Panning For Gold
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The Best Treasure-Hunting Destinations in America

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Panning For Gold
slobo/istockphoto

X Marks the Spot

There is, perhaps, a little part of all of us that longs to channel our inner pirate and set out in search of buried treasure. Good news: You don’t need to endure months on the high seas to do so. Across the United States, there are operating mines and state parks where gold, sapphires, rubies, and other gems are available for public mining, whether you’re a burgeoning rockhound or a seasoned sluicer. Here are some of the best destinations for treasure hunting in America — just be sure to check their websites for opening dates, as many locations are operated seasonally.

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Golden Nugget
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Alabama Gold Camp

Lineville, Alabama


Head to the heart of Alabama’s gold belt for a chance to pan your own gold at Alabama Gold Camp, where treasure hunters can rent a prospecting shack for overnight stays or camp out on the grounds for a small fee. Accessible to both novice and experienced prospectors, the camp features more than 10 miles of creek, which visitors can mine for with their own equipment or dredges, high-bankers, and sluices rented from the camp. An on-site general store also offers drinks, snacks, and other must-haves for a long day spent in search of treasure.


Related: Explore the Best National Parks in Every State

Spectrum Sunstone Mine
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Spectrum Sunstone Mine

Plush, Oregon


Sunstone gems are known for their aventurescent qualities — that is, they shimmer with a metallic, glitter-like appearance. There are plenty of sunstones to be found at this Oregon mine, which is open to the public May through November. Visitors can mine in a few ways: sift through a pile of fresh, unprocessed ore for free; or, for a fee, dig through a “high-grade pit,” screen through sunstone-bearing ore piles, or pick sunstones off the mine’s commercial screen plant conveyor belt. If you’re mining for more than one day, on-site camping is available along with Spectrum’s own cabins. 


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Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine
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Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine

Franklin, North Carolina


If it’s your first time mining, Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine offers a great intro for beginners. At the North Carolina mine, visitors are shown how to identify “in the rough” gemstones, then given a screen box and a seat cushion to use at the flume line. After selecting a 2-gallon bucket of gem ore, miners can head to the flume line to start sifting through the dirt in their bucket, keeping an eye out for not only rubies and sapphires, but also garnets, moonstones, and rutiles. 


Related: 32 Bucket-List Experiences in America's National Parks

Crater of Diamonds State Park
Crater of Diamonds State Park by Doug Wertman (CC BY)

Crater of Diamonds State Park

Murfreesboro, Arkansas


Since Crater of Diamonds first opened as a state park in 1972, more than 33,000 diamonds have been found in its volcanic dirt. Visitors can bring their own equipment or rent from the park in order to find shiny gems, viewing uncut diamonds and brushing up on mining techniques at the Diamond Discovery Center before heading out to search a 37-acre field. Need a break from diamond hunting? The park also features walking trails, picnic sites, a gift shop, and the Diamond Springs Water Park.

Herkimer Diamond Mines
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Herkimer Diamond Mines

Herkimer, New York


You can keep everything you find at the Herkimer Diamond Mines, where double-terminated quartz crystals have been hiding in plain sight for almost 500 million years. An all-day prospecting ticket includes a rock hammer (most visitors like to break open rocks to find the crystals) and zip-lock bags for storing your haul. If sluicing is more of your style, purchase a bag full of treasures (Herkimer diamonds, fossils, gemstones, and more) to screen at Herkimer’s sluicing station. On-site camping, cabins, and a luxury resort are available for multi-day mining trips.


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Emerald Hollow Mine
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Emerald Hollow Mine

Hiddenite, North Carolina


While treasure seekers can find everything from sapphires and garnets to amethysts and aquamarines at this popular mine located in the Brushy Mountains, emeralds are the main draw here. The seasonal mine offers sluicing, creaking, and digging for gems, and if you like what you find, you can make an appointment at the mine’s lapidary to have your treasures cut, polished, and turned into jewelry.

