To some people, rocks may seem like boring gray lumps. In reality, rocks come in all kinds of shapes and colors, and they can be a source of endless fascination.
My kids, ages 5 and 7, and I started rockhounding this year. Rockhounding, aka amateur geology, is the recreational collection and study of rocks, gems, minerals or fossils from their natural environment. In short, we can’t walk by a cool-looking rock without stopping to further inspect it. We’ve used rockhounding to learn about rocks, minerals, fossils, geology, and even Oregon history. It’s also been a great excuse to get outside and practice a little science.
If you have a young rockhound or budding geologist, these are great activities to check out in and around Portland:
Visit The Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals
The Rice Museum in Hillsboro may be the most kid-friendly museum we’ve ever visited. In addition to their gorgeous displays, the museum offers scavenger hunts and activity pages to engage kids and help them explore the different galleries. The Rice Museum also offers Mystery Mineral Days to help novice rockhounds identify unknown rocks. Cost: $12/adult, $8/students, or free with membership.
Join a Local Rock Club
We joined the Clackamette Mineral and Gem Club earlier this year, and my kids love the junior member’s show-and-tell time. Portland has multiple rocks clubs in the area—use this guide from the Rice Museum to find the one that works best for you. So far this year, our club’s meetings have been on Zoom. Their junior club and regular club each meet once per month, although the club frequently hosts other (in person) events like field trips and rock sales. Besides the show-and-tell time, the junior meetings usually include a video or presentation on geology topics. Recently, we learned about NASA using Oregon’s geology to train astronauts for the moon landing, as well as how to grind rocks into pigments for painting. Cost: Around $20 per family for a year-long membership at most clubs.
Look for Basalt Columns in the Columbia Gorge
You may have seen photos of the distinctive hexagonal columns in the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland—the Columbia Gorge and eastern Oregon have equally incredible basalt cliffs. The 2.4-mile WahClella Falls Trail near Bonneville Dam is one great place to find basalt columns and spot changes in the cliff layers. Cost: $5 day-use fee.
Visit a Beach
Gravel beaches along the Willamette or the Columbia rivers can be fun places to hunt for agates and other rocks. Even when we aren’t collecting, we like to see how many colors, shapes and patterns we can find in the gravel. Cost: free or a day-use fee, depending on the location.
The OMSI mineral collection is much smaller than the Rice Museum’s galleries, but it features a display with fluorescent minerals, information about rock identification (including hardness and luster), and a moon rock. When it’s open, OMSI’s Paleontology Lab also has a fascinating fossil collection. Cost: $12/adult, $8/youth, or free with membership.
Visit Your Library
We love reading picture books and easy nonfiction books about rocks and geology. Plus, I recommend checking out Roadside Geology of Oregon by Marli B. Miller and Gem Trails of Oregon by Garret Romaine to learn more about Oregon geology and local rock hunting opportunities.