5 places where you can find buried treasure

5 places where you can find buried treasure

For serious treasure hunters, a fortune in gold, rubies and opals is out there for the taking

It’s been said that “a journey of 1,000 leagues begins with a cash advance.”

Sure, travel rewards us with all kinds of wonderful dividends -- adventures, experiences, quality time and other worthy wallet-thinners -- but what if your next trip actually offered the possibility of paying a real return?

Gold from a California river. An opal from the Australian outback. A 300-year-old Spanish coin plucked from the sea. A rock from outer space. We’re talking treasure. Not those plastic chips in Vegas or Monaco. The real kind. It’s out there, if you know where to look.

Behold, five treasure-seeking adventures that probably won’t make you rich, but might just pay for themselves -- or more. You never know. 


1. Gold: Central California 

treasure"Digging for gold" actually means prolonged squatting and sifting.

More than150 years after the California Gold Rush, here’s a little not-so-well-kept secret: gold is still out there.

And at more than US$50 a gram, it’s been prompting a mini renaissance of re-opened mines and 21st-century prospecting in Central California’s picturesque Sierra foothills -- home of the state’s original “Mother Lode” Gold Rush sites.

The epicenter: Highway 49, where historic communities like Sutter Creek and Jamestown
flaunt their storied past with street names like Eureka and Gold Dust Trail -- along with the requisite bed-and-breakfasts, antique shops, wine tastings and chili cook-offs.

But never mind all that. Hook up with a reliable, local outfit to get your hands dirty, learn about gold prospecting and maybe even pull something valuable out of the creek.

“They’ve touched less than 15 percent of the known deposits here in Wood’s Creek according to the U.S. Geological Survey,” says Brent Shock, owner of Jamestown-based Gold Prospecting Adventures, which leads a variety of instructional, family-friendly prospecting trips at the historic site, including a popular three-hour panning and sluice trip.

“Some of our guests have gotten lucky,” says Shock, without getting into specifics, before adding that the real gold is the experience itself. “Being out there on the creek, getting your feet wet and learning the trade. It’s fun -- and in a single afternoon we’ll get you up to speed on how to do it yourself.”

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2. Doubloons: Florida Keys 

On September 6, 1622, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha -- the rear ship in a “treasure fleet” heading back to Spain from the New World -- was caught in a vicious hurricane, sinking in the coral shallows near the Florida Keys.

Lost: an enormous cargo of gold, silver and precious gems that would sit untapped ‘neath the waves for more than 250 years.

Cut to July 20, 1985: U.S. treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s dogged 16-year quest for the Atocha finally paid off. A trove of buried loot valued at around US$500 million was recovered 56 kilometers off the coast of Key West.

Cut to today: Mel Fisher’s Treasure continues to search for the Atocha’s still-buried sterncastle cargo where, according to the original captain’s manifest, 17 tons of silver bars, 128,000 coins, 27 kilos of emeralds and about 35 boxes of church gold await discovery in the shallow sandy waters off of Key West.

Where do you come in?

The company runs week-long “Atocha Dive Adventure” packages between June and August open to small groups of certified scuba divers eager to participate in real -- and frequently successful -- open water treasure hunting for missing Atocha loot and artifacts spread over an estimated 16-kilometer treasure trail.

“Guests have found coins, old weapons, silverware, pottery, you name it,” says Investor Relations manager, Shawn Cowles. “There’s an estimated US$200 million of Atocha treasure still down there.”

Atocha Dive Adventures cost US$2,500, including a week’s lodging, some meals, treasure hunting training and several guided dives for Atocha goods.

And here’s the kicker: whatever you find down there goes toward your trip -- up to US$2,500. Paid, of course, in appraised Atocha treasure that most guests won’t be parting with.

“I’d say 50 percent of our guests find something,” says Cowles, “and about 10 percent find something in the US$2,000 to US$3,000 range.”

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3. Opals: Southern Australia 

treasure"But Tom, that's not how the Goonies did it ..."
Australia’s “Opal Rush” hit its stride nearly a century ago when, as the story goes, a 15-year-old named Willie Hutchinson serendipitously stumbled upon one of the fiery gems during a wayward gold expedition in a grim desert-scape that otherwise wouldn’t have laid claim to much more than being the perfect setting for all those "Mad Max" movies.

