Sweeping sandstone capes and headlands, basalt outcroppings dappled with tide pools, sea stacks towering in the ocean. The Oregon Coast is an environment defined by its unique geology — one that contains ancient fossils dating back millions of years and gemstones created by prehistoric lava flows. An explorer with an apt eye can find majestic stones along beaches in an activity Oregonians call rockhounding.
Rockhounding can yield everything from fiery red agates and colorful jasper to petrified wood from age-old forests, and the search can be quiet and contemplative or a fun group pursuit. Here’s everything you need to know about rockhounding, including how to look, what to look for, and where on the stunning Oregon shoreline to do so.
What is rockhounding?
Simply put, rockhounding involves seeking out unique stones and gems blending into the floor of common basalt, sandstone, feldspar, and other sandy debris-like shells. Thanks to the 50-year-old Oregon Beach Bill, the Oregon Coast is free and open to the public, and so are its share of the treasures that wash up on our rocky beaches.
A colloquial term for casual geology, rockhounding brings us into contact with the earth’s rich history of lava flows, tectonic shifts, and gemology. Many self-proclaimed rockhounders seek out these treasures for decorative purposes. Many will polish jasper and agate with a rotary tumbler to create their own jewelry while others expand their personal collection of fossils and minerals.
If you’re looking for a memento to give to your friends and family, agates make the perfect gift. If you find a haul, arrange your rainbow assortment of stones on a windowsill or shelf that needs a dash of earthy zest. My personal favorite use for agates is to fill vintage glass jars with these translucent and speckled gems.
How and when to search for treasures
To go rockhounding, you don’t need a mineral collection at home or a degree in earth science. All you need is a beach, an exposed gravel bed, and a moment to immerse yourself in the salty breeze and the colors at your feet. Rockhounding is a meditative activity, involving quiet hours on the beach. It also makes for a group-oriented activity, great for families and friends, who will often comb together, relishing in discovering jade-colored jasper and pebble-sized agates.
Rockhounders comb the gravel beds, estuaries, and outgoing tides for any geological items that happens to turn up. Everyone has their own style when it comes to rockhounding. I personally recommend strolling along at a slow pace, eyeing the rock bed for contrast. Smooth, rounded basalt stones dominant Oregon Coast gravel beds, so the bold colors and jagged shape of agates and jasper will stand out from the neutral earth tones.
Other rockhounders tend to plant themselves within a circumference, heavily scanning that area in 360 degrees before moving on. It is common to see rockhounders with a sand dipper, an extendible aluminum rod ended with a sieve basket. Sand dippers make it easier to rifle through stream beds and help the back.
Another important strategy is to check your tide chart and then search the outgoing tide. The waves will agitate the shoreline, causing any gemstones to glint, making them easily recognizable.
Fall through spring marks the best time for rockhounding because rains and storms agitate the beaches more often. During the summer season, many gravel beds will be sanded in due to the relative calm of the Pacific. In that case, head to the rivulets and streams. Agates come from the mountains; they wind up on the beach because Oregon’s rivers carry them there. Thus, searching streams will yield agates, as will combing the rock heaps deposited at any seawall after high tide.
Oregon law is friendly to rockhounding. You should just take no more than a gallon and not gouge sea walls looking for fossils. Not only do sea walls fall outside Oregon’s protected area, but chiseling at sea walls leads to erosion and can lead to collapse.
You’re liable to find anything — bog stone, agates, jasper, petrified wood, fossilized bones and shells, arrowheads, and even sea glass — when you go rockhounding on the Oregon Coast. Knowing what to look for is key.
What you’ll find
Soft pink, fiery red, or milky white, agates (known as the jewel of Oregon Coast) adorn the shore with their glassy, mysterious luster. Agates take on the color of the minerals that accompanied their formation process millions of years ago, deep within basalt chambers of hardened lava flows. Silica-laden water turned these minerals into translucent quartz. Over time, erosion wears away the outer layer, exposing the gems. Today, agates hide in plain sight amongst the basalt, sandstone, and other sandy debris on the Oregon Coast.
