The Quest for Fire Agate 
in the Black Hills of Arizona

Weasel digs for Fire Agate in the Black Hills of Arizona - 2001.

We packed our lunch and set out to the Black Hills on our very first rockhounding adventure. The gem – fire agate. We didn’t quite know what fire agate looked like, but our imagination kicked in as we began our search. A sign boasted that larger pieces lie up to 2 feet in the ground. We were not prepared with a pick and shovel, so we substituted a hammer and chisel.

We dreamed of BLM land with its wide-open spaces and lenient rules, but we had no idea how exciting it would be to dig and explore with such freedom. We felt like a couple of kids as we wandered high into the craggy mountain range until L’il Mule (our truck) looked like a miniature in the distance. We collected our share of what we thought was fire agate, ate lunch by a cave and returned to our truck to continue our adventure.

We saw a 4 wheel drive road that would connect to a not much better dirt road named the Black Hills Back Country Byway. The 21 mile trail was rough at times as its switchbacks led us up over a mountain with breathtaking scenery, and then dropped down to cross the Gila River (pronounced hee’ la).

About half way, we spotted a truck off in the distance. We pulled over to avoid meeting them on the bend where passing would have been impossible. The pick-up was towing a trailer with three saddled horses and out hearts thumped wildly as they skidded down the steep hill toward us. They smiled as if they knew we thought we were doomed and pulled up along side to chat. The three men, real cowboys with well-worn hats and dusty clothes, had been riding the range since 7:00am. The driver was the owner of the Allred Ranch, his passengers were his uncle and a friend. They had put in a hard day’s work driving cows from one pasture to another to allow for regrowth, checking water supply lines, and branding some cattle. This was BLM land and Allred leased 18 sections. To gain perspective of the size of his ranch, one section equals 640 acres, times 18 – that’s 11,528 acres!

The terrain was way too steep and covered with rocks and scraggly shrubs to use any vehicles but horses. The ranch butted up to the Gila River, but the environmentalists denied the ranchers access to the river because of an endangered pupfish. “They claim our cows step on the little critters and smash them”, Allred said disgustingly, “they won’t be happy until everyone eats only broccoli!” As a result, Allred laid 20 miles of water tubing, pumps water from the Gila River to the top of Guthrie Peak and gravity feeds it to storage tanks scattered throughout the ranch. Allred lives in nearby Safford but has a shack with provisions if he needs to stay overnight. He has been renewing his leases every 10 years since the 70’s. They talked as if they had all the time in the world to answer our questions, but it was getting dark and we had a long way to travel.


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