Some people look out at the ocean, and some people look down at the rocks. I realized I was the rock type after moving to a small town on Oregon’s South Coast and taking endlessly long beach walks that ended with my pockets pounds heavier. Scanning the gravelly sand for treasures fulfilled a deep craving I didn’t even realize I had. Part thrift shopping, part meditation, hunting for beach finds somehow gave rest to troubled thoughts and let time fall away.
I’m not the only person who feels this way.
The rocks call to Eric Davis. A self-taught agate hunter based on the Oregon Coast, he frequently walks on the beaches at Oceanside, eyes on the ground in front of him, looking for a little glint of light or something half-buried in the sand. He studies the cliffs, searching for recent landslides, and inspects jagged chunks of stone that are streaked with waxy green jasper or even telltale nodules of whitish clear material — literally the mother lode — of agates.
“The excitement in exploration is almost therapeutic,” he says. “And better yet, almost anyone can do it.”
What Are Agates?
You can tell an agate from other beach rocks by its translucence. Hold it up to a light and you’ll be able to see it glow. When you see an agate in wet gravel, it will be the one that looks like it’s lit from within. Agates come in a range of colors from clear to dark blue but are frequently shades of yellow or even deep red.
They were formed millions of years ago in volcanic rock — like the basalt cliffs of the Oregon Coast Range. Sediment in the cavities underwent changes under massive pressure and scorching heat, creating chalcedony quartz. When the chalcedony has bands or mineral inclusions in the stones, they’re known as agates. As the waves batter the cliffs, chunks of material fall off, and the agates hosted within are weathered down into cobble and smoothed in waves or rushing rivers for longer than we can conceive.
That’s what Elizabeth Markham, owner of Billow Cloud Soaps in Yachats, loves about them. She frequents the beaches near her shop to forage for coastal ingredients for her handmade seawater soaps. She’s inspired by the swirls and concentric patterns in the agates she finds on her walks, incorporating the designs or even decorative bits of stone in her soap pours as she wonders about their origin and the vastness of time.
“What kind of chaos and circumstances created each one? How long did they tumble in the ocean before I found them?” she wonders. “The closer you look at them, the more beauty you find.”
Top Places to Hunt
You can find these beauties at any time of the year and at many beaches on the Oregon Coast. Some argue the best time to find them is when the beaches are scoured by the wind in winter, the loss of sand revealing layers of rocks any time from December to March, but a peaceful kayak paddle may allow many hours of exploring the excellent gravel bars in coastal rivers from August through early October. Summer’s highest tides can expose unexplored gravel, as well.
Agates are likely to appear in beaches backed by cliff faces, and they show up anywhere from high on the beach to the low-tide zone. Closest to the water, where you can see wet rocks well, is a natural place to start, but be very careful here, because it’s very easy to get lost in the search and fail to see an incoming sneaker wave. Mid-beach, which is safer, often reveals the best of the gravel but is more picked over by other hunters. I’ve found some of my best agates on the upper beach, where fewer people hunt.
How to Find the Inside Scoop
Making friends with other local rockhounders is probably the best way to learn where the best agates are. Many are happy to share when a spot is producing well — after they’ve picked their fill that day, of course.
Davis loves the communal nature of rockhounding, and walking with him on the beach, I can see that the community loves him back. A woman shows him a handful of rocks and wants his opinion. Another couple, walking from a secluded section of the beach, shares some beautiful finds and tips us off on some surf scoters floating in the waves nearby. “Often people are really friendly,” says Davis. “I get asked questions all the time, and often I’ll learn something from an old-timer who’s been doing this his whole life.”
In return, Davis posts videos and photographs of some of the spectacular agates he collects. “I see it as being an ambassador for the Coast,” he says.
Supplies That Can Help
A nice aspect of agate hunting is that it’s free, and anyone with an ounce of patience who can pick up small rocks can do it with no tools at all.
Some simple supplies can help, though. You’ll want to wear sturdy, waterproof shoes or hiking sandals, as rocks are sharp and you can cut yourself on occasional metal debris in the sand. A heavy-duty mesh-net bag that can hold a quart or so makes it easy to wash sand from the stones. A walking staff with a curved end can be used to turn over pebbles and helps greatly when you’re navigating slick rocks. Some people use a long-handled scoop to save their backs from wear and tear. Keep in mind it’s illegal to chip or pry agates out of cliffs.
Another strategy is just to take a seat. “Sit down and take in all the little bits around you,” says Markham, who recently found a tiny, prehistoric agatized shell that way. “It’s so easy to think bigger is better, but it’s totally not.”
Where to Go
The busy North Coast may have competitive hunting, so try to find the quieter areas. Head for Cape Meares, with rocky headlands that promise cobbles on the beach. At Oceanside Beach State Recreation Site, you can explore all the way down to Netarts or head through the tunnel on the north side to Tunnel Beach at low tide. For river hunting, seek out public areas of the Nehalem River, where you might find iron-rich carnelian agates.
On the Central Coast, try Fogarty Creek State Recreation Area, north of Depoe Bay. It tends to remain rocky when other beaches have their gravel beds covered in sand in summer. Newport has miles of beach south of the South Jetty to explore, and good parking options as well. Look for large specimens and “Newport Blues,” a dark-gray or blackish stone, at South Beach State Park and surrounds. The Yachats area — including four pull-offs that comprise Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint — is often filled with happy agate hunters.
South Coast visitors can head out to many fine beaches between Bandon and Charleston, including Whiskey Run Beach (be sure to check both beach and creek). The area around Gold Beach yields some prized finds on a good day. Park at Otter Point State Recreation Site and explore miles of beaches north of the Rogue River. And the lower Rogue River itself can be marvelous for large agates on the gravel bars alongside and in the river.
Places to Find Agates if You’re Not on the Beach
Keep your eyes peeled in coastal antiques shops: You’ll often find jars of agates or art decorated with the stones. Rice Museum of Rocks & Minerals in Hillsboro, the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker City and the 12,000-square-foot Crater Rock Museum in Central Point all have extraordinary galleries of rocks and minerals found in the Pacific Northwest, including agates and thundereggs, the Oregon state rock (which can be filled with agates, jasper and opals). Experts are available at many rock, gem and mineral shops across the state, and some even provide identification advice at the annual Yachats Agate Festival during the third weekend in January. The Yachats Community Presbyterian Church — known as the “agate church” — has a wall of six large windows created by the community out of fiberglass, epoxy and 15 gallons of agates. You can visit without an appointment Mondays through Thursday mornings, or appreciate the light streaming through during services.
If You Go:
- Know the regulations of the area you’re searching. No more than 1 gallon of rocks per day and 3 gallons per year is the rule for collecting agates for personal use on Oregon’s public beaches, but if you are at a protected marine site, you may not be allowed to collect anything.
- It’s illegal to pry or chip any rocks from the cliffs and can destabilize hillsides; keep your hunting to loose rocks on the ground.
- Check the tides before you go, and keep mindful of the incoming tide while you’re on the beach. NOAA provides updated marine weather and swell forecasts.
- Never turn your back to the ocean, watch for sneaker waves, and avoid logs and small coves or caves that don’t provide quick escapes to higher ground.