The American West is built on exploration. Frontiersmen came in droves searching for fertile lands to farm, massive forests to harvest and gems and minerals buried in the mountains. The Silver Valley surrounding Kellogg and Wallace was once one of the biggest silver operations in the world, and to this day, the mountains of North Idaho are still giving way to riches. There is another small mining operation going on in our region which is one of the most unique in the world. You aren’t going to get filthy rich here, and instead of being paid to haul dirt, you’re the one that’s buying the permit, but you have a chance to unearth something truly unique.
Garnets are found all around the world and come in a variety of colors and sizes. When polished, they are used in jewelry such as necklaces, rings and earrings. Garnets are also used on an industrial level as sandpaper, mixed with high water pressure to cut steel, and sandblasting. While garnets are relatively common, there is a unique star garnet found in only two places in the world, India, and the Emerald Creek Garnet Area south of St. Maries, Idaho. While the mines in India do not allow visitors to dig, the U.S. Forest Service does, making Emerald Creek the only public location in the world to find these rare gemstones.
The Star Garnet’s uniqueness is due to the presence of rutile, a titanium oxide mineral. The rutile inside the garnet forms either a four- or six-ray look that when properly cut and polished looks just like a shining star. The Star Garnet became the official state gem of Idaho in 1967, and its popularity among locals continues to grow. This is evidenced by the completely full parking lot as my wife Stephanie and I arrive on a hot June morning.
Emerald Creek is located approximately 30 miles south of St. Maries, making it a full day commitment. As we walk up the one-quarter mile trail to the dig site, we see a family of five as well as another couple who have clearly been here before. We are the 81st and 82nd people to arrive today, and the site caps out at 170 visitors per day to ensure everyone has a great time.
We meet several forest service employees including Janet Hartsock, who is spending her seventh summer at the dig site. We purchase our permits ($10 for adults, $5 for children), and Janet explains to us a little history of the area. “Originally people would come and dig directly out of a diverted creek bed, but after digging down the garnet vein 12 feet, the site became unsafe,” Hartsock said.
Due to safety, concerns, environmental impact and water quality, the creek area is now closed to digging; however garnet-bearing material is brought up in an excavator and dropped for visitors to dig through. Janet shows us examples of what we’re looking for, hands us our bucket and tells us to get to work. Everything you need is found on-site including shovels, buckets and sifting pans, just remember to bring a couple Ziploc bags to hold the garnets you find. The material we’re digging through is from 14 feet below the creek bed. At the current rate, the forest service estimates they still have about 25 to 30 years’ worth of garnet-bearing material on this vein.
I start to dig as the man next to me gives me a few pointers such as staying away from the clay and looking for areas that contain more gravel. We fill up our buckets as kids run around pointing their parents to where they think the best spots are. Once we’ve gathered our dirt, we move to a shaded area for sifting. Here, we pour our material over a strainer that removes sand, clay and dirt, leaving only solid rocks and hopefully a few star garnets. Now that we have our material sorted, it’s time to wash the rocks, so we head to the matching sluice boxes where clean water runs constantly. While I’m not wearing Levi’s overalls, an old cowboy hat and 5-year-old beard, I do get a small sense of what prospecting is all about. Stephanie and I make the obligatory bet on who is going to find more, and who is going to find the biggest.
We begin to wash our rocks. The experienced woman across from us tells us to really scrub the rocks hard in the sluice to make sure all the dirt is off because you don’t want to miss any. Hartsock also makes this a point saying that often the forestry techs will go over to the discarded rock pile, splash a little water on it and find a few garnets guests have accidently thrown out. My first clean batch comes up, and I have my first star garnet, about the size of a penny. The art of discovery is addicting and after washing all our rocks and discovering about a half dozen garnets, we decide to repeat the process again.
After all is said and done, we’ve spent several hours playing in the dirt, dug up 18 garnets, met interesting people and found another fun out-of-the-way activity in North Idaho. Once we’re done, each miner brings the stones in to be weighed, and we each come out with about 1.5 ounces. I got the biggest, but Stephanie unearthed the most getting us back to even on our bet. We ask Hartsock how we did, and she replies “OK.” “What you’re really looking for are garnets that are nice and round and about 1 to 1.5 ounces, those tend to make the best finished stones. But if you had a good time, that’s really all that mattered right?”
Last year, the area saw visitors from all 50 states and seven countries. Already this summer, they’ve had people from Taiwan, Japan and Canada. Janet says about one-third of the visitors are returning customers, one-third are tourists driving through Idaho, and one-third are first-time regional visitors. “We see a lot of Scout groups and school groups, and that’s a lot of fun because all the kids are always very interested in what’s going on here,” Hartsock said. Youth groups get a great deal with the organization paying $10 for the permit and each youth participant costs only a dollar.
Most visitors keep the unpolished stones as keepsakes, but if you’re lucky enough to locate a few nice ones, you can take them into an experienced cutter to see if you have a four- or six-ray stone. On your first visit, ask around for advice as there will likely be several rock hounds present who visit the site frequently and can help point you to a polisher. There are very few gemologists outside of the Idaho Panhandle who cut these stones, and you’re hard pressed to find star garnet jewelry too far from Coeur d’Alene, making these stones truly unique to our area. You might not be discovering gold nuggets, rubies or emeralds, but a day of discovery doesn’t have to always be profitable, but this one will certainly be memorable.