▶ OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Rubies, emeralds, topaz and quartz are all stones that can be found by visiting any gem mine in the High Country. In an area that is overflowing with minerals and that started the Gold Rush, mines find success from both tourists and locals.
There are so many gem mines in the High Country, it can seem impossible to choose one. Visitors who have some time and some money may want to try them all. Otherwise, read below to see which gem mines fits you best.
Finding gems in actual mines is difficult work that requires a lot of patience. By visiting one of the gem mines in the High Country, the hard part is already done. No tools are necessary, and even small children can find beautiful gems.
Gem mining shaped much of the High Country’s history, and both children and adults can learn about that history while having fun. It can be a short activity that only takes about an hour, or diligent miners can spend the whole day meticulously going through their buckets.
“It’s one of the most geological diverse areas in the world, especially for finding gemstones,” Leonard said.
Most importantly, it’s a good way for families to spend time together and create memories. The best part is that at a gem mine, visitors can take pieces that will make the memories last forever.
“You’re not just walking into a store and buying something,” Critcher said. “There’s that memory that’s associated with the return. A piece of jewelry, every time you wear it you think of the experience.”
The Greater Foscoe
Sitting atop a hill as you drive into Foscoe on NC Highway 105, this 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.”
Foggy Mountain is just a short drive down NC Highway 105. Located on the right close to the Tomato Shack, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for the sign. Once inside, customers can see exactly what types of stones are in the mine by looking at the jewelry sprawled out in the cabinets. Luke Critcher, the co-owner, is either standing behind them telling people about the stones they’ve found, or he’s in the back room cutting a stone for a customer.
“It allows me to work with finished stones from the mining to the finished jewelry,” he said. “At a regular jewelry store, you’re just buying a stone and selling it. I’ve always been creative, and this place allows me to use that creativity.”
Customers can buy buckets that range in price from $17 to $120. The buckets are prefilled with rough gemstones, rocks and dirt. Foggy Mountain guarantees that there are good stones in each bucket, and if customers patiently sift through the rocks and dirt, the stones will emerge.
“We make sure there’s a consistent amount in every bucket,” Critcher said. “We can guarantee you’re going to find stuff. After you find your stuff, you bring it in here and lay it out, [we’ll] show you what it looks like cut and polished. We’ll tell you what would be good to do something with and what would be good to just stick in a fish tank.”
Although Critcher grew up in the Boone area, he left to for gemology. He’s a certified gemologist, and he has the credentials to do jewelry appraisals. After he learned the tools of the trade, he returned to his beloved North Carolina to start working at Foggy Mountain. His love of his profession and the area where he works is evident in everything he says.
“It’s a real geologically unique area,” he said. “You can’t go many places and find what you can find here. North Carolina emeralds, they rival the finest emeralds in the world as far as color and clarity. Besides that, we have amazing weather and beautiful scenery.”
Although most of the mines in the High Country have been open for many years, occasionally there’s a newcomer. Last year, Sugar Creek Gem Mine 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, that would 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 there 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 $16.95 to $499, 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. After identification, the staff will cut the stones and have them set into jewelry.
“The whole thing is about having a good time,” Leonard said.
Grandfather Trout Park
For those who are into outdoor sports, this 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.
Wilkinson opened the trout farm in 1983, and a year later, he opened the gem mine right beside it. Both are located just off NC Highway 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, N.C. 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.”