Arizona is filled with rugged scenery and adventures. We’ve partnered with Arizona-based Susan Lanier-Graham, of Wander With Wonder, to check out a very special adventure—a helicopter tour that whisks you to the top of a mountain to experience a rare look into an amethyst mine.
I have lived in Arizona for almost 25 years, but until recently I had no idea that we have some of the most sought-after gemstones in the world, located just a few miles—as the crow flies—from Phoenix. Four Peaks Amethyst Mine is one of only two places in the world that produces the most beautiful, dark purple, high-quality amethyst. They offer helicopter tours up into the rugged Matatzal Mountains to give visitors an up-close look at the mine. I had a chance to climb onboard the helicopter and even find a few of my very own amethysts.
History of the Amethyst Mine in Arizona
Amethyst is a gorgeous purple stone. In ancient times, it was considered a symbol of royalty because of its brilliant purple color. Here in Arizona, Four Peaks, one of the most prominent landmarks on our landscape and part of the Matatzal Mountains, supplied the Spanish with a rare, deep purple amethyst since the earliest explorers set foot in the area. In fact, there is now evidence that our rare amethyst from Arizona has been used in the crown jewels of Spain and other European countries.
The amethyst found in Four Peaks is some of the highest grade amethyst in the world, comparable only to that found in Russia’s Ural Mountains. It has high concentrations of manganese and iron ore, making it a beautiful deep purple in color.
Although found by the Spanish, the vein of unusually high-quality amethyst was rediscovered by a prospector in the early 1900s known as Diamond Jim McDaniels. Diamond Jim was on the hunt for gold, and was disappointed when all he found was ground covered in purple stones.
Back then, the only way in or out of the mine was to walk or pack in on a mule. It sits at an elevation of about 7,200 feet in some of the roughest terrain around, completely surrounded by National Forest. So even today, you can’t drive to the mine. You must walk or take a helicopter.
The Modern Amethyst Mine
Commercial mining of amethyst began about 1942, and there were some tumultuous times. There were a few squabbles with the National Forest and nearby residents. There were some injuries as miners tried to figure out ways to conquer the wilds of Arizona. Then in 1997, New Jersey businessman Kurt Cavano was visiting Tucson’s annual gem show and jokingly told someone he wanted to buy his own mine. He soon found himself—much to his wife’s dismay—the new owner of the amethyst mine.
Cavano began operating the mine as the Four Peaks Mining Company and swore to do so in a “sound, environmentally sensitive manner.” He has two miners working for him—Miner Mike and his wife—who hike in once a month and live there without electricity or running water. Cavano uses helicopters twice a year to carry in supplies and carry out the ton of ore mined only with hand tools.
Visiting the Amethyst Mine
Cavano discovered that most local Arizonans didn’t know the amethyst mine existed. But they were intrigued when he talked about it. One of the biggest outlets for the finished product was Sami Fine Jewelry in the Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills, so it seemed logical for them to team up to offer locals and visitors alike a way to experience the mine.
Guests can book a tour for either April or September/October and gather at Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills. This gave me a chance to see the finished product. I hadn’t realized just how beautiful and deep purple the Arizona amethysts are until I saw them in the shop.
Two other couples were on my trip. One was a local couple while the other was visiting from the California and flew to Phoenix just to visit the mine. We were all excited to get our trip underway, and we had all carefully followed the guidelines:
- Long pants
- Long sleeves (it was warm in Phoenix, but we had been told it could be cool on the mountain)
- Sturdy shoes
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Zip lock bag for our own amethyst
Stephenie Bjorkman, President of Sami Fine Jewelry, greeted us and showed us some of the finished products. Yes, I found a few things for my wish list! We all climbed into an SUV for a ride to the helicopter that would whisk us to the mine.
Helicopter Ride to the Amethyst Mine
Our driver, Doug, is the master horologist (watch expert) for Sami and a self-proclaimed amethyst guru. He was filled with great amethyst trivia as we drove 20 minutes to the helicopter. He told us that, while they remove about a ton of ore every year from the mine, they only end up with a couple of handfuls of gem quality stones. And the fact that the miners do everything by hand amazes me.
I discovered that ancient Greeks believed that cups adorned with amethyst would prevent intoxication, so the word amethyst is a combination of the Greek words meaning not intoxicated. I’ll have to give that a try the next time I head to one of my favorite wine tastings.
We stopped at a small private ranch at the foot of the mountains and climbed on board the helicopter. It was a thrill to head up into the sky. It was a spectacular day, and we could see for miles.
