Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amethyst Cove, Nova Scotia

Amethyst Cove

 Nova Scotia


Chris Sheppard Rockhound and Landscape Photographer

A selection of rough gemstones from Amethyst Cove, N.S.

A most incredible rockhounding site near Cape Split, Nova Scotia falls on the Minas Channel (North) side of the peninsula half way between Cape Blomidon and Cape Split. 

A snowy trail leading to the ropes at Amethyst Cove.
A short distance from the parking lot at the Cape Split hiking trail a footpath crosses a field to the Northeast and connects to a well used ATV trail. A half-hour climb up this steep trail brings you to a section of fixed ropes that leads 450 feet to the beach below. 

Making my way to the ropes at Amethyst Cove

The path to the ropes leading to Amethyst Cove, although relatively short, can be confusing as many ATV trails criss-cross paths. You are also on private land and should obtain permission from the landowners before accessing the trail.

The ropes to Amethyst Cove.

Richard Baird on the ropes in full hunter's orange. 'Tis the season.

Robert Wayne Baird and David Sheppard descend the fixed ropes.

Descending the 450 feet of ropes in the Winter.

A set of fixed ropes has been in place on this slope for many decades.
My grandmother used the ropes to get down to Amethyst Cove back in the 1950s.

Nova Scotia's Finest Amethyst. Fundy Rocks Collection. Photo: Chris Sheppard

The following is an excerpt from a journal entry written by my grandmother on her first trip to Amethyst Cove as a young girl by boat back in 1935: 
We went on our trip to Amethyst Cove today. We didn’t fish much as there weren’t any fish running, but we had a marvellous time…There was a 30 ft two-master there from Parrsboro to take us across—what fun we had. We sailed straight out past Blomidon, landed in Amethyst Cove, and had lunch, then came home with the evening tide. (One can only leave and enter Wolfville at high tide, you know.)
It certainly was my lucky day. When Captain McCormick landed on the beach the first thing we thought of was drinking water. We had already scuttled off to look for amethysts so I said we’d probably find a brook or spring running down the cliff somewhere. And not ten yards from where we’d parked the food I discovered a damp spot on the sand and climbed up to where we could hear running water under a pile of rocks. After an hour’s digging we got down to it and talk about swell water! Ice-cold and clear as crystal. When McCormick came back he thought we’d gone crazy. He said he’d put water on the boat because nobody had ever been able to find a spring along that stretch of beach—and it’s a popular spot. So that was Lucky Break No. 1. Lucky Break no. 2 happened the same time. when I was looking for water along the beach I picked up a couple of suspicious looking rocks from force of habit, and hid them away until  had time to fuss with them. All the time we were digging out the Spring and getting dinner McCormick was looking for amethysts and came back with his pockets stuffed. He began showing me what few decent junks [sic] he had; So I bethought myself of my cache and dug out the two bits I had—one was no good at all but the other was a beaut. Far better in shape, crystals and color than any McCormick had trailed all over the cliff to find—and I’d picked it up on the beach not ten minutes after we’d landed. Like a darn fool I gave it to McCormick—I should have got something for it because a piece like that would cost an American tourist $3 at least. But McCormick was trying to supply a market and had had tough luck so I let him have it in exchange for two little bits too delicate to crack with rocks. I brought them home and after two hour’s labour got out one fine crystal and four or five pretty clusters. I’m still cleaning the quartz out of the clusters—wish I had proper tools. One thing I love to do is work the crystals out of the quartz, when a piece is worth bothering with. 

Rough amethyst geode with fortification agate casing. Fundy Rocks Collection

I was excited to find this journal entry because I'd often wondered what the rockhounding was really like back then. Someone I spoke to recently said they had seen an old grainy black and white photograph of some rockhounds on this beach loaded down with bags of rocks supposedly Amethyst, in their hands. This must have been when some of the big slides were very fresh and supposedly loaded with amethyst giving the cove its name. I'm always on the lookout for any historical information on rockhounding in these places.

Large amethyst geode from Amethyst Cove collected by Richard Baird.

The original roped path branches off the current route about two thirds of the way down the  path and follows a more gradual diagonal path to the beach below. There are lichen covered ropes embedded deep into trees all along the old part of the trail. The ropes are in various stages of decay in places so caution should be used at all times. Occasionally new ropes are put in by local rockhounds.

