Beginner's Guide: Rockhounding Creeks and Rivers

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Beginner's Guide: Rockhounding Creeks and Rivers

Late summer and early fall is the PERFECT time to try creek or river rockhounding if you have never tried before. This time of year, water runs lower, exposing more of the creek or river bed and lowering water levels so you can see the treasures below!

Almost any rocky bottomed creek to river can provide unlimited treasure hunting if you know what to look for and how to look for it. 

First, check your state laws. In Washington State, for example, you must download the "Gold and Fish" pamphlet before you rockhound in any creek. Why? Because the rocks in creeks and rivers are home to many diverse species of water life and part of the life cycle of fish. 

This is one of the reasons that stacking rocks and digging holes is discouraged by conservationists and discouraged if not illegal in salmon bearing waters of the Pacific Northwest. As a rockhound, we should leave areas better than we found them so when collecting around waterways, try to disturb as little of the environment as you can as you hunt for treasures. Oregon doesn't have the same law, but being careful around fish streams is universal.

Ok, so you know the laws and you have found a river, stream or creek on public property, now what? Wearing your sturdy outdoor shoes, inspect the water and the gravel bars around the water for telltale signs of your favorite rocks from the Pacific Northwest. A pair of polarized lens sunglasses will help you see past the glare on the water and cool rocks better! 

I like to start downstream and work my way upstream. Once you start finding pieces of interesting rocks, by going upstream you could potentially come upon the main deposit by following the pieces like breadcrumbs. 

What are interesting rocks? Many shiny, clear and colorful rocks which are harder than your pocket knife are often the treasures sought by Pacific Northwest rockhounds. These are often pieces of agate, jasper and crystal. 

Don't forget to check side creeks, dry creeks and seasonal creeks as well. In fact, anywhere water has moved historically is a fantastic place to look for rocks. 

Don't forget about floodplains too! Oftentimes waterbodies move around over time leaving abandoned channels and gravel in their floodplains, trees in their flood plains often trap heavier rocks on the upstream side of their roots (if you dig around tree roots, FILL YOUR HOLES) leaving them trapped there for you to find. 

While poking around trees, make sure to check out any which have fallen over, they can often trap cool rocks in their root structures! How helpful, poor blown over trees. 

Don't forget to bring a squirt bottle for checking out the dry rocks. 

Where are some places you can try here in the Pacific Northwest? 

Willamette River - From just south of Eugene where the Willamette River enters the Willamette Valley, to where the waters slow approaching Portland, the Willamette and its tributaries are chalked full of goodies. Agate, jasper, petrified wood and fossils are often found in the mixed gravels of the Willamette Valley. You can also find rocks from as far away as Canada when glacial Lake Allison filled the valley multiple times leaving her gravel behind. 

You can put in anywhere above the falls on the Willamette to find gravel bars with awesome seasonally uncovered treasures. The closer to Corvallis and Albany the less picked over the choices will be. Also a stroll across the pedestrian bridge, downtown Salem, Oregon will take you to Minto-Brown Islands and some CHOICE gravel beds!

Santiam River - Accessed through the rest area on I-5 south from Salem towards Albany, this tributary of the Willamette has easy public access at the end of the rest stop with parking and a picnic area. The Marion river would be considered of good size in most parts of the states, but for us here in the PNW, she's a midsized river and full of fun draining out of the Western Cascades. Finds include quartz crystal geodes, agates, jasper and petrified wood. 

John Day River - While there are many spots along the John Day which have amazing finds, finding access can be a challenge. One of my favorite spots to have a stop and a pick is near the Clarno unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. This location is weather sensitive and you need a high clearance vehicle to access rockhounding instead of the intermittent sandy bottom of the river. 

To get there take Oregon Hwy 218 to the Clarno Bridge across the John Day river. On the west side of the river on the west side of the homestead there is a dirt track that heads north along the John Day river. In approximately 2 miles you will rejoin with the river and find a pullout to enjoy with agates, jasper and crystals in the river and fossil and petrified wood in the hills around you. 

Watch out for goats heads, rattle snakes and scorpions in this area. 

Wilson River - A roaring river out of the coast range the Wilson river and its tributaries are famous for samplings of agates, jasper and quartz. This coastal powerhouse can be accessed all along Hwy 6 through the coast range and is not just great to rockhound but also great for playing in!

The Wilson River is best visited in late summer and early fall when water is low. The creek and tributaries surrounding the river provide many opportunities, the Wilson sits in some of the best rockhounding territory in Oregon state!

Clackamas River - The Clackamas River is a major tributary of the Willamette river but drains an entirely different geology. From deep in the Cascades to its mouth at the Willamette river, you can find all of the best of the Pacific Northwest. Of course I am taking about agate, jasper, petrified wood and crystals, both quartz and zeolite plus the Clackamas draining GOLD country so bring your gold pan if you are going up above Faraday!

Most of all have fun and be SAFE. Never go rockhounding alone in unfamiliar places. Tell someone where you are going and remember a lot of places do NOT have cell service! Happy Hunting!


  • John

    Backing up Ana above… it’s the Santiam. I go there often and started twisting my head wondering how two rivers are accessed through that rest stop 😂.

  • Ana

    For the River on the I-5 south of Salem toward Albany I believe it’s the Santiam River at the rest stop, unless Marion is its nickname or referring to the county, I asked for the Marion and was looked at funny lol

  • Ken

    Nice job on the article. Enjoying your material. Thanks.

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