June 22, 2007
For those who grapple with the grim realities of the blood diamond trade yet still yearn for a little bling, the time has come to pack a bag for ... Arkansas?
Just last week, 13-year-old Nicole Ruhter found a 2.93-carat diamond in Arkansas's Crater of Diamonds State Park. The Butler, Missouri seventh-grader spotted the light brown, corn kernel-sized gemstone while rambling the trails at the park, the world's only public diamond-bearing site with a "finders keepers" ("losers weepers") policy.
Ruhter's diamond was one of 332 found in the park this year, though the majority are under a half carat, according to assistant park superintendent Bill Henderson.
Since it became a state park in 1972, rockhounds have taken home more than 25,000 diamonds from the "crater," a 37-acre (15-hectare) plowed field on an eroded volcanic pipe. The treasures are the aftereffect of 3 billion years of high-pressure carbon-to-diamond metamorphosis and an auspicious eruption some 95 million years ago. The blast created a Y-shaped crater that funneled back the explosive material that, over time, preserved the diamonds.
In 1924, the crater yielded the largest diamond ever found in the United States—a 40.23-carat whopper named "Uncle Sam"—and in 1990, the most perfect diamond, a 3.03 carat, ever certified by the American Gem Society. Amethyst, agate, jasper, and garnet speckle the site, along with everyday rocks and pebbles.
Henderson says the mine sees "everyone from the novice to the trader hunter," but it's especially popular among children. Pint-sized prospectors have even unearthed some heavyweights. Last March, eight-year-old twins ferreted out a 2.50-carat specimen later displayed at the Houston Museum, and in 1963 a 14-month-old was discovered gumming an 11.92-carat white diamond.
Encompassing 888 pine-forested acres (359 hectares) along the Little Missouri River, the park also features trout fishing and a wildlife viewing area where deer and armadillos roam. For hikers, the two 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) trails aren't exactly hard-core. But should you feel restless after an effortlessly fruitful scavenge, Cossatot River's Class IV rapids and Daisy State Park's 31-mile (50-kilometer) mountain bike trail are both less than an hour away by car.
GETTING THERE: Crater of Diamonds State Park is located near Murfreesboro, Arkansas, 100 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Little Rock. For more information: www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com, www.arkansasstateparks.com
. WHERE TO STAY:
The park's campground ($17; www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com
) offers 59 sites with electric and water hookups, showers, and restrooms. Motels are scattered around town, but for something a bit more civilized, venture 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast to the island-set DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge
) and you can brag to your friends that you're going snorkeling in Arkansas. ACTIVITIES:
The 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) River Trail winds through the woods to the Little Missouri, while the equidistant Prospector Trail offers glimpses of the area's unique geology. Kids can splash in the mining-themed aquatic playground or drop a line in the Little Missouri.FARTHER AFIELD: Cossatot River State Park and Natural Area,
50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest, protects 11 miles (18 kilometers) of the Cossatat River, which plunges into a rugged canyon with challenging Class IV rapids. Kayakers and canoeists be warned: "Cossatot" is a Native American word for "skull crusher."
Far tamer, both in name and milieu, is Daisy State Park,
on the banks of clear Lake Greeson in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. A prime locale for anglers, the park also offers a 31-mile (50-kilometer) lakeside and forest trail open to hikers, mountain bikers, and—watch out—ATVs.
Farther northwest, cruise the Talimena Scenic Drive to Queen Wilhelmina State Park,
poised on the highest peak in the Ouachita Mountains. Hikers can meander three short routes or set off on part of the solitudinous Ouachita Trail, a 224-mile (360-kilometer) little-known gem that spans Oklahoma and Arkansas. Base yourself in the historic Queen Wilhelmina Lodge
About 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of Crater of Diamonds are the Arkansas Ozarks, an outdoor bonanza with whitewater, singletrack, creekside hiking, and its own grand canyon.
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