Tucked into the rundown backwoods of rural Arkansas is a literal hidden gem: Crater of Diamonds State Park. This is the only place in the U.S. where any schmo can spend the day hunting for diamonds or precious stones—and keep anything they find!

Crater of Diamonds has been on my husband’s bucket list for longer than I’ve known him. Since we’d sort of crossed Mesa Verde off mine (I finally saw the place, but not nearly as much of it as there is to see, so I totally plan to go back), it was only fair to grant his wish. The day after delving the depths of Carlsbad Caverns, we packed right back up and made the trek from New Mexico all the way to Miner’s Camp (where we took the title photo).

 

 

So far, Carlsbad Caverns had knocked the Grand Canyon down from the top spot on the kids’ list of favorite stops (but only if I disqualified our visit to Grammy). I had a feeling that Crater of Diamonds would be the perfect grand finale, though. As much as my kids loves hikes and exploring, there’s not much that beats a whole day playing in the mud.

We brought some special toys for the occasion: shovels, buckets, sand sifters, and two big metal dump trucks. The kids had already been getting plenty of use out of the trucks at every campsite!

 

 

I had only one main rule, besides the obvious ones about not running off and talking to strangers or whatnot. Please ,I begged my children. Please, just don’t sit directly in the puddles.

Guess what they did, basically first thing.

Yeah. They wore more mud than clothes that day.

I made the mistake of wearing brand new sneakers too, which was pretty dumb. I knew I was going to be in dirt the whole day but somehow, it didn’t click till it was too late.

 

 

We arrived at the park with high hopes. Various internet sources had informed us that the best time to dig here was right after a rain, as rain and gravity work together to wash away the lighter grit and tumble the heavier diamonds into the lines carved out by the plows, which occasionally go around turning the dirt to increase visitors’ chances.

We came prepared with lunch, ponchos, even a shade canopy for the hottest part of the day. We got there shortly after opening, and stayed till close at 4:00. The kids dug and built rivers and dams, saturating themselves thoroughly, as my husband and I shoveled soil and sifted it through layers of differentiated mesh.

The sifting pan on top had the biggest holes, to sort out the large and useless rocks and get them out of the way. Each layer down, smaller and smaller rocks were set apart. We used the tips we’d picked up from online videos to shake these pebbles to the center of our pans and then flip the whole shebang upside down: diamonds, which would be the heaviest thing if present, would then be flipped to the top of the resulting pile if we did it right. I used a flashlight and tweezers to pick through, hoping for even the tiniest bit of shine.

 

 

Some of you may be wondering why there are diamonds in some random corner of the Midwest. Crater of Diamonds is actually the mouth of a dormant volcano, hence the term “crater.” The heat and pressure caused diamonds to form back when the volcano was active, and ancient eruptions spewed the diamonds up to the surface, where they mixed and settled among all the other sediment the volcano expelled. The diamonds here have a very distinct composition, setting them apart from African diamonds—and, thanks to the simple rarity of diamonds found in the U.S., sell higher.

This state park wasn’t our first brush with dormant volcanoes on this vacation, either. It turns out that those crazy formations of rock sprouting out of the desert like craggy walls are remnants left by the prehistoric migration of a well-known volcano northward: what is now the Yellowstone caldera.

 

 

So, did we find any diamonds? Sadly, no. I did think I found a nice hunk of amethyst, but it turned out to be only a dirty jasper. Alas.

But there is still hope! Crater of Diamonds State Park allows visitors to take home up to five gallons of sifted gravel—in other words, one big bucket of rocks with the mud rinsed out of them. When we have time to be thorough, we’re going to go through our bucket extra carefully. I guess you’ll have to stay tuned for the results… just like us!

 

 

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