Alaska is renowned for its wild areas, with long stretches of beautiful forest and mountains between settlements. But there’s more than grizzlies hiding in the mountains of the Last Frontier, there’s also gold and a host of other interesting minerals and gemstones hiding in the wilderness. While the state has large areas that haven’t been surveyed properly, a lot has been discovered already.
So, let’s discuss some of the great things that can be found in our northernmost state along with some hints on where to look!
Rocks, Minerals, and Gemstones Found in Alaska
Alaska is well known for its gold, with the state having produced 1-2% of the available gold worldwide. There are even TV shows about it, showing the trials and tribulations of prospectors in the backwoods. After all, nothing else catches the imagination of human beings quite like the chance of striking it rich.
Gold is almost always found in a native form in nature. It’s not a very reactive metal, which is one of the reasons it’s been prized in jewelry since time immemorial. While it’s generally elemental gold found, it’s not always 100% pure. The gold from Alaska tends to be in the 85-95% range, with a bottom end of about 75% for the worst samples.
Gold’s purity is measured in an archaic system using karats as the base. Karats measure proportions using 24 as a base. So 12K gold would be 50% gold, while 22K would be in the range of 91-92%. It’s a strange system, but it’s easier to deal with once you know how it works.
Most gold in serious numbers is on various mining claims not available to the public. That said, if you’re interested in panning or digging a little bit then you’d do well to take a look at one of the following areas:
- Near Fairbanks (for guided tours)
- Near Hope
- Near Junea
This series of cryptocrystalline silica has a habit of showing up just about everywhere. We’ll avoid the arguments surrounding the classification and just lump them all into the same category for convenience. Of these categories, Alaska’s most dominant local form is jasp-agates, which are brecciated cryptocrystalline silica with opaque and transparent sections that were reformed after being broken.
If you’re an agate collector then you know how freaky people get about provenance. In Alaska, I’m not aware of any single famous variety, but the state is enormous and many sites aren’t readily accessible. Red jasper is aplenty, owing to huge formations. You can also find light blue chalcedony in some locations, especially in the outer layers of quartz geodes.
These stones are so common because they’re composed of SiO₂, which makes up the bulk of the Earth’s crust. It’s the same material that makes up quartz crystals, but it’s crystallized in a different form due to conditions. Varying levels of impurities make for great colors and interesting inclusions.
While you could probably head to any creek in the state and find some interesting specimens, the following areas are rumored to be better than average:
- Captain Cook State Recreation Area
- Mendenhall Lake
- Neclhina Public Use Area
One thing to be aware of: unless you really know what you’re doing stay away from collecting at Fire Island. I’ve seen it recommended a few times but it’s far too easy to end up dead trying to traverse the mudflats quickly at low tide to be worth it.
3. Nephrite Jade
There are two kinds of jade: jadeite and nephrite. Oddly enough, nephrite jade is actually the jade of antiquity in most cases, since the vast majority of gem-grade jadeite comes from one region in Myanmar. Nephrite, on the other hand, can be found across many locales including Alaska.
Nephrite is a remarkable material if you like to carve. Good samples cut more smoothly than you’d think for their hardness and the rock is strong enough that intricate carvings retain some durability. Jade also happens to be the state stone of Alaska.
Nephrite jade is mined in Alaska, but for the amateur it can be a bit harder to track down. It’s mainly found in the many rivers of the state, where it is seen as white or green cobbles with a waxy exterior. Nodules found outside of waterways may have a brown crust, which makes them harder for newbies to find.
If you’re looking for Alaskan nephrite, the following areas are a good place to begin:
- Jade Creek, General Area
- Jade Mountain, General Area
- Kobuk River, General Area
Nephrite is only available in remote locations of Alaska. If you’re not aware of just how remote areas get in the state you should take a look on Google Maps. The first two aren’t even accessible by highway. That also means the pickings are good, since a casual tourist isn’t going to make that trek.
Quick, think of a crystal! Chances are that you just pictured a clear, hexagonal crystal with a point. Quartz crystals are among the most famous and common crystals in the world, showing up across the globe in various configurations and colors depending on the environment.
Alaska is actually home to some great spots to find quartz and its purple sister amethyst. The latter is simply quartz that got iron ions caught in its crystalline lattice, making it appear purple due to the change in light reflection.
Quartz is… obscenely common in Alaska. You can pop over to Mindat and see over 1,000 verified locations spread throughout the state immediately. Amethyst is rarer, primarily found in areas that are heavy in granite. Alaskan amethyst tends to occur as single points or small clusters, different from the Brazilian geodes most of us are more familiar with.
While the crystals are spread across the state, some of the best locations are the following:
- Tok, Fairbanks North Star Borough, for amethyst
- Brooks Mountain Range
- Kobuk River Region
While the above areas are a bit remote, you can find quartz in most places in the state. It will be in metamorphic rock, hiding out in small cavities in fissures for those who want to dig instead of looking through nearby riverbeds.
