Utah is an extraordinary state for rockhounding. The state’s mineral and fossil resources are legendary. In addition, the state’s National Parks and National Monuments are geologic wonders. Much of Utah is public lands and a good deal of that property remains available for recreational rockhounders. I've been to Utah several times, but only had one flat tire while rockhounding in the middle of nowhere. Dad was a little worried that time as we discovered we had a flat tire when we rolled down the window - on a gravel/dirt road in the middle of nowhere - to take a picture of what looked to be a rattlesnake. So, mom stood guard while dad changed the tire. He worked very, very fast.
State Rocks, Gemstones, Minerals, Fossils, & Dinosaurs
Rockhounding Tip: Knowing state rocks, gemstones, minerals, fossils, and dinosaurs often can be very useful information for rockhounders. Ordinarily, states with significant mineral deposits, valuable gemstones, fossils, or unusual or significant rock occurrences will designate an official state mineral, rock/stone, gemstone, fossil, or dinosaur to promote interest in the state’s natural resources, history, tourism, etc. Accordingly, such state symbols often are a valuable clue as to potential worthwhile rockhounding opportunities.
Utah designated coal as its official state rock in 1991. Coal originates as plant matter that accumulated in prehistoric wetlands and bogs. Coal begins to form when anaerobic bacteria break down plant material and converts it to peat through the removal of oxygen and hydrogen. The peat then is buried by sediment and more plant material, raising the temperature and pressure of the peat. As the peat compresses, water and methane gas are forced out, leaving an increasing proportion of carbon. With increasing heat and pressure the peat is converted successively into lignite, subbituminous coal, bituminous coal, and anthracite. Most of the coal mined in Utah is bituminous. Coal is found in 17 of Utah's 29 counties, but coal mining is primarily concentrated in Emery and Carbon Counties. Coal-burning power plants supply about half of the electricity used in the United States (and nearly all of the electricity used by ‘green electric/hybrid automobiles’).
Gemstone: Topaz (1969)
Utah designated topaz as its official state gemstone in 1969. Topaz is a hard (Mohs scale 8), semiprecious gem. In Utah, topaz occurs in Beaver, Juab, and Tooele counties. At Topaz Mountain, in the Thomas Mountain Range in Juab County, Utah, topaz occurs as crystals (and also as small stubby ‘sharpened pencil’ style crystals) along with other minerals in cavities within the gray rhyolite, a Tertiary Period volcanic rock that erupted approximately six to seven million years ago from volcanic vents along faults in the area. The Topaz Mountain topaz crystals naturally are amber, golden, or light brown in color, but turn colorless after exposure to sunlight.
Mineral: Copper (1994)
Utah designated copper as its official state mineral in 1994. Most of the copper mined in Utah comes from Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine in the Oquirrh Mountains southwest of Salt Lake City. The Bingham Canyon mine is the world's largest open-pit copper mine, measuring 0.5 mile deep and 2.5 miles wide. It is enormous. The mine has produced over twelve million tons of copper since open-pit operations began in 1906. This production figure is eight times the total metallic mineral yield from the Comstock Lode, Klondike, and California Gold Rushes combined. Copper is a versatile and widely used mineral due mainly to its conductive properties (heat and electricity). It is used in electronics, plumbing, transportation, and in alloys (a mixture of two or more metals).
Utah designated Allosaurus as its official state fossil in 1988. Allosaurus was a Late Jurassic (about 156 - 145 million years ago) theropod dinosaur. It was a fierce carnivore, thirty to forty feet long (including its long tail, which was used for balance), with massive hind legs, a huge head with serrated teeth, short heavy arms with three-fingered hands with ripping claws up to six inches in length. This enormous carnivore would have hunted the largest plant-eaters, including the massive sauropods. Utah chose the Allosaurus as the official state fossil because more Allosaurus specimens had been found in Utah's two main quarries than any other dinosaur. Allosaurus is found in the Morrison Formation. The Morrison Formation is famous for its dinosaurs, and is widely exposed in the western states, especially in Utah. These sediments represent a lowland plains environment dotted with lakes and streams, and were formed during the Late Jurassic Period. At that time, the Ancestral Rockies were worn down to low hills, and the present Rocky Mountains had yet to form. Although fragmentary bones of Allosaurus were reported as early as 1869, the first nearly complete specimen was found in 1883 by M. P. Felch in Colorado. In 1927, however, a sheepherder stumbled upon a concentration of bones in eastern Utah that eclipsed all previous finds. Over 500 bones were excavated during the first field season alone. The area became known as the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry (and now is part of Dinosaur National Monument), and to date has yielded over 15,000 bones representing individuals of Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Ceratosaurus, among others.
