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Gem-O-Rama: Mud Field Trip

Updated on July 3, 2017

Collecting Crystals from Mud

Collecting rare crystals from mud during Gem-O-Rama
Collecting rare crystals from mud during Gem-O-Rama | Source

Play in the Mud

There is an event once a year, where you can tell your kids to go play in the mud--and really want them to! You will even want to get in the mud right alongside them. This event is called the Mud Field Trip of Gem-O-Rama.

Gem-O-Rama is an annual event revolving around collecting rare crystals and it is perfect for beginning rock collectors.

Gem-O-Rama is actually comprised of three field trips and a rock show, but many people's favorite field trip is the Mud Field Trip where people get to dig through big piles of mud, looking for crystals.

Gem-O-Rama at Searles Lake

What is Gem-O-Rama?

Gem-O-Rama is an annual event held every second weekend in October in the town of Trona, California. Trona is near Death Valley, California and is the home to a major mineral company that mines the area around Searles Lake. All year long they collect minerals and process it. Then, once a year they allow people to come in and collect the pretty minerals found on the site.

At the event they have a Gem & Mineral show and three field trips. The first field trip is to a site on Searles Lake where collectors are allowed to dig through piles of mud looking for rare Hanksite crystals. This is one of the most fun and easy crystal-collecting events there are and it is perfect for beginning crystal collectors and professional rockhounds alike.

Location of Gem-O-Rama

Trona, California

get directions

The Crystals Found during Gem-O-Rama

Gem-O-Rama Crystals

The main type of mineral you'll find during the Mud Field Trip of Gem-O-Rama is Hanksite.

Occasionally, you'll find other minerals such as Trona, Thenardite, Sulfohalite, and Borax, but they are uncommon during the Mud Field Trip section of Gem-O-Rama.

What is Hanksite?

Hanksite is a rare and unusual mineral, found very few places in the world.

Hanksite is a very shapely crystal and comes in various sizes from ones that will fit in your hand all the way up to ones the size of quart of milk. If you find a crystal with lots of wide, flat surfaces in a pretty shape, it will most likely be Hanksite. You may also find several of them welded together into one mass.

Hanksite is usually yellowish or shades or green from pale to olive. Sometimes it will have grown around mud and have chunks of it imbedded deep inside. Most the Hanksite from the mud piles will be dark in color.

Hanksite crystals form in closed basins. These are areas where the rain does not end up at the ocean, but instead form lakes that evaporate, leaving behind all the dissolved minerals. At Searles Lake most of the lake is underground, where the mineral-rich liquid forms the perfect crystal growing medium.

Almost all of the Hanksite you will ever see was collected from the mud or blow hole field trips at Gem-O-Rama.

Pictures of Hanksite Crystals

Small Hanksite crystal about the size of an egg.
Small Hanksite crystal about the size of an egg. | Source
Hanksite crystal collected from Searles Lake mud piles.
Hanksite crystal collected from Searles Lake mud piles. | Source
Cleaning off a large crystal of Hanksite.
Cleaning off a large crystal of Hanksite. | Source
Massive welded chunk of Hanksite crystals pulled from the mud during Gem-O-Rama. About 1 foot wide and 2 1/2 feet long.
Massive welded chunk of Hanksite crystals pulled from the mud during Gem-O-Rama. About 1 foot wide and 2 1/2 feet long. | Source

Supplies You'll Need for the Gem-O-Rama Mud Field Trip

Collecting Materials

Although this field trip is pretty easy, you'll need a few things to make crystal collecting a better process.

Don't skimp when it comes to supplies, the mud isn't quite normal mud. It is denser and filed with salty brine and dissolved minerals as well as the crystals. This means it should be treated just a bit more cautiously and good supplies are essential.

Get Good Gloves

The mud is filled with sharp little minerals that will irritate your skin after a while and make micro-cuts on your hands. Wear gloves that are sturdy and give you a good gripping surface as you fish in the mud for crystals.

You may want a nice coating of lotion on your hands before and after if you tend to have sensitive skin.

Get a Garden Tool Set

A nice, small trowel will help move mud about as you search for minerals. A small, sturdy rake can also loosen parts of the pile and make it easier for your hands to get through.

I like to alternate, loosen the mud with a tool, then fish with my fingers.

Ergonomic handles make moving the heavy mud easier and quicker.

Get Sturdy Buckets

You'll need something to put your crystals in as you collect them and most people prefer a nice, strong bucket.

Weak buckets will break and tip over as you place and carry mud-coated crystals, so make sure your bucket is a good one.

While some people like 5-gallon buckets, for the average person 3.5-gallon buckets are a much better choice. The mud is heavy and the smaller size makes them easier to move around and carry across the parking lot to your car.

How to Collect Crystals From the Mud

Prepare to Get Dirty

Step 1) First of all, prepare to go in the mud.

Wear old clothes over a bathing suit or a coverall over your clothing. Surprisingly, the mud washes out of clothing better than you would expect. All that borax in the mud means clothing gets really clean if you bother to wash it when you get home.

