Editor’s Note: This is the second feature in a series called “Summer Treats,” which is designed to encourage local readers – and anyone else, for a matter of fact – to get out of the house and enjoy some of the many offerings in the High Country.
By Chelsea Pardue
More so than the precious and valuable stones you will find sifting through rocks and dirt in wooden screens, mining memories in the High Country is at the core of the gem mining experience.
So, too, is discovery. Children and kids at heart will have a blast at the mines, not knowing what they may find, and simultaneously taking a crash course in geology and learning about the sublime minerals found on Earth.
Rubies, emeralds, topaz and quartz are among the many gemstones found at the local gem mines, regional to where the Carolina Gold Rush, the first in the United States, began in 1799.
In an area that still overflows with minerals, the High Country has a variety of gem mines for tourists and locals, alike, to enjoy, discover and mine memories that will last forever.
Detailed descriptions of each attraction are featured on the following pages to learn more about five local mines. See which mine you like the best and go have a visit – or if you have the time, visit them all!
Where To Mine Gems?
THE GREATER FOSCOE MINING COMPANY
Sitting atop a hill as you drive into Foscoe on N.C. 105, the Greater Foscoe Mining Company mine is hard to miss with its red and yellow banner sign. Kenny Pickett started it as a family business in 1988 for his own children, but it quickly grew into a large business with the help of tourists. Pickett’s big focus is still on the children who visit his mine.
“We concentrate on teaching the children,” he said. “They’re having so much fun, they don’t realize they’re having a gem class at the same time. When they get through gem mining, we make them a chart, tape down all their rocks and minerals so they know what they are, and by the time the kids get through playing, they’ve soaked in so much information, they love it.”
After the children are done mining, their mothers or grandmothers are often interested in having the best stones made into jewelry. That’s Pickett’s specialty.
“What makes us a lot different than everybody else is I’m also in the jewelry business, and I’ve been doing gold work since the early 1980s,” he said. “We facet and polish gemstones of every color, and when they’re finished, many of our customers want them set in gold settings. I also do custom carvings and one-of-a-kind pieces.”
Buckets at The Greater Foscoe Mining Company range from $16 to $212, and bigger buckets guarantee bigger finds. Many customers, especially the tourists who helped to make The Greater Foscoe Mining Company a success, return year after year to try out their luck with different buckets.
“We have a lot of return customers,” Pickett said. “And a lot of them tell me this is the highlight of their vacation.” www.foscoemingco.com • 828-963-5928
SUGAR CREEK MINING COMPANY
Although most of the mines in the High Country have been open for many years, occasionally there’s a newcomer. In 2012, Sugar Creek Mining Company opened in Banner Elk on Tynecastle Highway.
“There’s not really any in this direct area, so we saw a good opportunity,” said co-owner Matt Leonard.
He and his brother, Chris, have had an interest in mining since they were children. As adults, they decided that instead of just mining for fun, they would try to make a living out of it. Although they’re new to the gem-mining scene, they say they’ve had great success so far. Leonard thinks the success is partly due to his staff.
“I think the people we have working here really make it unique,” Leonard said. “We actually have some gemologists on staff.”
Leonard said the other reason he’s been successful is because of customer satisfaction. He sells buckets that range in price from $19.95, $32.95, $64.95 and $119.95, and he promises that whether customers buy the one gallon bucket or the wheelbarrow, they won’t be disappointed.
“They’re actually kind of shocked because they’ve found so many different types of stones as well as the size of the stones,” Leonard said. “Every time someone comes in we always hear that they didn’t expect to find as much as they did.”
After groups finish mining, they can bring their treasures to Sugar Creek’s staff to have them identified. Afterwards, the staff will cut the stones and have them set into jewelry.
“The whole thing is about having a good time,” Leonard said. www.sugarcreekgemmine.com • 828-898-4367
Doc’s Rocks is located off N.C. 321 in between Boone and Blowing Rock next door to Mystery Hill. If families want to have a full-day excursion, they can start off at Mystery Hill and then wander to Doc’s Rocks after battling gravity and other optical illusions.
With a background in geology, Doc McCoy focuses on teaching people about how the rocks formed more so than how to make a piece of valuable jewelry. Because the Appalachian Mountains are one of the oldest ranges in the world, he said it’s an ideal area for the mining business.
“I wanted a teaching aspect,” McCoy said. “We’re different than any other gem mine in the United States. I’m a geologist. Instead of doing a jewelry aspect, we do a history aspect.”
Buckets range in price from $12 to $55. Although McCoy doesn’t guarantee bigger or more expansive gems in bigger buckets, he did say that if customers find nothing, he will provide another bucket a no charge for a second chance. He added that before he gives a customer a bucket, he doesn’t know what’s in it, and sometimes the results are even bigger than he expected.
“It doesn’t matter what size buckets you buy,” he said. “You have just as good a chance with a small one as you do a big one. So that way everybody, regardless of what your budget is, has the same chance.”
McCoy also takes some customers out into the Boone area to look for gems in nature. This experience can be a bit more difficult than sifting through dirt at a gem mine, but for him, it’s just about having fun and learning.
“It’s a chance to learn something new and not put a lot of money into doing it,” he said. “You can find a nice gemstone and have a whole set of jewelry made and still come out about one-tenth of what you would spend in the jewelry store for the same quality.”
Doc added that the company recently bought the largest private collection of dinosaur bones in the United States for inclusion in its Fossil Museum. Admission is $4 for adults and $3 for children. www.docsrocks.net • 828-264-4499
GRANDFATHER TROUT FARM AND GEM MINE
For those who are into outdoor sports, Grandfather Trout Farm and Gem Mine offers more than just gems. Customers can start the day by fishing at the trout farm and finish it up with some fun in the mines. Buckets start at $15 and range to $40, but those who are fishing can get a bundle deal.
Bill Wilkinson opened the trout farm in 1983, and a year later, he opened the gem mine right beside it. Both are located just off N.C. 105 in the Grandfather Community in a flat, grassy area, so it’s handicap-accessible.
“Trout is a tourist-type operation, and the gem mine just complements the tourism part of our operation,” Wilkinson said.
Before opening his own mine, Wilkinson mined with a friend in Franklin. That friend turned him onto mining and then introduced him to his sources. Once Wilkinson opened his own mine, he directed people to jewelry stores that could cut and set the stones. Eventually, he was able to open his own jewelry shop, but it has since closed.
“You can still find the gems here and we’ll identify them for you and tell you where to go if you’d like to have them cut,” Wilkinson said.
One perk of having the trout farm as the main business is that Wilkinson can use the money he makes from that to stock his buckets with good gems. He said he offers a wide variety, although most of the stones are emeralds, amethysts, rubies and topaz.
“We’re the oldest gem mine in the county,” he said. “You can get the full experience of finding a variety of gemstones in every bucket.” www.grandfathertroutfarm.com • 828-963-5098
FOGGY MOUNTAIN GEM MINE
Foggy Mountain is just a short drive down N.C. 105. Located near the Tomato Shack, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking. Once inside, customers can see exactly what types of stones are in the mine by looking at the jewelry sprawled out in the cabinets.
In November, Nik Vames took over the family business that his mother Dana Morace established in the ‘80s.
Customers can buy buckets that range in price from $15 (for a one-gallon bucket) all the way up to $325 (for a 33-gallon bucket). The buckets are prefilled with rough gemstones, rocks and dirt, and Foggy Mountain guarantees good stones in each bucket. If customers patiently sift through the rocks and dirt, the stones will emerge.
For more information, contact Foggy Mountain Gem Mines at 828-963-4367 or click to www.foggymountaingems.com.