Last Updated on June 7, 2023
We spend so much time enjoying the peaks of our mountains—the abundant biodiversity, great hiking trails, the views!—that we rarely ever stop to look down. But when we do, we see that the abundance of our mountains extends far below the topsoil.
In addition to being the tallest peaks in the eastern U.S., the mountains of Yancey and Mitchell counties have set records for the abundance and quality of gems and minerals found within. Whether you’re new to the area or have been here for generations, there’s always something more to uncover. Here are five things you should know about mineral and gem mining near Burnsville, NC.
1. Mining has a long history in these hills
Arguably, the history of mining around Burnsville could trace back 400 million years to the formation of continental shelf that is now the Southern Appalachians. At the time, molten rock seeping to the surface cooled very slowly, forming rich deposits of minerals like feldspar, mica, quartz, and gemstones. On a more practical level, these minerals have been mined and processed for well over 100 years. The processing of minerals and their inclusion in manufacture and industry have contributed significantly to local industries and economies.
See at least 300 minerals and gems on display at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The museum is open year round and is free to visit.
2. Local minerals help run the world
Did you know that parts of the device you’re reading this on may have originated in the mountains of Yancey and Mitchell counties? The 125-square-mile Spruce Pine Mining District, just 15 miles east of Burnsville, is home to one of the richest deposits of minerals and gems in the world. Locally mined kaolin, mica, and feldspar make up the raw materials used in some plumbing fixtures. Even more impressively, the Spruce Pine district is one of the largest suppliers of high-purity quartz around the globe. This quartz is used in the manufacture of silicon chips, meaning the computer revolution may not have developed if not for Spruce Pine.
3. Flume mines are (almost) open for business
When you think of gem mining with your family, chances are you picture a flume. These wooden troughs elevated on trestles mimic artificial streams in which to sift raw aggregate in search of shiny gems. Most public gem mines near Burnsvills, including Gem Mountain and Rio Doce in Spruce Pine, use a flume system. However, most of these destinations operate seasonally. (After all, who wants to be elbow-deep in ice-cold mountain stream water in January?) But come spring, they’re great locations to check out historical mining tools and equipment and pan for rare stones. Visitors often find amethyst, aquamarine, emerald, rose quartz, peridot, ruby, sapphire, and topaz. And many locations employ expert gemologists who can cut and set the stones you find.
4. Locals celebrate their mineral wealth
With the exception of 2020, the annual NC Mineral and Gem Festival has been a Spruce Pine staple for 62 years. As one of the oldest gem shows in the country, it’s a great source for information and souvenirs. The festival features gem, jewelry, and mineral dealers from across the country showcasing merchandise fit for every budget. For a small fee, you can also tour an active mine!
Just up the road, the Grassy Creek Mineral & Gem Show has been a regular summer event for more than 35 years. It’s a great event for shopping more than 60 vendors. They also host gem-related demonstrations.
5. You can tour a 100-year-old mine
If you don’t want to wait until the next gem festival to tour a mine, you don’t have to. Twenty minutes southeast of Burnsville, Emerald Village in Little Switzerland offers gold panning, mineral collecting, a mining museum, and a whole lot more. Bring your own tools (or rent some) and dig for emeralds in the dumps at the Crabtree Emerald Mine. This mine produced emeralds from 1895 (including for the Tiffany Company of New York) through the 1990s. Along with a mine near Hiddenite, NC, this is one of two locations in all of the U.S. that has been a significant source of emeralds.
For those who dare, Emerald Village also offers occasional night-time underground mine tours that are “out of this world.” The Bon Ami Mine is largely coated by deposits of Hyalite Opal, a true form of opal found in this area. Under shortwave ultraviolet light (e.g. black light), these opals glow a vivid lime green. The effect, underground at night, is stunning!
Find a gem of a lifestyle in Burnsville, NC!
Burnsville is located among some of the highest and richest mountains to be found in the eastern U.S. The town offers living situations, outdoor experiences, and artistic output that go above and beyond the norm. What results are many opportunities to Live Abundantly in WNC. In addition, Yancey County is home to more than 400 full-time and 200 part-time working artists, many of whom utilize local resources and historical techniques.
Does that sound like the perfect environment for you? Find your dream home in Burnsville now!