PALA — Treasure hunters can have a field day searching for gemstones in this small northern San Diego County community.
Every weekend, visitors are welcome to try their luck at the Stewart-Lithia gem mine that's in the midst of the Pala Indian Reservation due east of Fallbrook.
Spread around the entrances to a tourmaline mine are 2 1/2 acres of tailings that you can sift through in search of the multicolored crystals. One searcher turned up a tourmaline that was worth $2,500.
More often, however, the value of the semiprecious minerals ranges from $50 to $150--if you find any at all of gemstone quality. But even if you don't go home with a tourmaline worthy of jewelry, don't fret; you'll still enjoy this unusual outdoor adventure.
Pala's Queen Mountain was being mined before the turn of the century, when the miners were searching for lithium contained in a lavender-colored mica called lepidolite. They actually discarded the tourmalines found nearby in pockets of clay and earth.
That changed in the early 1900s when miners learned the empress of China was buying the gems to decorate clothing and art carvings. Pala's tourmaline business boomed until the empress died in 1908 and the demand dwindled. Most local mines closed soon after.
Fifteen years ago, Bill Larson brought mining in Queen Mountain back to life when he unearthed a large pocket with more than 10 major tourmalines. For extra income, Larson invited gem hunters to look through the tailings when his mines were inactive on weekends.
He has since moved to other mines in the Mesa Grande area near Lake Henshaw, but new owners of the Stewart mine at Pala continue to welcome visitors. Tours to the tailings operate Saturdays and Sundays, with participants meeting at the mine corporation's store, Gems of Pala.
Get there from Los Angeles by heading east on California 60 (Pomona Freeway) and joining Interstate 215 south at Riverside. After the freeway merges with Interstate 15 and enters San Diego County, exit east on California 76/Pala Road toward Pala.
Drive about six miles through boulder-strewn hills. Shortly after passing a roadside historical marker, look left for the Gems of Pala sign and Magee Road. Follow it a short distance to the gem shop that serves as the rendezvous point; plan to arrive by 9:30 a.m.
Call in advance to make reservations at (714) 742-1356 or (714) 742-1359. Cost of digging your own treasure is $10, with no charge for children 10 years and younger. Participation in the four-hour visit is at your own risk.
Mine-company manager Lynn Agabashian, a gemologist, talks about the tourmalines and other gems you might find and gives a history of mining in the area. At 10 a.m. group members get in their vehicles to follow Lynn or another guide to the mine.
You'll pass the Indian mission hamlet of Pala before going through a locked gate to proceed up the hillside on a rough rocky road. From the mine site you'll have a scenic view of the valley, but most attention is on the piles of small rocks that may be hiding gemstones, especially pink tourmalines unique to Pala.
During the week, miners blast deep into the mountain in search of age-old crystals that have formed in a dazzling array of colors. Often called the rainbow gem, a few tourmalines glow with as many as seven colors. Those of red, pink, blue or blue-green are the most valuable.
After rocks broken up by dynamite charges are inspected for gems, dump trucks carry the rubble outside the mine, where it creates the tailing piles that visitors are permitted to search.
Looking for crystals missed by the miners takes concentration, patience and a few tools. Most useful are a shovel for turning over the rocks and a sifting box to shake out the small stones and dirt.
Rent a sifter at the site for $2 or make one at home with a quarter-inch mesh screen. Shovels also can be rented ($1-$2), as well as squirt bottles ($1) filled with water to clean away dirt that may be disguising a gemstone. Remember to take a container to carry away your treasures.
Be sure to look for lepidolite, the lavender rock glittering with needles of tourmaline. Sometimes called the dream rock, it contains lithium that has long been used for medicinal purposes as a calming agent. The limit you can collect is 10 pounds.
No food or beverage is available at the mine, so take your own picnic lunch and refreshments.
All gemstones you find are yours to keep. Only occasionally will the staff at Gems of Pala offer to buy any from you, and payment will be at low wholesale rates. If you have little luck in the tailings, tourmalines of various qualities and carats can be purchased at the mine's gem shop.
More tourmalines, along with gemstones from around the globe and handcrafted jewelry are exhibited and sold at the Collector in nearby Fallbrook. It's owned by Bill Larson, the former owner of Stewart Mine who has become one of the world's leading gem miners.