To experience mining first hand, head to Emerald Creek Garnet Area in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest near St. Maries and search for Idaho’s state gem. The site is opening for the summer on Friday after being closed in 2019 for construction and again in 2020 because of the pandemic.
This year, to help with social distancing, visitors are required to make reservations at reservation.gov. Each member of the group needs a ticket, which will be good for a three-hour visit. Be sure to plan in advance – reservations are already booked into July. And, be sure to print out your tickets and bring them with you to the site.
At the site, visitors will get all the tools they need to be miners for the day. They’ll dig through piles of rock, filling buckets that they then bring to the sifting area, where metal screens are used to shake the gravel, said Christine Plourde, recreation staff officer for the St. Joe Ranger District.
After sifting, visitors take their haul to the wet sluicing area. “This is really the fun part,” Plourde said. Once you pour the gravel into the sluice, “you’ll start to see the shiny black or purple of the garnets.” The garnets range in size from particles of sand to as large as golf balls. Plourde said most people will find at least a few about the size of a pencil eraser.
Some are regular garnets, but others are star garnets, the Idaho state gem. The star garnets get their name from the four- or six-pointed star reflection visible inside them once they’re cut and polished. Idaho and India are the only places in the world to find them.
“We have a good supply of material out there,” Plourde said. “People will be finding all sorts of stuff.” That’s in part thanks to construction in 2019 that helped the Forest Service access more garnet material, Plourde said. And, unlike years ago, people are no longer allowed to mine in the river – the big holes people dug were hazardous to the environment and other visitors.
Forest Service staff at the site can help people identify which rocks are more likely to be star garnets. Miners can bring the rocks to local gem shops for testing, too. Visitors need to bring their own drinking water – there’s none available at the site. “And they really need it, too, because you’re spending a lot of time in the sun.”
Plourde likes how the garnet area is an outdoor activity that accessible to all ages and abilities. “Many outdoor activities are physically limiting for folks, but anyone can go looking for garnets,” she said.
“It’s just a really unique experience. You get your hands really dirty – and your clothes,” she said. “You get this glittery silt over everything.” And, you end up with some pretty colored rocks. They’re good for crafts, Plourde said, or “if you put them in a jar in the window, they’re really pretty.”
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