Image: Gem Mountain Gemstone Mine
Andre Jenny  /  Alamy
The Gem Mountain Gemstone Mine in Spruce Pine, N.C. offers simple mining and the excitement of finding valuable gems.
updated 1/16/2011 3:26:27 PM ET 2011-01-16T20:26:27

Making money while on a vacation isn't a common occurrence, unless you get lucky on the slots. But if Vegas isn't your style, don't worry — you can still come home from a trip with your purse a little fatter.

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There are legends of pirates' buried treasure that was never found, gold that has still been seen in California rivers and caves in the Midwest that abound with jewels and gems of all kinds. Although treasure-hunting vacations may not make you millions, there is a good possibility of finding diamonds or gold — and even if you don't, looking is half the fun.

Slideshow: Treasure-hunting vacations

Chances are you won't be disappointed at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, an extremely rare diamond site where you get to keep what you find. Most diamonds found are less then one carat and not big enough to be cut, but many visitors take their winnings home as souvenirs or have them made into jewelry. There is the occasional large find: In 1975 a whopping 16.37-carat rock was found. Finding bling of this size is rare, but it depends on how hard and deep you look.

Besides mining for diamonds, lots of other gems, including emeralds, aquamarines, garnets, rubies, amethysts and sapphires, are still buried deep in the mountains. At Gem Mountain in North Carolina, gems of all shapes and sizes have been found, some large enough to be cut and set in jewelry. Visitors can dig through real gemstone flumes with the help of mining experts, while comparing their findings with friends and family to see who has the biggest and best.

Kay Buchanan, owner of Gem Mountain, says, "People love the idea of treasure-hunting because it's like gambling. You're always hoping for the 'big' find. It's something that everyone can do, young or old." A real, operational aquamarine mine is also open for tours, and guests can watch miners search through the rocks for precious gems.

With the price of gold skyrocketing these days, panning for gold like the 49ers did during the California Gold Rush may be best way to strike it rich. Gold mining trips available through the California Gold Co. take willing participants to Woods Creek, one of the richest creeks in California, which still yields a good amount of gold.

Image: gold nugget
Although the heyday of gold mining is behind us, gold can still be found in Woods Creek, one of the richest creeks in California. Day-long gold mining trips take participants into the beautiful woods surrounding the creek, where adventurous miners can dig, sluice and pan for gold.

The chances of finding gold are very likely here, and you can even keep what you find (up to a half-ounce). Rob Goreham, founder of the California Gold Co., thinks the reason people like mining so much is the thrill of finding gold. He says, "It doesn't matter the size of what is found, people are just excited to be out there searching." Expert gold miners lead the trips to help with the digging, sluicing and panning for gold.

The areas surrounding California Gold Country offer all different aspects of a gold miner's life, like real working mines that are open for tours and gold and silver mining towns that can be explored. And after a long day in the mines or at the river, you can cap it all off at a saloon with a sarsaparilla.

Speaking of gold, you might be able to find a lost buried treasure among some old pirate islands. One in particular — Oak Island in Nova Scotia, Canada — has many legends surrounding what's buried deep in its caves. The mysterious Treasure Pit (also known as the Money Pit), reportedly houses booty from the 18th century. No one knows for sure where it may have come from, but a few theories have been suggested.

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Even though this treasure hunt has been going on for more than 300 years without a single cent being recovered, excavations are conducted by determined groups who hold a Treasure Trove License in hopes of recovering an unforeseen amount of money.

And while tourists can't explore its treasure sites by themselves on any given day, each year a festival, Explore Oak Island Days, is held where everyone can join in on the fun and legend of the Oak Island treasure.

So whether you love the legends or the jewels, a treasure hunt is the type of "working" vacation even homebodies can get behind.

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