Old Hundred Gold Mine
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Old Hundred Gold Mine

Silverton, Colorado


Pan for silver, copper, and gold at Old Hundred Gold Mine, which takes visitors on a guided mine tour into the heart of Galena Mountain. Each tour includes demonstrations of mining equipment; a ride on a vintage, electric-powered mine train; and the opportunity to pan for your own treasures (which, yes, you can keep). Be sure to dress warmly — temperatures underground are a cool 48 degrees. 

Benitoite Mining Company
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Benitoite Mining Company

Coalinga, California


True to its name, Benitoite Gem Mine specializes in benitoite, a rare blue gem that also happens to be the official state gemstone of California. Reservations are required to mine for the gems, and ticket holders have access to screens, shovels, washing tables, and a quart-sized bag to sift through. Not sure if you’ve found something? On-site attendants help identify gems and demonstrate mining techniques, ensuring that your treasure isn’t just a pile of rubble.


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Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine
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Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine

Denio, Nevada


There are a handful of opal mines scattered around Nevada’s Virgin Valley, where opal prospecting began in the early 1900s. At Rainbow Ridge, miners can choose from two options: tailings digging, composed of materials that have been previously mined; and virgin ground loads, where treasure hunters can sift through fresh dirt for opals. Miners have struck it big at Rainbow Ridge before: the Roebling opal, mined in 1918 and beautifully flecked with blue and green, sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Jade Cove Trail
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Jade Cove Trail

Big Sur, California


Rockhounds will have to tread carefully on the Jade Cove Trail. Though the area is rich in jade, there are strict rules around how you can collect it — namely, loose jade can only be picked up along certain sections of the trail and only between mean high tide and a depth of 90 feet. Hand tools, a conventional boat, and lift bags may be used, and collectors can only take what can be individually carried from the water. Don’t forget to stop and look around at the breathtaking views that line the trail. 


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Bonanza Opal Mine
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Bonanza Opal Mine

Denio, Nevada


Another opal mine located in Nevada’s Virgin Valley, Bonanza is rife with gems to uncover. Each year, the mine opens Memorial Day weekend and closes after Labor Day weekend, inviting visitors to dig for gems with tools available for rent. Free camping is available at the Virgin Valley Campground, and a nearby spring-fed swimming hole provides a much-needed respite after a day of mining. 

Roaring Camp Mining Company
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Roaring Camp Mining Company

Pine Grove, California


Make like a true gold digger and head to Roaring Camp in California’s Mother Lode Country, open May through September. Visitors can pan for gold or use a sluice box to sift through gold-bearing gravel piles — and if you really love it, you can become a member of the Dirt of the Month Club, receiving 13- to 15-pound bags of dirt each month to sift through at home. Other camp activities include a trip to the nearby swimming hole, attending the weekly Saturday night cookout, and taking an all-day guided gold panning tour, which includes a trip to the Mokelumne Canyon, Wildlife and Mining Artifacts Museums, and lunch at the trading post.


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Otteson Brothers Turquoise
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Otteson Brothers Turquoise

Tonopah, Nevada


The Otteson family owns a handful of turquoise mines in the Nevada Desert — you may have caught them on the Amazon Prime show, “Turquoise Fever.” Join them on a mine tour, where you can choose between a morning or afternoon excursion that includes transportation, safety tips, and digging. You’ll be able to keep all the turquoise you find, though digging is limited to one bag or bucket per adult.

Gem Mountain Gemstone Mine
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Gem Mountain Gemstone Mine

Spruce Pine, North Carolina


Open since 1987, this Blue Ridge Mountains mine offers family-friendly tours for the gem curious. Stop by the flume mine to screen a bucket of dirt for sparkly finds, or take a trip to one of Gem Mountain’s private mines, where you’ll be given guidance on what to look for and how to use your tools to find moonstones, garnets, rubies, sapphires, and more. The mine will even take your treasures and transform them into pieces of custom jewelry. 