Try to find shoes that won't get sucked off in the mud or ones that you can just grab and jam back on your feet. The suction from the mud is intense, so I like water shoes but old sneakers are good too. Some people wear galoshes.

You may also want all the normal things you need when you'll be spending time out in the sun-a hat, sunblock, chapstick, sunglasses, etc. Whatever you normally would expect when sitting outside in direct sunlight on what will probably be a hot day.

Register and Pay

Step 2) Register at the main building and pay the vehicle fee.

Between 7:30 and 9:00am on Saturday morning, register to go on the mud field trip at the show building in town. At the time of this article, admission to the mud field trip is $15 per car, this may change over time.

Once you pay, park your car in one of the two lines of vehicles lined up in the parking lot waiting to leave.

Make sure you are ready to head out when it's announced that it's time to go. Departure time is 9am and there is no wiggle room so have your car ready and everyone loaded up.

Lining Up to Go on the Field Trip

All ready and eager.
All ready and eager. | Source

Follow the Line of Vehicles

Step 3) When everyone starts leaving, stay in line and follow the vehicle in front of you.

There might be a bit of a winding path through town as they need to allow people to park at the site and so try to delay arrival a little. Eventually, you will drive out on a road across the lake. Eventually, you will be stopped and asked to show your registration information. Make sure you have it out and handy.

Line of Cars Going to the Mud Piles

Driving to the mud piles
Driving to the mud piles | Source

Collect the Crystals

Step 4) When you arrive at the mud, park and grab your collecting bucket.

Go to the edge of a mud pile and either jump on in or sit at the edge. Put your gloves on and push your hands through the mud and feel for hard pieces. Pull them out. Your first crystal!

It's that easy.

Just feel in the mud for crystals and pull them out. Use hand tools to help where needed, but mainly it's just fishing the minerals from the muck.

Collect as many crystals as you want during the allotted collecting time. Be wary though, time goes fast and you will want to scrub some of the mud off your crystals and you before you leave, so allow time for that. Also, be picky about your crystals, there are a lot of them and each will take quite a bit of work to clean and preserve properly. You don't want to end up at home with buckets full of filthy crystals you no longer want to clean.

Hanksite is the most commonly found mineral at this field trip. Other possibilities are bladed Trona, octahedral Halite, Borax, and Thenardite.

Hanksite is probably the mineral you will find most commonly.

If you find something that looks different ask someone around you what they think it is. Many of the people that go to Gem-O-Rama have been going for years and will probably know what it is.

Collecting Crystals from the Mud

Piles of mud full of crystals at Gemorama
Piles of mud full of crystals at Gemorama | Source
Collecting hanksite from Searles Lake
Collecting hanksite from Searles Lake | Source
Rockhounding at Trona
Rockhounding at Trona | Source
Looking through the mud for crystals
Looking through the mud for crystals | Source
At Gem-O-Rama collecting crystals
At Gem-O-Rama collecting crystals | Source

Bucket Filled with Mud-Covered Crystals

Bucket full of dirty Hanksite crystals, ready to get washed.
Bucket full of dirty Hanksite crystals, ready to get washed. | Source

Clean Up Your Crystals

Step 5) When you have several crystals take them over to the washing trough.

Try to scoop off as much mud as possible with your fingers, then using your scrub brush scrub the rest off using the brine in the trough. Try to get your crystals somewhat clean but be prepared to do the detail work later on.

Since the troughs can get really crowded some people scoop up a little brine in a bucket and sit out of the way to clean their crystals.

Scrubbing Hanksite Crystals in Brine

Gathering to scrub the crystals during the Mud Field Trip.
Gathering to scrub the crystals during the Mud Field Trip. | Source
Scrub the mud off
Scrub the mud off | Source
Rinse the crystal
Rinse the crystal | Source
Keep scrubbing and rinsing until the crystals are clean.
Keep scrubbing and rinsing until the crystals are clean. | Source

Do a Quick Clean-Up

Step 6) When you're all done collecting, load up your crystals in your vehicle and head over to the water truck and rinse off yourself and your tools.

Try to hurry as you rinse the worst of the mud off since usually there is a long line at this point and the water level may be getting low.

The salty mud will corrode metal, so clean off your tools as well as yourself.

Cleaning Off the Mud

Cleaning up during Gemorama
Cleaning up during Gemorama | Source

Messy, Messy, Messy

Step 7) To keep your vehicle's interior at least somewhat clean it's a good idea to clean up a little more with some baby wipes and to change your clothes and shoes before you get into your vehicle. A bathing suit under your clothes will make this easy to do.

Everything Will Be Messy

Trunk full of crystals and mud.
Trunk full of crystals and mud. | Source

Leave the Collecting Site

Step 8) Now you can leave the site.

Make sure you leave the in the direction you are asked to leave in. The mineral company is very nice to allow us on their property and it behooves us to act politely in return by following directions.

