends made of petrified wood, to earrings, to free advice and maps of the area.
 
What to bring: If you are going to the store looking to take your first rock hounding trip, make sure you have basic tools like a shovel and wear weather-appropriate clothing. If you are going to visit the shop to buy some finished pieces, then it much like visiting a small mom-and-pop jewelry store.
 
Tip: If you want to take a quick lesson in rock hounding, it’s best to call first, and also make sure that you wear the appropriate clothing. High heels or shorts in October probably aren’t a good idea if you are going to go out and dig. There are also basic rules of rock hounding to follow – such as honor no trespassing signs – and Elkins will give you a run down, especially if it’s your first time.
 
Season: The store is open year-round.
 
Getting there: Elkins Gem Stones is located at 972 S Main, on the edge of Prineville. Head into downtown Prineville and you can’t miss Main Street. Turn to the south and it is on the left about one half mile towards the fairgrounds.