Gemorama is fabulous adventure hidden in Death Valley California where you can participate in 3 field trips where you can find and haul away unique crystal specimens of any size.
I had no idea what I signed up for when I agreed to join my husband asked and our Boy Scout troop to Trona, California to go crystal hunting during Gemorama this past weekend. My eldest son, The Professor, went with the troop 3 years earlier and had a great time.
But, in all honesty, we didn’t get much of a description of the event despite our numerous question and prying details from a 12-year old boy. I’m sure you understand how successful that is. So, I had to see it for myself.
Over the weekend, I learned that 2016 was the 75th-Annual Gem-o-rama held in Trona, California. Where the heck is Trona, California? It’s a small town southwest of Death Valley, with less than 2000 residents.
The town’s origins began in the late 1800’s when the mining industry discovered the dry Searles Lake Bed to be rich in borax. Today, Searles Valley Minerals processes brine solutions to produce boric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, borax and salt.
And once a year, SVM opens the dry lake bed so the public can go crystal hunting. Gem-o-rama is organized by the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society and SVM. There are three field trips over one weekend where crystal and geology enthusiasts can collect as many specimens as they can haul in a 2.5-hour window.
Each field trip is different and you can choose which trip you want to partake in, even all three, like we did.
We arrived early that Saturday morning and parked nose-to-tail in long lines in the dirt parking lot next to the Gem Society’s small building. Inside, you purchase your tickets. You cannot purchase your tickets before the event.
During the weekend, you can enjoy the vendors selling their rocks, minerals and fossils inside this same building. There are also displays and beautiful specimens of crystals found Searles Lake.
Each field trip begins with the parking of the cars in the same fashion. We all caravan at the same time to the destination. You can leave whenever you have your fill of crystals and minerals, but you can not stay past the 2.5-hour window.
Gem-o-rama mud trip
This is first field trip available Saturday morning. SVM dumps piles of black mud at a site for all of us to forage through. As you drive through the dry lake bed, I was amazed by what I saw.
The parched ground is covered with cracks and salt. Some brine pools are still full, and with no breeze that morning, they were as smooth as glass and reflective as a mirror. We had gorgeous weather.
Even though we were in one of the most desolate part of California, the skies were blue and the temperature peaked at about 80-degrees F.
It is October and significantly cooler than the unbearable summer temperatures. The brown landscape contrasted sharply with the bright blue sky. I made a comment about the 50-shades of brown I saw, then we drove past a small patch of wild grass.
“How can THAT grow here in this salty dirt?” my husband mused.
After driving 5-10 minutes, we arrived at the mud site. Hundreds of cars were already parked before us, and the black mud was filled with people crawling over it and searching for their treasure.
During the mud field trip, you will find Hanksite, Trona and Borax crystals. Hanksite is ONLY found here in Trona, CA. And in a dry lake bed in Uganda. Trona is a whole lot easier to get to. So it is no wonder why so many people come here.
The sizes of the crystals you find vary considerably. When you see the thousands of people rummaging through the mud, you probably think that all the good pieces are taken. But, SVM provides PLENTY for everyone to enjoy.
My husband told our kids that we didn’t need to fill the house with crystals and that he didn’t need to take a big piece home. I now wish we hadn’t listened to him.
There were massive Hanksite clusters several feet long, boulders even, if you had a big truck that could haul it home. I saw people were wheeling small wagons full of crystals – and making several trips to the car.
To find the best specimens, you use a trowel or pick axe to pull the rocks from the mud. Then you feel around the muddy rock and look for smooth edges. USE GLOVES. Crystals have sharp edges and you can cut yourself very easily.
Plus, the mud is clay based and is ridiculously sticky and hard to remove. It is recommended that you collect your specimens in a large bucket for easing hauling and cleaning. Everyone was sporting a large orange Home Depot bucket, so make sure you have your name on it!
Once you have what you want, it’s time to wash off the mud. The crystals you collect during Gemorama are made of salt. In order to clean it, you use brine to wash away the mud. Plain water will scratch your crystals and dissolve them. No plain water, use brine.
There are troughs of brine at the mud site, but it was packed full of people. My kids squeezed in and used brushes to scrub the mud off. You can use small toothbrushes, to dish washing brushes and even toilet bowl brushes – brand new toilet bowl brushes, please!
At this site, you can purchase trowels, brushes and brine. You can also purchase bottles of water and soda. There is regular water trucks available to wash your hands.
Remember, you are washing your rocks with brine. And in the super dry weather, the water evaporates and your body and clothes are covered with salt. So wear work clothes you are willing to toss out when the trip is over.
Gem-o-rama blow hole trip
Saturday afternoon is the second field trip – to the Blow Hole. After experiencing the mud and seeing crystals in all shapes and sizes, I felt a bit cocky and confident in what I was doing.
This field trip has no mud. Holes are drilled days before Gemorama and compressed air and brine are pushed through, blowing crystals out of the hole. When you arrive to this site, it looks like there are piles of rocks and gravel.
As you walk closer, you realize you are walking over crystals. These are smaller in size than what we found during the mud trip. We dug around seeing millions of crystal pieces and unsure of what we were doing or looking for.
