Exploring Emerald Village: North Carolina Gem Mines in Little Switzerland

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Located just 31 miles from Asheville and three miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Emerald Village proved to be one of our favorite things to do in Little Switzerland NC.

Featured on shows such as National Geographic Channel’s The Savage Line and Travel Channel’s Ultimate World Access, the complex offers a family-friendly immersion in NC mining history.

The campus includes a visitor center, the North Carolina Mining Museum, the quirkily Discovery Mill building, 12 real mines (including one you can take a tour of), and numerous opportunities to try your luck at gem mining and gold panning.

Read on for our in-depth guide to everything there is to see and do at Emerald Village, including a brief history of gem mining in NC.

READ MORE: Little Switzerland NC, Cutest Town on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
 

EMERALD VILLAGE GEM MINES INFO

HISTORY OF EMERALD VILLAGE & GEM MINING IN NC

Gem mining in North Carolina dates back to 1799, when a 12-year-old boy named Conrad Reed found a 17-pound rock in Little Meadow Creek (east of modern-day Charlotte).

It was the first documented gold find in the United States, and it launched the nation’s very first gold rush. In the 1800s, gem mining in NC employed more local residents than any industry aside from agriculture.

The area that is now Emerald Village didn’t emerge as a hotbed for gem mining until nearly a century later, when a feldspar mine was discovered in 1886 (before the town of Little Switzerland NC was even built).

Feldspar is “a large group of rock-forming silicate minerals that make up over 50% of Earth’s crust.” They’re found in igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks all across the world.

Feldspars have a wide variety of uses. Albite (a.k.a. soda spar) is often used in glass,  ceramics, paints, and plastics. Some types are sold as gemstones, such as Amazonite, Moonstone, and Sunstone. Others are used for interior and exterior building slabs.

Panning for Gems at Emerald Village Gemstone Mines
Panning for Gems at Emerald Village Gemstone Mines

But the most famous product created from feldspar mining in North Carolina was Bon Ami cleanser.

Made with feldspar from the Bon Ami Mine, the household cleanser became very popular in the 20th century because it didn’t scratch surfaces and used no chemicals.

By 1926, Little Switzerland mining engineer Pete Deal had begun operations in the Big Deal Mine just down the street. A typical day involved drilling holes in rocks, blasting them with explosives, then hauling the feldspar to the mill for a return of about $6 per ton.

In 1960, a huge collapse left the Big Deal Mine’s equipment covered in a million tons of rock. The equipment owner left the business entirely, and by 1965 all mining operations had ceased.

Today, the Emerald Village complex is home to 12 different mines, as well as the North Carolina Mining Museum’s historic mining equipment, 10 levels of exhibits at Discovery Mill, and opportunities to try your luck at gem mining and panning for gold.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Western NC Small Towns to Visit (& Live In)

Gem Mining & Gold Panning at Emerald Village
Gem Mining & Gold Panning at Emerald Village

Gem Mining & Gold Panning at Emerald Village

Emerald Village offers four different options for those who want to try their hands at gem mining or gold panning in North Carolina.

They also have professionals on site who can cut and polish your gems into beautiful jewelry, for a unique souvenir of your time at the Little Switzerland attraction.

Crabtree Emerald Mine

One of only two significant NC Emerald mines, the Crabtree Emerald Mine produced Emeralds for companies like Tiffany’s from 1895 until its closure in the 1990s.

Although the mine shaft is now flooded, the extensive dumps around it have produced some impressive finds for gem miners in recent years.

For $20 a day, ages 13+ can get a digging permit to use hand tools and keep whatever they find. Emerald Village also rents tools for $25 per day.

Gem Mining ID Chart at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
Gem Mining ID Chart

McKinney Mine Dumps

Closed to gem collectors for 30+ years, Emerald Village reopened the McKinney Mine Dumps (once the largest feldspar mine in the world) so rock hounds can dig for native stones.

It’s hard work, but over 100 different types of minerals and gems have been found there, from Amazonite and Aquamarine to Garnets, Smoky Quartz, and Tourmaline.

Rates for digging permits and tool rentals are the same as for Emerald mining.

Gold Panning at Gemstone Mine

There are lots of “tourist trap” imitators in the area, but authentic gem mining in North Carolina doesn’t get any better than Emerald Village’s “Gemstone Mine.”

It’s located in the entrance to the Big Deal Mine, where visitors can pay anywhere from $10 to $500 for a bucket filled with rocks, each of which may contain 25+ different types of gems.