State-specific rockhounding books (including the books listed here as well as other books), regional rockhounding site guides, and other helpful rockhounding resources are identified - by category - in the Books & Gear section of Gator Girl Rocks with a link to the Gator Girl Rocks Amazon Store where you may easily browse selected resources and securely place an order. Your order will benefit Charity Rocks!
Utah Geological Survey
For rockhounders, the Utah Geological Survey is one of the very best in America. Very useful resources including resources of collecting.
BLM – Utah
Much of the State of Utah consists of federal public lands. The Bureau of Land Management manages nearly twenty-three million acres of federal public lands in Utah, which is over forty percent of the state. The Utah BLM’s paleontology resources are very useful.
This travel site includes major Utah mineral and fossil rockhounding locations.
- James R. Mitchell, Gem Trails of Utah (Rev. 2d ed., 2007).
- William A. Kappele, Rockhounding Utah (1996).
- Halka Chronic, Roadside Geology of Utah (1990).
- Richard L. Orndorff, Robert W. Wieder, & David G. Futey, Geology Underfoot in Southern Utah (2006).
- Allan W. Eckert, Earth Treasures Vol. 4B - Southwestern Quadrant (1987; reprint in 2000).
- James Martin Monaco & Jeannette Hathway Monaco, Fee Mining & Rockhounding Adventures in the West (2d ed. 2007).
- Kathy J. Rygle & Stephen F. Pedersen, Southwest Treasure Hunter's Gem & Mineral Guide (4th ed. 2008).
Museums of Interest to Rockhounders
Natural History Museum
of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center
University of Utah – Rio Tinto Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
The Natural History Museum of Utah exhibits rocks, minerals, gems, and fossils. Exhibits include a Hall of Gems & Minerals as well the Eccles Gallery, which brings Utah’s Late Cretaceous and Eocene to life.
Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum
Within an 80-mile radius of Vernal, evidence of the entire Earth's history is visible. At its center is the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. The park is a showcase of eastern Utah's geologic past and natural history. The main features are the museum and the Dinosaur Garden. A wealth of geologic, paleontologic, archaeologic and biologic specimens is displayed, reviewing the natural history of the Uinta Mountains and Uinta Basin.
BYU Museum of Paleontology
Brigham Young University – Provo, Utah
The BYU Museum of Paleontology describes its collection as one of the top five Jurassic Period fossil collections in the world.
USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum
Utah State University College of Eastern Utah – Price, Utah
The museum, located near the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, exhibits local fossils including dinosaurs in its Hall of Dinosaurs.
Salt Lake City, Utah
The Clark Planetarium is one of the few institutions to have an authentic moon rock sample on permanent loan from NASA. This rock was obtained from the Apollo 15 mission. The Clark Planetarium also exhibits meteorites.
Tintic Mining Museum
In the late 1800s, the Tintic Mining District was a rich gold mining district. The museum exhibits local mining tools.
John Hutchings Museum of Natural History
The museum’s exhibits include rock, minerals, and fossils.
Places to Visit - Interesting Sites To See
Southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah
Most of the copper mined in Utah comes from Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine in the Oquirrh Mountains on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The Bingham Canyon mine is the world's largest open-pit copper mine, measuring 0.5 miles deep and 2.5 miles wide. For perspective, the Sears Tower is 1,454 feet tall and would reach only half way up the side of the pit. The mine has produced over twelve million tons of copper since open-pit operations began in 1906. This production figure is eight times the total metallic mineral yield from the Comstock Lode, Klondike, and California Gold Rushes combined.
