I’m covered in mud. It’s oozing up my boots, smeared on my shirt, and covering the seat of my pants. I’ve been swinging a mattock and digging holes in the side of this mountain all morning—and yes, I call this a vacation. If you’re a mineral collector like me, it’s that gleam of gemstones that gets you willing to jump in and get dirty for the sake of the next big find. Few places are as rockhound-friendly as the mountains around Franklin, North Carolina, which is why this week is spent squarely in a heap of dirt.
There are rock shops galore along the highways here, and plenty of places to stop and sift through dirt in a sluice. The good stuff, however, takes some real work and a climb up winding roads into the Cowee Valley.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The thrill of the hunt – of finding a genuine sapphire – is irresistible.
- Franklin, NC is a peaceful mountain getaway you shouldn’t miss.
- It’s a great excuse to play in the mud!
Dig That Dirt
Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine, along Upper Burningtown Road, is unique among the mines of the Cowee Valley. It’s the only one where you can dig your own buckets of dirt out of the mountainside—a real plus for people who like to get hands-on with their gemstone hunting. A friendly fellow, proprietor Pete Civitello shows newcomers the ropes: samples of the local sapphires, the stash of tools and buckets, and the best places to dig on the mountain. “They’ve been finding lilac sapphires there these past few weeks,” he says, pointing to a gash in the hillside. Visitors trundle off across the creek, buckets and shovels in hand, and scale the slippery mountainside, digging for hidden treasure.
When a bucket is ready for sluicing, Pete walks you through the process—the proper way to screen the mud. The heavy sapphires can be tapped away from the lighter micas and quartz once the gravel is clean. It takes a little practice, but eventually you’ll start seeing tiny lilac hexagons in the screen. Sparkling crystals of garnet look like pieces of clear red glass.
Pete loves to show off how plenty of folks miss the good stuff. He dumps a shovel full of dirt from under the sluice into the screen, and starts shaking. Within moments, several small sapphires show up in the washed gravel. He shakes his head. “It’s amazing how many people don’t catch all the gemstones in their screens. They just chuck the gravel on the ground.” He gestures to end of the sluice, where the constant flow of water cascades down into a dark pool. “You should see how many I’ve pulled out of the pond!”
Off to the Mines
The process is pretty simple: cross the bridge, climb the mountain, dig up dirt, drag the buckets back down to the sluice, wash the dirt, tap the gravel. Repeat. And the payoff? After eight hours, some people find a dozen lilac sapphires, some people find three dozen—with at least a stone or two big enough to cut and mount on rings. That’s what keeps people coming back to Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine. “You should’ve seen when some folks last season opened up a pipe of sapphires,” said Pete. “I’d never seen so many stones come out of this mountain before. Hundreds at a time! But it only lasted a couple of weeks, and then the pipe tapped out.”
Mason’s Ruby & Sapphire Mine is open daily. Famous for lilac sapphires, they won’t disappoint you for a day of family fun looking for genuine North Carolina gems. A shaded flume for sifting through your dirt makes this a pleasant place to spend the day. Bring your own tools and cash – no credit cards accepted. $30 per day, $15 for children 6-11, under 6 free.