Obsidian Mines in Modoc worth a visit
By Jean Bilodeaux
03/30/13 -- Ever wonder where the Native Americans got the material to make their arrowheads? The mountains just east of the little town of Davis Creek feature many places that were used for thousands of years to create these tools. Huge domes of volcanic matter bubbled to the surface and cooled rapidly forming the shiny black glass called obsidian. Because of the gases in the air when reaching the surface, these massive, mile-wide, domes formed glass that is iridescent in color. Some at first glance are green, blue, purple, red, yellow, orange, brown, clear, gold, silver or any combination or all of the colors mentioned. Because of this unique coloring, people from all over the world come here to collect the beautiful rocks.
Obsidian. Photo courtesy of Modoc National Forest
Obsidian is dense volcanic glass, usually rhyolite in composition and typically black in color. Obsidian is often formed in rhyolite lava flows where the lava cools so fast that crystals do not have time to grow. Glass, unlike crystals, has no regular structure and therefore fractures in smooth, curved shapes. The intersections of these fractures can form edges sharper than the finest steel blades. For this reason, obsidian was used by many native cultures to make arrowheads and blades. Even today, surgeons use the knife sharp edges in operations.
The volcanic deposits found in the Warner Mountains come in many forms. From the light weight pumice sometimes called “floating rocks” to the dense, glass-like obsidian, the colors and diversity are amazing. The Warner Mountains are famous for the variety of obsidian and for the four mines where the public can, with a permit, collect it.
The four mines - Pink Lady, Lassen Creek Rainbow, Needles and Middle Fork Davis Creek - are all located within a few miles of US Hwy 395 in northeast California. Rainbow obsidian found at the Rainbow Mine and Middle Fork Davis Creek is sought after for its colorful sheen. Pink obsidian from Pink Lady, and the bundles of obsidian needles from the Needles Mine are the most popular. To make the mines even more interesting, the Needles Mine has deposits of elongated obsidian needles, think string cheese only in glass. Ample obsidian deposits assure every looker success at finding this unique glass. To find the colored obsidian it is recommended that you go on sunny days between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., although other hours are okay, you just have to look harder.
On the Modoc National Forest, obsidian excavation may be done under a Free Use Authorization at any of the four designated mines. Excavation is allowed at these locations only. The Free Use Authorization allows a visitor to collect a predetermined amount per year of obsidian for their own personal use. This obsidian may not be sold or traded. Collection for resale is a violation of the Free Use Authorization permit.
The Davis Creek Mercantile in Davis Creek provides maps and permits to the mines, free of charge. Although four-wheel-drive vehicles are not needed, high clearance vehicles are suggested. The mines are closed during the winter months due to no road maintenance and snow. Call the Davis Creek Mercantile for road conditions if your travel is in early winter or late spring.
Free Use Authorizations are available at:
- Modoc National Forest Supervisor's Office - 800 West 12th Street, Alturas, CA 96101
- Warner Mountain Ranger District Office - 385 Wallace Street, Cedarville, CA 96104
- Davis Creek Mercantile - 41942 Highway 395, Davis Creek, CA 96108
Applications for commercial collection are only available at the Supervisor's Office. Call ahead for an appointment for a commercial permit at 530-233-5811.
This article also appears at geotourism.com.
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