Notes from a Rock Nerd
Notes from a Rock Nerd
By Lillie Read
t was not long ago that I was telling a co-worker about a rock hunting expedition that I’d been on when she turned her head to the side, gave me a long look, and said, “You’re kind of a rock nerd, aren’t you?” It’s true, I am; although, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m an amateur compared to many of the knowledgeable and talented rock hounds out there. It all started with a rock collection that I’ve had since I was a child. I’ve always picked up rocks that interested me, even those that — in rock hunter terms — would be considered leaverites. As in, “Leave ‘er right there.” For some reason rocks, gems, minerals, and fossils have always fascinated me.
As a result, I have been to plenty of those roadside “mining” sites that give you pre-filled buckets of material and then set you loose to separate gems from dirt with the help of a sifter and a sluice. As a kid those were fun, but as an adult, it’s harder to get into the spirit of things when you know the buckets are seeded with specimens from all over the world that are rarely native to the area. A recent revival in my interest in rock collecting, coupled with limited space for expanding my collection, had me wondering what my options would be for finding gems and minerals locally, instead of just buying them at the store. I was curious about the geology of Georgia and whether it would offer anything of interest to the amateur rock hound. What I discovered is that yes, Georgia, and nearby parts of North and South Carolina, have a lot to offer the burgeoning rock hound: amethyst, emerald, garnet, aquamarine, ruby, sapphire, jasper, citrine, quartz, moonstone, tourmaline, agate, and more.
Most people are surprised at what sort of gemstones can be found within a few hour’s drive of Atlanta. Happily, this is a very geologically rich area with a lot of resources. It is the only state south of Virginia that contains all four of the southeastern geologic regions: Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge, Piedmont, and Costal Plains, which is what makes it such a great place for rock hounding. The best gem hunting in Georgia happens north of the fall line, which is the geographic line that separates the Coastal Plains from the Piedmont region. The Coastal Plains offers a diversity of fossils and minerals, including shark teeth, which are the official state fossil of Georgia, but it does not provide as much in the way of gem mining.
The easiest way to get your hands in the dirt with amateur gem mining is to go to a pay to mine site. What makes these sites different from your typical roadside “gem mining” outfits is that these are places where you dig on the site of a working mine. In these types of locations, the owners periodically bring in heavy machinery to loosen dirt, explore for veins, expand the mine, and freshen up tailing piles, which is what visitors typically dig in.
The two most popular pay to mine sites in Georgia include the Hogg Mountain mine in LaGrange and the Jackson Crossroads amethyst mine in Tignall. The Diamond Hill mine in Abbeville, South Carolina is another nearby source for a variety of gems. While they don’t have actual diamonds, I have found great examples of aquamarine, amethyst, and skeletal quartz there. As an aside, if you are interested in mining diamonds, I would suggest visiting Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas. It is the only public diamond mine in America and, yes, you get to keep whatever you find. There are also a variety of mines around Franklin, North Carolina most of which produce rubies and sapphires; I have personally found some specimens there that have been over 15 carats in size.
There is a large vein of amethyst crystals that run across parts of eastern Georgia north of I-20
Collection of rocks — clockwise from top: clear quartz point, sapphire, aquamarine, milky skeletal quartz, sapphire (photo by Hannah Surrett)
One thing to keep in mind about gem mining is that it is hot work. Most of the aforementioned mines are located in open areas that have little to no tree cover and heat reflecting off the dirt can raise temperatures to a considerable level. It is essential for would-be prospectors to bring ample amounts of water with them and it is always a good idea to pack snacks as well. Sunscreen is also an essential. Let me share from personal experience, it is important to remember to apply it on places that might get exposed when you’re bent over working, like your lower back. As far as tools go, visitors are generally not allowed to bring any motorized equipment but having things like trowels, rakes, and buckets is important. You might also want to bring some newspaper for wrapping up crystals you find, since the points can be fragile, and it’s also good for protecting your car seats from mud and dirt. Believe me, there will be plenty of that. Make sure to have a good pair of gardening gloves to protect your hands from sharp crystal points and rocks, and bringing a foam pad to sit or kneel on might improve your experience as well. Most mines have websites and will tell you things that are and aren’t allowed, but you can get started with just a few basic things.
In fact, if you just want to do some basic rock hounding, you don’t need to drive to a mine or bring a bunch of equipment with you at all. There are places throughout Georgia where you can surface collect a variety of interesting gems and minerals. From Trenton to Summerville it is possible to find agates just sitting on the ground. It’s easy to recognize these rocks because they have a finely grained banded pattern that runs throughout the stone. They can be very striking when polished and the pieces you find can be quite large. There are also garnets scattered across the waterways and fields of Gilmer and Paulding Counties and staurolite, commonly known as fairy crosses, throughout the Blue Ridge region of the state. It never hurts to pick up interesting specimens for later identification as well. I once found what turned out to be a 20 carat garnet inside of an interesting looking ball of rock and mica. To hunt gems and minerals like this all you need is some available land (make sure to ask permission if it’s private property) and a sharp eye. The added benefit is that you never know what else you might run across while you’re hunting. My husband once found a 100 year old Coke bottle while searching for fossils in a river.
Jacksons Crossroads Amethyst Mine; Tignall, Georgia
A variety of tools, like rock hammers, can be used for gem mining but garden trowels and rakes are extremely versatile when digging in the dirt.
For those who are interested in pursuing rockhounding as an ongoing hobby, there are a number of good groups in the Atlanta area to help facilitate that experience. The benefit of these groups is they have a wealth of information to share, in addition to being able to do things like coordinate field trips to special collecting locations and even helping you cut and polish that gem you just found. For me, the point is to have fun, get out in nature, and enjoy the world. Making a good find is always fun, but most of the time the experience is its own reward. I encourage you to get out and give it a try. You never know what you might find!
Lillie is a ninth generation Georgian who loves history, camping, and exploring. She is the manager of the Cartersville Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program where she works with the community to preserve and promote their historic downtown. She lives in Marietta with her husband and two spoiled cats.