By Melissa Hart on December 9, 2021 in Travel
Buried treasure abounds across the U.S. for those willing to wield a rock hammer or a mesh-bottomed sluice pan. In almost every state, you can visit mines to hunt for gemstones and semi-precious stones. Whether you’re on a day trip or a longer family vacation, discovering a diamond in the side of a mountain or a piece of jade on a windy beach makes for a memorable adventure.
You have several options for mining. You can identify a location on public lands and head there to sift through the dirt or sand. In some cases, you can even dive for stones buried under the ocean. For a different experience, you can pay a small fee at numerous mines across the country for the privilege of digging and/or sluicing. To sluice, you pour dirt into a mesh-bottomed tray and take it to a water trough to dissolve the dirt. Hopefully, you’ll discover rocks and sparkling gems left behind.
In this article, we’ll tell you how to plan for your rockhounding explorations. Then, we’ll highlight some of the most popular locations for gem hunting around the country so you can return home with your pockets full of treasure.
Pack the Essentials
Hunting for gems and semi-precious stones means you’ll spend hours outside in all sorts of weather. With that in mind, dress in layers of moisture-wicking, non-cotton clothing, and bring a waterproof jacket. You’ll want sturdy hiking shoes, a wide-brimmed hat, and thick gloves to protect your hands. Sunscreen and insect repellant are a must. Some mine owners recommend you bring a headlamp to help you pick out gems more clearly on cloudy days. Always pack goggles to protect your eyes from flying bits of rock and bring a basic first-aid kit in case of cuts and scrapes.
Pack plenty of drinking water and high-protein snacks; you need to drive to a remote location without an option to purchase refreshments. Some mines rent rock hammers, shovels, and buckets for a fee. Always bring cash as some mines don’t take credit cards. If you’re traveling to a publicly owned site, bring your own tools.
Bring newspaper to wrap your finds and pack a bag and a magnifying glass to look at your discoveries up close. It’s also useful to bring a bucket or two, a mesh strainer, a pair of tweezers, a small brush for clearing away dirt, and a small cannister — perhaps an unused pill bottle — with an “X” cut in the top to easily deposit your gems without spilling them.
Consider downloading a gem discovery app to your phone for easy identification, and visit a geology website or check out a book about gems for information about your finds.
Check Out These Locations for Gem Hunting
Here are just a few rockhounding spots around the U.S. to get you started. Before you leave, check websites for hours of operation and updates regarding fees and potential road and COVID-19 closures.
At Agate Beach north of Newport on the central Oregon Coast, bring a shovel and a sieve to search for pink and golden agates on the beach. These stones are semi-precious minerals that wash up along the state’s coastline. You can also find agates on the beaches of Depoe Bay, north of Agate Beach. Spend a few hours at the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center. Stay at the book-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel overlooking the Pacific, and enjoy the catch of the day while you watch sea lions through the windows overlooking the docks at Clearwater Restaurant.
Miners have found museum-quality stones at the Jackson’s Crossing Amethyst Mine in Wilkes County, Georgia. At this remote location 40 miles east of Athens, visitors can dig on-site through white sand and break open granite pieces to look for gems. The mine employees recommend you use bamboo tools when excavating amethysts so you don’t scratch the surface of the gems, and they suggest visitors bring portable fans to mitigate the summer heat. Camp at nearby Callaway Plantation, or stay at the historic Fitzpatrick Hotel in Washington, Georgia, and enjoy the neighborhood pub on-site. Enjoy enchiladas and low-country shrimp boils on the open-air patio of The Hot Box Café.
Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, two hours southwest of Little Rock, allows visitors to search for rocks, minerals, and gemstones on a 37-acre field created from the eroded surface of a volcanic crater. Since 1972, people have found more than 33,000 diamonds at this location, including “Uncle Sam” which, at 40.23 carats, is the largest diamond ever mined in the country. Bring mining tools or rent equipment from the park. At the visitors’ center, learn about the area’s geology and history, as well as the various ways to search for diamonds. Enjoy displays of uncut diamonds; those found at the park are white, brown, and yellow. Rockhounds can also search for quartz, agates, jasper, garnets, and amethysts. Camp and picnic on-site and visit the Diamond Springs Water Park in summer months. Enjoy themed rooms at The Manor at Twin Oaks Bed and Breakfast, and savor chicken and waffles or wings with a variety of sauces at Ms. Marian’s Café.