Then they sit at one of two covered flumes of cold mountain spring water, sifting through ore from local mines. Rough gems are also added from other mines, ensuring a “Gem Find Every Time” so that guest get their money’s worth.

For the same price you can also try your luck at Gold-panning, using ore from North Carolina Gold mines that have been producing for 100+ years.

They teach you how to pan and provide the necessary gear. They also add small Gold nuggets and/or flakes to ensure that everyone finds a little something.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes for NC Day Trips

Bon Ami Mine Tours at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
The Bon Ami Mine at Emerald Village

The NC Mining Museum & Bon Ami Mine Tours

Located just across the road from the Big Deal Mine and Discovery Mill, the NC Mining Museum offers an excellent overview for anyone interested in the history of Emerald Village and other North Carolina mines.

There are tons of antique mining equipment on display here (much of it covered in varying degrees of rust) that was actually used in the Little Switzerland mines.

For an $8 entrance fee, you can also take a self-guided underground tour of the famous Bon Ami Mine.

It allows you to get a closer look at the walls of the longtime feldspar mine, and provides a great view of the Bon Ami waterfall (just outside the mine entrance).

Visit the adjacent Company Store for a look at the mining town back in the 1920s. And check out the Emerald Village website for dates for their special guided Black Light Mine Tours ($15 per adult), which offer a rare glimpse of the mine lit via UV lamps after dark.

READ MORE: The 27 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC

Blacklight Gems from North Carolina Mines at Emerald Village NC
Blacklight Gems from North Carolina Mines

Exploring Discovery Mill

One of the most unusual and intriguing attractions at Emerald Village is Discovery Mill, which offers 10 levels of unique exhibits in a sprawling building overlooking the Gemstone Mine.

Starting in the Crabtree Junction Shop (which offers snacks, sweets, and souvenirs) on the bottom level, the free attraction seems to get more eclectic the higher you climb.

These photos will introduce you to a few of the major highlights, from the brilliant (see: the blacklight display of gems from local mines) to the bizarre (see: a “Museum Annex” full of enough old junk to give Fred Sanford heart palpitations)…

Native American Arrowheads at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
Native American Artfiacts Display

Native American Artifacts

Rightly pointing out that Native Americans were the original inhabitants of Western North Carolina, this display includes a variety of arrowheads, spear tips, and other ancient artifacts from the centuries when the Cherokee people ruled this region.

The Legend of the Emerald Village Ghost in Little Switzerland NC
The Emerald Village Ghost Display

The Legend of the Miner’s Daughter

Appalachian culture loves a good ghost story. This display pays tribute to Ellie Jo Crabtree, a young girl orphaned when her daddy died in a local mine.

The gems he left her made her a wealthy woman for life, but her restless spirit supposedly haunts the Emerald Village mines in search of her father to this day!

NC Wildlife Taxidermy Display at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
NC Wildlife Taxidermy Display

NC Wildlife Taxidermy

One of the more inexplicable exhibits at Discovery Mill, this taxidermy display depicts two Bobcats fighting over a Wild Turkey.

There’s not really much of a background story to go along with it, which only makes the whole thing even more endearingly weird!

Clinchfield Model Railroad Display at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland NC
Clinchfield Model Railroad Display

Clinchfield Model Railroad

Starting in the 1800s, the Clinchfield Railroad ran coal through the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Virginia and Kentucky to mills in the Carolinas.

This extensive exhibit includes two display cases filled with model railroad pieces.

There’s also an elaborate reproduction of the Clinchfield Loops, an engineering marvel of horseshoe curves in the North Carolina mountains.

Pianos & Junk in the Antique Music Museum

While most of the Discovery Mills exhibits were clearly constructed with an artful, some rooms of the Antique Music Museum and Homestead Museum are filled with an amalgam of junk.

From wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, these rooms are a hoarder’s dream and a neat freak’s nightmare.

But it’s all part of what makes Emerald Village the most intriguing attraction in Little Switzerland, North Carolina!  –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

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We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Bret grew up camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina with his parents, and the couple both spent childhood summers on the water with their grandparents. After becoming empty nesters, they yearned for a pristine place where they could escape the hustle and bustle of the city, commune with nature and family, and embrace a sustainable lifestyle that leaves time to appreciate the simpler things in life. Join them and their team as they explore the region, offering expert insights on Blue Ridge travel as they search for the perfect mountain home.