My first visit to Amethyst Cove was actually as a grade six student on a class trip from L.E. Shaw Elementary School, guided by naturalist and teacher Sherman Williams. My friend Don Crowell, aka Scotian Hiker, remembers these field trips too and tells a story about climbing down with a lunch box in one hand. I wonder if any of us found any decent amethyst back then!

A typical amethyst find from the beach at Amethyst Cove
 When I first started rockhounding and went on several "guided" trips with the experienced rockhounds I learned that every collecting region was broken down into sections. It wasn't good enough to say that a find came from Amethyst Cove because Amethyst Cove had different collecting sites such as Rope Beach, Ladder Beach, Tree Rock Beach, MacDonald Slide, Cove Proper etc. based on landscape features or prominent rock slides.

 From the ropes (we rockhounds refer to this area as Rope Beach) to the actual Amethyst Cove is about a 45 minutes to an hour long hike and can be noted as the farthest point visible to the East from rope beach.
There is a tremendous assortment of agates including high-grade concentric and banded fortification varieties, jasper, zeolites and semi-precious gemstones can all be found, and of course Nova Scotia's finest Amethyst.

Tree Rock Beach, Amethyst Cove

Tree Rock illuminated by the morning sun. May 2012.

A kilometer east of the ropes is Tree Rock Beach, named for a massive basalt boulder that has a lone tree clinging to the top. Isn't it amazing that this 7-foot tree has survived so many seasons on the Minas Channel with the boulder being touched by the tide twice a day every day of the year!

Tree Rock at High Tide. Amethyst Cove.
There is one major slide next to Tree Rock. It often makes me nervous working very close to the basalt cliffs looming above, as I have witnessed rock falls on several occasions, especially in the early Spring and Winter. It was from this vantage point that I witnessed a massive rock fall in the Spring of 2011. I was moving rock around on the slide and heard what I initially thought was a massive clap of thunder. I lifted my head and saw billows of rock dust a few kilometers down the beach. A few hours later I passed the area where the rock fell, the air still thick with the smell of crushed rock. That is as close to a rockfall I ever want to be!

Working the rock slide at Tree Rock Beach, Amethyst Cove.
Some of these rock slides, including the major slide at Tree Rock beach, have been there for years and still offer up some incredible agate finds. Working around slides has all the hazards you can imagine. Use common sense and try to avoid rockhounding alone.

Wall Banded Agate. (Fortification) collected by R. Baird at Tree Rock Beach.

Plume agate found on the shoreline near Tree Rock.

Show piece made from agate found near Tree Rock. A gift to Fundy Rocks from Andrew Hooper.


MacDonald Slide, Tree Rock Beach at Amethyst Cove.

Another favorite spot to explore is a relatively small slide named after the local rockhound, Robert MacDonald, who originally discovered some amazing specimens of fortification agate and amethyst lying at the bottom of an old slide area near Tree Rock Beach. Further exploration led to the top of the slide area and with a little poking around more and more fine specimens were uncovered and unearthed.

Show Piece from the MacDonald Slide. Fundy Rocks Collection

Pam Talbot at the MacDonald Slide. Photo: Darren Talbot.

Within the slide of basalt hugging the base of the 450-foot cliff,  years of composted plant material had created a thick, rich soil covering crushed and crumbled basalt. Seedlings had taken root and eventually the top and sides of the slide were covered in thorns and other brush. A major network of roots webbed through jagged basalt boulders of every size.

 As we carefully moved rock and dug through the slide rubble piece after piece of the most beautiful, intricate agates would appear ranging in size and with an endless variety of banding patterns. 

Anne holds a fresh agate find from the MacDonald Slide

The white and pink jasper casing seems to be the most common characteristic of the pieces found in this slide area.

 Using pry bars, sawed-off hoes, collapsible shovels and most importantly, the geologist's pick, we carefully exposed the layers of basalt and dirt to find the agate, jasper, amethyst and smoky quartz. 

Smoky Quartz Specimen with perfect crystals.
The slide is worked very carefully exposing each successive layer.

As you move up the slide each hole you dig out will eventually be filled back in by the wall collapsing above the dig area. This is frustrating at times but all part of the process. I've often found beautiful pieces sitting on top of the rubble from previous digs, called tailings.