The Emerald Hollow Mine in Hiddenite, North Carolina boasts 70 acres of land dotted with emeralds, sapphires, aquamarines, garnets, topazes, and tourmalines. The 65-carat emerald found near Hiddenite, North Carolina, a few years ago may be worth $1 million, but most prospectors who go to fee areas hunt gems for the excitement. Still, you can increase your odds of making a profit from your fun by renting a sluice box and trowel to sift through sediment in the creek bed and digging for minerals that occur naturally in the area. Staff are on hand to answer questions, identify gems, and cut and facet stones for custom jewelry. Stay in an RV or tent at nearby Hiddenite Family Campground, or reserve a room at The Yellow Bow Tie Bed and Breakfast. The Yellow Deli offers sandwiches and salads, and Mexico Viejo in nearby Taylorsville serves up tacos and fajitas.
Garnet Hill sits 6.5 miles north of Ely, Nevada. It’s a remote public recreation area known for its dark red semi-precious gemstones. The high iron content in the rock creates stones in vivid colors. Bring tools to excavate the rhyolitic volcanic rock throughout the region. No tools? You’ll likely find garnets lying on the ground, especially after rain or snowmelt. Garnet Fields Rockhound Area offers camping space for small RVs and tents, along with a wheelchair-accessible restroom, picnic tables, and a group campfire site. Don’t miss the view of nearby Robinson Mining District’s open-pit copper mine and vibrant piles of waste rock. Stop in Ely for tacos and enchiladas at Rolberto’s Mexican Food or burgers and fries at Rack’s Bar.
These 500-million-year-old quartz crystals have a geometrical shape resembling diamonds, with 18 natural facets and two points. Visit the Herkimer Diamond Mines between Syracuse and Albany in upstate New York to search for the crystals. Families with young children will enjoy the opportunity to sluice for treasure as well. At the Artisan Center, staff will help you craft custom jewelry with your finds. Stay at the Herkimer Diamond KOA Resort or reserve a room at the Rosemont Inn Bed and Breakfast. Check out the enormous menu of pub grub at Asteroga Ale House or the equally-large menu of Chinese cuisine at Borunda Asian Buffet.
Visit the Jade Cove Trail in Big Sur, California to pick up pieces of jade on the sand. Navigate a short, steep trail into the cove, and view the green sides of the cliffs. Rockhounds in this area have found not just green jade, but black, red, blue, and white stones. Jade Cove is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, so digging isn’t allowed, but visitors may take any pieces they find on the sand. It’s best to hunt after large waves have tossed up detritus onto the sand or during low tides. Most of the jade in this area is under the ocean, and divers can discover significant deposits. Stay at Plaskett Creek Campground or spring for a yurt at Treebones Resort and enjoy garden-to-table campfire cuisine right on the ocean.
Visitors to the Cherokee Ruby and Sapphire Mine in North Carolina near Bryson City can purchase a bucket of gem ore and rent a screened box for sluicing rubies and sapphires. On occasion, miners have found rare star rubies at this location. When you’ve packed up your treasures, you can camp and tube at the Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground or stay at The Everett, a boutique hotel and bistro in Bryson City. Don’t miss the pizzas and pasta dishes at Pasqualino’s Italian Restaurant.
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine is Montana’s oldest sapphire mine. Since 1892, it has produced more than 180 million carats of sapphires. Located in Philipsburg, 200 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park, Gem Mountain sells buckets of gravel for visitors to wash and sort in search of sapphires, with staff assistance to determine which are gem quality. Should you find a sapphire with gem-quality color and clarity, staff at Gem Mountain will cut, heat treat, and facet your sapphire to create a piece of jewelry. Stay at Kaiser House Lodging, Philipsburg’s oldest hotel, which offers four rooms and breakfast. Enjoy pub fare at Bricks Pub, and make sure to stop for handmade artisan ice cream at Philipsburg Creamery.
At Spectrum Sunstone Mines in southcentral Oregon, look for yellow, pink, and red gems. Visitors can dig for sunstones in a pile of fresh, unprocessed ore or break open basalt lava rocks in one of the red and green sunstone pits. Alternatively, pick sunstones off the commercial screen plant conveyor belt with help from staff on location. Rent a cabin on site or stay at one of the bunkhouses and cabins advertised on sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo. Visit the Hart Mountain Store for a burger and a brew, plus any supplies you may need during your adventure.
Plan a Gem of a Vacation
If you discover you enjoy rockhounding, you can visit hundreds of other mining sites across the country and plan a road trip around the activity. When you return home, you’ll amaze your friends and family with bags full of rubies, emeralds, jade, sapphires, and diamonds.