Utah & Colorado
Dinosaur National Monument protects a large deposit of fossil bones of creatures that lived nearly 150 million years ago. The rock layer enclosing the fossils is a sandstone and conglomerate bed of alluvial or river bed origin known as the Morrison Formation from the Jurassic Period 150 million years ago. The dinosaurs and other ancient animals were washed into the area and buried presumably during flooding events. The pile of sediments were later buried and lithified into solid rock. The layers of rock were later uplifted and tilted to their present angle by the mountain building forces that formed the Uinta Mountains. This site provides one of the best snapshots of Jurassic dinosaurs found anywhere in the world. Dinosaur National Monument is special because visitors can see fossils exposed on the cliff face of the Douglass Quarry at the visitor center. The quarry was named after Earl Douglass, the paleontologist who found it.
Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
South of Price, Utah
The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is one of the world's foremost fossil resources. As the world's only possible dinosaur predator trap, it preserves the most concentrated collection of Jurassic dinosaur bones on earth. Bones of 74 individual dinosaurs have been excavated, of which 66% belong to the meat eater Allosaurus. In total, more than 12,000 bones have been excavated. Yet to be uncovered are several thousand more bones. Display skeletons from this quarry are on exhibit in more than 65 museums throughout the world.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park includes nine formations that, together, represent 150 million years of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation. The Navajo Sandstone is visible throughout the Park. The Park’s Zion Canyon includes fabulous geologic sites and also is home to Angel’s Landing (which I climbed). At the east entrance of the park you can see - but not collect - iron oxide concretions in the Navajo Sandstone. These concretions popularly are called Moqui Marbles.
Bryce Canyon National Park’s signature feature is Bryce Canyon, which is not a canyon. Rather, it is an enormous natural amphitheater created by erosion of the sedimentary rock. Bryce Canyon, which is 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, includes numerous geologic structures called hoodoos, which are formed by erosion of the sedimentary rock. The Claron formation at Bryce is younger than Zion, which is younger than the rocks at the Grand Canyon. Bryce is famous for its hoodoos which are eroded rock formations. I visited Bryce Canyon National Park in 2010. And, yes, Mom had me up before sunrise to see the spectacular sunrise at Bryce Canyon … followed by a several mile hike through the Canyon. Drink please!!
Capitol Reef National Park
South Central Utah
Capitol Reef National Park encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust that is 65 million years old. It is the largest exposed monocline in North America. "Capitol Reef" is the name of an especially rugged and spectacular segment of the Waterpocket near the Fremont River. The area was named for a line of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, each of which looks a bit like the U.S. Capitol building.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is well known for its natural sandstone arches. The park has hundreds of arches as well as other geologic resources and formations.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument – ah, the site of the incident … where dad nearly had a break – has geologic features similar to Bryce Canyon National Park. Cedar Breaks – which is 10,000 feet above sea level – has a natural amphitheater canyon three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep.
Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which covers approximately two million acres, used to be a very popular area for rockhounds. Today, rockhounding there (like all national parks and monuments) is prohibited. Collecting now must be with your memory or a camera. Escalante has fabulous slot canyons as well as interesting rock and fossil occurrences. Much of Escalante, however, is remote and some of the roads are questionable.
Timpanogos Cave National Monument
South of Salt Lake City, Utah
Timpanogos Cave National Monument is a cave system in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. The cave system includes many colorful cave features or speleothems including and cave columns, flowstone, stalactites, stalahmites, and helictites. Helictites, which are like hollowed straws of rock, are thought to be formed when water travels through the tube and then evaporates, leaving a small mineral deposit at the end.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Rainbow Bridge National Monument is adjacent to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Monument protects the longest known natural bridge in the world. Rainbow Bridge is formed from Late Triassic and Jurassic sandstone.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument includes the second longest natural bridge in the world, which was formed from the white Permian sandstone.
Kodachrome Basin State Park
Geologists believe that Kodachrome Basin State Park once had hot springs and geysers (like Yellowstone National Park). The area, however, eventually filled up with sediment and solidified ad, over time, the Entrada sandstone surrounding the solidified geysers eroded, leaving large sand pipes. Numerous sand pipes occur throughout the park. The park was named by a 1948 National Geographic Society expedition after the popular color film from that generation.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
Near Escalante, Utah
The visitor center includes displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old. The park includes a Petrified Forest Trail, which is a one-mile loop that winds through lava flows and thousands of pieces of petrified wood.
