GeoZeum: A Personal Museum of Geology

GeoZeum is a brand-new boutique education center of geology in historic—and geologically rich—San Juan Bautista. Photos by Andrew Alden.

GeoZeum is a brand-new boutique education center of geology in historic—and geologically rich—San Juan Bautista. Photos by Andrew Alden.

Most of us have a retirement dream: What would we do once our daily grind is over? Retired geologists I know indulge their devotion to poetry, photography, winemaking, philosophy, or Burning Man. A common idea is to open a little rock shop. Phil Stoffer is a born teacher with a huge rock collection, and his retirement project is to run a little museum in San Juan Bautista, a superb place to personally introduce the pleasures and treasures of Earth science to all comers. "It's all about keeping geology going," he says. I have seen nothing like it before.

Stoffer has dipped into a lot of the geologist's typical career options: mining, oil and gas, scientific librarian, college instructor, and website creator and field hand for the U.S. Geological Survey. He's collected rocks and fossils and photographed geology in all fifty states. All of that, experience and photos and specimens, is the nucleus of Stoffer's GeoZeum, just a short stroll from the San Andreas fault and, of course, on the Web.

Some of the best rocks in GeoZeum are found near San Juan Bautista.

GeoZeum has shelves of rocks, minerals and fossils. It also has tables covered with them, meant to be handled. It has an earthquake machine and a tsunami tank. It has big 3D photos of landforms and glasses to view them with. It even has a closet filled with fluorescent minerals. A lapidary lab is in the planning stage. And the key ingredient is the owner, eager to show and tell.

A project like GeoZeum relies on a lot of synergy. First, there's the Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista. California's unique 4th-grade curriculum emphasizing the missions brings busloads of children to San Juan Bautista. The city itself is a draw for tourists, too. The mission owes its very location to the scarp raised along the San Andreas fault, and more than any other California mission its history is tied to earthquakes.

The San Andreas fault runs along the foot of the rise on which the San Juan Bautista mission sits. GeoZeum's Phil Stoffer leads walks here every weekend.

Second, GeoZeum shares a building with TOPS A Rock Shop, an uncommonly well-stocked example of its genre. TOPS will be a natural gathering place for the rock-and-mineral club that Stoffer is launching.


Third, San Juan Bautista is a remarkable nexus of geological sites every bit as interesting as the Bay Area. Indeed, just a million years ago you could say the area was the Bay Area, because the rivers of the Central Valley reached the Pacific through here. The area is full of mines and quarries, several earthquake faults, and diverse packages of rocks that those faults have carried here from far away. The GeoZeum website has a lot of maps and other material about the area.

One of Stoffer's favorite places is the riverbed of the San Benito River, where the gravel contains an enormous variety of rock types. But when I visited him earlier this week, we went instead to Gabilan (Fremont) Peak and explored some old barite mines in the ancient marble that makes up the mountaintop. We brought along ultraviolet flashlights and admired the veins of blue and yellow fluorescence in the mine passages. Stoffer has dozens of ideas like these for geologic walks.

GeoZeum is already operating Thursday through Sunday, but its formal Grand Opening is October 15. Stoffer will welcome you to his museum, whether you're a kid, a fellow retired geologist or anything between. Just look for the dinosaur tracks on the sidewalk.