It's a good idea to head back to the show building in town and get in line for the next field trip if you are going on it. You'll have a little time to grab something to eat at the cafeteria and tour the gem and mineral show.

Handling the Mess

It's a Dirty Business

When you go to the Gem-O-Rama Mud Field Trip you can expect to get filthy. To cope with the mess there are a few tricks.

  • Cover parts of your car with plastic sheeting. Wherever you plan on putting your crystals and brine and scrub brushes should be covered well. Also, if you like a clean car, it's a good idea to cover your seats with plastic as well. Dry cleaning bags work well for this.
  • Wear a swimsuit under your clothes. When done, you can simply shed your clothing and put some clean clothes right over your swimsuit without getting too revealing.
  • Use the rinse water on site. There is a small amount of water available to do a quick rinse provided by the mining company. There are usually long lines and a lot of people needing to get clean, so don't expect to really get scrubbed up well there, but it helps to get a little of the mud off.
  • Bring baby wipes. This is on my required list any time I go rock collecting, but especially here. Wiping off with baby wipes can help get whatever the quick rinse left behind and will help lots when it comes to cleaning off your hands enough to drive.

Cleaning Those Crystals

Clean Those Crystals

Make sure you clean those crystals as soon as possible!

The mud is hard to get off and only gets harder as time passes.

Dried Mud-Encrusted Crystal

What happens when you let a couple weeks go by before cleaning your Hanksite crystals.
What happens when you let a couple weeks go by before cleaning your Hanksite crystals. | Source

Crystal Cleaning is Important

Hanksite and the other crystals found in the mud piles will dissolve and be ruined if washed with plain water, so it's important to clean them properly. The mud is almost like tar, and can be very hard to get off, so you need some sturdy scrub brushes.

There is a place at the site where you can scrub off your crystals, but it is very crowded and you won't be able to get them completely clean there. Getting the worse of the mud off while at the site can help though since the longer they sit the more the mud will adhere to the crystal.

You'll also need to buy some brine at the main building of Gem-O-Rama to wash your crystals in later on. Brine is salt water, and the brine available at Gem-O-Rama has the same dissolved chemicals and minerals as the crystals themselves, thus it won't pit the crystals when used as a cleaning solution. Even so, you still will not want to leave the crystals in the brine for very long.

Pour a little brine in a clean bucket, then working on one crystal at a time, scrub the mud off the crystal. It will take a while and you may need to throw out the brine and pour some more as it gets dirty (you can also pour used brine through some cheesecloth to remove the worse of the dissolved mud and keep reusing it).

When you've got the mud off do a quick scrub in some clean brine to get off any leftover residue. Then using a clean paintbrush apply a coating of mineral oil to the surface of the crystal. Let any excess drip off, then store the crystals out of the sunlight.

Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe

Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe

Collecting crystals from Searles Lake is a very dirty job. As such, it was perfect for an episode of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.

The first year I was able to go to Gem-O-Rama, in 2007, we got there and found out they were filming a television show during the event as well. I was super excited when I found out it was an episode of Dirty Jobs from the Discovery Channel that they were filming. Though I never got to meet Mike Rowe, I did get in the background of one scene (of course wearing my very worse clothes and cowboy hat and sitting on my bottom in the mud) and I was filmed washing crystals for quite a while, though that ended up not being used.

If you get a chance, check out the Mud Mineral Excavator episode from Dirty Jobs, Season 3 Episode 22, and learn lots more about Gem-O-Rama and Trona.

Video Crew Camera Crane in the Background

The masses of people collecting and being filmed for Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.
The masses of people collecting and being filmed for Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. | Source

Dirty Jobs Mud Mineral Excavator

Get the Dirty Jobs Gem-O-Rama Episode

Dig Through Mud and Collect Crystals!

Tips and Tricks

  • Bring sturdy buckets. The crystals and mud are heavy and wimpy buckets will crack under the weight.
  • Bring more buckets than you think you'll need as well. I like to have three per person, but huge groups of welded crystals can fill up a bucket by themselves.
  • It's better to have 3-gallon buckets instead of 5-gallon buckets. A bucket filled with crystals is heavy and hard to carry.
  • Bring a few extra-strong trashbags in case you find a giant chunk of crystals that you need to wrap up.
  • The crystals in the mud can be sharp. You should be okay if you wear gloves.
  • Clean those crystals as soon as possible. Allowing the mud to dry on the crystals and then trying to get it off is way harder than you'd expect and no one wants to get home with piles of mud-encrusted crystals.
  • Don't have too much fun, collecting minerals is addicting!

Get Hanksite

Get Your Own Hanksite

Don't want to dig through the mud to find your own crystals? Just buy some.

All Hanksite you find for sale will have come from Trona and Searles Lake during Gem-O-Rama.

Bag of Hanksite and Halite Crystals Collected from Searles Lake

Bag of crystals collected from Gemorama
Bag of crystals collected from Gemorama | Source

© 2011 Alisha Vargas

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    • Blackspaniel1 profile image


      8 years ago

      Nice lens.


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