Dinosaur Discovery Site
St. George, Utah
The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is home to exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur tracks, some displaying skin impressions. These tracks, along with hundreds of fossil fish, plants, rare dinosaur remains, invertebrates traces and important sedimentary structures, show evidence that this site was produced along the western edge of a large, Early Jurassic (age between 198-195 million years ago) freshwater lake named Lake Dixie. The museum houses over 2000 dinosaur tracks and other Early Jurassic fossils and geological specimens.
At left is a picture of me with the owner, Scott Nelson. Scott's rock shop is near the Escalante National Monument Headquarters. He knows a great deal about Utah rocks. We even traded some specimens.
Rockhounding Sites for Children & Families
Great Salt Lake, Utah
In 2009, we visited Promontory Point (where the transcontinental railroad was completed) and the spiral jetty both of which are at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. This also provided a good opportunity to see salt crystals ... and a big snake.
Topaz Mountain – Juab County, Utah
The topaz crystals at Topaz Mountain are naturally amber colored, but become colorless after exposure to sunlight. The crystals formed within cavities of the Topaz Mountain Rhyolite, a volcanic rock that erupted approximately six to seven million years ago from volcanic vents along faults in the area. Single colorless topaz crystals can be found in the washes around Topaz Mountain. Crystals are usually less than an inch long. Larger amber crystals or clusters of topaz and other minerals can be found by breaking open the white rhyolite to find cavities.
Dugway Geode Beds
Juab County, Utah
BLM property. Approximately 6 to 8 million years ago (Miocene epoch), volcanic activity occurred in western Utah and deposited an extrusive igneous rock called rhyolite. Trapped gasses formed cavities within the rhyolite, and millions of years of ground-water circulation allowed minerals to precipitate into the cavities. The result is geodes with spherical shapes and crystal-lined cavities. Roughly 32,000 to 14,000 thousand years ago, a large body of water known as Lake Bonneville covered most of western Utah. The lake's wave activity eroded the geode-bearing rhyolite and redeposited the geodes several miles away in the Dugway geode bed area as lake sediments.
Sunstone Knoll – Millard County, Utah
BLM property west of Delta, Utah. Sunstone Knoll is formed of volcanic vents that erupted during the early Pleistocene (1.6 million years to about 750,000 years ago). These eruptions left deposits of basaltic lava and volcanic breccia (angular, broken rock fragments held together in a matrix of finer grained material). Sunstone is a transparent, yellowish labradorite (a plagioclase feldspar mineral) found as crystals in these volcanic rocks and on the flats surrounding the knoll.
Smoky Quartz & Feldspar
Beaver County, Utah
BLM property. The Mineral Mountains, located in Beaver County, make up the largest exposed plutonic body in Utah. Rock compositions range from quartz monzonite in the northern half of the pluton to granite around Rock Corral Canyon in the south. Excellent crystals of smoky quartz and feldspar are found in vugs or cavities in the granite. They formed when cooling fractures in the granite were filled by late-stage pegmatites consisting of quartz, microcline, and plagioclase. Quartz occurs as clear to smoky, euhedral crystals up to three inches long while microcline is commonly found as euhedral, equidimensional crystals averaging approximately 0.75 inches in width. Occasionally, large pseudomorphs of limonite after pyrite can be found in these areas as well.
Millard County, Utah
BLM property. Approximately 2.5 million years ago (late Tertiary Period), volcanic eruptions in the Black Spring area of the Black Rock Desert in western Utah spewed out the volcanic rocks rhyolite, pumice, and obsidian. Obsidian is a dark-colored volcanic glass formed when molten lava cools quickly. It is usually black but colored varieties range from brown to red. Snowflake obsidian, a black obsidian with whitish-gray spots (spherulites) of radiating needle-shaped cristobalite (high-temperature quartz) crystals, is also found in the Black Rock Desert.
Delta County, Utah
Commercial (fee-access) business. Rockhounders can find 500 million year old trilobites. The site is well off the beaten path. Plan ahead. The folks who run this site are wonderful. We visited in October 2006 and had a great time.