Dig for Buried Treasures

Diamonds, emeralds and rubies, oh my!

The quartz mine at Mt. Ida in Arkansas is just one of many places to hunt for gems and minerals across the South

There’s gold in these southern hills … along with natural rubies and emeralds. A little less glamorous, but just as much fun to find, are an array of gems and minerals that include amethyst, garnets, and beautiful clusters of quartz crystals. The places where you can pan or dig for them stretch from Arkansas to Georgia and North Carolina.


The first gold discovered in this country was in North Carolina. The site is now the Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site in Midland, east of Charlotte. You can take a guided tour (closed Sunday and Monday), and even pan for gold April-October for a small fee.

Another important gold mining site is Dahlonega, Georgia. So much gold came from the area that a branch of the U.S. Mint was opened here in 1838 and operated for more than two decades. You can learn all about the golden history of the area at the Gold Museum housed in the historic Lumpkin County Courthouse, which sits in the middle of the town square. To pan for gold of your own, visit two local attractions, Crisson Gold Mine and Consolidated Gold Mines. And don’t miss the exhibit, just off the dining room, that shows the shaft of an old gold mine that was found during renovations in the Historic Smith House Inn.


Although I have never found even the tiniest diamond in all my trips to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, it remains one of my favorite places to look for gemstones. If you don’t want to put a lot of effort into searching, all you really have to do is hope for a sunny day, then walk up and down the plowed rows that cover the 37.5-acre site and look for the glint of stones with an oily, metallic luster. But if you want to dig deeper, you can rent equipment such as a shovel, a bucket for gathering dirt, and a sieve for sifting and washing it. Park personnel offer demonstrations of how to wash the dirt away and look for diamonds.

Most diamonds found here weigh in at less than one carat, and within the past month more than two-dozen of these small diamonds have been found. Since it’s been a while since a really large stone has been discovered, my theory is that it’s about time for another big find.

The largest diamond ever found here weighed a little over 40 carats, and when cut it resulted in a beautiful 12.42-carat white stone. But that was back in 1924. Since then more than a dozen diamonds weighing six carats or more have surfaced. One of the most famous stones to come from the site, the Strawn-Wagner diamond, weighed only 3.03-carats (1.09-carats when cut). What makes it so special is that it’s graded as “perfect,” the highest grade a diamond can be given. The stone is on display in the visitor center at the park, and serves as inspiration to me and other diamond hunters.


My first introduction to gem hunting was years ago, at the old Crabtree Emerald Mine near Spruce Pine, North Carolina. We didn’t find any gem-quality crystals, but came away happy to have gathered matrix veined with green, and some excellent specimens of beryl. The entrance to the Crabtree Mine now lies underwater, but through Emerald Village, you can arrange to dig in the mounds of dirt brought out of the mine before it flooded. Another good place to search for emeralds is the Emerald Hollow Mine in the small town of Hiddenite, North Carolina. Look here for finds that include emeralds, tourmaline, and quartz crystals.

hiddennite-north-carolina-gem-mining-stonesTo look for rubies, head to the area around Franklin, North Carolina. Some of the mines are “salted,” which means gemstones are brought in from other areas and mixed in with the bucket of soil available for washing in a flume of running water. Two where you can search for natural stones, though, are Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine and Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine.


At a recent gem & mineral show I saw amethyst crystals collected at the Jackson Crossroads Amethyst Mine in Tignall, Georgia. You have to make arrangements in advance to visit the site, and no children under 12 are allowed, but the young man who was exhibiting the crystals said it’s well worth the trip. I’m planning to visit as soon as there’s a break in the heat.

For quartz crystals, there’s no better place than Arkansas. My favorite spot is the Ron Coleman Crystal Mines, north of Hot Springs. I once watched as a crystal formation as big as a car was loaded onto a truck for transport to the finder’s house. The woman who uncovered the giant beauty and rented the equipment to move it was planning to display it in her yard. For a choice of quartz mines to visit, though, head west of Hot Springs, to Mt. Ida. Stop by the Chamber of Commerce office in town for information about mines that are open to visitors, and where the best crystals are being found. One of the best times to come is October 11-13, during the World Championship Crystal Dig.

north-carolina-liester-randall-glen-gem-mining-children-creekGOOD TO KNOW

• You’re going to get dirty so wear old clothes.

• Wear plenty of sunscreen, and a hat.

• Some sites have shovels, sieves, and buckets for rent, but some don’t. So consider taking your own.

• Take a bucket, even if you don’t carry other equipment; you’ll need it to carry home your finds.

• Carry snacks and bottled water, because some sites don’t have a snack bar.


If you don’t want to get your hands dirty mining for gems, you can find some beautiful treasures at a gem and mineral show. Here are a few to put on your calendar:

July 26–29: Macon County Gemboree, Franklin, NC

July 28–Aug. 5: 28th Annual Grassy Creek Mineral and Gem Show, Spruce Pine, NC

August 2–5: NC Mineral and Gem Festival, Spruce Pine, NC

August 10–12: 37th Annual Harrison County Gem & Mineral Show, Long Beach, MS

August 18–19: Ark-La-Tex Gem & Mineral Society Show, Bossier City, LA

September 2–4: 30th Annual Gem & Mineral Spectacular (held during the annual North Carolina Apple Festival), Hendersonville, NC

October 6–8: Huntsville Gem & Mineral Show, Huntsville, AL

October 20–21: Gold Rush Days, Dahlonega, GA

November 16–18: Gem, Mineral & Jewelry Show, Columbia, SC

November 17–18: 21st Annual Gem, Mineral & Fossil Show, Fairfax, VA

Dahlonega gold panning photo courtesy Georgia Department of Economic Development; Crater of Diamonds State Park and diamond photos courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism; Hiddennite, NC gem mining photo by BuzzFarmers, via Flickr Creative Commons; and NC children mining photo by Bruce Tuten, via Flickr Creative Commons