Thursday, August 29, 2019

Discover Historic Gold Hill

If you've lived in Charlotte for any length of time, you may know that this area was home to a gold rush in the early 1800s. It was such a booming time for mining that the United States Mint opened one of its first official branches here to convert gold deposits into coins, rather than shipping the valuable minerals to Mint headquarters in Philadelphia.

(Fun facts: Over the nine years it was in operation, the Charlotte Mint stamped out $5 million worth of coins. And you can visit the original building, which once stood uptown, on Randoph Road. It now houses the Mint Museum).

The Carolina Gold Rush began when a young boy discovered a nugget 25 miles east of Charlotte near what is now known as Reed Gold Mine (definitely worth a visit!).

Around that time, Gold Hill, about an hour northeast of Charlotte, became a bustling gold mining village and home to the largest gold producer in the south. Between two mines in Gold Hill, in the early 1840s, the town produced gold valued at $7-$9 million -- all prior to the California Gold Rush. The Carolinas continued to lead the way in gold production until the start of the Civil War.

Today, Historic Gold Hill offers a number of compelling reasons to visit. Here's why you should check it out:

The Park
The 70-acre Gold Hill Mines Historic Park is home to four preserved gold mines. It also offers a playground, several miles of trails, playing fields, and picnic areas. The park is free and open to the public seven days a week during daylight hours.

The Trail
The Gold Hill Rail Trail runs through the park and by historic structures like a mine shaft, powder house, steam engine, boiler and stone jail. This 2.2-mile (one way), natural surface trail is part of the Carolina Thread Trail and extends from Rowan County, through a forest setting, and into Cabarrus County. This trail is open to foot traffic, bikes and horses. Here's a trail map.

The Village
Taking a stroll down the Historic Gold Hill main street is like stepping back in time. Dozens of old-timey shops offer baked goods, home d├ęcor, handmade jewelry, antiques, pottery, art and more. There are also a handful of restaurants, a general store and an ice cream shop. Shop hours vary, and the town seems to operate mainly Thursday-Sunday. Check the town website before you visit. 

The Events
Historic Gold Hill offers a number of fun events throughout the year, including the Gold Hill Founder's Day festival, ghost tours and family-friendly holiday activities. Check out the upcoming schedule and consider planning your trip around one of these events.

Historic Gold Hill is a not-so-hidden gem. If you haven't been, take some time to enjoy local history and all this small town has to offer.

How to get there:
Gold Hill Mines Historic Park is located at 735 St. Stephens Church Road, Gold Hill, North Carolina. The lot for the park is adjacent to the village main street and an access point for the Gold Hill Rail Trail.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes: For hiking or strolling along main street
  • Water: Keep hydrated, no matter what you plan to pack in your day
  • Snacks or a picnic: Enjoy lunch at the park
  • Bikes and helmets: If you'd prefer to pedal the trail

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Emerald Hollow Gem Mine

Like playing barefoot in the creek and digging for buried treasure? Yeah, me, too. At least as much as the kids. Which is why I'm excited to have discovered Emerald Hollow Gem Mine in Hiddenite, NC, about an hour north of uptown Charlotte.

Emerald Hollow bills itself as the only emerald mine in the world open to the public for prospecting. And it's located in Hiddenite, NC, where the gemstone of that same name was first discovered. Who knew we live in such a geological hotbed?

Situated off a country road out of the way of most everything, visiting Emerald Hollow feels a little like traveling back in time. Wooden signs etched with the names of gems welcome you along a gravel road that leads to a parking area surrounded by woods.

The first building you see is an old wooden lapidary (it's where they cut and polish stones; I had to look it up) with a dog resting on the rickety porch. Around the bend you'll find the two long rows of sluicing chutes next to the registration hut, some covered picnic tables, and a couple of porta-potties hiding behind a privacy fence.

You'll check in at the desk surrounded by mining buckets and mounds of dirt. The staff are friendly and helpful.

There are three mining options: Sluicing, creeking and digging. Since this is an active mine, the fee for each option includes a day-permit required to prospect. Even if you're just along for the ride, you'll need a permit to be on the grounds, unless you just want to hang at the picnic tables. Children 3 and under get in free.