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Rose Creek Gem Mine
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Rose Creek Gem Mine

Franklin, North Carolina


There’s plenty to dig up at this North Carolina mine, from sapphires and garnets to topazes and quartz crystals. Beginners can ensure that they’ll be guided through the process, starting from digging up dirt in the mining tunnel to sifting through dirt in the covered flume. Afterwards, take a trip to the gift shop where you can pick up a few more gems and minerals to add to your haul. 

Mason’s Ruby & Sapphire Mine
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Mason’s Ruby & Sapphire Mine

Franklin, North Carolina


True to its name, treasure hunters can dig for rubies and sapphires at this North Carolina mine, along with garnets, rutiles, quartzes, and other gemstones. After digging up dirt in the mine and filling their own buckets, visitors can head to the flumes, where they’ll sift through the rubble to find their treasures. Mason’s also offers black light hunts for mining in the dark, when glowing red sapphires are easier to spot under UV lights. Camping is available on site, though the campsites do not have electricity or running water.


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Old Cardinal Gem Mine
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Old Cardinal Gem Mine

Franklin, North Carolina


Yet another Franklin gem mine (the city, after all, is known as the "Gem Mining Capital Of The World"), Old Cardinal has been inviting the public to mine for sapphires, rubies, amethysts, moonstones, and garnets for over 40 years. Appointments are necessary at this family-friendly site, where treasure seekers can either dig up their own dirt or purchase pre-filled buckets to sift through at the flume.

Graves Mountain
Graves Mountain by James St. John (CC BY)

Graves Mountain

Lincolnton, Georgia


For more experienced gem seekers, Graves Mountain is a popular geological destination in Georgia (it’s also hosted some famous “customers” — Tiffany’s mined the area starting in the 1920s). Reservations must be made by calling the site’s caretaker, after which rockhounds can dig for quartzes, pyrites, iridescent hematites, and more using their own tools. Children under the age of 12 are not allowed on the mountain, and all pets must be kept on a leash. 


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Royal Peacock Opal Mine
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Royal Peacock Opal Mine

Denio, Nevada


Another Nevada opal mine, the family-run Royal Peacock operates from May to October, inviting visitors to dig for and keep their own opals. Beginners get an on-site tutorial from staff before digging in the mining banks or mining the tailings, which are comprised of looser dirt that can be sifted through with rakes. Tools can be purchased or rented from the Royal Peacock Opal Shop, or miners can bring their own equipment. Want to stay nearby? The mine operates an RV park, tent camping area, and furnished lodgings.


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Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
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Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine

Philipsburg, Montana


One of the largest sapphire mines in the world, this Montana site has mined sapphires since 1892, producing over 180 million carats of the sought-after gem. Today, it’s a family-friendly destination for beginner treasure seekers, in that the mine digs up the gravel, washes it, and pours it in a bucket for visitors to sift through. The mine also operates its own heat-treating furnaces, and can facet and heat-treat sapphires to be turned into gems suitable for jewelry. 


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Crystal Grove Diamond Mine
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Crystal Grove Diamond Mine

St. Johnsville, New York


Hunt for Herkimer diamonds, a type of quartz crystal, at Crystal Grove’s open-pit mines. Bring your own prospecting tools or rent them from the mine — or, if it’s too hot for mining, try your hand at sluicing. Crystal Grove offers cabins and a campground for longer stays; camping season runs mid-April through mid-October.

Rivers Bend
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Marshall Gold Discovery State Park

Coloma, California


In 1848, James W. Marshall helped ignite the California gold rush after discovering gold in the water channel below a sawmill he was building in present day Coloma. Today, visitors can pan for their own garnets, fools gold, and gold flakes in this storied location, the home of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and the Gold Discovery Museum. Guided walking tours are available at least twice per day, and gold panning lessons are offered to those who want to channel their inner James W. Marshall.