Pink, green and blue tourmaline, aquamarine beryl and deep red garnet, purple amethyst and sparkling lepidolite — they all lie buried in Maine granite. To find them, all you have to do is dig — and perhaps use a hammer and chisel.
Rockhounding — also known as field collecting or recreational mining — is an outdoor activity in which everyday people search for valuable gems, fossils and other mineral treasures buried in the earth.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” said Tom Hoffelder, president of Oxford County Mineral and Gem Association. “You never know what you’re going to find. That next rock, that next shovel full could be something really cool.”
This hobby is especially popular in western Maine, where some of the state’s most celebrated gemstones can be found.
“Maine minerals are world famous,” Hoffelder said. “One of my favorites is beryl. It’s a greenish blue crystal. And there are some lovely amethysts.”
Getting started with rockhounding is easy
If interested in rockhounding as a one-time activity, you could hire a local guide company — such as Dig Maine Gems out of West Paris, Maine. They’ll take you to a site, supply you with hand tools and offer assistance in mineral identification. This way, you don’t have to conduct your own research or invest in any equipment.
Another option is to visit a location that’s running a mineral and gem sluice, a device that allows you to sort rocks using a screen in running water. The rocks, usually collected from the dump piles of local mines, are provided by the bucket full, so you’ll have plenty to sort through.
Bethel Outdoor Adventure and Campground runs a sluice seasonally, as does Dig Maine Gems. Sluices are also a feature at many mineral and gem events, such as the New England Mineral Conference that’s held annually at Sunday River.
“I really recommend sluices for those who have young kids,” said Maggie Kroenke, store manager at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel. “You’re usually under cover if it’s a hot day, splashing in the water. It’s not a hike. You don’t have to worry about tripping or falling.”
At the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, which opened in December 2019, you can view some of the state’s finest gems and mineral specimens, as well the world’s largest collection of moon and Mars meteorites. The museum also offers information about rockhounding in the area, including directions to rockhounding sites that are open to the general public.
“People will always find something to take home,” Kroenke said of rockhounding. “Finding something of high value is sort of rare, but you will find something to take home, something you absolutely fall in love with.”
Rockhounding as a hobby
If interested in pursuing rockhounding as an activity you do on a regular basis, it’s helpful to join a local club.
Maine is home to a handful of active geology and mineral clubs. The largest is the Maine Mineralogical and Geological Society, which currently has nearly 500 members. Others — such as the Oxford County Mineral and Gem Association, Penobscot Mineral and Lapidary Club and Kennebec Rocks and Minerals Club — have fewer members but may be just as active, offering field trips, workshops and rock shows.
“The big thing about being a member of a rock club is you can get into places [to rockhound] that you can’t get into as an individual,” Hoffelder said.
The best rockhounding sites are usually at quarries and mines, both active and inactive.
Some owners of mines and quarries will allow clubs to rockhound on parts of their property — chiefly their dump piles — for a fee, but they won’t allow individuals to do the same. This is because clubs have insurance for the activity, and club leaders have formed trusting relationships with the mine owners that ensure their groups will follow rules.
Rock clubs offer their own lineup of field trips, often collaborating with nearby clubs. The Maine Mineralogical and Geological Society, for example, will be organizing about 15 field trips for rockhounding this year, including an overnight trip to seek fluorescent minerals with lights.
“It really is a treasure hunt,” said Jeff Farrin, vice president and field trip director of the Maine Mineralogical and Geological Society. “When you’re digging in the dirt, cracking open rocks and all the sudden you find a beautiful crystal — it makes your day. But it’s also just being outdoors, enjoying the outdoors. And there’s comradery, too. You look forward to the field trips and digging with your friends.”
Where to go rockhounding in Maine
Most of Maine’s gems and rare minerals are found in a coarse-grained variety of granite called pegmatite, according to a “Virtual Tour of Maine Minerals” created by the Maine Geological Survey. Starting in the mid-1800s and extending into the 20th century, quarries were opened to mine pegmatite veins in Oxford, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties in southwestern Maine. Initially, the goal was to mine feldspar and sheet mica, which were both used to create a variety of products.
“Feldspar is used for many things, from teacups to toilets,” Hoffelder said. “It still is, around the world, but of course, things in the US get expensive.”
Nowadays, feldspar and mica are no longer mined in Maine. Instead, some of the old quarries are being prospected for valuable gems such as tourmaline, mainly to be made into jewelry. And discoveries of more gem-rich veins of pegmatite are still being made.
The best rockhounding sites are usually at places that are currently being mined or have in the past — but only a select number of locations are open to the public for free. Other locations are open but at a fee, and some are only open to specific clubs.
The book “Rockhounding in New England: A Guide to 100 of the Region’s Best Rockhounding Sites” by Peter Cristofono is a great resource, with the most recent edition released in 2020. The book includes more than 30 locations in Maine, including the Harvard, Waisanen and Tamminen quarries in Greenwood. Mount Mica, Mount Marie and Mount Apatite are also popular for rockhounding spots in Maine — each with their own rules and restrictions.
“Out of all the New England states, Maine is considered the best for rockhounding,” Farrin said. “We do some field trips in New Hampshire, but 90 percent of our trips are in Maine.”
What it’s like to search for gems
Everyone approaches rockhounding in their own way, with their own goals. Some rockhounds aim to find valuable gems such as watermelon tourmaline, while others enjoy finding as many different types of minerals as possible.
“I collect just about anything that has color and a crystal shape to it,” said Laurier “Larry” Turcotte, assistant treasurer for membership of the Maine Mineralogical and Geological Society. “I think my best find was a 15-pound quartz crystal from the Bennett Quarry in Buckfield.”
For basic tools, Hoffelder suggests a shovel and two hammers: a geology hammer and a crack hammer. These special types of hammers — often available at local hardware stores — are designed for working with rock.
“Do not use carpenter hammers,” Hoffelder said. “They’re not made of strong enough metal and people have been hurt from metal chips breaking off the hammer when it hits rock.”
To break apart large rocks, rockhounds will sometimes use sledgehammers. Gardening forks and trowels can come in handy. And chisels are useful for more delicate work, such as carving gems out of surrounding rock.
“Seasoned rock hounds always have their favorite tools and things they carry,” Kroenke said. “But one great thing about rockhounding or field collecting is that it doesn’t take a lot of money to start. It’s a great way to get outside and learn a lot about our natural resources.”
Safety gear and protective clothing is also important. Safety glasses or face shields can protect your face from shards of rock that can fly off when you’re hammering. Boots — preferably steel-toed — will make walking over uneven ground easier while also protecting your toes. Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves will help protect you from being scraped by sharp rocks while also preventing sunburn and bug bites. And a helmet should be worn if you’re searching near a rock wall where small rocks could tumble down from overhead.
If done with care, rockhounding can be a great family activity.
“A lot of people will bring kids with them, and they get hooked,” Turcotte said. “It’s like my wife said: the kids are a lot closer to the ground, so a lot of the time, they will find better stuff than the adults.”
Even if you don’t find gems of value, the experience of sifting through rocks is fun in and of itself, Turcotte said.
“You get out in the fresh air,” he said, “and there’s something about digging in the dirt that just makes you happy.”