By Katie Moosbrugger

My son is obsessed with gems, rocks and crystals. It all started in kindergarten where all the boys went on “ninja” explorations in the brush alongside the playground in search of precious stones “he swore” they found every day. So when I asked the kids what kind of day trip we should take, naturally the first thing my son suggested was a ninja hike. Instead, we settled on gem mining.

Thankfully, we had no problems finding a place to do this. I did a quick Google search and found a slew of gem mining places to consider (see my list below). Lots of places are a couples hours west (closer to Asheville) but we wanted to keep our drive short, so we settled on Emerald Hollow Mine in Hiddenite, NC – just an hour’s drive west from the Triad. And as it turns out, Emerald Hollow is a hidden gem itself.

I had no idea what to expect when we arrived, but quickly learned that people come from miles away for the chance to sluice, dig and creek here. It’s literally an easy-to-miss turnoff onto a dirt road – and at first (because it looked small and unimpressive) I thought we made a mistake in choosing this place. Then I met a couple from Maryland who, for years, had wanted to visit Emerald Hollow Mine and finally found time to stop in on their trip home from the mountains. If you had seen this place, you too would have thought, “Really?”…but after our trip, I can understand – especially if you’re a true rockhound.

Emerald Hollow Mine’s unique location in Hiddenite, NC, makes it “one of the most unique and interesting geological locations on the North American continent,” says its web site.

Before I arrived, I researched prices and options, and learned the best things to do for a beginner gem miner is sluicing and creeking. For $10/person, Emerald Mine will sell you a “permit” to do these two things which are considered the most popular. Twenty bucks for the day sounded good to me, so we were sold.

What I didn’t do, however, was research exactly what was involved in sluicing and creeking. I knew enough to dress my kids in play clothes and water shoes, but had no idea the amount of mud that would be involved. Unfortunately I was not dressed appropriately (and a parent is required to pay admission with children – so technically it was a $30 admission charge) but I was somehow able to avoid the mess. I also gave the kids my bucket of dirt (which is actually ore mixed with gems) and it helped prolong their fun.

If you’re not familiar with sluicing, it involves taking a seat in its covered sluiceway where you wash buckets of ore to find gemstones. It’s so simple, really dirty, and the kids love it. The $10 fee gives each person a bucket of ore and a shovel to dig and throw dirt (ore) into a sifter that rests in running water. As the water runs over your sifter, you either shake or brush off the excess dirt to discover any one of the mine’s 63 different types of natural gems and minerals.

Our three buckets took about an hour and a half for the kids to sift through, and they found plenty of loot. My son actually discovered a decent sized amethyst that we actually considered selling for cash (more on that later in my post). If you wanted to spend more time sluicing, the mine sells additional buckets from $5 up to $1,000. Yes, you read that correctly. People actually spend that much on buckets of dirt and rocks! In fact, the mine told me they had just sold four $250 buckets that week. The more expensive the bucket, the more high-quality gems (including emerald, aquamarine, sapphire, garnet, topaz, amethyst, citrine, rutile, tourmaline and hiddenite) you’re guaranteed to find – so I guess that is worth it!

After our sluicing adventure, we went on to “creeking.” This is basically the same thing as sluicing, but in the natural creek versus the sluiceway. You’re required to rent a sifter and shovel for $5 (of which you get $3 back when you are done), but it’s worth the extra cost. The scenery was beautiful and the kids loved hiking through the sparkling mountain waters. Had I dressed ready to get dirty, we could have easily spent more hours creeking and exploring.

Another option at Emerald Hollow is digging. For $20 you can get a combination permit to do sluicing, creeking and digging (plus a $10 deposit for digging tools – of which $5 is refunded), but to be honest, I was not interested in the “hard work” that digging involved despite the treasures we may have found. I will save that for another trip!

After our efforts in sluicing and creeking, we made our way to the Lapidary Shop to have our gems appraised. It was here we learned that for $60 we could have a gem cleaned and cut (the way to go if you want to sell) or for $20 we could have our gem cleaned and smoothed into a stone. We were told the fancy amethyst that my son found “could be sold” for $120 after we had it cleaned and cut, but we weren’t guaranteed the same amount if we had it smoothed into a stone. After weighing the potential net profit, my son decided to keep his precious gem for now. (Apparently the $60/gem price is a good deal compared to other places that charge a similar price per carat.)

Despite my initial reservations when we first arrived, the day turned out to be a lot of fun and educational too! Throughout our sluicing and creeking, several Emerald Hollow employees (all of whom were teenagers eager to work with kids) made themselves available for questions and gem identification every step of the way. My kids are already asking when we can go back and when we can visit other gem mine locations.

If you’re considering taking the kids gem mining, I highly recommend Emerald Hollow. I also found these other places from which to choose:

Reed Gold Mine, Midland
Gem Mountain, Spruce Pine
Several places in Franklin
Emerald Village, Little Switzerland
Chimney Rock Gem Mine, Chimney Rock
Thermal City Gold Mine, Marion
Jackson Hole Gem Mine, Highlands
Greater Foscoe Mining Co, Foscoe

Have you been gem mining? Where is your favorite place to go?