Off the Beaten Path. Way Off.

Vance Lauderdale's Mid-South Travel Guide

(page 5 of 6)


photograph courtesy Crater of Diamonds State Park

Am I the only one who thinks sitting in a dusty field in Arkansas, clawing away at the dirt with shovels and forks searching for a million-dollar diamond, is slightly crazy? No? Good. I feel better then.

But that doesn’t stop thousands of other people from doing it just about every day of the year. For more than 100 years, entire families have journeyed to the Crater of Diamonds State Park, just outside Hot Springs, to take their chance with Lady Luck. Or maybe it’s Mother Nature?

For reasons that nobody ever explained very clearly to me, this 24-acre park is the only place in all of North America where real diamonds can be found close to the surface. Now about that name.  I’m not sure I would call this area a “crater” since it’s more like rolling fields to me, but then I’m not a geologist. Or gemologist. And when people talk about the Arkansas “diamond mine” they don’t mean you have to travel down tunnels to reach the gems. No, the “crater of diamonds” is pretty much an open dirt field. You pay a small fee, take your spade or shovel or pickax or whatever tools you prefer, bring an umbrella to keep off the hot sun if you have any sense, stake out an area, and dig away. 

Mostly what you turn up are dirt clods; at least that was my experience. But every so often, somebody turns up a real diamond, and here’s the best part — you get to keep it. Now we’re not talking about finding the Hope Diamond here, at least not yet. The vast majority of the hundreds of diamonds uncovered so far have been less than a carat — mainly leftover stones from a failed commercial diamond-mining venture that operated here in the early 1900s. 

Even so, over the years visitors have indeed made astonishing discoveries. In 1924, some fellow with the wonderful name of Wesley Oley Basham discovered an apple-sized rock that, at 40 carats, turned out to be the largest diamond ever discovered in North America. And in 1956, somebody came upon a whopping 15-carat diamond that came to be called the “Star of Arkansas.” 

Oh sure, but that was half a century ago. Well, don’t worry that the good ones are all taken. In 1990, somebody turned up a 3-carat diamond of such remarkable clarity that the American Gem Society judged it a perfect 0/0/0, the only diamond to ever be considered “absolutely flawless.” Officials at the park, where that diamond is now on display, say that “most jewelers never see a diamond this perfect in their lifetimes.” And just last year a visitor picking through the dirt found an 8-carat stone.

I don’t know much about diamonds, but I imagine some of these big ones must be worth dozens of dollars!

But even if you come home empty-handed, you go here for the experience. In California, they offer places where you can pan for gold, usually without success, but hey, it’s fun. Here, you can dig for your own diamonds. Where else can you do that? And if you bring home the next “Star of Arkansas,” well then, all the better.


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