Each time we visit the slide a few feet of "tailings" have to be sifted through in order to get to a fresh layer that usually greets you with a large boulder or two that needs to be rolled out of the way.

Large seam piece of banded fortification agate is uncovered.
In behind the boulders and buried deep in the rock layers are the broken sections of seam that once ran along the upper part of the basalt cliff a few hundred feet above our heads. When the cliff face collapsed a pile of the broken basalt fifty feet wide at the top was interlaced with fragments from a seam that can be almost four inches in diameter in places.

The day's dig could yield a canvas bag full of specimens. As we dig we pick up anything with the distinct pink and white jasper casing and anything else that looks interesting. As rock is shifting and small holes are filled in by the unstable basalt we take very little time to high grade, before rocks tumble  down the face of the slide to the beach below.

Rockhounds high grading MacDonald Slide finds in a tidal pool...
 After the dig the day's finds are given a quick washing in the closest tidal pool and the first high grading happens.
To have this assortment of high quality gemstone material on a beach area would be outstanding, but to have it all within a single slide is truly amazing. This makes Amethyst Cove  one of the best rockhounding locations anywhere. 
The cleaned specimens are further graded and sorted based on size and quality. Potential show pieces (the larger and best specimens) are set aside to photograph and the rest falls into categories that include tumbling material and rough jewelery material. 

I can spend hours sifting through the cleaned specimens.They are all so unique and their intricate beauty never ceases to amaze me.
 Larger specimens can be cut on the lapidary slab saw to make show pieces that highlight the brilliant details in the jasper casing and agate bandings. Below, Pam moves snow on top of the slide, uncovering fallen pieces of these agates.


Fundy Rocks Show Piece. Photo: Chris Sheppard

The material from this particular slide area is difficult to work into jewelry because the casings can be very chalky. With a skilled hand it can be done. My friend Jonathan Dunphy  specializes in cabochons and made this one for Fundy Rocks.

Robert MacDonald, for whom the slide is named is holding a pendant he made from this material at Rob's Rock Shop in Kentville, N.S.

Pendant made by Robert MacDonald. Photo: R. Baird.

Ladder Beach, Amethyst Cove.


The section of beach beyond Tree Rock and the MacDonald Slide area is called Ladder Beach. For as long as I have been going to Amethyst Cove a wooden ladder has been wedged solidly in a rock fall at the high tide line of the beach. And speaking of Tides--we have the World's highest here--times must be adhered to and distances noted when exploring this area as the incoming tide can cut you off from returning to the ropes. 

Spring Waterfall at Amethyst Cove
Depending on the time of year and the amount of rainfall a large waterfall comes down the basalt cliffs near the last beach section before you go around the bend and into Cove Proper.

Frozen Waterfall at Amethyst Cove.
 An impressive cascade of ice. Standing below we can hear water running beneath the ice tower.
Later in the season the ice begins to melt and a massive shaft appears within the fall where the water is now exposed.
Outdoor explorer extraordinaire Etienne Randonnee tested out his Arcteryx suit inside the Falls. Etienne is not a rockhound but often appears on our adventures. He loves hiking the Split area and like us, he embraces an opportunity to explore despite winter conditions.  Join him on a hike if you want to challenge yourself on an adventure. You might see some parts of Cape Split peninsula you would not have thought possible. Safe Outdoor Adventures.

Etienne Randonnee in the Amethyst Cove Waterfall. Photographed by Chris Sheppard
In the Winter and very early Spring a simple walk along the beach on an outgoing tide you can find some very prize show pieces just sitting below the cliffs. 

Rockhounds "working" the shoreline at Amethyst Cove in the Winter
Rock falls could happen any time of year but usually the late winter freeze/ thaw cycle sees the cliffs at their most active. Sections of cliff that collapse and fall to the beach below are called slides. Some of the major slides at Amethyst Cove are huge and have obviously been there for a very long time. They may have stunted trees growing out of them and be covered in a layer of rich soil at the tops. Some don't have much in the way of collectible specimens in them but others are often an excellent source of material. 