Since then, the town of Coober Pedy -- tucked in a desiccated patch of South Australia between Adelaide and Alice Springs -- has proclaimed itself the “Opal Capital of the World."

With good reason.

More than 70 percent of the world’s precious opals are mined in and around this strange, sepia-toned town where most locals live in underground “dugout” dwellings to survive the area’s harsh climate. And it’s estimated that only about 10 percent of the total area has been worked.

One of the most unlikely tourist hits on the Aussie circuit, guests here can check into underground hotels, hook up with a Coober Pedy opal mine guide (there are several) and “noodle” (local opal-hunting parlance) for their own precious finds in mounds of extracted rock and dirt that have been known to conceal lots of stray opals.

treasure Greek opal expert Yanni Athanasiadis displays a harlequin crystal opal (left) and a boulder opal (right) in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy.
“We had a family from New York about 10 months ago working through the mullock heaps on our claim for a couple of days,” says Rosemarie Hoelzer, an operator at Tom’s Working Opal Mine in Coober Pedy. “They found about a dozen stones which they then had cut, polished and classed in town. The total carat prize written on the bags was around AU$1,500.”

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4. Rubies: North Carolina 

Rock hounds have been plucking rubies, emeralds, moonstones and dozens of other precious minerals out of central North Carolina’s mountainous gem belt for generations -- and judging from the number of busy tourist mines spread throughout the state’s picturesque High Country, the potentially lucrative hobby shows no sign of slowing down.

Popular gem-hunting spots include The Foggy Mountain Gem Mine near Boone, where pre-filled buckets of rock mixture are guaranteed to contain several rough gemstones. Emerald Hollow Mine in the town of Hiddenite claims to be the only public-prospecting emerald mine in the country -- home to more than 60 other types of gemstones including the rare, indigenous hiddenite.

In Franklin, aka “The Gem Capital of the World,” guests congregate at the Cherokee Ruby & Sapphire Mine sifting for a wide assortment of native stones at a long flume line fed by a natural creek.

Almost two kilometers off the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, the small Appalachian town of Spruce Pine has attracted loads of gem hunters and TV crews to its signature stone-hunting haunt, Gem Mountain, which offers guided tours to 10 different mining hot spots throughout the county.

“What you find you get to keep -- and on a good day I’ve seen some stones come through here worth about US$3,000 to US$4,000,” says facility owner Charles Buchanan. “We cut stones and make jewelry on site, and keep five cutters pretty busy from what folks are finding. So it’s pretty evident they’re finding quite a lot.”

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5. Meteorites: Everywhere

treasure One man's giant ugly rock is another man's retirement fund. You just have to know what you're looking for.
How valuable are meteorites?

“There’s certainly a range,” says science writer and professional meteorite hunter, Geoffrey Notkin, who co-hosts Science Channel’s Meteorite Men and knows what it’s like to find a space rock worth about US$100,000. “These days it’s almost the case where the sky’s the limit.”

Great. Where can we get some?

“Basically dry places with a lot of open space are where you want to be looking,” advises Notkin, who’s led searches on and off camera on four continents and isn’t likely to be divulging any GPS coordinates.

“The truth is, they’re everywhere,” he says. “I can promise you that there are just as many meteorites in New York as there are at an optimum site in the Australian desert or dry lake bed in Nevada. They’re just a heck of a lot harder to find in New York.”

Asteroid fragments, comet remnants, stray planetary bits hurtling through earth’s atmosphere have never been too choosy about where they land -- sometimes in the ocean or jungle, or sometimes through the roof of an igloo or a Virginia dentist’s office on a suddenly extraordinary Monday afternoon.

Meteorites may be everywhere, but there are certain proven methods of finding these elusive, potentially valuable objects.

One of the best is hooking up with a professional meteorite-hunting expedition. Meteorite Adventures, led by Notkin and Meteorite Men co-host Steve Arnold, runs small-group expeditions to several secret meteorite-rich locations we wish we could tell you more about -- but their lips are sealed for all but the luckiest of applicants as space on these space rock journeys is limited.

Anyone is welcome to apply. Head out with an expert and the chances are decent you’ll come back with a meteorite. 

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Jordan Rane writes regularly for CNN Travel and The Los Angeles Times. A Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers, his work on travel and the outdoors has spanned six continents and appeared in over 50 publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

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