I’ve personally never played the lottery despite growing up on enticing slogans such as “All you need is a dollar and a dream” or “Hey, you never know”. Not only do I have a moral aversion toward gambling, but even if I didn’t, the astronomical odds against winning the jackpot always made the attempt seem pointless. Nestled in the hilly backwoods of southwestern Arkansas is a one-of-a-kind North American location where your odds – while not guaranteed – offer a much better chance of a payoff; namely, in the form of a publicly accessible diamond mine which is aptly named Crater of Diamonds State Park. Found just outside of the tiny town of Murfreesboro, visitors come from around the country to this unique enclave where diamonds are consistently unearthed from a plowed 37.5 acre section of what is considered the world’s largest diamond-bearing (long -extinct) volcanic crater. The best part? Anything you find, you keep.
I’m no gemologist, so I’m not going to even attempt to explain all the scientific explanations as to how and why this particular spot has diamonds and other places do not. Suffice to say it has to do with enormous pressures beneath the earth’s crust that are conducive to forming diamonds, and the outlet of said materials by means of volcanic activity that brought them to the surface. The first time diamonds were found on this otherwise unassuming tract of land was back in 1906. And after a parade of various mining interests coming and going, the land was eventually purchased by the state of Arkansas in 1972, ensuring public use and opportunity for anyone with the time, strength and stamina needed for amateur diamond mining.
While diamonds are the reason people come to Crater of Diamonds State Park, the park does offer other outdoor opportunities. There are campsites and walking trails as well as a water park for the kids (seasonal). There is also the large Diamond Discovery Center, which hosts restrooms, a gift shop and a number of exhibits pertaining to mining and the land’s history. This is also where you can see some informative videos and demonstrations on the various mining techniques, and then have the opportunity to rent the equipment to try it for yourself.
At first glance the crater floor looks like nothing more than a plowed field dotted with occasional pockets of trees as well as an abandoned building over the original mine entrance. But somewhere in those ruts of crumbling dirt and rock are diamonds. And not just diamonds. The crater also yields precious stones such as garnet and amethyst as well as various minerals such as quartz and agate. The hard part, naturally, is finding them. Rain and wind erode the fields with regularity, washing away the soil which is periodically re-plowed, thereby allowing for greater opportunity to strike pay-dirt. My advice is to find a spot that doesn’t seem like it’s been recently disturbed and plant yourself in the dirt for a few hours of hopeful sifting. Scratch-off will take on a whole new meaning.
Basically there are two ways guests can mind for diamonds; the dry method or the wet one. The dry method is the easiest and least-messy of the two. With a small shovel you dump a few scoops of gravel into your sifting screen; you then shake said gravel through the screen; after which you peer with baited breath at whatever morsels remain in the hopes that one of them will be shiny. Most of the time you’ll have to swallow your disappointment then repeat the process for however many hours you feel like sitting in the dirt.
The wet method is a bit more convoluted and labor intensive. After scooping piles of soil into your screens and washing them down, the proper shaking and turning methodology will draw all the harder materials (such as diamonds, for example) to one spot, allowing you to examine for gems or other noteworthy stones. There are periodic washing stations located throughout the crater for those wishing to try their hand at this method. But wet or dry, you can count on a lot of playing in the dirt.
The biggest question on my mind before ever setting out for Crater of Diamonds State Park, was ‘What are the chances I might find a diamond?’ While there’s no set rate of discovery (how could there be?) the park’s web site does have a chart of statistics that can give you a good idea. For example, statistics for the last full year (2014) have a paid admission of 144,445 guests finding a total of 585 diamonds. That would make a daily average of a little under two per day, and a ratio of one diamond found for every 246.9 guests that visit – and it always seems like it’s that one-tenth of a guy that finds it, doesn’t it? Those are better odds than the lottery, sure. But bear in mind that there are some devoted guests that show up with their own equipment and paraphernalia and spend multiple days in their search for the elusive gems, which no doubt increases their chances and skews the numbers. If it’s any consolation, keep in mind that there’s no set rhyme or reason as to where and when the diamonds are found, and you would have just as much a chance of finding a diamond as the guy with his own screens who’s using all his vacation time. On the flip side, so does the 12-year-old brat on a field trip that’s sitting right beside you in the mud.
After spending more than a few hours baking in the sun and crouching in the dirt, I came away with nothing more interesting than a few quartz fragments, which I thought might be valuable until I saw the giant fist-sized clusters available for sale in the gift shop for only $12. However, what I didn’t gain in precious stones, I did gain in experience and education. Thanks to an onsite expert desk, I was quickly shown the difference between valuable stones and the ones I brought in for evaluation. More than that, it was a new and interesting experience, which was worth the gamble in time and backache and something I can cross off of my life’s endeavors. What experience will you have if you visit here? It could be that you’ll find a diamond like a girl just two months earlier that found one as tall as a quarter that ranks as the 5th biggest found there of all time, or you might have the same experience that I did, walking away with some pretty (though worthless) rocks and a greater appreciation for the art of mining to go along with your sore back. But once again, as the old New York lottery slogan used to go: “Hey, you never know!”