Exploring Northeast Washington – Checking Out A Caldera:

by Anne Ott

We live in a region of unique geological features, and Stevens County is an area where a portion of the prehistoric new continent was forced up against the older lands in Pend Oreille county. Plate tectonic forces and the effects of magma intrusions into our area resulted in many rocky dikes that are still prominent in our area, culminating in an actual volcanic eruption that produced a large caldera that’s now known as First Thought Mountain. This amazing destination makes a fun educational day trip for families or anyone interested in history, geology or rockhounding! This route is open to OHVs if you stage in Orient (OHVs are not allowed on State Highway 395).

Located just outside of the town of Orient, First Thought Mountain hosts a mine of the same name that was the most productive gold mine in Stevens County, first claimed in 1897. By 1936, a cyanide mill was established near the mine to process ore that had previously been shipped via an aerial tramway over 12,000 feet west to a bunker near the Great Northern Railway. In WWII, the federal government shut down gold mines to help the war effort, thus ending the First Thought mine’s production – there have been recent workings, but the mine’s been inactive since the 1990s.

Finding First Thought Mountain is easy – follow Highway 395 to Orient, then turn east on Main Street and drive through town and across the bridge, then turn right onto Orient Cut-Off road. Drive several miles east, then turn north onto First Thought Mountain Road. Watch for a small test hole carved out of the rock on the west side of the access road that shows the volcanic “country” or local rock. Continue to a 90-degree left turn, followed by a 90-degree right turn – between the turns (facing west), you can see the tailings piles of the First Thought Mine among the trees, and the “bear’s nest” area further up the cliffs, which is an area of small holes where individual miners clung to the rocky cliffs and dug out small surface pockets of gold ore. The entire First Thought mine has patented mining claims and is on private property so is not open for viewing or exploration, so please view it from the road only! This mine is also unsafe due to the geology of the Sanpoil Volcanic rock, which is soft and crumbling. About a mile past the mine is another mine opening, called an adit, on the left (south) side of the road – safely gated, it provides an interesting look at First Thought mountain geology.

Continue your drive up the mountain on First Thought Mountain Road, and it becomes Forest Service Road #1510100, leading to the old fire lookout site. There is plenty of parking at the summit and the 360-degree views are fantastic! The ring of the caldera rim that you can see brings into focus how miners knew to mine this area. Miners were exploring a contact zone between local sedimentary rocks and hot liquids, such as water and magma, that were introduced during magma intrusion and eruption. This material later cooled and solidified into various minerals. Local rocks include andesite, siltstone, sandstone, and breccia rocks that resembled rhyolitic tuff. Pyrite can be found, as well as arsenic, antimony, mercury, and silver. This type of geologic location is called an epithermal deposit and is quite typical throughout the West with our many volcanic features – find mineral sulfides, and precious metals may be associated with them! Check the rock formations along the Forest Service Road and at the summit, as there are many minerals that have been found in the local rocks: native gold, electrum, arsenic and antimony sulfasalts, pyrite, quartz, calcite, adularia, fluorite, and chalcedony. Note that gold found at First Thought Mountain is usually not visible to the naked eye, so is difficult to find!

Don’t forget to check out the old fire lookout site at the summit. By 1925 the tower had been raised to 76 feet, the tallest tower in the forest at the time. In 1985, plans were developed to move the tower to Orient, resulting in a historic transport by road. Stop by the City Park on your way home to see what life would have been like for a fire lookout guard. Orient has a restaurant and small store, and there is a gas station further south on Highway 395 at Barstow, with a gas station and store at the intersection of State Highways 395 and 20 just west of Kettle Falls.