Amethyst Cove Proper

Amethyst Cove Show Piece. Photo: Chris Sheppard

About an hour from the Ropes and around the farthest bend of the cliffs in the easterly direction is the cove we refer to as Amethyst Cove Proper. Here is where I have found some very nice Amethyst specimens. Depending on the tides, as there are several pinch points between this cove and the ropes, a hike out here requires several hours and some planning.
When I hike to Amethyst Cove Proper I usually plan on waiting the tide out. On an average tide there is still several feet of upper beach below the cliffs. On either side of the cove the tide reaches the cliffs making exit impossible for a few hours. I pay strict attention to the weather if I'm planning to be out here and of course carry all the appropriate survival and first aid gear. We come here for the Amethyst!

Amethyst found on the beach at Amethyst Cove Proper.
The largest specimen of amethyst I have collected to date came from the shoreline at Amethyst Cove in the Winter of 2011. The piece, with the apophyllite removed, is currently used as a prop by Jerome the Gravekeeper on his ghostly tours around Wolfville.

Large amethyst specimen collected by Chris Sheppard at Amethyst Cove.

Andrew looks over his amethyst finds on trip to Amethyst Cove Proper
 Most of the amethyst  from Cove Proper area often has a layer of zeolite (apophyllite in this case) on top of the crystal structure.


Large seam pieces can also be found. Agate and jasper with an amethyst core.

Beautiful geodes can also be found, this being one picked up by my Dad. After I was shown the unbroken ordinary-looking white rock rock I carelessly tossed it off to the side thinking it was junk. It broke open revealing some of the most beautiful dark amethyst I had ever seen. Dad was very pleased with this pristine specimen!

Zeolite Specimens from Amethyst Cove Proper

Zeolite Specimen with large analcime crystal. Fundy Rocks Collection

Zeolite Specimen from Amethyst Cove, N.S.

Amethyst Cove is one of my favorite places to visit.

Amethyst Cove is truly remarkable area along the Minas Channel. I often hike there in the early mornings for sunrise or after work to take in the calm of the evening. No matter how many times I visit this place I always want to take out my camera and start snapping pictures when I get to the bottom of the ropes. It is a landscape the for me that illustrates the power of nature's awesome beauty. I love it here.

We always seem to find some good stuff making the trip worth the climb out which can be agonizing with a full pack! As I write this we are planning future rockhounding trips. If you are interested in more about the trips or maybe joining us please feel free to email me and I'll send you a notification when we plan an outing. Unfortunately, some of the trips happen in short notice. The weekend is usually a pretty good bet I'll be out somewhere on the Fundy Shore! Rockhound safely and responsibly. Have fun!
Chris Sheppard

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Important Disclaimer:

Always accompany a guide to a new or remote area described in our blog or on Facebook. Many of the shoreline places we visit could potentially leave you trapped beneath cliffs at high tides of immensely powerful currents. Always know the tide times and plan accordingly. Being trapped may not always be a survival option. Terrain is steep and dangerous in places. Weather is unpredictable along the shore. Never attempt to descend or ascend an unfamiliar cliff area. Basalt can be loose, crumbly and very unstable. Be aware of falling rocks and boulders. Slide climbing should never be attempted without an experienced guide and never by children. Caution is strongly advised. Please rockhound safely and responsibly. Respect private property. Always get permission when accessing the shore from private property.


  1. That fortification agate is beautiful. I haven't found any of my own, but I met some of your friends coming up the ropes and they gave me a sample : )


  2. I like the journal from Barbara Eaton, but it made me think: does anyone drink the fresh water from the cliffs these days?

  3. I asked Rob Baird the same thing one time when we were out. He said he wouldn't drink anything because of the outhouses (probably past and present) up top.

  4. Hello from Maine! I'm an avid rockhound/prospector, and I've been trying for years to get up to NS to do some hunting, but I can't find anyone who knows the area who's willing to show me around. Do you accept others on your expeditions? How may I contact you? Please drop me a line at captainsavoy "at" gmail "dot" com

  5. Oh how I want to go to Amythest Cove but I'm a bit fearful of going down the ropes ...

  6. What is the best time of year ?

    Cost associate with a guide (I have tent etc.)

    Please email fraser7777777@gmail.com

  7. When I was a child,about four years old, my mother worked for a summer for a family who had a summer home on Blomidon and took me with her. I remember going down long steps to the beach and picking up "pretty rocks". No idea what they were,then.