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Here's How And Where To Go Rockhounding In The US

By Antonia Čirjak February 01 2020

Everyone loves a good treasure hunt
Everyone loves a good treasure hunt

When we think of the  Five Noble gemstones - diamond, ruby, emerald, amethyst, and sapphire - we immediately imagine exotic countries like Africa or India. That is fair enough on the economic scale. But Rockhounds can find accessible deposits of those gemstones much closer: within the US.

Most of these sites can make for a great vacation adventure for rocks and gems enthusiast or someone interested in geology and gemology in general. Some are family-friendly so that they can make for an excellent destination for learning and bonding with kids.

What Do I Need To Do Before I Set Off For My Rockhounding Trip?

Please make sure that you prepared the gear and clothing, and double-checked the dates and opening times before traveling: some mining sites are strictly seasonal, and may not be accessible during the required maintenance. You also want to confirm what are the latest fees, list of equipment provided, and kids' activities.

What Will Different Recreational Mines Offer Me?

You can be offered access to the deposit location where you can dig, collect pebble or even break some rocks yourself, or you can get access to the lifted but unprocessed ground and pebble in buckets, bags, or sluice boxes. The experience offered vastly depends on the type of gem mined and the safety recommendations for the area. The balance of the adventure and mining experience and the focus on finding gemstones vary so that you can pick a suitable type for your priorities. 

What Is A Sluice, Sluicebox, Or Sluiceway?

Many of the mines offer you to choose between various types of gem-hunting activities. You can grab your hammers and chisels and mine your materials. You can buy buckets or bags of extracted soil, and you can take place alongside a special elevated and slightly inclined water stream with gates where the ground and pebble are rolled and washed by running water. The latter is sluicing. In simpler cases, you might be offered panning; you'll be given a netted pan where you can place soil and whirl it, hence separating lighter and heavier particles. 

Gemstone panning with a sluice box.
Gemstone panning with a sluice box. 

People noticed a long time ago that the most accessible deposits of valuable materials - from gold to gemstones - can be found in river beds, banks, turns, or surrounding areas. This is because the water would gradually erode some underground deposits and carry smaller pieces in its stream, polishing and revealing it along the way. Miners created an imitation of this stream in sluices. Most of the time, it would look like a series of boxes with the water running through where the ground rocks are deposited. You can stand next to this stream and pick stones you notice. 

Emerald Hollow Mine, Hiddenite, North Carolina

A well-developed site that allows for the family fun and is open the entire year. This is a place mining type of the location, where you search for stones and rocks in the sediment carried by waters. Kids are allowed and welcome, and you can spend even a hot day as the site is located along the creek and has enough shade. For a fee, you are offered to look for stones in the creek and around, or can choose to participate in sluicing. You are provided with buckets, pan, and a seating cushion.

The area is quite popular, so you might not find solitude, but it is accessible and comfortable. Same as with all old and well-exploited locations, most recent finds mainly include chips or lesser stones, so it would not provide a collector-value specimen - but it will be a fun activity with learning and bonding, suitable for a novice.

Gem Mountain, Spruce Pine, North Carolina

This location offers mainly flume mining: quoting the guide, "the action takes place at the gemstone flume!". The material is being supplied from the local mining operations, and you get to participate in the sluicing of the material brought from there. You buy buckets to "mine" and can expect to find aquamarines, Crabtree emerald, moonstones, garnet, citrine, amethyst, ruby, sapphire, although you are more likely to end up with non-gem grade stones. You can take home everything you find.

Precious raw gem moonstone stones.
Precious raw gem moonstone.

The location itself is quite stunning, so it is an excellent choice for a family trip, and kids are fully accommodated. Per reservation, you are also offered a 4-hour trip out to the mine itself to dig your material (transportation, guide, and tools will be provided). There are several mines still operating in the area so that you can visit a relatively new Brushy Creek Mine (aquamarine, garnet, golden beryl, tourmaline, smoky quartz, and clear quartz) or an impressive 100+ years old Hoot Owl Mine. The mine is seasonal and closes for winter. 

Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine, Franklin, North Carolina

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a famous location for gem hunting, as well as a great location to visit on vacation. Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine provides you with the sluicing experience, with a sitting place by the sluice and the supplied rock containing quartz, garnets, lower grade sapphires, and a variety of lesser stones. Although the mine will not offer some exciting adventures or hill hiking, the mine is suitable for a family outing, and the admission fee is fairly low. The mine is seasonal and open for gem hunting to the public from May through October. 

Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, Philipsburg, Montana

The same name, a different location! This mine is the source of Montana Sapphires. It used to produce some gem-quality stones in the 1890s. It continued to supply significant amounts of industrial quality ones until the successful and efficient procedure for creating synthetic sapphires was developed. After that (around the 1950s), the mine changed its business model to serving amateur gem hunters. The motto is "wash and find" - and that is precisely the type of experience you might expect.

Sapphire rock
Raw sapphire rock.

The mine itself is seasonal and closed in winter. The mine is located in a tiny mining town. Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine's staff will instruct you on how to search for sapphires, recognize them in the rough, and apply heat-treatment to enhance the color. You can purchase gravel from the mine in buckets, which can be posted to your location as well.  

Crystal Grove Diamond Mine, St. Johnsville, New York

Crystal Grove is well developed, comfortable, and as posh a mine as you can expect from New York. Although you will not find diamonds here, this place is home for Herkimer Diamonds: clear quartz crystals with two pointed ends. More delicate pieces can be used for jewelry with minimal processing and are quite a lot of fun to mine; the mining site is still young, so at times you break surface rocks and find large and stunning specimen. You can bring your tools or rent them at the location; it is advised to bring chisels and hammer (and learn how to use them safely) as you would want to try and reach embedded crystals. You can take home everything you find.

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