Garnets

A semi-precious adventure can be found at Emerald Creek garnet hunt near Clarkia

Digging for treasure is the stuff of childhood, requiring only imagination and a spare patch of dirt. Local kids don’t even need that: real Idaho treasure rests in the ground less than two hours away.

The Emerald Creek Garnet Area sits at the end of a gravel road, 13 miles outside Clarkia. The quiet cedar woods that line the half-mile uphill walk from the parking lot seem an unlikely spot for treasure. But as the hill crests and trees clear, it begins to look and sound like adventure. Shovels full of dirt and rock hit stained buckets, peanut-butter colored water sloshes through the sluicing troughs, and mud-stained fellow adventurers work at various stations.

The process is simple: dig, sift, sluice, find garnets and dump the rest. Rangers are on duty to explain the process and share their garnet knowledge … if kids can wait that long. And they usually don’t.

“They’re usually antsy to get digging,” said Alan Imel, site manager and self-taught garnet expert.

Younger children may need help carrying buckets and sifting the dirt, but the process is simple enough that older kids can work independently. There is an urgent excitement in the promise of discovering treasure.

“We can guarantee you find some garnets,” said Janet Hartsock, Forest Service collection officer.

Several years ago, the digging process was redesigned for environmental and safety reasons. The process also made it easier for a novice to find a garnet.

“It’s a much fairer playing field, much more user-friendly,” she said.

Finding a garnet is easy, once you know what you’re looking for. It takes roughly 15 minutes from the first dig of the shovel until the dark purple gems emerge in the screens of the sluicing trough. Most stones are fragments the size of a pea or cherry, but occasionally a lucky visitor finds one the size of a golf ball or larger.

Families typically spend a couple hours at the site – longer if the younger treasure hunters can hold out. In that time, a person can collect around 4 ounces of garnets, though only one of those is likely to be suitable for cutting.

“Some families, the kids go straight to the mud piles, spend the day there, and the parents have to pry them away,” said Imel.

The work area is relatively small and open, usually with only 30 to 50 people at any given time. Parents or grandparents can collect garnets while keeping an eye on smaller children who might rather feed the chipmunks or play with the Tonka trucks on site.

“We want it to be a family-friendly environment,” said Hartsock.

She notes the picnic tables for families who make a day of the visit, nearby outhouse and multi-height sluicing troughs.

Unlike pirates, visitors must purchase a permit to dig for treasure. But the equipment is all provided, and there is no danger of marauders or booby traps. There is a six-permit limit, which encourages those with recreational, rather than commercial, interests.

Are these garnets really treasure?

The stones are semi-valuable, said Tiffany Donenfeld, forest technician. Most of what leaves the site is not gemstone quality, though a cut stone can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Either way, kids won’t leave disappointed. When they go home with a pocketful of rare six-ray star garnets, they have fodder for adventure and stories for weeks to come.

More information about the Emerald Creek Garnet Area can be found online at www.fs.fed.us/ipnf/rec/activities/garnets/index.html or by calling the Clarkia Forest Service office at (208) 245-1134

Janet Hartsock’s tips for digging garnets:


  • Bring drinking water.

  • Wear sunblock and mosquito repellent.

  • Dress for the weather.

  • Wear clothes that can be stained.

  • Visit during the morning on hotter days.

  • Weekends tend to be busier.

  • Allow between 2 to 4 hours at the site.


IF YOU GO:

  • What: Emerald Creek Garnet Area

  • Where: From Clarkia, Idaho, follow Highway 3 north 5 miles and turn left on Road 447. Proceed southwest 8 miles to the parking area.

  • When: Friday through Tuesday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • Cost: Digging permits, available at the site, cost $10 for adults, $5 for children 6-12. Group rates are also available.


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The writer, Michelle Schmidt, can be contacted at michelle@fontologist.com or (208) 798-8289.

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