5. Petrified Wood
Petrified wood is a common find across the Western United States, and the trend holds true as far north as Alaska. In this case, the wood tends to have strong patterns while remaining a wooden color, as opposed to the more colorful woods we see in places like Arizona. It’s found in several places across the state, in addition to the smaller chunks that can be found in riverbeds and streams.
Petrified wood is simply wood that’s been replaced with silica gel over time. The gel then takes the form of the wood while it slowly turns to stone over the course of a few million years. In most cases, the end result is a wood-colored chalcedony. On other occasions, impurities can make it a veritable rainbow of color. Some wood ends up being replaced with opal instead.
Petrified wood is both cut into a gemstone and kept as part of the fossil record. It really depends on the specimen and the person who finds it. While common, it’s still a great find and the possibility of finding larger limb casts and other pieces is an enticing prospect.
The following areas are known to host a lot of petrified wood:
- Unga Island
- Kujulik Bay
- Atka Island
Some areas are very remote, but you can take a look at the official survey to see a list of places where significant discoveries of petrified wood have been found.
Cinnabar is a strange mineral. Historically it was prized as a pigment and dye, but it was also an ore of mercury. Those of you familiar with mercury poisoning can already see a problem with the mineral’s prior usage. These days it’s only significant as ore and for the occasional collector who seeks out a sample of this bright red material.
Cinnabar’s mercury is locked in with sulfur, but it can be released through heating. Still, just handling the ore was considered a risk even in ancient times so those with some in their collection will want to minimize their skin exposure to the compound.
While an interesting compound, cinnabar is quite toxic and not something you want sitting on a shelf with no precautions. Most of the areas where it’s available are commercial plots, so you’ll be denied access, but some can often be found on the outskirts of these areas.
Some locations where cinnabar is mined in Alaska include:
- Red Top Mercury Mine
- The Bethel Census Area
- Cinnabar Creek lode Mine
Some extra research will be required to dig cinnabar, just keep in mind that it mostly forms in vents and fissures created by volcanic activities.
Members of the garnet family are mainly known for their red coloration and the strange crystals that can be found in areas where they’re present. The variety most commonly found in Alaska is the almandine variety, usually with a deeply saturated red spread throughout.
Garnets are a common find in streams and creeks across the country, where they can be found after weathering from other deposits and being moved along by water over time. Significant deposits, on the other hand, are much harder to find. There are only a couple dozen spread throughout all 50 states.
Garnets can also be found in Alaska. The most significant deposit is Garnet Ledge near Wrangell, Alaska. This area is a bit unique, in that you’ll have to seek out permission to hunt there. The mine was actually willed to the young people of the town as a way to foster entrepreneurship. It’s currently owned by the Boy Scouts of America.
Their website is currently under construction, unfortunately. Those interested would do well to check in with Garnet Ledge Lodge, a small recreational facility in Wrangell. This site is remote and hard to access, but Wrangell garnets are renowned for their large size and deep red coloration.
Obsidian is a volcanic glass that’s found all along the Western Coast of the Americas. Alaska is no exception, hosting numerous large deposits of the coveted stone. Originally used by the natives who took advantage of its sharp edge, these days it’s mostly carved into decorative objects and made into pieces suitable for setting in jewelry.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of obsidian to societies that didn’t have access to superior cutting materials like iron and steel. Arrowheads, knives, scrapers, and more formed the backbone of civilization for the local populace. The secret is in the conchoidal fracture of the material, which can be controlled to leave obsidian with an edge so sharp it dulls in air. Care should be used when handling broken pieces, the edge can be microscopic and extend a bit beyond where you can see.
Obsidian deposits are found in many places in Alaska. These range from modest to truly enormous in size depending on the area that you’re looking at, with the majority of it being the standard black that the mineraloid is known for.
If you’re looking for obsidian in Alaska, the following are good starting points:
- Obsidian Cove
- Mount Edziza
- Wiki Peak
With a decent distribution through the state, the above examples are good places to begin your search but far from the only places where you can find obsidian in the state.
Rhodonite is a manganese silicate mineral known for its light-red or dark-pink hue. It’s most commonly seen cut as cabochons in jewelry, although some of the high-grade rhodonite ends up being faceted. Mineral samples with single, well-defined crystals are also prized by many collectors.
Rhodonite is mainly seen in a massive form. This form is usually on the lighter side of pink with plenty of black veining to give it a two-tone appearance. The pure crystals are much rarer, and they’re an incredible find outside of the few areas known to produce them regularly. Your chances of finding one anywhere in the USA are pretty slim, but not nonexistent.
Fortunately, this mineral can be found in some of the less remote places in Alaska. You won’t even have to worry about finding a helicopter or seaplane to go to the main area known, which is near Tok, Alaska. All of this together makes it an excellent find, and a good target for people who are only casually visiting the state during the right months.
While confirmed at about a dozen locations in the state so far, the following are some of the best spots to take a look at:
- Near Tok, Alaska
- Sunrise Prospect, Juneau Mining District
- Slate Creek Occurrence, Koyukuk District
I strongly recommend a stop in Tok, Alaska for more casual rockhounds. Alaska is an unforgiving state but Tok bears many different minerals and is accessible by road.