Suddenly, Four Peaks loomed in front of us. As we came upon the mountain, I wondered where we could possibly land. All I saw was mountain. Getting really close. We saw people waving and then the helicopter touched down on a postage stamp-sized landing pad. Wow!
Our guide directed us out of the helicopter and quickly up a path on the side of the mountain. Another group climbed on board the helicopter and we watched it depart. It left and we were surrounded by complete silence on the side of the mountain far above civilization.
Sitting Atop the Mountain
I think we all forgot about the amethyst for a bit as we took in the grandeur of nature. I’m always on the lookout for wow moments and this was one for me. There was such beauty in that clear April day.
I turned and looked behind me. The granite rocks jut straight up toward the sky. Mine owner Kurt Cavano introduced himself and explained the geological formations and how amethyst formed at that spot. The rugged beauty is a little overwhelming. I felt immensely lucky to be sitting atop the mountain, able to experience the world from that vantage point.
Going Inside the Amethyst Mine
After explaining a bit about the mine and introducing us to the miner, our small group walked up a rocky incline toward the entrance. It’s not far, but you do need sturdy shoes. It’s also at high altitude, so you can feel the shallow air. We all donned hard hats with lights, received screwdrivers for prying amethyst loose, picked up flashlights and followed Miner Mike into the mine.
The mine isn’t big. You can stand at the entrance and see the entire distance. But it’s quite an experience. All five of us headed to those rocks like little kids in the playground. And we all found some treasure—usually with a little help from Mike and his wife. Pieces of dirty rock transform into purple crystals when you shine your flashlight through them.
At the far end of the mine, in a roped-off area, Miner Mike showed off the prized vein of amethyst. I stepped closer so I could take a photo and felt as if I had stepped inside a giant geode. The ground opened up and I looked up into a million shimmering purple crystals.
We made our way back outside and realized the ground was glittering purple. Even these discarded rocks are gorgeous. I picked up a few that are perfect for a little dish on my desk.
I was a little sad to see the helicopter return. I wasn’t quite ready to leave the peace and solitude at the top of the mountain. It had been such a unique experience. I’ve looked at Four Peaks every day for almost 25 years, but now I have an entirely new perspective.
Booking Your Amethyst Mine Tour
Four Peaks Mining Company and Sami Fine Jewelry offer a couple of different types of Arizona Amethyst Mine Tours. You can pick the tour that best suits your sense of adventure.
- Arizona Amethyst Helicopter Tours take place twice a year in April and September or October. They last 4 to 5 hours and cost $495 per person. Reservations are required and there are only a few seats available. Your trip starts and ends at Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills, AZ. You receive a souvenir hat or shirt, a gift certificate, water, lunch and snacks. The trip includes round-trip transportation to the helicopter pad, and round-trip helicopter transportation to the mine.
- Arizona Amethyst Mine Hiking Trips are for those who want to add a sense of adventure to the experience. These are for expert hikers and take at least 6 to 8 hours. The tour includes water, juices, Arizona teas, fresh fruit, nuts and snack bars. The cost is $1000 for up to 5 people plus $100 per person mine entrance fee. Keep in mind that the mine is located at high elevation and the hike is across rough terrain.
- Private Arizona Amethyst Mine Tour can be scheduled at any time. It includes private pickup at your home or hotel and transportation to the helicopter pad. You will travel by helicopter to the mine and tour the mine, then return to Fountain Hills and see the finished product before returning to your starting point. The tour can be customized to include dinner. The 6 to 8 hour tour costs $2700 for up to 4 people plus additional for any add-on services such as dinner.
Be sure to check out all of the details about the Arizona Amethyst Mine Tour online.
Where to Stay in Phoenix
When you finish your day exploring the mine, you’ll need a great spot to stay in Phoenix. I recommend CopperWynd Resort and Club in Fountain Hills. This is one of those places that is relaxing and away from it all—but just minutes from everything. And every room offers amazing views over Fountain Hills and Four Peaks, so you can sit on your balcony and look back at the mine you just visited.
You can spend evenings relaxing on the patio of Flourish, with gorgeous views and great food, or take a late swim in the pool to wash away the dust after a day of climbing around in the mine. I also adore the spa at CopperWynd. You can book the Amethyst Awakening Massage to try out the calming effects of the amethyst. They even use an amethyst-infused oil that is so calming…I drifted off into spa la la land that was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Touring the Arizona Amethyst Mine has been named one of the top “Bucket List” things to do in Arizona. Now I see why! It was such an amazing experience. I soared to what felt like the top of the world and had a chance to explore an amethyst mine for some of the world’s best gemstones. How much better can it get?
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