Gem Vacations

Just because the season of “fun in the sun” has passed doesn’t mean that you need to stuff your suitcase into storage. In fact, I discovered a positively sparkling idea for a late autumn getaway, and I can’t wait to share it with you. You might say it’s a real gem.

Come on, let’s hit the road.


Photo by Biso via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s your packing list:

  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Small shovel
  • Chisel
  • Safety glasses
  • Bucket
  • Weather-proof wardrobe, including garden gloves and a handy kneeling pad

Consider this trip a good excuse to buy a darling set like this one from HomegrownHandmade on Etsy:


Love, love, love!

But, MaryJane … (I can hear you) … you’re not suggesting a garden getaway in November, are you?

No, but, being the outdoorsy, yet fashionable, farmgirls that we are, this little straycation is perfect for us. We’re sure to get our hands dirty. and if we’re lucky, we’ll dig up a bit of “bling” to take home. You guessed it—we’re going hunting for gemstones.


Photo by Jennifer Dickert via Wikimedia Commons

Slow down, Sal—the gems we’re after are likely to look a little more like this (if we’re lucky):


Photo courtesy of Crater of Diamonds State Park

And, this is how we’ll find ’em:


Photo of diamond digging at the park by Doug Wertman via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing beats a DIY diamond.

Unlike gems mined worldwide at horrific costs to human safety and the environment, hunting for treasure in the U.S. is a fun and relatively harmless pursuit for the whole family (as long as you have one of those kneeling pads I mentioned). Numerous small mines scattered across the country welcome tourists to come and try their hand at excavating diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and more—finders keepers, no matter how big the find!

“The most family-friendly options, where you dig or sluice through dirt and creeks, offer low admission and cheap gear rentals, as well as tours, kid-friendly activities, and even cabins to rent,” writes Katrina Brown Hunt of “Staffers can usually inspect and mount your finds, but the thrill of the chase—combined with a little education in geology and history—may be its own reward.”

The four mines on our itinerary are all open during the fall or year-round, but there are others that would be worth visiting during other months of the year (check out a full list of 10 Great Places to Hunt for Treasure at Now, since we’re already dabbling in dreams of diamonds, let’s head to Arkansas first …

Crater of Diamonds State Park


Photo by Kathy via Wikimedia Commons

 Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only diamond-producing site in the world where the public can search for real diamonds in shades of white, gold, and brown.


Photo courtesy of Crater of Diamonds State Park

What to Look For: Gem quality diamonds

Location: Murfreesboro, Arkansas (about 120 miles southwest of Little Rock)

How to Hunt: Hunt for diamonds throughout a 37-acre plowed field, which is the eroded surface of an ancient, gem-bearing volcanic crater. Search by walking up and down the rows, looking for diamonds lying on top of the ground. Or go ahead and dig in the soil with your own tools from home or tools available for rent at the park visitor center. Park staff provides free identification and certification of found diamonds.

Admission: $7 for adults, $4 for children 6 to 12, free for kids under 6

Open Season: Year round

Herkimer Diamond Mines

Nicknamed “Herkimer Diamonds” because of their diamond-like geometrical shape, this mine’s 500 million-year-old crystals are striking to behold.


Photo of a Herkimer diamonds by Lech Darski via Wikimedia Commons

What to Look For: Double-terminated quartz crystals nicknamed “Herkimer Diamonds”

Location: Herkimer, New York ( about 85 miles northwest of Albany)

How to Hunt: Crystals can be broken out of rocks with a hammer and chisel (included in the admission fee) or collected by casually looking around the prospect area.

Admission: $11 for ages 13 and up, $9 for ages 5 to 12, free for kids 4 and under

Open Season: April 15 to October 31

Emerald Hollow Mine

Emerald Hollow Mine is the only emerald mine in the United States open to public prospecting.


Photo of a gem sluice in Hiddenite, NC by Robert Nunnally via Flickr

What to Look For: Emeralds, aquamarines, sapphires, garnets, topaz, and amethysts

Location: Hiddenite, North Carolina (about an hour off the Blue Ridge Parkway)

How to Hunt: Sit at one of three sluiceways, where you can pick over buckets taken directly from the mine, or pan in the river

Admission: $5 per person for bucket sluicing, $10 per person to pan in the river, and $100 for a “Cutter’s Choice” bucket guaranteed to contain rough but facet-grade gemstones

Open Season: Year round

Cherokee Ruby Sapphire Mine

“We are one of the two last remaining ‘native gemstone only’ mines open to the public in the Franklin, North Carolina, area,” explains the mine’s website. “Our two-gallon buckets of ore contain a virtual treasure trove of naturally occurring Cowee Valley gemstones, including world class and ‘precious investor’ or ‘collector grade’ rubies and sapphires.”


Photo of a garnet courtesy of Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine

What to Look For: Rubies, sapphires, garnets, and moonstones

Location: Franklin, North Carolina (about 67 miles southwest of Asheville)

How to Hunt: Dig your own gemstone gravel or select 2-gallon buckets of gem ore to sift through. On the flume line, you’ll rest your screen box (included in the admission fee) across the flume so that you can hand wash the gravel and watch for gemstones.

Admission: $15 for ages 12 and up, $10 for kids 6 to 11, free for ages 5 and under (for a dollar extra, you can get a shade umbrella)

Open Season: April 1 to October 31


Oranges in Idaho?

Recently, a friend told me she found an orange growing here in the Palouse region of northern Idaho.

Oranges …

in northern Idaho??

These weren’t naval oranges …

not Valencias …

not blood oranges …

They were something called “Osage oranges,” and they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen in Idaho or elsewhere.


Photo by H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons



Photo by Gale French via Wikimedia Commons

Have you seen one or know of them? The Osage orange is not really an orange (it’s a member of the mulberry family), but it was named so because its bumpy surface resembles a green, unripe orange, and the Osage Indians were known to prize the tree for making their bows, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to find the wood. In the early 1800s, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket. It’s also called a hedge apple, horse apple, or monkey ball.

The fruit isn’t poisonous to people or animals, but it isn’t usually eaten because of its extremely tough texture and bitter milky sap. But it’s thought to have been a food staple of the ancestors of the modern-day tree sloth— giant ground sloths that roamed North America before the first human settlements—who helped spread its seeds across the continent. Modern-day squirrels are also known to feast on the seeds.


Photo by Stefan Laube via Wikimedia Commons


Photo by Mahieddine23 via Wikimedia Commons

In the early settlement days, it was planted in great numbers both as a field hedge (living fence) and a windbreak, then later was used as a source of durable posts for fencing. Before the invention of barbed wire in the 1880s, a good, aggressively pruned Osage orange hedge could be “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “The Osage orange produces no sawtimber, pulpwood, or utility poles, but it has been planted in greater numbers than almost any other tree species in North America. It made agricultural settlement of the prairies possible (though not profitable), led directly to the invention of barbed wire, and then provided most of the posts for the wire that fenced the West.”


Photo by H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons