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Gems Just A Stone's Throw Away : Hunting Hard Rocks, Golden Opportunities


Large construction sites are often rich, but like all private property, you'll need permission first.

Other spots are more remote. Estavillo likes Tule Mountain on the east side of McCain Reservoir near Jacumba. There are several gem mines in the area, and the granite belt runs along the east edge of the mountains. Some mine owners will allow weekend hunters to have a look around. Some will not, so be sure to ask.

Dumortierite, a blue mineral used to make spark plug ceramics can be found south of Alpine. Deposits of garnets are located near the Barona Indian Reservation near the old McFall Mine. This area also has some black tourmaline and quartz.

The old Calaveras Quarry near Palomar Airport Road off Highway 78 is another spot to find interesting minerals and crystals of several kinds.


Tourmaline is the most famous of the gems found in North County. At one time the Empress of China bought almost every tourmaline local miners could uncover. Tiffany used local tourmaline as did the creators of fine Craftsman furniture.

According to Alice Keller, editor of the Gemological Institute of America's professional journal, San Diego County tourmaline is known around the world for its fine pink and watermelon coloring.

There are still several working mines in the Pala area. The most famous are the Stewart Mine and the Himalaya Mine. The Stewart Mine is run by Blue Sheppard and Joanne Hilliard, who also operate the Gems of Pala mineral store. The Himalaya is owned by Bill Larson, who also oversees The Collector mineral and jewelry stores in La Jolla and Fallbrook, which display some of the best local mineral oddities.

Unfortunately, the mines and the tourmaline are off-limits to wandering rock hounds. But Gems of Pala does sell buckets of mine tailings that give would-be miners a feel for the excitement of uncovering a valuable gem.

The buckets vary in price from $10 to $50 depending on size and the location in the tunnels where they originated. There is no guarantee of finding anything, but on one recent Saturday, each of the half dozen people hunched over wooden tables sifting though the tailings had found at least one crystal of pink, black or watermelon tourmaline.

"This is one place where you can play in the dirt and nobody will yell at you," said Bob Coulter of San Diego.

According to Sheppard, Gems of Pala offers the buckets for two reasons. First, the mine needs cleaning. Selling the buckets allows Sheppard to make some money off what would normally be wasted. Second, he said, novice rock hounds "often get sparked off in geological interest" by sifting through the buckets.

Ten-year-old Andrea Rogoff was sparked. She came to look through the tailings with two friends as part of her birthday celebration. Now she wants to be a geologist.


If looking for tourmaline in a bucket is a gamble, prospecting for gold is an act of faith. California is still the Golden State, with more than 800,000 ounces produced last year, but not many of those ounces came from San Diego County, whose mines were largely played out long ago. Still there is gold to be found in North County. Just don't expect to make money doing it.

For most amateur prospectors, hunting for gold is a hobby, an excuse to take the family camping. Few even bother to sell what they find. This does not seem to have diminished the popularity of prospecting. The Southwestern Prospectors and Miners Assn. has more than 200 members, and it is just one of several clubs in the area.

Panning for gold is the easiest and cheapest way to start. A pan will cost about $8, and a small sluice will cost about $40. The hang-up is you can't pan or use a sluice without streams, and at the moment, San Diego County has few running streams.

The next option is dry washing. This requires a machine costing from $200 to $600 that uses forced air to help separate heavy materials from worthless dust.

Gold can be found in several areas of North County, including Julian and Banner Grade; Ramona, from Whale Mountain to Slaughterhouse Canyon; Boulder Creek; and Harmony Grove, Kit Carson Park and Cloverdale Road near Escondido. The intersection of the San Diego River and Coleman Creek, and Mesa Grande on the slope of Angel Mountain are two other gold spots. Although they are outside the county, the San Bernardino Mountains are still thought to be prime panning territory.

If you decide to look for your own golden dream, watch for established mining claims. There are hundreds in the county, usually marked with a wooden stake or PVC pipe. There have been disputes involving claims. Two years ago, two Julian men were slain in just such a dispute.

The best way to start your gold search may be to join a club. These groups often have their own mining claims open to members.

For a glimpse into North County's gold mining past, the old Eagle Mine in Julian offers tours of the Eagle and nearby High Peak mines. The tour takes about 90 minutes and costs $6 for adults, $3 for children. For information call 765-0036.

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