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Best Hidden Gems Phoenix 2011 - Four Peaks Amethyst Mine

Four Peaks Amethyst Mine holds the distinction of being both the last commercial amethyst mine in North America and one of the most inaccessible. Surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, this mine sits on the southernmost peak of Four Peaks in the rugged Mazatzal Mountains, at an elevation of 7,200 feet. There are only two ways to get there: by helicopter or a two-hour drive with an all-terrain vehicle to a place 5,000 feet up called "The Saddle," followed by a 41/2-mile, two-hour hike across all four peaks. Because of its high, remote location, the amethyst mine can be worked only by hand

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Miner Mike Blank makes the hike once a month, a trek that mine owner Kurt Cavano describes as "calf-burning" but which Blank says "isn't so bad. I'm pretty used to it." Until she got pregnant late last year, Blank's wife used to make the hike with him. They would dig rocks out of the mountainside with picks and chisels for two to three weeks, accumulating layers of dirt under their fingernails and in the cracks on their hands. (The Blanks' baby girl, whom they named Amethyst Jewel, was born this past spring.)

There's no running water at the mine. There's nothing outside except a small wooden, white tool shed and an outhouse. "But you don't want to use the outhouse," Blank says with a wry smile. "It's pretty scary in there."

Blank camps on the mountainside at night or sleeps inside the mine, where it's generally about 10 degrees cooler. The mine entrance looks like a cave in the side of the peak, and the main area is only about 18 foot by 6 foot. But after more than 12 years of digging the same vein, the mine itself extends more than 90 feet underground. There's an emergency exit tunnel about 15 feet long dug through the middle of the mine's west wall, its entrance marked by a couple two-by-fours nailed into a makeshift doorframe. "So we don't get stuck like those poor guys in Chile," Blank says. The only light comes from three dusty mining lamps hanging from cables in the upper corners of the cave, powered by the generator outside. On the sides of the mine, thick veins of tiny purple amethyst crystals sparkle in the light.

Four Peaks Amethyst Mine was discovered in 1925 by Jim McDaniels, who reportedly thought it was a letdown because he was looking for gold. Commercial amethyst mining didn't begin there until 1942. The current owners, East Coast businessman Cavano and his London-based partner, Jim MacLachtan, purchased the mine in 1997. A couple thousand pounds of ore are shipped out every year via a helicopter, which also shuttles supplies in every month. The stones mined here are diverse, ranging from pale pink, translucent crystals to deep purple gems with red hues, like the amethyst found in the Ural Mountains of Siberia (which does not mine its amethyst). Gems are tumbled and cleaned in Scottsdale, sent to Thailand for cutting, and shipped back to Arizona, where they're set in rings, necklaces, and bracelets at Sami Fine Jewelry in Fountain Hills. Some of the mine history and gems are on display nearby at the River of Time Museum at 12901 East La Montana.

Twice a year, Sami Fine Jewelry and Cavano give a handful of helicopter tours of the mine (480-837-8168, www.fourpeaksmining.com). The next tours are scheduled for October 15 and 16.

For Sami Fine vice president Stephenie Bjorkman, getting first pick of high-quality gems from Four Peaks Amethyst Mine is only part of the fun. "It is the only commercially run amethyst mine in the United States," she says. "And it is right here in our very own backyard."To see more photos of the amethyst mine, visit www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bestof2011.

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