Sluicing is probably the simplest option. Buy a bucket of sand and rocks (they offer different levels: "natural" and "enriched," which means they sprinkle in some non-native finds) and sift through it in the water trough next to the check-in desk.

We chose to go creeking. This is also pretty simple, but a bit more adventurous. It costs $12 for adults and $7 for kids and you can stay all day if you want. Rent a sifting box and shovel for $3 and take a short walk down to the creek that runs through the property. The stretch of creek accessible to miners is probably a quarter of a mile long, so you can find your own quiet spot for prospecting if you walk a little farther than the first crossing.

We spent about an hour digging and sifting and found some actual (albeit small) gemstones. While you can walk barefoot in the creek, I recommend some water shoes to make exploring a little easier.

The final option is digging, where you can rent a metal shovel and 5-gallon bucket (for $7) and head off to the dig site to unearth your own mineral vein.

Whichever option (or combination) you chose, when you're finished mining, a staff member will identify your gems to let you know what treasures you've discovered.

Emerald Hollow Gem Mine is open daily, except for major holidays, from 8:30 to sunset. If you really want to make a day of it, I recommend adding on a visit to Rocky Face Mountain Recreation Area, just 10 minutes away from the mine.

This is a fun outing all around. I can't promise you'll strike it rich, but I'm pretty sure you'll create some valuable, lasting memories, and have a good time while you're at it.

How to get there:
Emerald Hollow Gem Mine is located at 484 Emerald Hollow Mine Drive, Hiddenite, NC, 28636.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Water and snacks: Or pack a picnic lunch if you plan to stay a while.
  • Water shoes: Something to make it easier to hop the rocks in the creek.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The prospecting areas are mostly shaded, but don't get burned while you mine.
  • Bugspray: Fend off mosquitos and ticks.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Lake Whelchel Trail

When we set out at the beginning of last month to explore the newly opened Lake Whelchel Trail, part of the Carolina Thread Trail, I was not aware of its historical significance. Turns out, not only was it a lovely place to hike, but a timely visit given its proximity to Independence Day.
Located in Gaffney, SC, Lake Whelchel Trail is about an hour from uptown Charlotte. The 6.7-mile loop is part of the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional network of connected greenways, trails and blueways in North and South Carolina.
It's also a stretch of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, a 330-mile route spanning Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina that commemorates the path used by the patriot militia during the Revolutionary War. The trail traces the campaign to search for British Major Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalist forces. The militia passed through the Lake Whelchel area on October 6, 1780, then successfully defeated Ferguson at nearby Kings Mountain the very next day. This battle was considered by Thomas Jefferson to be the turning point of the American Revolution.
We've been to the Kings Mountain National Military Park (and I highly recommend a visit!) and were blown away by the importance of this location in Charlotte's backyard. Walking the trail at Lake Whelchel lends another level of significance to what took place in our area. Especially in the context of the July 4 holiday.
The natural-surface Lake Whelchel trail begins in a spacious gravel parking lot. (Note: There are no restroom facilities, so plan accordingly.) The trailhead is beside an information kiosk with a map. To hop on the loop, follow the half-mile spur trail down to the lake.
At the lake, you can go left or right. Both choices will bring you back to your starting point about 7 miles later. We chose to take a right, knowing we'd be doing a several-mile out-and-back.
The gently rolling trail is heavily shaded and beautiful, offering glimpses of the lake through dense growth. We crossed a handful of small wooden bridges over flood-prone areas, and one large bridge over the branch of a creek.

At just under 2 miles, we reached another large bridge, where we decided to turn back, but only after exploring the creek bed below.
Though we prefer loops (they are more exciting!), we found the journey to be pleasant in both directions, with lots of opportunities for spotting wildlife and critters throughout the hike.
If you want a quiet, pleasant hike in the woods relatively close to home, Lake Whelchel is a lovely option. And even better if you're moved by its historical significance.
How to get there:
The Lake Whelchel trailhead is located at 198 Concord Road, Gaffney, SC 29341.
Don't forget to pack:
  • Water: There are no restroom facilities, so consider packing a refill in the car.
  • Snacks: Keep your energy up, especially if you plan to hike the whole trail.
  • Bug spray: Horse flies and mosquitoes are prevalent, but manageable.
  • Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses: The trail is heavily shaded, but sun protection is always a good idea.