When agate hunting, heed the advice a self-proclaimed rockhounder once gave me: “Agates are family oriented. When you find one, look close by for its friends.” This person’s advice has proven wise. After you’ve found a basket-full of agates, check out Agates of the Oregon Coast for a guide to identifying your gems.
Jasper is agate’s close cousin, coming from similar basalt chambers. Only jasper is more defined by its impurities, which gives it its bands of color. Jasper is an opaque stone, milky and colorful, while agates tend to be translucent. To get its full color and luster, jasper will benefit from a rotary tumbler.
Not as common as agate and jasper, petrified wood appears on the Oregon Coast. A fossil, petrified wood is the result of volcanic ash and other sediment encasing ancient organic material. Water rich with silica and other minerals, especially opal, seeps in and replaces the organic matter with mineral deposits, fossilizing the original bark.
The turbulence of the Pacific tends to crush seashells in the rocky shoreline, and what the waves don’t break, the birds crack open in search of food. Intact seashells are rare, but some survive. Check between medium-sized stones in the cracks where small pebbles collect. Chances are the tides smoothly deposited them in a cranny safe from birds, feet, and other hazards.
Another rare sight on the Oregon Coast, sea glass is literally glass trash, like bottles, broken and ground up in the sea. Over time, the waves smooth the sharp edges and polish the translucent glass, and thin, safe shards wash up on the shore. You can recognize their distinctive glassy hue.
Where to go
North Coast: Oceanside & Short Beach
If you find yourself in the North Coast, from the town of Tillamook head north on Three Cape Scenic Highway to Oceanside, home to some of Oregon’s most spectacular sea stacks, Three Arches. Here, you will find open sandy beaches as well as exposed rock beds. During the outgoing tide, head through the walking tunnel toward Maxwell Point, a towering headland, to comb Tunnel Beach’s gravel beds.
Short Beach, perhaps the most agate-strewn shoreline on the North Coast, is a hidden cove just north of Oceanside but south of Cape Meares. Most pass this wayside without notice, but you can recognize the wayside parking thanks to a small power station. Park alongside the road and head down the wooden staircase, where you will first spot a waterfall and then a mossy sea stack on the shoreline. Short Beach is not short, but it is very rocky.
Central Coast: Newport & Cape Perpetua
The Newport area is without a doubt Oregon’s most famous rockhounding strip. From the Yaquina Head to the headland of Otter Rock, in this five-mile stretch check out any of the wayside stops. Moolack Beach counts as one of the most famous. Park at Beverly Beach State Park if you want something more official.
To reach my personal favorite locations, you will need to travel south on Oregon’s Scenic Highway 101 for about 30 miles to the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, just south of Yachats. Far rockier than the north coast, the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area boasts five state parks and a number of waysides. Among the many options, my favorite stops for gravel beds are Neptune Beach and Bob’s Creek.
South Coast: Bandon to Brookings
If you’re visiting the south coast near Bandon, the Coquille Lighthouse stands at the mouth of the Coquille River at Bullards Beach State Park. The beach by the lighthouse is a hotbed for agate and jasper.
Additionally, the Rogue River travels through the wild remote Siskiyou Forest and deposits its stones and wood onto Gold Beach. Continue to travel south, and you will have no lack of rockhounding opportunities. Pistol River State Scenic Viewpoint and the mouth of the Chetco River at Brookings are famed.
Before you start rockhounding, be aware of these critical safety protocols. The golden rule to follow during any exploration of the Oregon Coast is to never turn your back on the ocean. The reason for this rule is that sneaker waves, powerful oceanic bursts that rush the shore by surprise, are dangerous.
Be careful around driftwood. While fun to climb and great for relaxing, just inches of water is enough to lift driftwood logs and turn them into hazards. Likewise, stay off the rocky jetties — as these boulders can shift as the waves crash into them.
Finally, dress warmly. Ocean breeze can be cold and powerful, and rains come suddenly. Wear a hat that won’t blow away, and pack a rain poncho and extra layers. You don’t want Oregon’s famously wet weather to get in the way of this captivating treasure hunt.