Everyone at Gemorama is ridiculously nice and helpful. Doubly so towards kids. We were quickly showed what to look for and we began looking through the haystack, searching for our needle.
Middle Child did not take this particular trip very seriously and was haphazardly digging about. Yet, he found the most beautiful pieces of Hanksite. Very little, if any, cleaning is needed for the crystals you find at this trip. But, again, clean with brine NOT water.
Sulfohalite is another crystal you can discover at the Blow Hole trip, though not as easy to find as Hanksite. They are small crystals and shaped like to pyramids stacked together at the base. I realized after we left that we only collected Hanksite. But they were beautiful pieces and we were pretty happy with what we collected.
For the Blow Hole, you need a trowel to dig through the pile of crystals. I used my hands since the kids were using the tools and later realized that I had small cuts on my fingers.
Gloves help, but if you use a trowel, you should be fine. Plus, the crystals are smaller and gloves can make it harder to handle them.
Gem-o-rama pink halite trip
Sunday morning hosts the most popular of the three field trips: a visit to the brine pools to dig up pink halite. Because the hubs kept us from collecting large pieces, I promised my daughter we would get her a big pink halite, as it would fit beautifully in her incredibly pink bedroom.
This is the wet field trip where you slosh around in pools of brine. Halite is a clear crystal and impurities can turn it into many different colors. The pink halite of Searles Lake gets its reddish color bacteria that is present in the brine.
The bacteria get trapped during the halite crystallization process, producing it’s brilliant pink color. The brine pools are created after winter rains flood the area. As the rains end, the water eventually evaporates.
The drought has caused a shortage of pink halite, so SVM pours in brine to insure a hearty supply for Gemorama participants.
The brine pools this year were covered with small salt islands. Some areas had more brine than rock salt, while other areas had more solid salt than brine. The pools vary in depth, but most of what we walked through was only a couple feet deep, if even that deep.
I couldn’t get over the bright red color as I hopped from rock to rock trying to save my sneakers from a salty death. You do have to step carefully as some areas only have a thin layer of salt. It reminded me walking over an ice-covered lake.
To find the cube-shaped crystal halite, you feel under the salt islands, in the water. These ledges are where the crystals grow. Sunlight fades the color, so you want to find the crystals that formed in the shade or underwater.
At first we couldn’t find good specimens of pink halite. Again, as newbies we had a big learning curve. Middle Child to the rescue again. He found our first piece. Although the halite crystals are small, the colors were so spectacular we knew we had to take it home with us.
The Professor began to notice people hauling big chunks of pink halite. I’m talking about the size of a small dog. He went off in the direction they came from to explore. I then heard him calling us over, “They are over here!”
There was more brine in this area and we saw people with their massive chunks of pink halite. Eureka!
You need a large spike to break through rocks and cut off the pink halite. My husband cut one for our Princess and thought we were done. Nope. We searched for more.
These crystals were a beautiful light baby pink color with nice sized cubes of crystals. We were mighty proud of ourselves. We brought home 4 large pieces as well as smaller chunks, too.
Several other scouts founds a brilliant magenta colored halite in another area of the brine pools. The crystals were smaller than our lighter pink versions, as they were “younger” halite growths. But they are just beautiful, aren’t they?
Pink halite can be brittle and fragile, especially the thin magenta pieces. But, we wrapped them in plastic bags and packed them carefully. They all made it home safe.
Where to stay
Many people camp out during Gemorama in tents or in RVs. You can reserve your camping spot here. But remember that you get REALLY dirty with these field trips, especially with the mud trip. So a shower was important for us.
We stayed at a local motel, kept our filthy dirty clothes outside and really loved that hot shower at the end of the day! You find local hotel/motels here.
Tools you need
And here’s a little wrap up of the kind of tools you should take with you while you are hunting for crystals at Genorama:
- Rock pick: There’s a reason why geologists use these bad boys in the field. You have to dig thru mud to get the crystals at the mud pit. And you also have to crack thru layers of salt to get the pink crystals.
- Tiller, hand size or long handled: These are important for all three field trips to sort and dig out the crystals.
- Crow bar or heavy steel bar: Some of the crystals are HUGE and need to pried out with brute force. So if you want to take home the big boys, you will need help.
- Kitchen dish brushes with handles: These are needed for the mud pit to wash off the mud and scrub the crystals clean.
- Large buckets: You have to haul your loot in something. Those Home Depot buckets are great for the small to medium crystals. Bring a wheel barrow or small wagon to haul the larger crystals.
- Work gloves: Save your hands! The crystals are not only sharp and cut your fingers, but you are also working with a lot of salt and salt water. Your hands will dry out quickly without gloves. Oh and bring lotion for afterwards. Your skin will thank you for it!
- Brine: Again, these are salt crystals. If you wash them in regular water, they will dissolve. You can buy gallons of brine on site, but many people brought their own.
- Work clothes and shoes: This is a very dirty adventure. Chances are, you are going to ruin your work clothes because of the salt. You need sturdy closed toe shoes like old sneakers or hiking boots. You also want long sleeves and long pants to protect yourself from sun exposure and getting scratched up.
- Drinking water, hats, sunscreen and sun glasses: Even though this event is held in October, it still gets HOT! Bring lots of drinking water and sun protection.