One of the fascinations of my brother’s youth was rocks and gems and arrowheads and fossils. Ancient treasures you could pull out of the Earth and be instantly transported across eons.
My brother loved stones. And they didn’t have to be precious, necessarily. Just interesting and new and different from what he already had.
I never had the passion for it like he did, but I certainly saw the appeal. I love the feel of an old rock, running your fingers along the ridges of a fossil or finding something bright and shiny from a pile of dirt.
While he never found anything that amounted to much financially, that doesn’t mean what he had wasn’t valuable.
His favorite rocks were kept, mostly gathering dust in his room. But he’d clean them off and pack them up each time we moved, carefully preserving his treasures from Indiana to Maryville to Nashville and beyond.
He also loved gem mines. The places where you go to sift through a bucket of rocks, guaranteed to find some treasure less valuable than the money you paid for it with a slight chance of finding something of real value.
I remember some of our family didn’t get it. They saw only the financial transaction. It’s gambling with worse odds than Vegas.
But what they couldn’t – or wouldn’t see – is the experience.
My brother enjoyed the thrill of the search. In other words, the sense of wonderment about just what that special gem in his bucket would be. It was the challenge of sifting through the dirt and rocks to find it that my brother loved.
There was a reason he kept those rocks and gems for years.
The gems were memories, clay and dirt transformed over eons to hard rock and again from the bucket to the water to his hands into something even better, possibility.
This leads us to the gem mines in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
But before we dive in, let’s tackle one very important frequently asked question.
Are gems in the gem mines in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg real?
Are the gems real? Well, the answer depends entirely on the location.
We called every attraction on this list, and the results were, let’s say, a mixed bag.
The Pigeon Forge Gem Mine told us that their gems are in fact real, natural stones.
Goats on the Roof told us their gems are a mix of real and simulant.
Big Rock Dude Ranch at Ponderosa didn’t seem sure one way or the other.
Anakeesta told us that the majority of their gems were simulants, although there were some authentic items that could be found like seashells and other fossils.
Real vs simulant, when it comes to gemstones, is an important distinction. This is why you will notice throughout the article we preface the use of the word “gemstone” with “simulant” for clarity.
With that out of the way, here is our list of gem mines to explore in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
4. The Big Rock Dude Ranch at Ponderosa (Pigeon Forge)
This may be my personal favorite place to go for the gem mining in Pigeon Forge. The operation itself isn’t as slick or fancy as some of the other places, but the location away from the strip, on a dude ranch with horseback riding and other activities makes it feel more authentic.
A 3.5 lbs bag goes for $14.95 or you can get two for $22.95. Each bag will contain the following types of stones (or possibly simulants): quartz crystal, amethyst, pyrite, blue calcite, serpentine, septarian agate, rose quartz, selenite, jade and turquoise.
As a disclaimer, Big Rock Dude Ranch seems uncertain as to the authenticity of those stones but it makes for a good time regardless.
Big Rock Dude Ranch is located at 909 Little Cove Road in Pigeon Forge.
3. Anakeesta Gem Mine (Gatlinburg)
Speaking of the proper atmosphere, Anakeesta has a nice location for their gem mine. It’s not as old-west-y as the Big Rock Dude Ranch, but the sluice and views make for an entertaining experience for the whole family.
Located at the end of the Treetop Canopy Walk, the Anakeesta Gem Mine is adjacent to the Treehouse Village Playground.
Access to Anakeesta requires a general admission ticket, and the gem mining activity is sold separately. At the time of this writing, tickets start at $8 and your youngsters can find mostly simulant and synthetic gemstones or fossils in their pan.
If you are planning a trip to Anakeesta sometime in the near future, be sure to check Tripster for discounts before you go.
The Anakeesta Gem Mine is located at 576 Parkway in Gatlinburg.
2. Goats on the Roof (Pigeon Forge)
Goats on the Roof offers, in addition to the goats, a mining operation sure to entertain the rock hounds in your family.
Start with a bucket of gem-rich soil and then sift through it in an authentic, old-style water sluice. The moving current of water washes the soil away through the screened tray, possibly revealing the treasures – a mix of real and simulant stones – that remain behind.
At the time of this writing, small buckets are $15 each or two for $20. Large buckets are $25. You can get a $5 coupon if you ride the coaster, but that coupon is not eligible with the two for $20 deal.
Goats on the Roof is located at 1341 Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge.
1. The Pigeon Forge Gem Mine (Pigeon Forge)
This mine offers a variety of buckets at varying price ranges from $35 to $1,500.
It’s also the only location on our list that claims to have all real, natural gemstones.
The smallest, the specialty bucket has an original mix of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, garnets and more. In all, 20 different types of stones are possible.
You can also get mixes that include various fossils. Part of the fun is when your miner takes their treasure inside to a certified assayer who will identify the stones.
Pigeon Forge Gem Mine is located at 2865 Parkway in Pigeon Forge.
Are gem mines in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg worth it?
Ultimately, the question – as it is with all tourist attractions – is simply, are gem mines worth it?
The answer, of course, is subjective. If you’re looking to make a profit or hit it big, you’d be better off with the lottery.
But if you’re a kid – or adult – with a bit of geologic bend of the mind, there are many worse ways to spend your time and a few bucks.
But, if you buy the $1,500 bucket, give me a call. I’d love to see what all is hidden in that thing.
Have you mined for gems? What did you think? Tell us in the comments.